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IP206 Utopia: Text, Theory, Practice

Module leader: Dr Kirsten Harris
  • Optional module
  • 15 CATS
  • Term 2, 10 weeks
  • Availability/priority: Liberal Arts and GSD, Monash Exchange, Erasmus Liberal Arts exchange, Warwick honours-level students

Moodle Platform

Principal Aims

  • Utopia: Text, Theory, Practice examines the utopian tradition as it is situated in changing social and historical contexts. It will consider the concept of utopianism as it is enacted in creative texts, in social and political thought, in theorisations of the utopian tradition and in lived experiences and social practices.
  • At its simplest, the concept of “utopia” (a pun on eutopia, meaning good place, and outopia, meaning no place) can be understood as a response to one the most fundamental “problems” that humans throughout the ages have wrestled with: What should a better (perfect?) society look like, and how can it be constructed and maintained?
  • Through the interrogation of diverse source material and case studies, we will explore key sub-problems in the utopian tradition such as those relating to politics, gender, racial inequality, urban planning and architecture, education, and borders and resources. The module will explore how utopian projects, imagined and activated, comment on existing social structures in their attempt to construct a better life, and how ideas circulate through a range of discourses and practices. Using a transdisciplinary Problem-Based Learning approach, this module will encourage you to generate problems rising from utopian social theory and praxis, and to critique the scope, value and limitations of the utopian tradition.

Module information image; all information is provided elsewhere on the page; for illustrative purposes only.

Illustrative Syllabus (content may vary)

The core “problem” facing utopians – what should a better (perfect?) society look like, and how can it be constructed and maintained? – is a networked one, consisting of many sub-problems relating to different aspects of social relationships and practices. As such, a wide range of topics could be explored. In recognition of this interconnectedness, and the interdisciplinarity of utopian studies, some flexibility is built into the curriculum. In consultation with each cohort, a curriculum will be devised from the list of options below, allowing each class to pursue their collective interests while building knowledge and understanding progressively from week to week.

  • Week 1: Exploring the territory
  • Week 2: If you build it, they will come: The function of utopia
  • Weeks 3-9: [To be devised from list of options in consultation with students]
  • Week 10: Assessed presentations and review

 Seminar options include:

  • “Herland”: feminist utopias
  • Living well: intentional communities and co-operatives
  • “Space is the Place”: science-fiction and outer space
  • Spirituality and utopian consciousness
  • Transhumanism, biohacking and cyberpunk
  • Afrofuturism and utopias of the African diaspora
  • Borders: guarding utopia
  • Cities of tomorrow: infrastructure, architecture and planning
  • “Ecotopia”: environmentalism and sustainability
  • Colonial and postcolonial utopias
  • Wealth and resources: distribution and division
  • Working well: labour and employment
  • Freedom for who? Liberty and control
  • Knowledge is power: education and child-development
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Technologies of the future
  • Politics of desire: sex and sexuality
  • Totalitarian states
  • Red dawn: socialist utopias
  • "Never trust anyone over 30": 1968, politics and counter-culture

Principal Learning Outcomes

By the end of the module, you will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the key features and development of the utopian tradition in social thought, art and practice
  2. Critically examine utopian ideologies and practices in relation to concepts of citizenship and community
  3. Demonstrate an in-depth understanding of chronological and geospatial aspects of utopian thought, art and practice
  4. Critically assess the scope and limitations of utopian ideology and practice as a means of social and/or political intervention
  5. Demonstrate an understanding of specific sub-problems addressed in the utopian imaginary such as those relating to politics, gender and racial inequality
  6. Demonstrate advanced cognitive skills such as critical analysis, source-text analysis, qualitative research methods and communication skills
  7. Demonstrate meta-cognitive skills such as: planning how to approach a learning task and identifying the appropriate strategies to solve a problem.
  8. Demonstrate the ability to use and combine a range of methodologies in order to analyse sources in cultural and historical perspective

Employability Skills

Through this module, you will develop different skills that are sought by employers which will support your professional development. We have highlighted this to enable you to identify and reflect on the skills you have acquired and apply them throughout your professional journey including during the recruitment process whether this is in a CV/application form or at an interview.

  • Project management and organisation: Working on an open-brief research project involving all stages from initial assessment, planning, secondary research, primary data gathering, to producing an appropriate output to disseminate findings. Students are expected to make decisions about content, methodology and output in the Research Project.
  • Teamwork: Sharing knowledge, expertise and good practice with peers to form collaborative responses to a range of problems; collaborating with peers on project brief (Assessment 2), including research, analysis and verbal and visual presentation of findings.
  • Communication: Communicating for different audiences and purposes, throughout the weekly classes and in assessment. Communication styles: teaching (when working in groups to share independent research); argument/persuasion (frequently in class discussion; in Assessments 2 and 3); verbal (in class; in assessed presentation); written (in two written assessments); communication to small and larger audiences (small group work and whole class discussion); blogging think pieces; potentially others in Assessment 3 (e.g. manifesto writing to engage audiences and enact change).

Illustrative reading list

Literary texts may include:

  • Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward (1888)
  • Morris, William, News from Nowhere (1892)
  • Griggs, Sutton Elbert, Imperium in Imperio (1899)
  • Wells, H. G., A Modern Utopia (1905)
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, Herland (1915)
  • Skinner, B. F., Walden 2 (1948)
  • Huxley, Aldous, Island (1962)
  • Le Guin, Ursula, The Dispossessed (1974)
  • Callenbach, Ernest, Ecotopia (1975)
  • Piercy, Marge, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)
  • Delany, Samuel R., Trouble on Triton (1976)
  • Tepper, Sheri S., The Gate to Women’s Country (1988)
  • Robinson, Kim Stanley, Pacific Edge (1990)
  • Morrison, Toni, Paradise (1997)

Films may include:

  • Bastards of Utopia, dir. Maple Razsa and Pacho Velez (2010)
  • Black Panther, dir. Ryan Coogler (2018)
  • La Cecilia, dir. J. L. Comolli (1974)
  • Lost Horizon, dir. Frank Capra (1937)
  • Settlers in England, dir. Ian Nesbitt (2015)
  • Space is the Place, dir. John Coney (1974)
  • Things to Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies (1936)

 Monographs and edited collections may include:

  • Bell, David M., Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2017)
  • Beaumont, Matthew, Utopia Ltd: Ideologies of Social Dreaming In England, 1870-1900 (Boston: Brill, 2005)
  • Beaumont, Matthew. The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the Fin de Siecle (New York: Peter Lang, 2011)
  • Bregman, Rutger, trans. by Elizabeth Manton, Utopia for Realists (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)
  • Chrostowska, S. D., and James D. Ingram, Political Uses of Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)
  • Harvey, David, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000)
  • Jameson, Fredric, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005)
  • Kumar, Krishan, Utopianism (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991)


  • 1 x group presentation (20%)

  • 5 x 500 word reading responses (25%) [You are asked to respond on a weekly basis to the reading and research that you have done in preparation for the seminar; you are expected to respond thoughtfully and critically to some of the ideas that you encounter, but no additional research is required. 5 of the responses will be submitted for assessment]

  • 1 x research project - 3000 words or equivalent output (e.g. 20-25 minutes oral presentation, podcast or film; digital or creative outputs may be devised under discussion with module leader) (55%)

Hear about how Kirsten's teaching allows you to draw on her area of expertise