2014-2015 Geography Courses
Geographies of Inequality: Planning and Politics in New York City
This course will explore the ways in which cities are built, used, and changed by both policy makers and popular movements. Using the New York Metropolitan Area as the primary case study, we will look at the city as a dynamic, disputed space—a place where social, political, environmental, and ideological differences are expressed in both the formal political sphere and in the politics of everyday life. This course will take us into the halls of city government, the offices of city planners, the homes and workplaces of New York residents, and the streets used by all. Throughout the course and through various lenses, we will constantly ask ourselves, “How are inequalities produced and contested in an urban environment?” To answer that question, we will study the city’s historical, contemporary, and future development, looking at both the hard infrastructure (such as transportation and waste management systems) that make the city work, as well as the soft infrastructure (such as planning and development policies) that shape its growth. Through various case studies—from the challenges facing Chinatown to the politics of affordable housing—we will look at the planned roots of urban inequalities, the constituencies that benefited from these policies, and the popular movements that have challenged them. We will take field trips to the city to experience the geography of inequality firsthand, taking in the landscapes as we learn about the history. In conference work, students will be encouraged to pursue one of two tracks: (1) focus on one particular expression of inequality and develop a historical analysis of how it was created, maintained, and contested; or (2) focus on one particular neighborhood and demonstrate how planning and popular movements have shaped the urban environment. As a component of conference work, students will have the opportunity to connect with local community organizations that are dealing with the subjects being studied. In addition to learning from their examples, students will be encouraged to share with these organizations the results of their research. Students are greatly encouraged to utilize the college’s new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab and capacities to develop maps that demonstrate their theses over time and space. Students will also be encouraged to attend the Geography Film and Lecture series in which course-related topics will be addressed.
Mapping the World? Critical Cartography and GIS for Social and Environmental Justice
A region, country, state, city, or even neighborhood cannot easily be described by “factors” (rage, age, income, etc.) despite the efforts of sociologists, policy makers, and geographers to do so. Instead, the world exists as complex sets of social relations of power: relationships between people, places, the movement of capital, and the struggles against exploitation. Maps do not naturally lend themselves to explorations of these social relations; however, maps do provide insight into the conditions in which we live, work, and reproduce ourselves and one another. Maps also tell very convincing stories by appearing objective. They even produce new realities: borders, fears, and even nations. Maps can provide tools to support movements for liberation and can also reinforce dynamics of oppression and exploitation. Maps can influence perspective, policy, and grassroots activity in a variety of ways, both through the conscious efforts of the mapmaker(s) and through the implicit power relationships shown (or left out of) maps. Maps can reveal the inherent contradictions in capitalist society. Perhaps most importantly, maps provide inroads for asking questions about the world around us, up to and including: What is space? In this course, we will explore the power of, as well as the problems with, mapping for social and environmental justice. Through a variety of case studies, we will learn how to use ArcGIS specifically and how to apply this use to a number of topics. Maps are also pieces of art. They are representations of the world around us; as such, we will also examine social and political aesthetics. Students will be encouraged in their conference work to think about a spatial phenomenon related to social and environmental justice and to think beyond the technology of Geographic Information Science (GIS) to the role and responsibility of maps and spatial science. Students will be encouraged to explore the production of the world itself through the lens of a particular social struggle. Students taking any one of the three geography seminars offered in the fall semester are especially encouraged to continue their conference work in this course through the medium of GIS and creation of visual representations and analyses.
The Political Ecology of Global Land Grabs: Food, Resources, Environment, and Development
Global land grabbing is in the news daily, but what is behind the headlines? Why are land and resource grabs important? How can we understand the role that they play in the rapid transformation of environments and peoples’ livelihoods around the planet? How might the many destructive aspects be challenged or changed? What is the relationship between land grabbing and hunger, climate change, growing inequality, poverty, and cultural and environmental destruction? And, of course, who benefits and loses most from the current waves of dispossession underway? This seminar is about land grabs and, in particular, its rapid increase around the world in the last decade. As such, we ask a number of additional questions: How and why do land grabs happen? Which information about them is heard and attended to, and which is not? What role does science play in predicting and assessing the impacts? How are certain styles of development and development paradigms deployed to either promote or counter land grabs? Who are the major actors and institutions actively involved—from nation-states to hedge funds to international environmental NGOS to sovereign wealth funds to transnational corporations? How do they justify the various forms of dispossession and loss of control over land and resources that communities around the world face daily? What are the historical antecedents that might inform our understanding of these processes from enclosures of commons to decollectivization to privatization of public spaces? How are government policies promoting or regulating land grabs? What is the role of social movements in challenging them? We start with a historical review of the struggle over land, and how this has shaped environment-development discourses, revealing competing approaches to key contemporary issues related to land grabs such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, sustainability of agriculture, population, food security, poverty alleviation, energy, community-based natural-resource management, environmental violence, and environmental and social justice. While largely focusing on the Global South—with reference to Asia, Latin America, and Africa—and policies driven by international institutions such as the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as dominant nation-states—such as the United States, China, Japan, and members of the European Union—the seminar will also draw upon examples from the Global North. We then move to epistemology and theory building in the social and environmental sciences. We examine diverse and contested approaches—from social theory to political ecology to political economy—that are being used to analyze land grabs. We discuss power and the construction of our knowledge of these processes of dispossession at international, national, and local levels. We will then explore these varied approaches to analysis with an eye toward identifying appropriate methodological means to assess land grabbing in practice. In our final weeks, we will examine the controversial efforts for reform and accountability—and associated movements for increased participation and democratization in decisions affecting control of land and resources of all kinds—as we creatively approach the essential question of what is to be done. There will be a number of sessions involving group presentations, debate, and role-play on specific case studies and issues. Conference work will be closely integrated with the themes of the course, with a two-stage substantive research project focusing on an analysis and critique of an instance of land grabbing of the student’s choice (usually grounded in texts but also involving fieldwork, where feasible, over October Study Days). The intent will be to provide inputs for chosen actors—from social movements to NGOs to market actors and formal policy makers. As such, project presentations will incorporate a range of formats, from traditional papers to multimedia visual productions. Prior experience in the social sciences is highly recommended though not required. Advanced first-year students are welcome to interview.
The Geography of Contemporary China: A Political Ecology of Reform, Global Integration, and Rise to Superpower
Despite widespread daily reporting on China’s rise to superpower status—and both its challenge to and necessary partnership with the United States—what do we really know about the country? In this seminar, we will explore China’s evolving place in the world through political-economic integration and globalization processes. We will consistently focus our efforts on reframing debates, both academic and in mass media, to enable new insights and analyses. We will begin with an overview of contemporary China, discussing the unique aspects of China’s modern history and the changes and continuities from one era to the next. We will explore Revolutionary China and the subsequent socialist period to ground the seminar’s focus: post-1978 reform and transformation to the present day. Rooted in the questions of agrarian change and rural development, we will also study seismic shifts in urban and industrial form and China’s emergence as a global superpower on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy. We will analyze the complex intertwining of the environmental, political-economic, and sociocultural aspects of these processes as we interpret the geography of contemporary China. Using a variety of theoretical perspectives, we will analyze a series of debates: Is there a fundamental conflict between the environment and rapid development? What is the role of the peasantry in the modern world? What is the impact of different forms of state power and practice? How does globalization shape China’s regional transformation? And, on the other hand, how does China’s integration impact development in every other country and region of the world? Modern China provides immense opportunities for exploring key theoretical and substantive questions of our time. A product first and foremost of its own complex history, other nation states and international actors and institutions such as the World Bank, transnational corporations, and civil society have also heavily influenced China. The “China model” of rapid growth is widely debated in terms of its efficacy as a development pathway, yet it defies simple understandings and labels. Termed everything from neoliberalism to market socialism to authoritarian Keynesian capitalism, China is a model full of paradoxes and contradictions. Not least of these is its impact on global climate change. Other challenges include changing gender relations, rapid urbanization, and massive internal migration. In China today, contentious debates continue on land reform, the pros and cons of global market integration, the role of popular culture and the arts in society, how to define ethical behavior, the roots of China’s social movements—from Tian’anmen to current widespread social unrest and discontent amongst workers, peasants, students, and intellectuals—and the meaning and potential resolution of minority conflicts in China’s hinterlands. Land and resource grabs in China and abroad are central to China’s rapid growth and role as an industrial platform for the world. But resulting social inequality and environmental degradation challenge the legitimacy of China’s leadership like never before. As China borders many of the most volatile places in the contemporary world and increasingly projects its power to the far corners of the planet, we will conclude our seminar with a discussion of security issues, geopolitics, and potential scenarios for China’s future. Throughout the seminar, there will be comparisons with other areas of the world within the context of the broader theoretical and thematic questions mentioned above. We will consistently focus our efforts on reframing debates, both academic and in mass media, to enable new insights and analyses. Weekly selected readings, films, mass media, and books will be used to inform debate and discussion. A structured conference project will integrate closely with one of the diverse topics of the seminar. Some experience in the social sciences is desired but not required.