HGO4301 – The Social Dimensions of Environmental Change

Schedule, syllabus and examination date

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Course content

This course focuses on the society-environment nexus with particular attention to how environmental challenges are framed among different communities of scholars. Conceptual approaches are introduced, and linked to concerns over how to know and govern rapid rate environmental change including climate change. The lectures and readings highlight social scientific approaches, with an emphasis on contributions from geographers, particularly how different framings of the problem influence the solutions that are pursued or ignored. We will probe the possibilities and limitations of environmental governance, and key concepts such as the commons, adaptation and uncertainty. Examination is a term paper using themes presented in the course.

Learning outcome

Knowledge and understanding

  • Distinguish between major approaches to the environment-society nexus.
  • Identify the assumptions upon which major approaches to environmental change are based.
  • Understand how the social sciences can contribute to a broader and deeper understanding of environmental change and adaptation.
  • Clarify how the framing of environmental change can influence the solutions that are prioritized or ignored.

Skills and abilities

  • Appraise how climate change adaptation programs are developed and implemented across scales. 
  • Apply theories of environmental change to specific examples and their implications for society.
  •  Develop skills for oral and written communication of knowledge and competencies.

Judgement and approach

  • Evaluate the implications for the society-environment nexus of using certain governance techniques in different contexts and at different scales.
  • Operationalise abstract concepts about environmental change to understand current global challenges.


  • Ability to explain linkages between social and environmental problems. 

  • Capacity to understand the social dimensions of environmental change from multiple perspectives. 

  • Critical engagement with environmental change research and its implications for policy and practice


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.

This course is a part of the Master's program in Human Geography. Students with admission to other relevant master’s degree programmes can apply for admission as guest students.

Master specialisation in didactics for social science in the Teacher Education Programme (Lektorprogrammet) – please see the link for information regarding admission.


Recommended previous knowledge

SOSGEO2301 - Environment and society

Overlapping courses

This course overlaps with the following courses: SGO4301 - Global Environmental Change and SOSGEO4301 - Global environmental change


The teaching consists of lectures that aim at a dialogue between lecturer and student. At each lecture, a relevant case will be presented and discussed based on the reading materials and/or media items. Students are expected to participate actively in discussions, both in plenum and small groups.

All teaching will be given in English.


Course Outline:

  1. The Border War between nature and society

In this introductory session we look at some of the critiques of conceptualising ‘society’ as separate from ‘environment’. This intervention helped to set the agenda for critical environmental social sciences today (we will discuss what is meant by ‘critical’ during the course). The main argument put forward is that when ‘society’ is constructed as something separate from ‘environment’ it closes down certain possibilities both conceptually and politically. The chapter by myself is a review of work done on ‘nature-society’ that will help to orient you to the entire course. The other readings by Donna Haraway and William Cronon are highlighted because Cronon is accessible and Haraway has been massively influential (but harder to grasp).

  1. The Commons, governance and sustainability

In this session we look at the scholarship on governance and sustainability that has come from natural resource management, sociology and institutional economics. Ostrom, Agrawal and subsequent work linking governance structures (institutions) to sustainability have arguably been some of the most influential work from the environmental social sciences in global policy and practice. That debate has also come into conversation with work on resilience and adaptive co-management. As you read this work, attend to how ‘society’ and ‘environment’ are conceptualised and the epistemological consequences of that framing. Are the different authors consistent? If we take Cronon and Haraway’s critique seriously, what are some of the strongest aspects and some of the problems with these approaches? There a numerous case studies in the literature, I encourage you to read at least one so that you get a sense of how these ideas are operationalized.

  1. Political Ecology: Politics, scale and global connections

As Ostrom and others were putting forward an agenda to demonstrate the importance of local knowledge and community institutions for environmental governance, a parallel strand of scholarship emerged that specifically sought to link between local scales and global political economies, led initially by Piers Blaikie, Harold Brookfield and Michael Watts. This field, political ecology, has now come to encompass a wide range of approaches and disciplines, but here we focus in particular on the work that emerged out of development studies and political economy. If you have never been exposed to this work, read Bryant first, (otherwise probably not necessary). How is ‘environment-society’ conceptualised in political ecology? How does it differ from the kind of analysis that Ostrom, Agrawal and others have done (note that Agrawal would call himself a political ecologist, why do you think I have not included him here)? What sorts of issues are highlighted that the other perspectives have perhaps glossed over? Again, numerous case studies are available.

  1. Environment and Conflict

This week we turn our attention to violence and conflict and their role in the social politics of environment. Many areas of so-called ‘fragile’ or ‘important’ ecosystems are located in areas of political instability. Not only does such instability threaten the ability of institutions to conserve the environment, but also control over resources and environments can become a key goal of rebel groups. Here, we focus specifically on areas of the world experiencing violence to examine the political ecology issues that emerge from conflict.

  1. Governmentality and environmental subjects

The calls for community governance and decentralisation hinge upon an assumption that ‘local’ people will manage their resources effectively if given the right to do so. This session we take a look at the kinds of subjectivities, or notions of being ‘good environmental stewards’, that are promoted by states, development programmes and NGOs in order to instill in local people the ‘right’ kind of attitude towards the environment.

  1. Knowing climate
  2. The politics of climate change
  3. Conclusion: Anticipatory science and uncertainty


The exam for HGO4301 is a term paper.

  • The topic for the term paper is decided by each student and must be within the thematic focus of the course.
  • The term paper must draw from three of the nine themes of the course. 
  • The term paper must use the readings assigned for the course as well as materials from outside the set syllabus.
  • The topic and focus of the term paper will be assessed and approved by the course coordinator within a set deadline. 
  • The length of the paper will be maximum 4000 words plus references, using 12 point letter size and a spacing of lines 1 1/2.

During the course we will have a session on topic development to help you formulate a strong paper research question.


Previous exams and examiner guidelines

Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination

The examination text is given in English.You may submit your response in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish or English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

If you are sick or have another valid reason for not attending the regular exam, we offer a postponed exam later in the same semester.

See also our information about resitting an exam.

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take the exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

Facts about this course






Every other autumn starting 2017


Every other autumn starting 2017

Teaching language