GV4A3      Half Unit
Social Choice Theory and Democracy

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Christian List


This course is available on the MSc in Applicable Mathematics, MSc in Political Science and Political Economy and MSc in Political Theory. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This course is capped at 1 group. The deadline for enrolments will be 12 noon, Monday 3 October 2016. You will be informed of the outcome by 12 noon, Wednesday 5 October 2016. 


An interest in analytic reasoning is required, but no prior knowledge of social choice theory or of mathematics is presupposed. Technical ideas will be presented in an introductory and pedagogical way, suitable for anyone who enjoys logical thinking.

Course content

This course gives an introduction to social choice theory and related debates in the theory of democracy. On the social-choice-theoretic side, the course introduces students to key results, including (1) May's theorem and Condorcet's jury theorem, which are two classic formal results on majority rule, (2) Arrow's impossibility theorem and the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem, which are two much-discussed impossibility results, suggesting that rational collective decision-making may be difficult or impossible, and (3) possible escape-routes from these negative results. On the normative side, the course covers some central issues in contemporary democratic theory, which are likely to include (but need not be restricted to) (1) deliberative democracy, (2) procedural versus outcome-based or epistemic justifications of democracy, and (3) the legitimacy of democratic decisions. While all students are required to understand the implications of the main social-choice-theoretic results, they can approach these either from a more formal perspective or from a more normative perspective and make philosophical aspects of democratic theory their main focus.


20 hours of seminars in the LT. 2 hours of seminars in the ST.

Seminars in LT will include some lecture components. Seminars in ST are held for revision purposes.

There will be a reading week in week 6 of LT for private study and assessment preparation.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to give a short presentation and to write a formative essay. Feedback will be given on this material, but it does not count towards final assessment. Students will also have the opportunity to submit an outline for the assessed essay for comments. The outline itself will not be assessed.

Indicative reading

Amartya Sen (1998), ''The Possibility of Social Choice'', Nobel Lecture; William H Riker (1982), Liberalism Against Populism; Jerry S Kelly (1988), Social Choice Theory: An Introduction; Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson (1996) Democracy and Disagreement; Christian List, ''The Discursive Dilemma and Public Reason'', Ethics 116(2): 362-404 (2006); Christian List, ''Social Choice Theory'', The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online.


Exam (50%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (50%, 2500 words).

Student performance results

(2012/13 - 2014/15 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 7.1
Merit 64.3
Pass 25
Fail 3.6

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2015/16: 12

Average class size 2015/16: 12

Controlled access 2015/16: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication