Soci 181: Modern Western Society (2019)

University of California, San Diego
Winter 2018-19
Tu Th 8:00–9:20, Solis 110

Lane Kenworthy
Office hours: Tu 10:00–12:00, SSB 472

This course explores key issues in contemporary rich democratic nations and how (social) scientists — as well as journalists, advocates, and policy makers — approach them. We’ll examine questions such as: Which country has the best health care system? Why has the family weakened? Are we getting more tolerant? How many refugees should affluent nations let in? What good is education? Why do some countries have less poverty than others? Is big government helpful or harmful? Will robots take all our jobs? Is violence increasing? Why has income inequality risen? How big a problem is climate change?

For each issue, we’ll also consider what can be done to make things better.


All materials are to be read or watched before class.

Jan 8 (Tu)
Course introduction

  • No readings

Jan 10 (Th)

  • Reading: “Progress,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Reading: “How Do We Know?,” The Good Society. LINK

In-class quizzes begin Tuesday, January 15

Jan 15 (Tu)
Health care

  • Video: T.R. Reid, Sick Around the World, 2008, 53 minutes (free). LINK
  • Reading: “Health Care,” The Good Society. LINK

Jan 17 (Th)

  • Reading: “Families,” The Good Society. LINK

Jan 22 (Tu)
Equality of opportunity

  • Reading: “Equality of Opportunity,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Reading: “Early Education,” The Good Society. LINK

Jan 24 (Th)

  • Reading: “Tolerance,” The Good Society. LINK

Jan 29 (Tu)

  • Video: Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, 2017, 136 minutes ($4). LINK
  • Reading: James Traub, “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth,” Foreign Policy, 2016. LINK

Jan 31 (Th)
Exam 1
This exam will cover material from readings, videos, and lectures plus numbers 3, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 24, 38, 39, and 43 of 100 Things to Know.

Feb 5 (Tu)
Economic security

  • Reading: “Social Programs,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “How Rich Countries Lift Up the Poor,” Pathways, 2011. LINK

Feb 7 (Th)

  • Reading: “Taxes,” The Good Society. LINK

Feb 12 (Tu)

  • Reading: Yuval Levin, “The Real Debate,” The Weekly Standard, 2012. LINK
  • Reading: “Is Big Government Bad for Freedom, Civil Society, and Happiness?,” The Good Society. LINK

Feb 14 (Th)

  • Reading: “Employment,” The Good Society. LINK

Feb 19 (Tu)

  • Reading: “What Good Is Education?,” The Good Society. LINK

Feb 21 (Th)

  • Reading: “Safety,” The Good Society. LINK

Feb 26 (Tu)
Exam 2
This exam will cover material from readings, videos, and lectures since exam 1 plus numbers 25, 28, 29, 44, 45, 54, 59, 60, 61, and 62 of 100 Things to Know.

Feb 28 (Th)
Income inequality

  • Reading: “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society. LINK

March 5 (Tu)

  • Reading: Bernie Sanders, “Democrats Need to Wake Up,” New York Times, 2016. LINK
  • Reading: “Trade,” The Good Society. LINK

March 7 (Th)

  • Reading: “Trust,” The Good Society. LINK

Research paper due: Tuesday, March 12, 8:00am

March 12 (Tu)
Climate change

  • Reading: “Climate Stability,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Reading: Arlie Hochschild and David Hochschild, “More Republicans Than You Think Support Action on Climate Change,” New York Times, 2018. LINK

March 14 (Th)

  • Reading: “Happiness,” The Good Society. LINK

March 21 (Th), 8:00-11:00am
Exam 3
This exam will cover material from readings, videos, and lectures since exam 2 plus numbers 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 72, 76, 79, 82, and 97 of 100 Things to Know.


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 in advance. In class you’ll be quizzed on the information in that reading. Focus on the question(s) being posed, the answer(s) given, 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 issues we’ll examine are big and complicated. 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.

Spotting the progress. Social scientists and journalists often emphasize our problems and shortfalls. That’s helpful, because it spurs us to do better and (hopefully) helps us figure out how to do so. But it can also give us the impression that things are getting worse. Sometimes that’s accurate, but in other instances it’s misleading. In fact, in many areas of life things have been improving and we could be doing better.

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.

Verbal communication. Class will include both lecture and discussion. I encourage all students to participate in the discussion.

Written communication. You will write a research paper. I expect the quality of writing to be very high. If you struggle with writing, you’re like virtually everyone else. 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 research paper you will write is short, so you’ll need to focus on the information and argument that is most relevant or useful.

Independent research. The research paper is on a topic 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.


No laptops, tablets, or phones during lecture. The best available evidence suggests that college students learn more when not using these devices. If you want to take notes, use pen and paper. If you need an exception to this policy, please see me.


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

  • 26%: quizzes
  • 16%: exam 1
  • 16%: exam 2
  • 16%: exam 3
  • 26%: research paper

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 .26) + (exam 1 grade x .16) + (exam 2 grade x .16) + (exam 3 grade x .16) + (research paper grade x .26).

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

  • 96.67 and above = A+
  • 93.34–96.66 = A
  • 90–93.33 = A–
  • 86.67–89.99 = B+
  • 83.34–86.66 = B
  • 80–83.33 = B–
  • 76.67–79.99 = C+
  • 73.34–76.66 = C
  • 70–73.33 = C–
  • 60–69.99 = D
  • below 60 = F

There will be no extra-credit projects or assignments.


Each day in class, beginning on our third class meeting, you will take a short quiz on the reading and/or video 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 16 quizzes; only your highest 13 grades will count.

Quiz grading: If you answer at least four questions, you will get 50 points (even if you have no correct answers). For each correct answer, you get ten additional points. 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.


Each exam will consist of 50 multiple choice, true/false, and short answer questions.


Answer the following question: What’s the most useful thing we could do to improve democracy in the world’s affluent democratic nations? (Don’t focus solely on the United States.)

Grading will be based on the following:

  • Answer the question.
  • Refer to relevant evidence. Opinion and logic are fine but insufficient.
  • 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, 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 and Critical Expression Hub.

The due date is listed above. A paper turned in late but within 48 hours of the deadline will be penalized 25 points (out of 100). A paper turned in more than 48 hours late, or not turned in at all, will receive a grade of zero.

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

Submit the paper in a word processing program format (Microsoft 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.


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.