NIFK15004U Political Ecology

Volume 2017/2018

MSc Programme in Agricultural Development


Environmental problems such as land degradation and deforestation are complex processes and often cannot be understood in isolation from broader processes of economic and social development, struggles over access and rights to resources, or conflicts originating from historical grievances. Yet, their complexity is not always acknowledged by researchers, governments, and development interventions seeking to identify, measure, and correct or alleviate them. Scientific measurements of the extent of environmental degradation are often inaccurate and/or highly uncertain, and knowledge of the underlying drivers is framed in ways that put direct blame on some actors, for instance farmers practicing subsistence farming, while leaving others out, such as large-scale investments in mining.

Political Ecology asserts that the way we know environmental problems affects the solutions we identify, which implies that science and knowledge of environmental problems are inherently political and intrinsically linked to economic and social context. Further, Political Ecology is keenly invested in understanding how local processes of environmental change are linked to past and present wider regulatory frameworks and market processes.

Political Ecology draws on various disciplines to frame studies on resource and management challenges in fields such as environment and development, climate change, land-use, and conservation. This course illustrates how Political Ecology is useful to understand processes of natural resource management, use, and contestations around these. Participants in this course will be challenged to re-think and reconsider mainstream understandings of environmental problems and how they are produced.

The course is primarily (but not exclusively) concerned with and draws its examples and cases from environmental problems in developing countries including those concerned with forests, agricultural lands, water, wildlife and nature conservation.


The course is structured in 8 themes. There may be smaller amendmends to the titles and specific contents of the themes, and their order may not be as stipulated here.


1. Introduction to course and political ecology

The course starts with an overview of the course and the teaching and learning activities. We look into how political ecology has emerged as an approach to, but far from a coherent theory of, the complex relationships between the environment and society. We also do group formation and talk about how to read texts, do presentations, student peer-to-peer reviews and written reviews of articles.


2. Environmental degradation

This module concerns environmental change (degradation). We will look into questions such as: By whom and how is environmental degradation defined? How can we know/ascertain/measure environmental change? Who drives degradation? How and why have environmental crisis narratives emerged and persisted? What functions have they served? And what are the consequences on the environment and socio-economic conditions?


3. Science studies – new tools for political ecology concerns

Science is often seen as separate from the rest of society and in pursuit of the truth. Yet, science studies, inspired by philosophy of science and the sociology of science, view science as producing only partial perspectives on reality and, therefore, not as one truth. Science studies have also illustrated that the relation between science and society is one of co-production; science identifies and prioritizes problems and lends legitimacy to some solutions and, thus, plays an inherently political role. Further, science is a product of society in the sense that all scientists are people with values that affect their choices, also as scientists, and society often directs what science does.


4. The political economy of natural resource exploitation and use

Political ecology may be defined as “the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, p. 17). In this theme we look into various orientations within the broad field of political economy; in particular Marxist political economy, neo-classical political economy and new political economy (public choice theory). Focus is on how these orientations can be applied in analyzing cases and situations in relation to conservation and use of nature and natural resources, in particular in answering questions as “who gains?”, “who loses?”, “how?” and “why?”.


5. Feminist political ecology

This module concerns women’s access to and control over resources. We will look into questions such as: How are gender roles in natural resource governance and management framed, by whom and with what consequences? In what ways are women’s links with the environment conceptualized and how does this affect their access to natural resources? Feminist political ecology brings together ideas from feminist cultural ecology, political ecology, feminist geography and feminist political economy and considers gender a critical variable in shaping resource access and control, together with processes of class, caste, race, culture and ethnicity. In this module the focus is on exploring the construction and importance of gender in relation with natural resource management.


6. Revisiting participatory policies

Policies and interventions that purport to be participatory and inclusive are the order of the day in the development and environmental sectors. Yet, participation has been around for long and has been used to legitimate many political decisions. Thus, one thing is the ‘label’ on the policy, another is how to gauge what spaces of participation are created by a policy and how it unfolds in practice. In this module we will familiarize ourselves with conceptual tools that may enable us to examine participation from an analytical point of view and use these to characterize elements of participation in settings described in journal articles. We will work with tools that focus on institutional and material aspects of participation, such as powers over resources and relations of accountability, as well as on participation as process.


7. Conflict and resistance

In developing countries many people are directly dependent on access to resources for farming and other uses, and they are therefore directly affected – in positive and negative ways – when larger political and economic forces change the conditions on which resources are accessed. Moreover, developing societies are generally characterized by normative and legal pluralism. The stakes are therefore often high. Struggles over property are as much about the scope and constitution of authority as about access to resources. Claims, entitlements, and rights to resources are often contested and rife with conflict, just as authority and ability to define and enforce rules and rights regimes is struggled over by different institutions. In this module, we look into issues related to land titling and struggles and resistance over property.


8. The role of the expert

During this course we have been presented with ways of viewing that appear critical towards much of mainstream practice in development and environmental policy. Here at the end of the course we will focus on the dilemma of having to navigate as an expert in a professional context of institutions with aims, logics, and narratives that may be different from one’s own beliefs and ideas. We will discuss different views on this dilemma and interact with one or more professionals working in a development/environmental agency on their personal experiences of this dilemma.

Learning Outcome

Upon completing this course, the students should be able to:


  1. Outline central orientations of political ecology and describe their key arguments;

  2. Describe how local environmental uses, management, livelihoods and environmental outcomes are connected to past and present wider regulatory frameworks and market processes;

  3. Explain various methods to assert environmental change and its causes;

  4. Describe what is understood by environmental orthodoxies/​environmental crisis narratives;

  5. Describe different ideas about what characterizes science and how science and society are co-produced;

  6. Discuss major strains of political economy of relevance to Political Ecology;

  7. Discuss strands of feminist thinking in relation to analyses of environmental issues;

  8. Describe different understandings of participation.



  1. Use political ecology approaches to describe how environmental and developmental challenges can be framed in different ways;

  2. Identify and assess underlying assumptions and empirical evidence supporting environmental crisis narratives;

  3. Analyze how science frames environmental problems;

  4. Apply political economy to analyze concrete cases of policies, uses and practices pertaining tonature and natural resources;

  5. Apply feminist political ecology approaches to environmental problems;

  6. Apply analytical frameworks to characterize participatory governance regimes and processes;

  7. Analyze dynamics of resistance and social confrontation;

  8. Create an analytical framework for analyzing claims to rights and institutionalization of resistance.



  1. Reflect on what constitutes environmental change/degradation;

  2. Reflect on how environmental crisis narratives have emerged and what functions they serve;

  3. Reflect on how different understandings of key concepts within political ecology, e.g. participation, resistance, science, and drivers of environmental degradation, may affect strategies for empirical examining them ‘in the field’ and, in turn, findings;

  4. Reflect on the different meanings attached to key concepts, e.g. resistance and participation, and how labelling people and processes in different ways may provide legitimation to policies, e.g. repressing resistance and nurturing participation;

  5. Reflect on the dynamics of claims making;

  1. Reflect on own current and future role as ‘expert’.

The curriculum for the course is indicated in the introductory and guidance notes for each module/theme of the course which are uploaded on Absalon.

The curriculum includes chapters from Paul Robbins: “Political Ecology”, lecture notes and peer-reviewed journal articles. The course provides students amble opportunities to enhance their ability to read and analyze scientific texts, many of which will be in the social science domain or in the interface between social and natural science.

No special academic qualifications are required. Some experience in reading scientific journal articles is an advantage.
The course makes limited use of traditional lectures. The key teaching and learning activities are group discussions and exercises, student presentations, student peer-to-peer feedback, and short written assignments (article reviews). The learning activities draw on scientific articles and book chapters, but also on other media, such as podcasts and films. For each week of the course, there is an introduction and guidance note presenting the topic of the week, the intended learning objectives and the learning activities.
The course requires students’ timely preparation and active participation in order to achieve the intended learning outcomes. The indicated readings for each week must be read prior to class. Students who are unable to meet this requirement should not enroll in the course.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Exam
  • 30
  • Lectures
  • 10
  • Practical exercises
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 110
  • Seminar
  • 0
  • Total
  • 206
Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)

Feedback is provided in multiple ways. There will be individual, written comments to the written assigments (article reviews). Oral feedback will be in class to group exercises and group presentations.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Oral examination
20 minutes oral examination with point of departure in one of the course themes of student’s own choice followed by questions in the broader course curriculum.
All aids allowed
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Several internal examiners

Same as ordinary exam.

Criteria for exam assesment

The assessment will be based on the intended learning outcomes within knowledge, skills and competences listed above