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    4 Weeks
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    4–5 hours per week
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  • Course Type:
    Self-paced on your time

About this course

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There are three great challenges associated with living in society: the rise and easy spread of epidemic disease; the depletion of resources in the physical environment owing to the intensity of habitation and/or resource use; and interpersonal and intergroup conflict. To counter these negatives, the benefits of living in society include the capacity to pool resources for building infrastructure for protection, resilience and renewal; the opportunity to accumulate learning over time and to share clever ideas or new technologies over space; and the possibility of specialization across individuals in their skills and the work they perform for greater efficiency of output relative to required inputs. These broadly opposing forces are in constant dialog with each other, and have been for as long as humans have lived in social communities larger than the family or isolated tribe. That is to say, these forces have been at work for all of recorded history, but also deep into the archeological past. The costs of crowding are countered by the benefits of exchange and specialization, and vice versa. This course will explore the issues of disease and resource constraints through a number of historical cases, to understand their impact on social organization and the standard of living.

What you'll learn

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  • Introduction to a range of historical tools used by historians to study the past

  • Understanding of key theories of how society changes over time

  • Awareness of the kinds of ‘shocks’ that societies have faced in the past with a focus on disease and climate/resource constraints

  • Reflection on what constitutes the standard of living: how to measure it, and how to think about it.

  • Analyze evidence from historical cases revealing some kinds of societies to be better able to weather shocks.

Introduction: Looking at History

  • What does the study of history bring?

  • What is the Standard of Living?

  • Tools of Historical Demographers

  • Theories of Historical Demography

  • The Urban Mortality Penalty

Case Study: Plague

  • Introduction to the Bubonic Plague

  • Historical Tools: Documentary Evidence

  • Historical Tools: Bioarchaelogy & Ancient DNA Recovery

  • Historical Tools: Material Culture

  • How did society respond to plague?

Case Study: Climate Change

  • Climate fluctuations over time

  • Historical Tools: Palaeoclimatology

  • Historical Tools: Documentary Evidence

  • Historical Tools: Mapping & Visualizations

  • Impact of Climate change on societal wellbeing

Case Study: Smallpox

  • Introduction to Smallpox

  • Tracing Smallpox through history

  • Smallpox in the New World & the Virgin Soil Hypothesis

  • Smallpox & Vaccination

  • The Eradication of Smallpox

Society, Shocks & Wellbeing

  • Theories of Wellbeing

  • Resilience in the Face of Shocks​

Meet your instructors

Anne McCants
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Ellan Spero
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Meghan Perdue
Digital Learning Fellow
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Who can take this course?

Unfortunately, learners from one or more of the following countries or regions will not be able to register for this course: Iran, Cuba and the Crimea region of Ukraine. While edX has sought licenses from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to offer our courses to learners in these countries and regions, the licenses we have received are not broad enough to allow us to offer this course in all locations. edX truly regrets that U.S. sanctions prevent us from offering all of our courses to everyone, no matter where they live.