Social and Political Ecology

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Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation CoreSHE2ED1044

Semester and Year Offered:Winter Semester, every year

Course Coordinator and Team: Dr OinamHemlata Devi

Email of course coordinator:hemlata[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: None

Course Objectives/Description:

As environmentalism has gained momentum in the last four decades, the idea of nature as an apolitical entity has come into question. It is in this context that the field or perspective of social and political ecology has made its presence felt across the disciplines. The course builds on the understanding that nature and society are intricately linked, and therefore environmental issues are simultaneously technical, social and political. This course will build the conceptual-theoretical base for a political ecological perspective on concerns around nature/society and analyse politics and movements related to the knowledge, control and governance of nature.

Learning Objectives:

  • To build a social science perspective on the environment.
  • To introduce the intellectual history and key debates in cultural ecology and political ecology.
  • To develop capacities for critical thinking, reading and writing.

Course Outcomes:

At the end of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Read, comprehend and analyse complex interdisciplinary texts pertaining to the framing of socio-environmental questions
  2. Learn about the diversity of values and beliefs about the relationship of humans and the environment in different cultural contexts
  3. Understand the linkages between local, regional and global framing of environmental discoursesand narratives
  4. Understand the role of power and politics in the framing of environmental ‘problems’ and their ‘solutions’
  5. Communicate the conceptual and theoretical frameworks effectively through written, and media materials, critical and self-reflection based assignments, and classroom/tutorial discussions.
  6. Analyze critically the role of the state, the market and various non-state actors in popularizing various narratives of environmental problems and their perceived solutions
  7. Disaggregate the epistemological underpinnings of diverse environmental solutions through discourse analysis of real-world case studies
  8. Develop intellectual curiosity to continue lifelong learning about emerging issues and concerns of ecological sustainability and social justice


Brief description of modules/ Main modules:

Part I: Introduction and Overview of Debates:

In this section, classroom discussion and independent work will focus on the idea of nature as socially constructed and hybrid, as opposed to pristine and untouched by humans. They will be exposed to the diverse layers of politics in the framingof environmental questions, and will learn to interrogatediverse environmental narratives like biodiversity loss, deforestation and environmental degradation. Students will be taught to critiquesimplistic technocratic, ahistoric and asocial understandings of nature. They will learn to recognize that the environment has long been abstracted from society (and society from the environment) with serious consequences.

Key References:

  • A. Jalais (2008), ‘Unmasking the cosmopolitan tiger’, Nature and Culture 3(1): 25-40.
  • L. Mehta (2003), ‘Contexts and Constructions of Water Scarcity’, Economic and Political Weekly 38(48): 5066-5072.
  • P. Robbins (2001), ‘Tracking Invasive Land Covers in India, or Why Our Landscapes Have Never Been Modern’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91 (4): 637-659.
  • S. Whatmore (1998), ‘Wild(er)ness: Reconfiguring the Geographies of Wildlife, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 23(4): 435-454.
  • R. Hardin (2011), ‘Concessionary Politics: Property, Patronage, and Political Rivalry in Central African Forest Management’, Current Anthropology 52(S3): 113-125.
  • A. Chhatre and V. Saberwal (2005), ‘Political Incentives for Biodiversity Conservation’, Conservation Biology 19(2): 310-317.
  • J. Fairhead and M. Leach (1995), ‘False Forest History Complicit Social Analysis: Rethinking Some West African Environmental Narratives’, World Development 23(6): 1023-1035.
  • C. Kull (2000), ‘Deforestation, Erosion and Fire: Degradation Myths in the Environmental History of Madagascar’,Environment and History 6: 423-450.

Part II: Cultural Ecology and Critique

This section will introduce students to use anthropological study material to understand the complex and intrinsic relationship between humans and non-humans, and to understand people’s diverse and complex engagement with the biophysical world in a holistic interpretive framework. It will end with a critique of a strictly local understanding of human-environment interactions, by underscoring the importance of multi-scalar interactions between society and the environment.

Key References:

  • Julian Steward, ‘Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution’
  • R. Rappaport (1967), ‘Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations among a New Guinea People’, Ethnology 6(1): 17-30.
  • Marvin Harris, ‘The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cow’
  • E.B. Ross (1978), ‘Food Taboos, Diet and Hunting Strategy: The Adaptation to Animals in Amazon Cultural Ecology’, Current Anthropology 19(1): 1-36.
  • Anna Tsing (1999), 'Becoming a tribal elder and Other Green Development Fantasies'

Part III: Political Ecology

This section will expose students to the origins of the interdisciplinary area of enquiry referred to as political ecology. It will discuss various theories of thestate in order to help students to foreground the role of power and politics in the way important socio-ecological concerns and their solutions are framed. It will then introduce students to the structural underpinnings of modern environmental crises and their linkages with capitalist andneoliberal ideas of development and economic growth. It will then train students to unpack the idea of ‘community’ to understand how local responses to environmental crises and resource dispossession might be varied and diverse.

Key References:

  • M. Watts (1984), 'Hazards and Crisis', Antipode 15(1): 24-34.
  • T. Bassett (1988), 'The Political Ecology of the Peasant Herder Conflict in the Northern Ivory Coast’, Annals of The Association of American Geographers.
  • J. Scott (1998), 'Seeing like a State', ch 1 and 8.
  • J. Ribot (1993), ‘Forestry Policy and Charcoal Production in Senegal’, Energy Policy, May 1993.
  • P. Robbins (2000), ‘The Practical Politics of Knowing: State Environmental Knowledge and Local Political Economy’, Economic Geography 76(2): 126-144.
  • J. O’Connor (1994), ‘Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?’.
  • J. Whitehead (2003), ‘Space, Place and Primitive Accumulation in Narmada Valley and Beyond’, EPW 38(40): 4224-4230.
  • M. Arsel (2012), ‘Between “Marx and Markets?” The State, The “Left Turn” and Nature in Ecuador’, Journal of Economic and Social Geography, 103(2): 150-163.
  • B. Mansfield (2004), ‘Neoliberalism in the Oceans: “rationalization”, property rights, and the commons question’, Geoforum, 35: 313-326.
  • D. Davis (2006), ‘Neoliberalism, environmentalism, an agricultural restructuring in Morocco’, The Geographical Journal, 172(2): 88-105.

Part IV: Governmentality, Technoscience and Nature

This section will be devoted to a deeper understanding of the technologies through which nature is constantly given shape, and will introduce students to literature in science-technology studies and to newer applications of political ecology to the study of urban ecosystems and non-human actors.

Key References:

  • M. Lawhon et al (2013), ‘Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE through African Urbanism’, Antipode
  • M. Watts (2010), ‘Resource Curse? Governmentality, Oil and Power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’, Geopolitics 9(1): 50-80.
  • J. Ribot (2010), ‘Vulnerability does not fall from the sky’, in R. Mearns ed.
  • Timothy Mitchell, ‘Can the Mosquito Speak?’, from Rule of Experts
  • B. Latour, ‘The Pasteurization of France’, ch 2 and 3.
  • A. Agrawal (2005), Environmentality, ch 1 and 6
  • A. Petryna (2004), ‘Biological Citizenship’: the Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations’, Osiris 19: 250-265.
  • K. Fortun (2004), ‘From Bhopal to the Informating of Environmentalism: Risk Communication in Historical Perspective’, Osiris 19: 283-296.
  • V. Adams (2002), ‘Randomized controlled crime: Postcolonial sciences in alternative medicine research’, Social Science of Science 32(5-6).
  • I. Abraham (1997), ‘Science and Secrecy in Making of Postcolonial State’, EPW 32(33-34).

Assessment with details of weightage:

  1. In-class activities: 30%
  2. Review essay (20%)
  3. Mid-term test (25%)
  4. Final Exam (25%)