Undisciplining political ecology

Book bloc
Travel Between the Pages
An invitation to unlearn the disciplinary boundaries of academia and 'to build collectives of care rather than mere departments'.


A couple years ago one of us was teaching a graduate course in Political Ecology and gave students papers to comment on. One of the papers was from a feminist scholar and had a very personal approach. The students’ reaction was very interesting: they were totally sympathetic but did not know what to do with that paper, how to report on it, what points to take home from it.

This story suggests that scholars are so used to the academic writing style with all its rules that we have lost our ability to relate to and build upon something that does not obey academia's disciplinary rules. 

Visit the Undisciplined Environments website. 

It seems that we are not able to learn from something that does not fit into the usual template through which we produce and transmit knowledge.

Militant knowledge

This awareness caused us some sense of trouble. It is a well-known fact that Political Ecology (PE) originated outside academia, as a militant form of knowledge, with the aim to change the world rather than just understand it; an aim that has persisted over the years and can still be found in most PE academic writing.

And yet, we found ourselves uneasy with the contradictions that we experience in practicing PE. Having managed to enter the academic fortress, we can now propose unconventional readings, but there is nonetheless some dissatisfaction in this accomplishment - the feeling that we did not take the Winter Palace of academia, after all, and perhaps it is the Winter Palace that has taken us.

Perhaps, we thought, in the process of entering academia, Political Ecology has tried too much to ‘validate’ itself as a discipline (practicing multi-, inter- and even trans-disciplinarity) rather than discrediting the idea of ‘discipline’ itself.

We began to reflect on discipline and indiscipline in PE, building upon the galvanizing experience we had shared – together with a larger group of like-minded colleagues and friends in the European Network of Political Ecology (ENTITLE) project – in organizing the Undisciplined Environments conference (Stockholm 2016), and by the enthusiastic response that our call had received.

That experience pushed us to take undisciplinarity seriously as a tool for practicing Political Ecology.

Collective subversion

Opening the black box of undisciplinarity, however, we soon found ourselves overwhelmed by a number of questions: what are the risks of such a style, and is it even just that? What to do with data, or evidence of any sort? Is ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘validation’ possible, or even important in an undisciplined approach? Where does the meaning of the personal or emotional life? Does undisciplining feel like ‘liberation’ or does it urge for ‘freedom’? Does it have a programme or purpose, or is it merely a subversive critique? Are we talking about different methodologies, different theories, or different stories? Is undisciplinarity something you are or something you do? How can we not conflate it with creativity/innovation?

We are still on a quest for understanding what an undisciplined article should look like. We feel all the irony and perhaps the inconsistency of disciplining our quest for undisciplinarity.

More than simply writing differently in academia, we are interested in how to escape an academic canon that feels at least boring if not oppressive. Instead of looking for undisciplined ‘models’ – i.e. trying to discipline undiscipline – we stay faithful to May 1968 as a democratic collective subversion of orthodox authorities, ideological, scientific or partisan.

There are various ways to do so. Concepts such as ‘narrative’ or ‘cognitive’ justice would not have emerged if it wasn’t for certain minds to release themselves from certain canons and to think and invent new theories that speak to their new encounters with different realities, often expressed by un-recognized ‘authorities’ in testimonies, biographies and other self-ethnographic exercises.

In our understanding and experience of undisciplinarity, the personal has been crucial. Building upon feminist practice and theory, we believe that there can be no liberation without starting from the self, acknowledging our own positionality, and work to free our minds.

We realize that in the process of becoming ‘academics’, we, as persons, are often lost. This text thus represents a call for scholars to connect their own struggles with broader struggles, to build collectives of care rather than mere departments, to investigate ourselves as researchers.

Existential choice

We offer here a list of thoughts that came to mind while trying to think of what undisciplined might mean in practice.

They are not organized in a theoretical argument of any sort, but simply fleshed out and exposed as ‘food for thought’ in a metaphorical convivial gathering of people who share concerns with the need for undisciplining academia.

Undisciplinarity is not primarily or necessarily a rational choice, it comes from your personal story, from conditions not of your own making.

At the same time, undisciplining ourselves is an existential choice. It means to interrogate what the disciplined self does to our relations to others, to the world, to what we study. And it means undoing it.

  1. To be undisciplined requires (self) training because we are trained to be disciplined. It is not a matter of doing something different. It implies to question our identities.
  2. The personal is always gendered, could not be otherwise: gender is involved in all we do and are as social beings, even when we naturalize it. It may seem trivial, but this still forms the basis of undisciplining academia.
  3. To be undisciplined has something to do with being opened or exposed; one cannot be undisciplined without risking to be off guard. In a way, the primary way to be undisciplined is to be naked, metaphorically, without the usual academic protections.
  4. Being undisciplined does not require you to get expelled from academia. Camouflage can also be a form of undiscipline. Navigate the disciplinary canon in order to sabotage it can be as efficient as openly rejecting it.
  5. Undiscipline can be an esthetic choice, it can be a divertissement or an academic experimentation. Our proposal is to build a politically committed undiscipline, one which rejects the disciplinary code because incompatible with a revolutionary agenda aiming to produce new socio-ecological relations.
  6. Undiscipline is an individual choice but with a strong empathic component. A truly undisciplined scholar supports every colleague who is struggling to free themselves. The short-term aim is to form autonomous undisciplined academic communities, connected with each other. The long-term aim is to free academia from oppressive practices.
  7. Undiscipline cannot become a new discipline. The experience of environmental history and political ecology demonstrate that also a potentially undisciplined field can easily establish its own canon.
  8. Being undisciplined includes in itself a move towards disobedience. One must transgress somehow in order to be undisciplined.
  9. Being undisciplined implies having fun.
  10. Being undisciplined is a process of liberation, not a line to include in your CV. One will never be completely undisciplined and will continue to navigate between the canon and the autonomous zone, exchanging also with the disciplined academic system and with the disciplined self.


Oppressive disciplinarity

We feel that being undisciplined in academia could be part of a wider social purpose of radicalizing and transforming our way of thinking politically about the socio-ecological conditions of human and non-human existence.

There can be many forms of undisciplining scholarship, ways of practicing it that challenge the oppressive disciplinarity of neoliberal academia.

Could these different praxes come together as part of a wider Undisciplined Zone of Academia (UZA), like a Zapatista experiment?

These Authors

Marco Armiero is an environmental historian and political ecologist. He is the director of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. Stefania Barca is a senior researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, where she teaches a graduate course in Political Ecology and coordinates the Oficina de Ecologia e Sociedade. Irina Velicu is a political scientist working on socio-environmental conflicts in post-communist countries at the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. 

This article was first published on the Undisciplined Environments website

Image: Book Bloc, Travel Between the Pages


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.