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Theoretical Debates on Environmental Problems
Graduate Program (& Advanced Certificate) Status
Course Description

1st year

Theoretical Debates on Environmental Problems is a core course in the doctoral curriculum designed to contextualize PhD students’ understanding of the intersections of the ecological, social, and political dimensions of environmental problems. The course explores how theoretical frameworks at multiple levels help define and analyze environmental issues from various epistemological and disciplinary perspectives.

Doctoral students taking this course will gain a richer understanding of the complexity of environmental problems and possible ways to analyze them. With these richer understandings, we hope to unsettle and re-conceptualize some of our notions of the "environment," and our ways of knowing it. This class is thus organized to establish a critical scholarly foundation that contributes to an understanding of the world from multiple epistemological, disciplinary, and theoretical perspectives. The first two parts of the course will challenge our pre-existing assumptions about our work as environmental scholars, and the relations between knowledge, data, theory, and method in an interdisciplinary setting. We aim to broaden our horizons to familiarize ourselves with a range of scholarly approaches used by researchers in the department. In the third part of the course we will work to enhance our critical thinking skills through the practical application of a selection of theoretical and conceptual frameworks to practical case studies, including the students' own research topics as well as other environmental problems. In the final segment of the class, students will begin to work with their chosen supervisors to identify and focus in-depth on some of the theories most relevant to their own research projects, and practice explaining these theories and discussing their application with their peers. 

Learning Outcomes

The course aims to expose PhD students to theoretical thinking in environmental sciences and policy beyond the theories directly used in their dissertation, while also helping them identify appropriate theories for their work and understand their broader context and limitations. The course will engage with and benefit from the breadth of academic expertise of the DESP faculty and facilitate an interdisciplinary dialogue involving faculty and PhD students of the department.

After successfully completing the course students will be able to:

  • understand a breadth of cultural, social, and political factors that complicate the realms of science and policy in solving environmental problems;
  • identify differences in epistemological, disciplinary, and theoretical approaches used in environmental research;
  • comprehend a selection of core debates and social theories used in analyzing interdisciplinary environmental issues;
  • assess the similarities and differences, opportunities and limitations of different theoretical approaches;
  • articulate and apply theoretical frameworks to analyze their own research topic.


Learning in this class will be assessed through the following components:

  1.   Attendance (10%);  

    2.     Class participation, reading reflection papers, online discussion questions (25%); 

    3.     Leading a one-hour class session that explores one particular theoretical approach and its application (25%); 

    4.     Analytical paper using a theoretical framework to analyze one aspect of the dissertation topic (40%).

Course Level
Course Open to
Students on-site
Remote students
Academic Year
US Credits
Course Code
ENVS 6001