Political Ecology

Political Ecology is a transdisciplinary approach to study how nature-society relations evolve over time and across space. Acknowledging the complex nature of nature-society relations, political ecology draws on a rich theoretical and methodological portfolio from human and social ecology, anthropology, history, political science, sociology, and human geography.

Our empirical entry points are material and discursive struggles over environmental resource access, management and control. These struggles and conflicts over the environment and its resources (such as agricultural land, water, wildlife, fisheries, mines, forests, trees, parks) are politically, economically, culturally, and socially mediated. Due to the social, cultural, and political economic embeddedness of such conflicts, assessments (scientific, policy-related) of the state of environment are not politically neutral. That is to say, there are no objective ecologies, but all ecologies are political.

We are thus interested in understanding what kind of ecologies are produced in these struggles and how they are represented through science, popular discourse, social movements, and policies. Moreover, we are interested in understanding how these ecologies and their representations lead to often uneven economic development across time and space.

Thematically, we study political ecologies of nature/forest/wildlife/biodiversity conservation, rural and agricultural development, rural livelihoods and economies, water and land tenure governance, and climate change. Geographically we work in Switzerland, New Zealand, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Pakistan, and Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia.

For BSc and MSc students we offer courses and excursions in qualitative methods, human geography, environmental geography, political ecology, water geography, urban geography, economic geography, social theory, global development and change.


[Caption: Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Credit: Alex Wunsch]

Our research projects in Political Ecology

  • Politicization of park moralities in conservation projects in New Zealand

    The focus of this research project is to identify and understand the distinctive moral discourses embedded within the social and political negotiations that surround the development of conservation projects in the Abel Tasman national park. Building on Boltanski’s and Thèvenot’s orders of worth, this thesis aims to understand how moralities become politicized in conservation projects, and how these moralities shape the spaces and places being produced and re-produced in this park.


    Project funding: SNF, 152785

    Project members: 

    Timothy Tait-Jamieson, PhD candidate

    Prof. Olivier Graefe





    Project area

     New Zealand

  • Cooperatives and cooperation in rural Kyrgyzstan: competing subjectivities and reciprocities in post-socialist agrarian transformation.

    In this research project we investigate post-socialist rural transformation in Kyrgyzstan. Our entry point is in questioning the apparent “failure” of service and marketing cooperatives promoted by international development projects. Based on in-depth ethnographic fieldwork in a village in the northern region of the country, we examine how different local and external representations of cooperation are negotiated and re-articulated within existing local practices of reciprocity and collaboration in the quickly transforming context of post-independence Kyrgyzstan.


    Project fundingFond de Centenaire de l’Université de Fribourg

    Project members:

    Ottavia Cima

    Prof. Christine Bichsel





    Project area


  • Water, infrastructure and political rule

    This research explores recent developments in research on water, infrastructure and political rule. The relationship between modes of water governance and forms of political rule is a long-standing debate in the social sciences. Wittfogel’s (1957) postulated relationship between large-scale irrigation systems and the emergence of centralised bureaucracies, and possibly authoritarian rule, provided a critical impetus to this debate. While Wittfogel’s hypothesis of such a “hydraulic society” was met with much critique, his observation of a possible relationship between political organisation and water management has informed and is still informing much research in the field of water.

    At the same time, new concepts which do not draw on Wittfogel’s work to explain this relationship have emerged and shape research on water. This research takes stock, but also compares and contrasts recent approaches including Political Economy, Political Ecology, Actor-Network Theory, Social Construction of Technology, Large Technical Systems and Anthropology of Infrastructure which address the nexus of water, infrastructure and political rule.

    Project outputs:

    Bichsel, C., Mollinga, P., Moss, T. and J. Obertreis (guest editors). 2016. Special issue: Water, infrastructure and political rule. Water Alternatives 9(2). Link


    Bichsel C. 2016. Water and the (infra-)structure of political rule: A synthesis. Water Alternatives 9(2): 356-372. Link

    Project members:

    Prof. Christine Bichsel




    Project area

    Central Asia

  • Traditional Authorities in Namibia’s land governance: Seeking legitimacy in a context of legal and practical transformations

    This project establishes social and political implications of the Communal land reform policies in north-central Namibia. At the present, the Traditional Authorities are likely to be the most affected by the political negotiations of land. As the land governance field experiences a thorough turnover through the reshuffling of roles and connected rights and duties, they are required to re-stabilise their power position, not least with regards to land control. This context offers insight into the creation of new forms of legitimising practices and discourse, drawing on theories of Bourdieu, Turner, and Foucault. This thesis aims to establish a cross-scale image of interrelations between the national land reform narratives and socio-political dynamics on a local level. 


    2016 SNF Project : P1FRP1_168435

    2012-2016 SNF Project : FN 140433 Communal land reform in Namibia - Implications of Individualisation of land tenure

    Project members: 

    Laura Weidman

    Prof. Olivier Graefe




    Project area


Our team members in Political Ecology

Timothy Tait-Jamieson

PhD candidate

Office PER 14 - 3.333.1

+41 26 300 90 24


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