Nature, Culture, Politics, and Justice

Course Description: 

This course will explore the historical evolution of the study of nature-culture relations. It will serve as an introduction to political ecology and environmental justice as historically and culturally grounded theoretical approaches for studying the nested social and political causes and consequences of conflicts over access to natural resources. Particular attention will be given to thinking critically about how postcolonial power dynamics persist in Global North-South relations and continue to structure uneven development and environmental conflicts. Readings will draw upon the fields of anthropology, sociology, and geography. It will draw heavily on ethnographic explorations of nature-culture interactions, and will allow PhD students to develop their theoretical frameworks for their dissertations.

The course will include both theoretical readings and ethnographic case studies applying approaches from political ecology, environmental justice, post-colonialism, new materialities, and others. Case studies will include topics such as such as indigenous relations to nature; extractive industry conflicts with communities; land, forests, and livelihoods; neoliberal models of conservation; political ecology; and climate change. We will read all or part of several recent book-length ethnographies.

Each of the studied cases will examine how nature, environment, justice, etc. are defined in culturally specific ways by communities, activists, social movements, governments, and private sector actors. Students will study how negotiations among stakeholders reach much beyond simple calculations of compensation to fundamental understandings of landscapes, property, community, or democracy. Students will learn to critically analyze environmental conflicts and social movement strategies through a broader cultural and political lens, and to consider the complexity of perspectives, politics, and power dynamics that influence outcomes. For the final project, each student will pick one case related to their research in which to analyze the interconnectedness of social, environmental, and political problems and nature-culture connections. 

Learning Outcomes: 

  • Ability to discuss complex interconnections of social and political causes and consequences of environmental problems
  • Ability to critically engage theoretical and case study literature
  • Be able to analyze the complexity of environmental problems and apply selected theoreical frameworks


  • Class attendance and participation, 25%
  • Submission of reading responses, presentation of selected readings and cases, 25%
  •  Final research project 50%


Taught at PhD level; Master’s students with social science or humanities backgrounds may be admitted with permission of instructor