Environmental Social Science, PhD

Many people who care deeply about the environment continue to engage in harmful practices that degrade environments and produce an increasingly precarious way of life. If we are to address these contradictions, we must understand the social dynamics that are at the root of human-environmental interactions.

The Ph.D. program in environmental social science at ASU is one of the few programs nationally that focuses on the social dynamics of environmental issues. The program combines the insights, methods and theories of various disciplines, including planning, geography, anthropology, sociology and political economy, while focusing on a series of environment-related topics.

This degree was created because reducing human impacts and developing more sustainable environmental practices will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve unless we develop a fuller understanding of the social forces and dynamics that are at the root of human-environmental interactions. There is a pressing need for leadership in academic/teaching, research, government and NGOs to investigate, articulate and advocate transdisciplinary social science understandings of the environmental crisis. Thus, our program is designed to provide opportunities to engage in such transdisciplinary research.

Admission requirements include a bachelor's degree and training that combines some depth of understanding in the social sciences and awareness of and interest in a relevant scientific field.

We are very interested in graduate students who wish to work in two or more of these areas, in which we provide particularly strong graduate-level training:

  • urban environments + environmental justice studies
  • environment + health systems
  • geographic information systems + GIScience
  • political + cultural ecology research
  • hazards geography + vulerability studies
  • social network analysis in environmental research
  • archaeological studies + the deep history of environments
  • institutional analysis + mathematical modeling
  • environmental + resource policy analysis

Students work closely with their committee to develop a curriculum appropriate to their chosen interests and career goals. Coursework for the degree is focused on developing real-world skills and a solid grasp of complex concepts.

The ESS program allows students to tailor a doctoral program to their specific environmental research interests while participating in a core series of seminars designed to provide broad critical exposure to environmental issues using multidisciplinary social science approaches. This results in highly individualized and flexible training with a focus on real-world skills.

Our focus is on identifying the best ways to use the insights, methods and theories of various disciplines to identify and critically analyze contemporary environmental problems in order to identify solutions. Because ESS collaborates with faculty from a variety of disciplines, students will have a significant advantage over students restricted to a single discipline or academic department during the course of their education. With ESS, students are able to customize their education while receiving grounding in core research and theory foundations.

Students prepare to contribute professionally to environmental social science through positions in research, policy leadership and education.

If you want to develop a top-notch professional social science skill set, are driven, open-minded and willing to work as part of a collaborative team with the faculty and other students, this is definitely the right place for you. In this degree we train and professionalize you, not just provide supervision.

Arizona State University’s fast-paced, dynamic campus is an academically demanding environment and a vibrant laboratory that promotes adaptation, collaboration and innovation. If you find you like to do things only your way, need a lot of hand-holding or if you are focused more on the environmental part than the social science part, this program may not be the best fit for you.

The PhD in environmental social science requires a total of 84 credit hours. A previously awarded master’s degree in a related area can be used to satisfy 30 hours of this requirement. An additional 30 hours of coursework are required.

Students entering the PhD in environmental social science do so with diverse backgrounds and with varied career goals, so we recognize the need to be flexible in planning the most appropriate path for each student. Thus, curricular tracks will tend to be individualized and final determination of the most appropriate course of study or how each requirement should most appropriately be met is made by a student’s advisory committee in consideration of the research and career goals of the student.

Conceptual Domains (6 credits)
Two course surveys of the conceptual domains of environmental social science, required for all students.
ESS 501: Environmental Social Science: Theory and Practice I (3 credits) 
ESS 502: Environmental Social Science: Theory and Practice II (3 credits)

Topical Foci (9 credits) 
Three courses covering the methods and theories of the topical foci of environmental social science. 
ESS 510: Urban Environments (3 credits) 
ESS 511: Origins and Consequences of Technologies (3 credits) 
ESS 512: Landscapes (3 credits) or an approved alternative in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning 
ESS 513: Institutions, Society and the Environment (3 credits) 
ESS 514: Health and the Environment (3 credits) (cross-listed with SSH)

Research Design and Proposal Writing (3 credits) 
One course, with the specific focus based on the student's interests and research plans. 
SSH 603: Research Design and Proposal Writing in Social Science and Health (3 credits) 
ASB 591: Research Design and Proposal Writing in Anthropology (3 credits) 
Or another approved alternative.

Technical Expertise (6 credits) 
Two courses that provide intensive background in some area of science relevant to the student's research interests. A wide range of courses can satisfy this requirement, depending on the student’s background and interests and committee approval. Examples include courses in mathematical modeling, physical geography, population ecology or epidemiology.

Electives (6 credits) 
At least two courses relevant to the student’s research interests and educational needs. 
Electives include courses in many fields. Students are encouraged to propose to the executive committee additional courses from any ASU unit as possible electives.

Research and Dissertation Hours (24 credits) 
ESS 792 (12 credits) 
ESS 799 (12 credits)

Photo of Shauna BurnSilver

Environmental Social Science Program Director
Shauna BurnSilver, Assistant Professor
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity

Photo of John Anderies

John (Marty) Anderies, Professor
Professor & Graduate Director, School of Sustainability
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
Associate Director, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment

Photo of Michael Barton

Michael Barton, Professor
Director, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Affiliated Faculty, Center for Evolution and Medicine

Photo of Bob Bolin

Bob Bolin, Professor
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Photo of Christopher Boone

Christopher Boone, Professor
Dean, School of Sustainability
Affiliated Faculty, School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning

Photo of Alexandra Brewis Slade

Alexandra Brewis Slade, President's Professor
Co-Director, Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions
Distinguished Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Evolution and Medicine

Photo of Michelle Hegmon

Michelle Hegmon, Professor
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Photo of Daniel Hruschka

Daniel Hruschka, Associate Professor
Associate Director
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Evolution and Medicine
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity

Photo of Jonathan Maupin

Jonathan Maupin, Associate Professor

Photo of Christopher Morehart

Christopher Morehart, Associate Professor
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Photo of Margaret Nelson

Margaret Nelson, President's Professor
Associate Dean, Barrett Honors College

Charles Redman, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History & the Environment
Founding Director, School of Sustainability

Photo of Sander Van Der Leeuw

Sander van der Leeuw, Foundation Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change & School of Sustainability
Distinguished Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Institute of Sustainability
Director, Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, ASU-Santa Fe Institute
Co-Chair, Complex Adaptive Systems @ASU

Photo of Amber Wutich

Amber Wutich, Professor
Director, Center for Global Health
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Evolution and Medicine

Photo of Abigail York

Abigail York, Associate Professor
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

While this program is housed within the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, it involves more than 30 faculty from numerous schools, centers and departments across the university.

For a list of affiliated faculty, please see the Graduate Faculty page and select the appropriate degree from the drop-down menu.

The environmental social science program offers concentrations in urbanism and complex adaptive systems science.

For information on the application process, deadlines and funding, please see our Graduate Admission FAQs.

 

Q: What is the environmental social science (ESS) PhD degree? 
A: This degree was created because reducing human impacts and developing more sustainable environmental practices will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve unless we develop a fuller understanding of the social forces and dynamics that are at the root of human-environmental interactions. There is a pressing need for leadership in academic/teaching, research, government and NGOs to investigate, articulate and advocate transdisciplinary social science understandings of the environmental crisis. Thus, our program is designed to provide opportunities to engage in such transdisciplinary research.

Q: What makes ESS different?
A: The ESS program allows students to tailor a doctoral program to their specific environmental research interests while participating in a core series of seminars designed to provide broad critical exposure to environmental issues using multidisciplinary social science approaches. This results in highly individualized and flexible training with a focus on real-world skills.

Our focus is on identifying the best ways to use the insights, methods and theories of various disciplines to identify and critically analyze contemporary environmental problems in order to identify solutions. Because ESS collaborates with faculty from a variety of disciplines, students will have a significant advantage over students restricted to a single discipline or academic department during the course of their education. With ESS, students are able to customize their education while receiving grounding in core research and theory foundations.

Q: Who is the ideal ESS PhD student? 
A: If you want to develop a top-notch professional social science skill set, are driven, open-minded and willing to work as part of a collaborative team with the faculty and other students, this is definitely the right place for you. In this degree we train and professionalize you, not just provide supervision. Arizona State University’s fast-paced, dynamic campus is an academically demanding environment and a vibrant laboratory for demanding adaptation, collaboration and innovation. If you find you like to do things only your way, need a lot of hand-holding or if you are focused more on the environmental part than the social science part, this program may not be the best fit for you.

Q: What type of graduate-level training will I receive within the ESS degree?
A: A few areas of faculty expertise at ASU where we provide particularly strong graduate-level training for this program include:

  • Urban environments and environmental justice studies
  • Environment and health studies
  • Geographic information systems and GIScience
  • Political and cultural ecology research
  • Hazards geography and vulnerability studies
  • Social network analysis in environmental research
  • Archaeological studies and the deep history of environments
  • Institutional analysis and mathematical modeling
  • Environmental and resource policy analysis

We are very interested in graduate students who wish to work in two or more of these areas.

Q: What faculty will I work with?
A: The degree is administered by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and leverages ASU’s campus-wide strength in environmental issues, with over 30 faculty from a broad range of environmental fields, including human and physical geography; cultural, medical and environmental anthropology; community resources; demography; geographic information systems; urban planning; public affairs; environmental sociology; and mathematical modeling. ASU is also home to numerous environmentally focused research projects and centers, affording students opportunities for direct research experience. Please see http://graduate.asu.edu/graduate_faculty and select our degree from the drop-down menu for a complete list of faculty.

Q: What career is this ESS PhD suited for? 
A: Essentially, the application of the degree is similar to any social science PhD. About 70 percent of our students intend to pursue academic careers, mostly as professors in transdisciplinary programs like this one, in which they will be doing research and teaching university students. Other students plan to use the degree to move into leadership positions in NGOs, government agencies and research positions in environmental fields.

Q: What degree will I graduate with?
A: A PhD in environmental social science.

Q: What are some of the baccalaureate degrees of current ESS PhD students? 
A: Our students come from areas such as anthropology, design studies, political science, communications and geography, but you can enter the PhD with an MA in a relevant field or directly from a bachelor’s degree. We generally recommend that people have a master’s degree in a relevant field before they join the program, and this is looked upon favorably in the selection process. Students entering with a background in the social sciences usually find the transition easier than those entering from the biological or ecological sciences. For those with no social science background, we highly recommend taking some key social sciences courses at the graduate level before you apply (e.g., social theory, social research methodologies, human geography, environmental sociology, political ecology), and to have completed a master’s degree.

Q: Can I talk to someone about the program? 
A: Yes, we have a full-time student support specialist dedicated to our graduate programs. She can guide you through the process, refer you to others on campus as needed and answer or further research all of your questions. She can be reached at shesc.grad@asu.edu.

Degree Offered

Environmental Social Science, PhD
Liberal Arts & Sciences, College of

Location
Tempe

Plan of Study

The Plan of Study is the required curriculum to complete the program.

View Plan of Study