Skip to main content

Study information

The Geography of Monsters: Science, Society and Environmental Risk

Module titleThe Geography of Monsters: Science, Society and Environmental Risk
Module codeGEO3126
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Professor Stephen Hinchliffe (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

We live in monstrous times, in spatially complex predicaments. In the west, the world is arguably less dangerous than it was in the past but nonetheless is characterised by some as a risk society (Beck, 1992). Broadly, it is a society that is continuously and reflexively challenged by its own conditions. From dust clouds over Europe disrupting travel, to swine flu outbreaks challenging our health systems and foot and mouth disease devastating rural livelihoods, it is increasingly a world where there are contests over how to understand those challenges, how to assess their consequences, what risks can be tolerated and who can be trusted in the governance of science and risk? In this module we look at these kinds of monstrous problems and discuss how a geographical imagination can help us make sense of and critically engage with issues of science, society and environment. Monsters form the focal point for the cases and approaches that unify the module. From the global financial system to the industrial-agricultural complex, from socio-technical systems to climates and ecosystems, we can identify a series of ‘monsters’ or non-coherent assemblages that are characterised by their complexity and heterogeneity. The mixing of societies and technologies, cultures and natures, times and spaces, human and nonhuman calls for a form of learning that is post-disciplinary and for an understanding of how to live with complex others.

This is essentially a module which brings together insights from geography and STS (science, technology and society) and draws upon theoretical work in Feminist Science Studies, Sociologies of Scientific Knowledge and Actor Network Theory. Its empirical focus is largely in the sphere of environmental geography and politics.

The module assumes no prior knowledge, but study and writing skills developed in Human Geography or cognate social science / humanities disciplines and appropriate to the final year are essential. The module is inter-disciplinary.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module starts by broadly introducing what risk has come to mean, socially and technically. We then explore how social scientists have challenged expert understandings of risk and, in turn, the social understanding of expertise. Towards the mid part of the module we look at how this has shaped current approaches to science and its publics. In the latter parts of the module we go further to explore how risk currently works in society and how an understanding of modern monsters can inform new risk politics. Here we look at how risk intersects issues like security. The module is taught through exemplary case studies (from floods in urban areas to nuclear explosions, from emerging diseases to climate politics). You are encouraged to develop further cases and theoretical sophistication through guided and independent reading.

This module will aim to:

  • Investigate how different publics are formed and engage with science and risk
  • Understand how terms like risk, uncertainty and security become key means of interacting with social, economic and physical worlds.
  • Explore how and why technical understandings of risk tend to fail our monstrous assemblages
  • Describe and analyse the human and nonhuman geographies of non-coherent heterogeneous assemblages.

In terms of skills and employability, this module will offer you insights into a range of technoscience issues, equipping you with the analytical concepts and skills necessary to understand the increasingly complex relations between science and society. The aim is to train students “who will be able to take up the new cultural, political, economic, and organisational challenges posed by the increasing importance of the technosciences in our societies” (Callon et al 2009 page 4).

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Analyse the relationships between different ways of knowing risk and understanding environments
  • 2. Outline the limitations of a technical approach to risk in environmental problems
  • 3. Discuss the notion of risk society in relation to contemporary environmental issues

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Discuss the role of geography and a geographical approach in developing governance and /or politics of science and risk

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Communicate ideas and theories effectively and fluently using a variety of means
  • 6. Identify, acquire, evaluate and synthesise data from a range of sources
  • 7. Formulate and evaluate questions and identify and evaluate approaches to problem-solving
  • 8. Undertake independent/self-directed study/learning (including time management)
  • 9. Achieve consistent, proficient and sustained attainment
  • 10. Reflect on the process of learning and evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics:

Introduction to ideas and approaches to risk and the rise of monstrous issues

Understanding risks and risk societies

  • Risks and risk assessments and the limits to technical definitions of risk
  • Precautionary versus evidentiary approaches
  • Sociotechnical and technonatures, Assemblages and risk
  • Floods, diseases, new technologies and nuclear accidents

Securing monsters

  • Participatory democracy and science in society
  • Knowledge society versus risk society
  • New securities and emergence
  • Climate, GM, BSE, nuclear waste, emergencies

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching22Lectures and reading-related discussion
Scheduled Learning and Teaching11Reading-related discussion
Scheduled Learning and Teaching2Revision lecture
Guided Independent Study33Reading for class discussion
Guided Independent Study11VLE activities
Guided Independent Study40Essay planning and revision
Guided Independent Study31Wider reading

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Class discussion and feedbackWeeklyAllOral
Essay planning1 hourAllOral
Group presentation10-minute group-based design and presentation to classAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Examination502 hoursAllWritten and oral feedback via module convenor
Essay402000 wordsAllWritten
Group presentation106-10 minute presentation, and submitted slidesAllOral and annotated script on slides

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExaminationAllAugust Ref/Def
EssayEssayAllAugust Ref/Def
Group presentationIndividual Powerpoint slides and notesAllAugust Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination or submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society, London, Sage.
  • Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, NH, Duke University Press.
  • Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. & Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an uncertain world, Cambridge, Mass, The MIT Press.
  • Cooper, M. (2008) Life as surplus: Biotechnology and capitalism in the neoliberal order, Seattle
  • University of Washington Press.
  • Fischhoff, B. & Kadvany, J. (2011) Risk: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, London, Profile Books.
  • Hinchliffe, S. (2007) Geographies of Nature: Societies, Environments, Ecologies, London, Sage.
  • Lupton, D. (1999) Risk, London, Routledge.
  • Smith, K. 2013. Environmental Hazards: Assessing Risk and Reducing Disaster 6th Edition London, Routledge.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Risk, environment, science, society, uncertainty

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date