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Studying Environments and Societies

Updated Tuesday, 7 November 2017
What does human geography have to do with studying the environment?    

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Severe storms roll through the downtown Chicago area on 5/28/2013 - Chicago, IL.


Hi!  my name’s Michael Pryke.  I'm Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Development and Geography.
I'm here with George Revill who is from the Geography Discipline.

Hi George –

Hello –

George is chairing a new module with a colleague from Development - Ben Lampert.  The module is DD213 - Environment and Society.
What's at the core of the module George?

The basic question underlying the module is: how does bringing environment and society together make a difference for how we understand environmental issues and problems?  So what we are interested in, in the module, is how looking at society and those things related to the social (and that means realms of the cultural, the economic and the political) are important to understanding both how environmental issues come about, and also leading us towards the kinds of things that we might be able to do in the future - in order to redress, affect, modify, improve our environmental futures.

Okay. This is a Second Level module that’s gonna be core to the Environmental Studies qualification, Q99.  What, for an outsider, would be the benefits that you would highlight of approaching environment and society from a geographical standpoint?

Well, I think there are several answers to that. And the first one is a kind of old fashioned basic answer, so I’ll give you that one first. And that is that geography very much takes things in their historical and place specific context, and tries to understand what's going on; using the circumstances of the times and the events so that it’s possible to get some understanding about how and why people do behave, act, as they do. So there's a kind of sense that geography, and working through geography, supplies a contextual understanding which is really important to understanding present day and indeed historical environmental issues. The second and slightly more, I suppose, academic answer is that in this module we are interested in the way in which different environmental issues are entangled with society, in tracing those through the cultural, economic and the social and the political. Tracing those entanglements, that is the way in which human factors such as the cultural and the economic, affect and bring about and lead to different sorts of environmental issues and outcomes, is a kind of way of tracing and mapping. And that sense of mapping requires a geographic sensibility - we call it geographic imagination – in order to enable those tasks to be done. So the variety of skills, approaches and areas of knowledge, concepts, themes et cetera, which are encapsulated in the notion of geography - in a geographical imagination - which are then important to understanding environmental issues as geographically constituted.

Okay. That’s great. And the idea then is that the development of that understanding progresses through the module via a number of key blocks. Could you just run through what the key blocks are and, in a line as it were, just say what each block is trying to prosecute as an argument?

Yes certainly. 

There are six blocks and the first one is an introductory block, which introduces those key notions of entanglement and geographical imagination.  Then what we do is we split those environment and society entanglements of it into the cultural, the economic, the social, and the political.  And that forms the four core blocks in the centre of the module.  And then there is the final sixth block and that’s a synthesis block in which we try and get those things brought together again. 

So in the first substantive block, that is block two, the cultural block, we will be dealing with, for instance, issues of how environment is represented.  How it’s represented culturally.  So, for instance, issues of how, for instance, landscape comes to separate notions of nature and culture. And how understanding that, for instance, enables us to examine kind of how we've come to here in terms of environment and society relationships.  The second block, economy, focuses on issues of value, how things are valued.  And there's a focus for instance there on agricultural production, commercial agricultural production.  And how the way things are farmed, for instance, is not just a matter of what farmers want and do, but is part of an intimately linked chain that links farmers and producers to the supermarket shelves who demand particular sizes, styles, shape, weight of product. To the extent that what is grown is dependent upon how it fits on the supermarket shelf.  And then in block three, the society block, one key issue there is how we can think of environment and society not as separate, but as society as including more than human beings.  So one particular interest there is how, for instance, humans and wild animals can live together say, for instance, in India where elephants or leopards live amongst villagers and people.  How can that relationship between wild nature and human society be resolved so that both can live in some sort of harmony together?  And then the fifth block, the politics block, is moving us on really to start thinking about what we can do about all this.  We have looked at how environment and society have been taken apart -  for example through nature and culture in block two and landscape.  We've looked at how they're put together in various ways for instance through farming and the supermarket in block three, and indeed through wild animals and human settlement in block four.  So in block five it’s thinking about how bringing environment and society together can help us work towards and plan better environmental futures.

The last question I want to ask you is, I guess, something that is sparked by the current research that you're engaged in. I believe you got a significant grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  I think the title of the project is “Listening to Climate Change”. I guess in a nutshell, what's that about and also does it inform anything that you're writing about in DD213?

I think the answer to that is yes and yes!  So in a nutshell, the project is based on a location in North Norfolk - a coastal location where climate change and environmental factors as well as social and economic factors are leading to change along the coast.  And it’s asking people who live there and people who visit there to think about - to use sound to think about how they can imagine this place in the future.  So it’s thinking environmental futures through sound.  And the key issue here is by using sound as the medium of exchange and communication.  We’re trying to find ways of enabling people to think about the future whilst taking into consideration - well let’s call them voices, other than human voices; the sound of the waves, or the bird song and the dawn chorus, or the sound of the mean average temperature rising across the decades.  So it’s a way of trying to find ways of allowing human beings to think about the future and take into account environmental factors - flora, fauna, animals, birds, plants et cetera - more centrally as part of the imagining and decision making process.  Now this really feeds into what we are trying to do in block five of the module. 

One of the starting points for this module is a well-known theorist named Bruno Latour.  And one of his main ideas that kind of informs what we are doing here is that nature and culture - nature and culture, environment and society - have come to be understood as separate, and that that provides a barrier to us thinking about contemporary environmental problems.  And he says that what we need is a way of kind of putting them back together, of allowing a discussion or form of communication or discourse or decision making in which the non-human world plays its part, as well as the human world.  So decisions aren't just made by-humans for-humans, but there is some kind of way in which we can allow the non-human world to participate in that. 

So one of the weeks in block five of the module will return to that separation of nature and culture that we had very early in the module, and will look at different ways of how environments and society can be put back together for environmental decision making, and for imagining environmental futures.  And one of the case studies we have used in that week of material is going to be from our current AHRC grant – ‘Listening to Climate Change’.

That’s really helpful and interesting, both in your research and the way in which it’s informing - in a number of ways - the shaping of the module content. And it also - at least if I understood it correctly - marks out quite clearly the difference it makes from taking the social sciences view of something called ‘the environment’, rather than taking in an environmental science view of the same issue or set of issues.

I think that’s really important.  And that brings me back to the discipline of geography again and why I as a geographer - I would say this wouldn't I – why I think it’s so important to have a geographical perspective on this, and on environmental issues. Not simply because of, you know, a map of the world and showing where things are in different places. But because geographers have a history of working with physical environment and the social environment together.  And that form of geographical imagination, as we said earlier on, is key to bringing those things back together and that’s what we want to try and do in this module.

Brilliant! Thank you.

This is a second level module, part of Q99, and it hits the shelves in - ?

In September, 2018!

Great! Thank you very much, George.

It’s a pleasure.


To introduce the new course ‘Environment and Society’, two lecturers discuss how a geographical imagination helps to understand how the environment is entangled with the cultural, the economic, the social, and the political. They also discuss how the new course draws upon cutting-edge research being carried out by the Open University’s academics.

Environment and Society (DD213) will be a level two course and available for study from Autumn 2018. For more details visit the Online Prospectus.


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