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School of Environment, Education and Development

Student in The Atrium at The University of Manchester
BA Geography

Study a course tailored to you at the university ranked fourth in the UK for Geography (Guardian University Guide).

BA Geography

Year of entry: 2018

Course unit details:
Nature, Society and Social Power

Unit code GEOG31211
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by School of Environment, Education and Development
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course examines the interrelationship between humans and nature, with a particular emphasis on the how social power relations produce and change socio-physical conditions. The course starts from the premise that nature and society are not separate. They are are mutually intertwined and co-evolving. The course will draw on a variety of critical theoretical perspectives and illustrate the argument with a series of case studies. The course will consist in 10 2-hour lectures and 10 1-hour seminars (reading sessions, video and documentary presentations, discussion sessions, etc…)


  • To theorize how the social and the physical world interact;
  • To understand critically the entanglements of social and physical conditions under capitalism;
  • To provide a critical review of the socio-ecological dynamics of capitalism;
  • To offer insight in the processes through which particular environmental conditions come about and are changed;
  • To explore the key actors that shape environmental activities and their spatial configurations and outcomes;
  • To show how socio-environmental processes are also political processes;
  • To illustrate these processes by means of concrete historical-geographical examples.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course unit, you should be able to:

  • Understand the key concepts and theories that underpin political ecology;
  • Be familiar with an outline of historical-geographical materialist understandings of the world; 
  • Be able to think critically about the relationships between people and their environments;Understand the political significance of socio-ecological processes, problems, and conditions;
  • Be able to start your own research project on socio-nature interactions and dynamics


Tentative Course Structure
Week 1   Introduction – Socializing Nature
Week 2 Circuits of Capital: The Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Capital 
Circulation – Part 1
Week 3 Circuits of Capital: The Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Capital Circulation – Part 2
Week 4 a) The Production of Nature 
b) The Power of Water: Karl Wittfogel’s thesis
Week 5 Reading Week
Week 6 Cities, Nature, and Social Power: The Urbanization of Nature
Week 7 Nature and Political Projects: The Contested Production of Environments I: The example of Spain    
Week 8 Nature and Political Projects: The Contested Production of 
Environments II: The example of Spain (cont’d) 
The example of Sicily     
Week 9 Reading Week
Week 10 The Sustainability Paradox: a political-ecological perspective
Week 11 Saving Nature(s)  … or the End of Politics: Ecology as the New Opium for the People
Week 12 Conclusion and revision

Transferable skills and personal qualities

During this course unit, you will be encouraged to develop the following abilities and skills:

  • Critical thinking and reflection;
  • An ability to assess the merits of contrasting theories and explanations;
  • An ability to relate theoretical argument with empirical evidence, including the construction of theoretically informed real-life research; 
  • An ability to translate theory into politics;
  • Motivation and self-directed learning;
  • Awareness of your responsibility as a global citizen.

Assessment methods


One two hour unseen examination with essay-style questions (to be chosen from a total of 6 question) (50% of total assessment)

Students prepare a 2500 word essay on a theme to be chosen from a list of titles that will be made available at the beginning of the Semester. The title will relate to the course material and permit students to explore specific themes either more theoretically or by means of exploring a specific case study (50%).


For Master’s Students

The assessment will be 100% based on a 3500-word essay on theme decided in consultation with the course convener.

Feedback methods


Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:

  • extensive verbal feedback through Q&A, discussion and interactive activities within lectures;
  • verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours;
  • detailed written feedback on the coursework assignments;
  • verbal feedback on examinations provided in academic advisor meetings.

Recommended reading

Selected Readings


Braun B., Castree N (Eds.) (1998) Remaking Reality. Routledge, London.


Harvey, D. (1985). The Geo-Politics of Capitalism. In D. Gregory & J. Urry (Eds.), Social Relations and Spatial Structures (pp. 128-163). London: Macmillan.


Harvey D. (1981) Limits to Capital. Blackwell, Oxford


Harvey D. (1996). Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell.


Heynen N., Kaika M., and Swyngedouw E. (2006) (Eds.) In the Nature of Cities – Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, Routledge, London and New York


Lefebvre H. ((1974)1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.


Robins Paul (2011) Political Ecology – A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.


Smith N. (1984). Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.


Swyngedouw E (2000) “The Marxian Alternative – Historical Geographical Materialism and the Political Economy of  Capitalism”, in Barnes T., Sheppard E. (Eds.)  Reader in Economic Geography, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 41-59.


Swyngedouw E. (2004) Flows of Power – Water and the Political Ecology of Urbanisation in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Oxford: University Press .


Swyngedouw E (2004) “Scaled Geographies. Nature, Place, and the Politics of Scale”, in McMaster R., Sheppard E. (Eds.) Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Nature, Society and Method. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., pp. 129-153.


Swyngedouw E. (2010) “Trouble with Nature – Ecology as the New Opium for the People”, in Hillier, J. and P. Healey (Eds.) Conceptual Challenges for Planning Theory. Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 299-320.


Swyngedouw E. (2012) (with Ian Cook) “Cities, social cohesion and the environment: towards a future research agenda”, Urban Studies 49(9), pp. 1938 - 1958


Swyngedouw E. (2015) Liquid Power: Contested Hydro-Modernities in 20th Century Spain. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.


Swyngedouw E. (2015) “Depoliticized Environments and the Promises of the Anthropocene”, in Bryant R. (ed.) International Handbook of Political Ecology. E. Elgar, London, pp. 131-145.


Wittfogel K. (1957) Oriental Despotism. Yale University Press/Oxford University Press



Key Journals



Environment and Planning A

Capitalism, Nature, Socialism

Annals of the American Association of Geographers

Transactions of the IBG


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Erik Swyngedouw Unit coordinator
Lazaros Karaliotas Unit coordinator

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