Human, Social and Political Sciences

What makes the Cambridge course in Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) so special?

If you want to study Politics, or Sociology, or Anthropology at Cambridge, this is the course for you. 

The flexibility of the course allows you to explore a variety of subjects, many of which may be new to you (such as Sociology or International Relations), before pursuing advanced study in one or two specific subjects in your second and third years. Alternatively, if you already know the subject(s) in which you want to specialise, you can tailor the course to suit your interests right from the start, while retaining the option to take individual papers in other subjects as well. You’ll graduate from Cambridge having specialised in one or two subjects, but will also have the advantage of a broad background across the human, social and political sciences. HSPS at Cambridge thus provides an opportunity to study a variety of issues concerning modern and ancient societies from different perspectives. 

Politics and International Relations engages with the nature of the political world within countries and between them. It asks questions about how and why national and international politics have developed as they have, and how people have imagined that they might be changed. It explores issues from human rights and democracy, to financial crisis and international conflict. 

Sociology focuses on the nature of modern societies, how they’re organised and how they’re changing. It examines social institutions and the changing forms of power and inequality among other topics, and develops theories and conducts empirical research in order to deepen understanding of the processes that shape social life. 

Social Anthropology uses studies of long-term first-hand fieldwork to understand the diversity of today’s human societies: from the lives of indigenous peoples – their cultures and their relation to nation states and the global economy – to the social and cultural life of people in the largest cities on the planet. 

Why choose Newnham for HSPS?

Newnham’s pioneering work in the development of women’s education began in 1869, with a series of lectures set up by Henry Sidgwick. Women were formally admitted to full membership of the University in 1948, and Newnham’s continued academic success is reflected in the number of students who gain University prizes and Research Fellowships, and the wide variety of their chosen careers. Newnham students have a record of exceptionally high performance in subject areas within the HSPS Tripos. Support facilities at the College are very good, including a particularly well-stocked library. Newnham has a strong international character, and welcomes both mature students and students with disabilities. Its liberal and independent atmosphere makes it a good place to be a part of and to work in. 

How many students take HSPS at Newnham and what options do they choose?

Newnham admits an average of eight to ten students each year to read HSPS, giving students a solid peer group in each year of the course.  The course is taken over three years consisting of Part I, Part IIA and Part IIB. 

In the first year (Part I) students take four papers, which can be freely chosen from the full range available: Politics, International Relations, Sociology, Social Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Archaeology and Psychology. Students will be guided by their Director of Studies in their choice of appropriate paper combinations. 

In Part II (taken over the second and third years) students focus either on a particular disciplinary track (in Politics and International Relations; Sociology; Social Anthropology), or can choose to combine two subjects: possible combinations are Politics and Sociology; Sociology and Social Anthropology; Social Anthropology and Politics; Social Anthropology and Religious Studies (Modern Religions); Sociology and Criminology.

Can you tell me more about the HSPS Fellows at Newnham?

For information on the current teaching staff and Fellows for Human, Social and Political Sciences, please visit our teaching webpages.

What jobs do Newnham HSPS students go on to do?

A degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences offers a variety of rewarding career opportunities. It provides a greater range of openings than many qualifications in the arts or humanities, while not restricting the range of vocational choice as some degrees in the natural sciences may do. The Tripos also qualifies people for a variety of posts which exist for social scientists on the staffs of central and local authorities both in Britain and abroad. Numerous research institutes, EU and international organisations now seek qualified social science graduates who have detailed knowledge of contemporary issues with reference to more than one country. Some of those who have read the Tripos proceed to graduate work in the subjects covered, but the majority of HSPS graduates work in journalism and the media, development agencies, posts in museums, the National Trust or English Heritage, as well as careers in law, the Foreign Office, the civil service, teaching or publishing. 

Are there any A-level subjects which are particularly useful?

There are no prerequisite A-level subjects to study HSPS, applicants come from diverse backgrounds with A-levels (or equivalent) in arts, sciences or combinations of both. The standard conditional offer for HSPS is A*AA at A-level. 

Can I take a gap year?

We are happy to offer deferred places to applicants who have plans for a year out. Gap year projects in the past have included taking a job to build up financial resources, working or travelling abroad to improve language skills and experience another culture. Most gap year students feel they have benefited from the experience, and have no trouble getting back into the swing of academic work once they arrive; maintaining some sort of a connection with your subject is always encouraged, even if only through reading. 

How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

As part of your application, you will need to submit two pieces of written schoolwork.  We recommend that you keep copies of this work and re-read them along with your personal statement as they may be referred to at interview.  More information regarding written work requirements can be found at: 

While the interview is not a test, you should take the time to read around the subject; take note of current stories in the press; organise some museum or archaeological experience, such as volunteering on a dig. Some suggestions for preliminary reading are given below: 

Social Anthropology
Lila Abu-Lughod  Veiled Sentiments: Honour and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. 
Kath Weston  Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship 
Sherry Ortner  Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power and the Acting Subject 
Michael Taussig  The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America 
Lisa Rofel  Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism 
Veena Das  Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India 
N Abercrombie  Sociology: a short introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 2004) 
Gurminder Bhambra (2014)  Connected sociologies. Bloomsbury. 
Zygmunt Bauman (2001)  Thinking sociologically (2nd edition); Wiley-Blackwell. 
R W Connell (2009)  Gender (2nd edition); Polity. 
Patricia Hill Collins (2000)  Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment.  Routledge. 
Richard Sennett (2012)  Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. Yale University Press. 
Anthony Smith (2013)  Nationalism. 2nd Edition. Polity Press. 
Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tyne (2016)  The intersectional internet: Race, sex, class and culture online. Peter Lang. 
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2010)  The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. Penguin. 
Nira Yuval-Davis (2011)  The politics of belonging: Intersectional contestations. Sage. 
Browse through books that have won prizes by the American Sociological Association   
Politics & International Relations
Crick, Bernard  Democracy: a very short introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2002) 
Dunn, John  Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (Cambridge: CUP, revised edition, 1992) 
Geuss, Raymond  History and Illusion (Cambridge: CUP, 2000) 
Runciman, David  The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) 
Brito Vieira, Monica and David Runciman Representation (Cambridge: Polity, 2008) 

As part of your application, you will need to submit two pieces of written schoolwork.  We recommend that you keep copies of this work and re-read them along with your personal statement as they may be referred to at interview.  More information regarding written work requirements can be found at: 

Is there an Admissions Assessment for HSPS?

Yes – applicants for the 2024 admissions cycle are required to take an Cambridge College registered written assessment.

In the assessment, applicants are required to write an essay in response to a question. There is a choice of questions covering topics from across the HSPS course. No specific prior knowledge is required, but candidates are encouraged to draw on examples from their school studies and wider reading. The assessment will last for an hour and will be invigilated over Zoom. More details will be provided to applicants in advance of the assessment. No prior registration is required.

Past essay questions for the HSPS Admissions Assessment at Newnham have been:

‘Race and social inequality run in tandem in many societies – Discuss.’

‘Why is authoritarian populism on the rise?’


Where can I find out more?

A description of the structure of the Tripos and further useful information for prospective applicants can be found on the Faculty website and there is also information on the University prospectus pages. 

The Sociology Subject Overview and Politics Subject Overview on the ‘My HE+’ website also provides information and resources for exploring your subject. 

Back to course list