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SOC8069 : Critical Approaches to Environment and Society

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Audrey Verma
  • Owning School: Geography, Politics & Sociology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


When we think of ‘saving the earth’ as sociologists, we might begin to consider who ‘we’ refers to and excludes, whose worlds have already been irreversibly altered, how this task relates to unequal consumption, risks and capacities to ‘save’, and what the limits and possibilities of sociology are in this environmental era. This module examines the exclusionary structures and relations of oppression shaping our present environmental moment – widely known as the anthropocene, and reflects on contested versions of the pasts that led here and futures we purportedly want or need to shape. Narratives tracing the inseparability of nature, society and power are thus central to the module. The module engages with such accounts through close reading of critical, decolonial and anti-colonial perspectives on environment and society, from across sociology, anthropology, geography, history, science and technology studies and environmental humanities. The module generally takes as its starting points empirical accounts from non-hegemonic voices and interventions from marginalised positions at the forefront of crisis, loss and change.

The module’s primary aims are three-fold. Substantively, it facilitates the re-thinking of conventional and dominant discourses, practices and techniques associated with environmental issues, through the reading and application of a range of critical and embedded approaches. Approaches covered are likely to include: eco-feminism , eco-Marxism, political ecology, environmentalism of the poor, Black studies, Indigenous studies and de/anti-colonial scholarship. Epistemologically, the module grapples with the ideas and means we have for practising sociology in our environmental era, to consider how sociological thought, methods and stories may be contextualised, brought to account, and remain relevant for the concerns of the anthropocene. Practically, this module seeks to situate understandings of contemporary environmental issues within and across time, space and disciplines, paying close attention to unequal causes, impacts and responsibilities.

Outline Of Syllabus

Content will be responsive to current debates and events. General topics are likely to include a selection from the following:

HOW DID WE GET HERE?: Missing environmental histories and contested definitions
MAKING SENSE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE: Critical theories, methods and ethics
CHANGE, LOSS AND EXTINCTION: Multiple ends, new possibilities and time in the anthropocene
INTER-SPECIES (DIS)ENTANGLEMENTS: Relations between humans and non-human animals, plants and organisms
WASTE, VALUE AND CRISIS: Consumer cultures, capitalist production and the environment
TOXICITY AND HEAT: Planetary, social and health crises
CONTROVERSIES, CONSENSUS AND (UN)CERTAINTIES: Science, knowledge and the law in environmental matters
'SAVING THE EARTH': Environmental citizenship and social justice
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?: Contested anthropocene futures

Indicative reading list
Danowski, Deborah and Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2016. The ends of the world. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Downey, Liam. 2015. Inequality, democracy, and the environment. New York: New York University Press.
-Ferdinand, Malcolm. 2021. Decolonizing ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean world. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kimmerer, Robin W. 2015. Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. London: Harvard University Press.
Pellow, David N. 2018. What is critical environmental justice? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Todd, Zoe. 2015. “Indigenizing the anthropocene.” In Art in the anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environment and epistemology, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 241-254. London: Open Humanities Press.
Tsing, Anna L. 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Shiva, Vandana and Mies, Maria. 2014. Ecofeminism. London: Zed Books Ltd.
Yusoff, Kathryn. 2019. A billion black anthropocenes or none. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion128:0028:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching81:008:00synchronous, in-person, student-led discussions, consolidating lecture and readings
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops22:004:00synchronous, in-person student presentations (part of assessment)
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study1150:00150:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDissertation/project related supervision12:002:00synchronous, in-person, student-led discussion on case studies
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesModule talk81:008:00synchronous, in-person talk prior to small group teaching
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Weekly sessions comprise of 1-hour module talks (eight in total), and 1-hour small group teaching (student-led discussions, eight in total). These sessions will approximate academic seminar formats, including breaks. The talks provide up-to-date conceptual, empirical and interdisciplinary material supplementing weekly readings, to form the basis for inclusive follow-on small group discussions. Students are expected to engage with readings prior to these sessions, and come prepared to participate in discussions. To facilitate discussions, each student will sign up to be a discussant/chair for one session. Chairs will be responsible for providing brief overviews of readings, and proposing and fielding questions and discussions, with prior guidance and support throughout from the module leader. A 2-hour discussion session early in the module will help students choose, research and develop their understandings of the environmental case studies that will form the basis of their assessments. Workshops (two x 2 hours) will be comprised of student presentations, formative toward assignments.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Research proposal2M401,500-word research proposal on chosen case study (including brief overview, research question and summary of critical approach)
Essay2A602,500-word case study essay
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

Two interlinked assessments allow students to develop and progress their empirical interests over the course of the module. Students independently choose one relevant environmental case study to work with for both assessments (proposal and essay).

(1) Research proposal: 1,500-word proposal, no fieldwork to be involved, focuses on identifying key question/s of interest, a brief literature review and initial thoughts on how critical approaches may be applied. The research proposal allows students to delve into their case study and the critical approaches taught within the module. This assessment enables skills of identifying key texts, developing research ideas, applying module concepts/theories, and structuring/articulating arguments.

(2) Essay: 2,500 word essay, focused on application of critical approach/es to case study. The essay will assess high-level thinking and writing skills, including structure, clarity, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, editing and referencing.

Students are provided with the ongoing opportunity to edit and refine their work, partly in response to constructive feedback from the module leader and course group. A discussion session early in the module and formative presentations during the workshop sessions will enable students to share exploratory insights into chosen case studies, to reflect on their interests and ideas in a collegiate and constructive academic environment. These non-graded discussion and presentation sessions will form the basis for the research proposal while giving students the opportunity to develop presentation and communication skills, including coherence, concision and creativity.

Reading Lists