Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2011

Environmental Struggles

Lecturer: Associate Professor Christine Walley
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Main disciplines: Social Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Development Studies

Dates: 1 - 5 August 2011
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants


The seminar offers an anthropological perspective on environmental issues, and it uses conflict as a lens through which to explore key questions. Due to time constraints, the class will mainly focus upon two types of environmental conflicts: those surrounding international nature conservation efforts and those relating to the health effects of toxic exposures and pollution. The class is premised upon the assumption that the social is not separate from, but inevitably co-constituted through, the natural or biological, just as the material and cultural/symbolic dimensions of these conflicts are also fully intertwined. Through an analysis of these kinds of environmental conflicts, we seek to gain insight into the ways in which the economic, political, sociocultural, and environmental are co-produced as well as what the stakes involved are for different groups of actors, both human and non-human.

While taught from an anthropological perspective, this class builds upon conversations with other disciplines and theoretical viewpoints drawn from science studies, political ecology, spatial studies, and environmental justice frameworks. In particular, this class builds upon the challenge poised by science studies scholars to move away from “social constructivist” viewpoints that emphasize only human perspectives to theoretically-informed perspectives that also take seriously the importance of non-human actors from microbes to mammals to toxic chemicals. Similarly it engages with the calls of scholars like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour to replace conceptual frameworks that see nature and culture in oppositional terms with concepts such as “co-construction,” “coevolution,” or “companion species.” This class suggests how these interdisciplinary conversations are revitalizing scholarship on the environment within the social sciences as well as the kinds of insights that anthropological perspectives and methods in particular can bring to understanding environmental conflict.

This class begins by introducing a theoretical “toolkit” of various concepts, frameworks, and methodologies that may be helpful in making sense of environmental conflict. We then shift towards exploring more in-depth ethnographic accounts of particular controversies, considering how these conflicts play out in both “developed” and “developing” countries and how they are situated within particular social and historical settings as well as through more global kinds of connections. Readings and lectures discuss environmental controversies in East Africa, Indonesia, the United States, Europe, and India and consider the class, gender, racial, and national components of such conflicts, the centrality of debates over environmental knowledge and expertise within environmental conflicts, and the conflicting ways in which human/non-human interrelationships are conceived.

This seminar is intended primarily for students in the social sciences, humanities, and environmental studies. Essential readings are starred and will be made available in advance in a course compendium. Please read them before the seminar. You are not expected to read all of the non-starred items but reading at least some of them will be well worth your effort.

Participants are expected to obtain and read the following book in advance:

  • Kim Fortun, Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001.Pgs.1-176 and pgs. 314-354.

Other essential readings for the class include:

  • Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press.
  • Kim Fortun, Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001. Pgs. 1-176 and pgs. 314-354.
  • S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich 2010 “The Emergence of Multi-Species Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology, 25(4):545-576.



Monday 1st August

Lecture 1: Thinking about Environmental Conflict: Theoretical Toolkit Part I

The first two lectures offer a brief overview of some of the theoretical frameworks and concepts that have increasingly come into dialogue in thinking about environmental conflict from a social scientific point of view. We begin by briefly considering the conflicting perspectives found within cultural ecology, political ecology, and environmental history perspectives. We will consider their various strengths and weaknesses and what each can contribute to an analysis of environmental conflict. In particular, we will consider competing accounts of how to think about geographic scale in relation to environmental conflict (local, national, global, etc.) as well as the importance of the material dimensions of such conflicts.


  • William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. 2003. Hill and Wang. Pgs. xv-107
  • Paul Robbins “The Hatchet and the Seed.” Pgs. 3-16. In: Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction 2004. Blackwell.
  • *Aletta Biersack “Reimagining Political Ecology: Culture/Power/History/Nature” in Reimagining Political Ecology (Duke, 2006); pgs. 3-39.
  • Julian Steward “The Concept and Method of Cultural Ecology” in: The Environment in Anthropology, eds. Nora Haenn and Richard Wilk 2006. Pgs. 5-9. New York: NYU Press.


Lecture 2: Theoretical Toolkit Part II

The Influence of Science Studies: Putting the Human and Non-Human in the Same Analytical Frame.

This lecture explores the growing influence of science studies in thinking about issues of environmental conflict. It considers the role of science studies in encouraging: 1) a shift from a social constructivist viewpoint that exclusively emphasizes the human end of environmental struggles; 2) a theoretically sophisticated consideration of both human and non-human actors; 3) a shift from seeing nature and people (or culture) in inherently oppositional terms to more inclusive ideas of companion species and collectives, and 4) a methodological imperative to map environmental controversies.


  • *Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press. Pgs. 1-100.
  • “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World” by Bruno Latour. In: The Science Studies Reader, ed. Mario Biagioli, 1999 New York: Routledge. Pgs. 258-275.
  • Bruno Latour, Chap 2 “Circulating Reference: Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest.” In: Pandora’s Hope. 1999. Harvard University Press. Pgs. 24-79.


Tuesday 2nd August

Lecture 3: The Politics of Nature Conservation – East Africa

This class considers the colonial roots of nature conservation in East Africa and its impact on contemporary environmental politics in the region. It considers the histories, institutional structures, and symbolic understandings associated with wildlife conservation and nature parks and how rural Africans have both contested and supported  international conservation agendas as ways to address their own environmental and other concerns. We will also consider the virtual aspects of environmentalist conceptions of space within nature parks and transboundary reserves and their real world impacts in terms of how both humans and animals are conceptualized and regulated within nature areas.


  • *Walley, Christine J. “They Scorn Us Because We are Uneducated: Knowledge and Power in a Tanzanian Marine Park”, Ethnography 2002 3(3):265-298
  • *David McDermott Hughes “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area” 2005 Cultural Anthropology 20(2):157-184.
  • Elizabeth Garland, “The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa.” 2008, African Studies Review 51(3):51-74.
  • Neumann, Rod “Political Ecology of Wildlife Conservation in the Mt. Meru Area of Northwest Tanzania” Land Degradation and Rehabilitation 1992, Vol. 3:85-98.


Lecture 4: The Politics of Nature Conservation – Indonesia

This class shifts discussion of conflicts over nature conservation to Indonesia. It considers both the parallels and strong differences in how environmental conflicts have played out in Indonesia in contrast to East Africa.  We will consider the social and environmental impact of environmentalist “keywords” like biodiversity, the possibilities and pitfalls of international environmental NGO networks, and attempts to move beyond the theoretical impasses found in discussions of the “global” through such concepts as “engaged universals.”


  • *Anna Tsing Introduction, Chap 4 “Nature Loving” and “This Earth, This Island Borneo: Biodiversity Assessment as a Multicultural Exercise” In: Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. 2005. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pgs. 1-18 and 121-170. 
  • Celia Lowe, “Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from “New Form” to “Endemic Species” In Indonesians’ Conservation Biology. 2004. Cultural Anthropology 19(4):491-516.


Wednesday 3rd August

Lecture 5: Theoretical Toolkit Part III: Risk and the “Global”

This lecture continues the discussion of the concept of the “global” and its relation to environmentalism. It considers the viewpoints of both critics and supporters of concepts of the “global,” how ideas of a risk society fit into such accounts, whether ideas of a “risk society” can be reconciled with environmental justice debates, and how conceptions of “risk” differ across European countries as well as between Europe and the U.S.


  • *Ulrich Beck “World at Risk: The New Task of Critical Theory”. Development and Society, 2008 37(1):1-21.
  • *Sheila Jasanoff “American Exceptionalism and the Political Acknowledgement of Risk”. 1990 Daedalus 119(4):61-81.
  • “Knowledge and Political Order in the European Environment Agency” by Claire Waterton and Brian Wynne in: States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order, ed. Sheila Jasanoff, 2004, Routledge, New York.  Pgs. 87-108.


Lecture 6: Risk and the “Global”: Who Bears the Burden?

This lecture grounds the discussion of the “global” and risk through an ethnographic consideration of the Bhopal industrial disaster in India. It traces linkages between corporations, governments, and activists in the US and India in the build-up to, and in the wake of, the accident. It revisits debates about the degree to which risks are shared across national, class, gender and other lines.


  • *Kim Fortun Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. 2001. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pgs.1-176 and pgs. 314-354.


Thursday 4th August

Lecture 7: Environmental Health – Part I: Debating Toxic Exposures

Building upon discussions of the Bhopal accident, this lecture considers questions raised by environmental justice advocates and other health activists about the usefulness of environmental health studies based on risk assessments. It considers the relationship between expert discourses and the more experiential forms of knowledge offered by members of communities affected by toxic exposures. We will consider the challenges that the indeterminacy and complexity of environmental health effects presents to health practitioners who seek to quantify and explicate environmental health risk. We will explore these questions in part through a case study of recent controversies over the chemical Bisphenol A and recent decisions by US and European regulators to declare it safe.


  • *Melissa Checker “But I Know It’s True”: Environmental Risk Assessment, Justice, and Anthropology.” Human Organization, vol. 66, No. 2, 2007, pgs. 112-124.
  • Jason Corburn – Chapter 3 “Risk Assessment, Community Knowledge and Subsistence Anglers” in Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. 2005. Cambridge: MIT Press. Pgs. 79-110.
  • *Sarah Vogel “The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A “Safety”. American Journal of Public Health, Supplement 3, 2009, Vol. 99, No. S3, pgs. S559-S566


Lecture 8: Environmental Health – Part II

This lecture continues the previous discussion by considering the historical emergence of new categories of environmental illness, the social, institutional, and environmental conditions that led to the production and recognition of such illnesses, and the contradictions posed by their incorporation into regulatory bureaucratic frameworks. We will consider this discussion of environmental illness through accounts of the Chernobyl nuclear accident as well as through environmental health affects linked to modern office building environments.


  • *Michelle Murphy “The “Elsewhere within Here” and Environmental Illness: or How to Build Yourself a Body in a Safe Space”. Configurations vol. 8, # 1, Winter 2000, pgs. 87-120.
  • Michelle Murphy “Toxicity in the Details: The History of the Women’s Office Worker Movement and Occupational Health in the Late Capitalist Office.” Labor History, vol. 41, No. 2, 2000, pgs. 189-213
  • *Adriana Petryna  Chapters 1 & 2 in Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl. 2002. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pgs. 1-62


Friday 5th August

Lecture 9: Towards a Non-Humanist Anthropology?

Anthropologists working on environmental issues have begun to advocate for a “non-humanist” anthropology that takes non-human actors as seriously as human ones. This class considers some examples of what such ethnographies might look like and the questions such accounts pose, including, for example, how to think about the different kinds of agency at work among human and non-human actors and how to write and research such accounts.


  • Heather Paxson, “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw Milk Cheese in the United States.” Cultural Anthropology 23(1):15-47.
  • *Heather Paxson, Chap. 2 Ecologies of Production in Inventing Artisan Cheese. Book manuscript. 30 pages.
  • *Hugh Raffles, “A Conjoined Fate.” 2010. Orion 29(1):16-27.
  • *Stefan Helmreich, Introduction and Chap One in Alien Oceans: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. 2009. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pgs. 1-67.


Lecture 10: Where to go next?

In the final class, we consider how interdisciplinary discussions around environmental conflict are shaping future directions for anthropological and other social scientific work.  We reexamine the call to gain critical distance on romantic western conceptions of nature as a way to move forward and consider the kinds of “post-pastoralist” environmentalist practices currently at work. The call to surmount binary oppositions between nature and culture or the pristine and the polluted are already emerging, for example, through environmentalist calls for industrial brownfield reclamation for parks, urban environmental movements, multispecies ethnography and other means. In looking ahead, what new kinds of power relationships and environmental problems might be reinscribed in the process and how might such concerns be addressed? How might the interdisciplinary discussions of the current moment push forward our thinking about environmental futures?


  • -William Cronon “The Trouble with Wilderness or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” 1983. In: Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. By William Cronon. W.W. Norton & Company, pgs. 69-90.
  • *S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich 2010 “The Emergence of Multi-Species Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology, 25(4):545-576



Students wanting to earn 10 ECTS credits are required to submit one course essay of 5000 to 6000 words. In order to make the essays as relevant as possible to their research, students should study the seminar outline and provide in advance an abstract of the topic of their essay. The lecturer will make every attempt to discuss essay plans individually with students.


The Lecturer

Christine J. Walley is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. She received her Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 1999. She is the author of a book on environmental politics in East Africa entitled Rough Waters: Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park (Princeton University Press, 2004). She is currently completing a book on the environmental and social impact of deindustrialization in the Midwestern United States, including the impact of toxic formerly industrial brownfields on surrounding communities. 


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Published Aug. 24, 2011 2:20 PM