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Inside the favorites: Edinburgh’s most popular optional courses

Inside the favorites: Edinburgh’s most popular optional courses

First and second years, are you unsure of what courses to pick this semester? Not to worry, we have you covered! 

Depending on the flexibility of your degree, you might have the opportunity to select courses during your first years at university. From ‘Film to TV 1A: Introduction to Filmmaking’ to ‘Oceanography’, the University offers a wide range of optional courses. For many, choosing an optional course can seem like a daunting and tricky decision. Some students want to choose courses related to their degree, while others prefer to branch out and try something new. Irrespective, we strongly advise you to start thinking early on about what courses interest you and how you could best divide your workload throughout the school year. We also encourage students to think about what courses they would like to take later in their degree year, and if these have any pre-requisites that would impact their first- and second-year courses.  

Unfortunately, as some optional courses are very popular, students are not guaranteed their first choice. Identifying multiple courses that interest you is, therefore, highly recommended. Moreover, some students have the option to enroll in additional courses at the start of the semester and drop these by the second week of courses once they have determined their preferred choices.   

We strongly recommend students use Path, the University’s course selection platform, to better understand their degree requirements as well as the available courses and pre-requisites.  

 Based on a decade of non-compulsory course enrollment, the following are some of the all-time favorites being taught in the 2023/24 AY. Below, you can also find a brief description of the courses, accurate as of July 20th, 2023.  


  • Sociology 1A: The Sociological Imagination: Individuals and Society 

“This course introduces some of the key ideas of the discipline by examining the relationship between ‘individuals’ and ‘societies’. Among the topics will be the social nature of the self, the influence of groups, digital identities, migration and the city.” 

  • Sociology 1B: The Sociological Imagination: Private Troubles, Public Problems 

“This course is designed to explore sociological thinking with regard to a number of issues of contemporary concern. Recent topics included: structure and agency; the sociology of the body; race and society; deviance; economy and society; and social change.” 

  • Economic Principles 

“The course is intended to provide a broad introduction to the basic principles of economic analysis. The course is primarily aimed at students who want to obtain a broad but basic insight into economics, but do not intend (or do not want to keep open the option) to progress to further study of economics in their 2nd year. Students who do plan (or want to keep open the option) to progress to Economics 2 should take Economics 1.”  

  • History of Science 1 

“Introductory survey of science in world history from ancient times to the present, focusing on the natural, social, and engineering sciences (in their broader intellectual, institutional, and technical contexts) in the modern West (in its broader geopolitical, social, and economic contexts). The course discusses the changing meanings and conditions of scientific knowledge, showing how such knowledge has depended upon and reshaped its historical contexts. The course is appropriately combined with History of Western Medicine.” 

  • Introductory Financial Economics 

“Financial markets have an important role in the allocation of resources in market economies. This course provides an introduction to how economists analyse behaviour in financial markets. A background in mathematics beyond GCSE level is recommended. Students with a weaker maths background will need to be prepared to work at developing their maths skills.” 

  • Introduction to Social Anthropology 

“This course is intended as an introduction to social anthropology – taking as its central theme and organising structure the life course from birth to death, conceived in very broad terms. As well as encompassing life crisis moments and rituals of birth, marriage, and death, the course includes such themes as gender, personhood, work and making a living, the house, consumption and exchange, health, and the body. It begins with a brief consideration of what anthropologists do; thinking about participant observation and fieldwork; and it ends with a brief discussion of how anthropological subjects are placed – and place themselves – in history.” 

  • Empires 

“1st year students are welcome to take this course, but please note that the content will be more advanced than on courses specifically designed for first year students. The course will introduce students to classic themes and concepts in colonial studies, post-colonial studies, cultural studies and political economy, through accounts of cultural, political and economic change in the social anthropology of Africa, Latin America, South Asia and the Pacific. Key themes include: colonialism and post colonialism, capitalism, sovereignty, globalization, political violence, science and technology, consumption, religion.”   

  • Social Anthropology 1B: Anthropology Matters 

“What does anthropology have to say about some of the most important issues facing us today? Anthropologists don’t just engage with small-scale exotic societies but have always contributed to public debates about global issues that affect us all. In this course we examine how concepts and ideas that have driven anthropology help us shed new light on debates that are at the heart of contemporary questions about how our societies work. Each week will include two sessions exploring a single issue and anthropological contributions to surrounding debates relating to that issue. The issues explored will vary from year-to-year, examples include: climate change, hunger, well-being, body modification, and human rights.” 

  • Politics in a Changing World: An Introduction for non-specialists 

“This course introduces students to key concepts and ideas through weekly case studies in politics and international relations. Students will explore issues such as authority, democracy, human rights, security and nationalism though a team-taught course involving PIR staff. Each week staff will introduce a case study, discuss key concepts, highlight different approaches in the literature to the challenge as outlined and propose possible solutions, linking these to wider theories about politics & international relations. Students taking this course must not be enrolled in ‘Politics and International Relations 1A’.” 

  • History of Western Medicine  

“A general introduction to the history of medicine in Western society from the Ancient Greeks to the present. It will examine some of the different ways that doctors have thought about health and illness over the past two and a half thousand years and will raise general questions about the historical origins of modern scientific medicine. The course will introduce the changing role of experts in society, historical shifts in concepts of the body and of disease, and the changing understanding and impact of epidemics from antiquity to the present day.” 

  • Introduction to Data Science 

“This is an introductory level course on data science and statistical thinking. Students will learn to explore, visualize, and analyze data to understand natural phenomena, investigate patterns, model outcomes, and make predictions, and do so in a reproducible and shareable manner. In doing so, they will gain experience in data collection, wrangling, and visualization, exploratory data analysis, predictive modelling, and effective communication of results while working on problems and case studies inspired by and based on real-world questions. The course will focus on the R statistical computing language. No statistical or computing background is necessary.”  



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