Soci 181: Modern Western Society (2018)

University of California, San Diego
Spring 2017-18
W 5:00-7:50, PCYNH 121

Lane Kenworthy
Office hours: W 9-11, SSB 472

This course explores key issues in contemporary rich democratic nations and how social scientists, journalists, advocates, and policy makers approach them. We’ll examine questions such as: Why do some countries have less poverty than others? How many refugees should rich nations let in? Is income inequality ruining everything? Are we becoming more tolerant? Is religion dying out? Will robots take all our jobs? Which country has the best health care system? Why is political populism on the rise?


April 4
Course introduction

  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Our Progress So Far,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “How Do We Know?,” The Good Society. LINK

April 11
Socio-economic success

  • Read before class: Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, book manuscript, 2018, Introduction and chapter 1. Available via the course TritonEd page.
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, chapters 2-3. Available via the course TritonEd page.

April 18

  • Read before class: James Traub, “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth,” Foreign Policy, 2016. LINK
  • Watch before class: Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, 2017, 136 minutes ($4). LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Immigration,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Trade,” The Good Society. LINK

April 25
Income inequality

  • Watch before class: Robert Reich and Jacob Kornbluth, Inequality for All, 2013, 91 minutes ($3). LINK
  • Read before class: Lane Kenworthy, “Income Inequality,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Wealth Inequality,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Is Income Inequality Harmful?,” The Good Society. Read the introduction, the first four sections, and the last four sections. LINK

May 2

  • Read before class: Ronald Inglehart, “Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006,” West European Politics, 2008. LINK
  • Read before class: Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump and the Populist Authoritarians: The Silent Revolution in Reverse,” Perspectives on Politics, 2017. LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Tolerance,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the midterm exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society. LINK

May 9 (first half of the class period)
Midterm exam

May 9 (second half of the class period)

  • Watch before class: T.R. Reid, Sick Around the World, 2008, 53 minutes (free). LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Health care,” The Good Society. LINK

Essay 1 due: Monday, May 14, 10:00am

May 16
Work and family

  • Read before class: Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, “Human Work in the Robotic Future,” Foreign Affairs, 2016. LINK
  • Read before class: Andrew J. Cherlin, “In the Season of Marriage, a Question: Why Bother?,” New York Times, 2013. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Employment,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society. LINK

May 23

  • Watch before class: California Newsreel, The Raising of America, 2015, Part 1 (“Signature Hour”), 58 minutes ($2). LINK
  • Read before class: Lane Kenworthy, “What Good Is Education?,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Equality of Opportunity,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Early Education,” The Good Society. LINK

May 30

  • Read before class: Ross Douthat, “The Age of Individualism,” New York Times, 2014. LINK
  • Read before class: Christian Larsen, “Broken Societies: Inequality, Cohesion, and the Middle-Class Dream,” Juncture, 2013. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Civic Engagement,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Trust,” The Good Society. LINK

June 6

  • Watch before class: Alex Gibney, Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, 2012, 54 minutes (free). LINK
  • Read before class: Asher Schechter, “Why Democracy Fails to Reduce Inequality: Blame the Brahmin Left,” Pro-Market, 2018. LINK
  • Read before the final exam: Lane Kenworthy, “Democracy,” The Good Society. LINK

Essay 2 due: Monday, June 11, 10:00am

Final exam: Friday, June 15, 7:00-10:00pm


Here’s what you should get from this course:

Approaching issues scientifically. Many of the issues we’ll look at are front-and-center in popular discussion, journalistic coverage, and political debate. This discussion would be better, and more helpful to policy makers, if it were more informed by science. Approaching an issue scientifically means, among other things, considering empirical evidence rather than relying mainly on theory or ethical beliefs, looking for data rather than anecdote(s), looking for multiple sources of evidence (“If hypothesis A were true, what else would we expect to observe?”), and thinking about whether some types of evidence are more useful, and thus should be weighted more heavily, than others.

Asking important questions. For any issue or topic, there are multiple questions we might want to answer. Many are of interest, but some are more important than others.

Understanding argument and evidence. For each class day, you will do a reading or watch a video in advance. In class you’ll be quizzed on the information in the reading or video. Try to understand the question(s) the author is trying to answer, the answer(s) she gives, the key pieces of evidence, and the way the author reasons from the evidence and other considerations (laws, ethical views, etc) in reaching a conclusion.

Dealing with complexity. The substantive issues we’ll examine are big and complicated. Social scientists have struggled to understand the nature of the problem(s), to identify the main cause(s), and to figure out the most useful solution(s). The process is like detective work: seldom is the story simple and rarely do we have the exact evidence we’d need in order to be strongly confident about our conclusion, so we must ask an assortment of questions, use various types of data, and think systematically.

Comfort with quantitative data. A generation ago there was a scarcity of numerical data. Now we have an abundance: data are everywhere. That’s a good thing, because data are key to answering important questions about society. You will encounter lots of quantitative data in this course, often in graphical form. If you aren’t already comfortable interpreting such data and reasoning from them, by the end of the course you should be.

Written communication. You will write two essays. Both are short, so I expect the quality of writing to be very high. Good writing usually comes from extensive editing. Write a draft. Then edit it. Then edit it again. And again.

Concision. Information and opinion are plentiful these days, so brevity is a valuable skill. The essays you will write are short, so you’ll need to focus on the information and argument that is most relevant or useful.

Independent research. The two essays are on topics not covered in the course. You’ll need to do some outside reading, decide on your proposal or position, and assess the degree to which evidence supports it.

Developing a good argument. The course materials and lectures are designed to expose you to ways of developing and conveying effective argument. Keys include focusing on a specific question, formulating a clear proposal or position, making use of relevant evidence, addressing potential objections and counterarguments, and communicating clearly.

Substantive knowledge. Last, but not least, the course aims to improve your understanding of the issues we cover.


The course readings and videos are available via the links in the schedule above. You’ll also need an iclicker, which you can purchase at the campus bookstore.


You aren’t allowed to use a laptop, tablet, or phone during lecture. The best available evidence suggests that college students learn more when not using these devices. If you want to take notes, you’ll need to do so with pen and paper.


Course grades will be determined as follows. See below for details.

  • 20%: quizzes
  • 25%: essay 1
  • 25%: essay 2
  • 15%: midterm exam
  • 15%: final exam

Each of these will be graded on a scale of 0 to 100. So your numerical course grade is calculated as: (quizzes average grade x .2) + (essay 1 grade x .25) + (essay 2 grade x .25) + (midterm exam grade x .15) + (final exam grade x .15).

Your letter grade for the course will be determined as follows:

  • 97 and above = A+
  • 93–96 = A
  • 90–92 = A–
  • 87–89 = B+
  • 83–86 = B
  • 80–82 = B–
  • 77–79 = C+
  • 73–76 = C
  • 70–72 = C–
  • 60–69 = D
  • below 60 = F

There will be no extra-credit projects or assignments.


Each day in class, beginning April 18, you will take two short quizzes, one on each of the readings or videos for that day. Each quiz will have five multiple choice or true/false questions. You will answer the questions using your iclicker. There will be 15 quizzes; only your highest 12 grades will count.

Quiz grading: If you answer at least four questions, you will get 50 points (even if you have no correct answers). You get ten additional points for each correct answer. So if you answer four or more questions, your grade is 60 with one correct answer, 70 with two correct answers, 80 with three, 90 with four, 100 with five.

You must register your iclicker with TritonEd. To do that, go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “Register iclicker” in the blue menu bar. If you get a new iclicker at any point during the quarter, register it immediately.

For technical support with iclicker registration and use, contact Educational Technology Services.

You can take a makeup if you have to miss a quiz for any of the following three reasons: (1) holidays or special events observed by organized religions (for students who show affiliation with that particular religion), (2) absences pre-approved by the UCSD Dean of Students (or Dean’s designee), (3) extended illness (this requires a doctor’s note). If you miss a quiz for one of these reasons, contact me no later than the day of the quiz to schedule a makeup. I will need written verification of the circumstances.

You cannot take a makeup if you miss a quiz for any other reason. This includes faulty iclicker registration, forgetting to bring your iclicker to class, stolen or lost iclicker, iclicker malfunction, dead iclicker battery, needing to arrive late to class or leave class early, oversleeping, minor illness, transportation problem, family or friend’s special occasion, family problems, family illness, needing to study for another course, etc.

Two pieces of advice regarding the quizzes: (1) Evidence is important, but don’t get overly bogged down in detail — exact numbers, precise dates, and so on. (2) Don’t overthink the quiz questions. Don’t assume I’m trying to trick you.


You will write two short essays. The assignments:

  • Essay 1: What’s the most useful thing rich democratic societies could do to increase inclusion?
  • Essay 2: What’s the most useful thing rich democratic societies could do to increase happiness?

Grading for each essay will be based on the following:

  • Answer the question.
  • Refer to relevant evidence. Opinion and logic are fine but insufficient. Don’t focus solely on the United States.
  • Address potential objections.
  • Write clearly.
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation (“I,” “me,” and contractions are fine), and adhere to the following length, formatting, and citation instructions. Length: 1,500 words (excluding footnotes), plus or minus no more than 100 words. List your word count on the first page, along with your name and the date. Formatting: single-space, 11-point or 12-point font size, 1-inch top and bottom margins and 2-inch side margins. Sources and citations: Consult at least five sources of your choosing. Use footnotes (not a reference list or bibliography) to give credit to anyone from whom you borrow evidence or argument. The footnotes aren’t included in the word count. I’m not picky about the formatting of the footnotes, but include the author(s), title, and year rather than just an internet address.

If you need help with writing, consider seeking assistance from the UC San Diego Writing Hub.

Due dates are listed above. An essay turned in late but within 48 hours of the deadline will be penalized 25 points (out of 100). An essay turned in more than 48 hours late, or not turned in at all, will receive a grade of zero.

Upload your essay on TritonEd. Go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “Upload essays” in the blue menu bar. Emailed or hard copy essays won’t be accepted.

Submit the essay in a word processing program format (MS Word, Google docs, Pages, etc.). Don’t submit it as a pdf document.

Don’t plagiarize. If you aren’t sure what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, see the UC San Diego Library’s guide to preventing plagiarism.


The midterm will cover material from lecture, readings, and videos up to that point in the quarter. The final will cover material after the midterm.


Students are encouraged to share intellectual views and discuss freely the principles and applications of course materials. However, graded work must be the product of independent effort unless otherwise instructed. Students are expected to adhere to UC San Diego policy on academic integrity.


Students who need special accommodation or services should contact the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). You must register and request that the OSD send me official notification of your accommodation needs as soon as possible. Please meet with me to discuss accommodations and how the course requirements and activities may impact your ability to fully participate.


Information here, other than the grade and attendance policy, may be subject to change with advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor.