CPT879 - Researching Sustainability

SchoolCardiff School of Planning and Geography
Department CodeCPLAN0
Module CodeCPT879
External Subject CodeX210
Number of Credits20
Language of DeliveryEnglish
Module Leader Dr Andrea Collins
SemesterSpring Semester
Academic Year2015/6

Outline Description of Module

The module is organised in two parts.  Part A provides a generic introduction to and an overview of social science research methods for planning.  Part B provides skills and contexts in subject-specific epistemological paradigms, methodologies and methods. 

Part A of the module will provide the opportunity for students across all courses to attend ”Master-classes” from experts across the School of Planning and Geography in particular methods, techniques and perspectives.

For Part B of the module, students will acquire skills that are particularly relevant to the sustainability field, on (i) how and whether to make sustainability ‘measurable’; (ii) the basic methodology for Ecological Footprinting; (iii) the scope for using Focus Groups; and (iv) how to undertake a Documentary Analysis . The module is specifically designed to assist students in designing an effective MSc-level dissertation.

Together, Parts A and B of the module give students a robust post-graduate-level understanding of the tasks involved in undertaking pure and applied research in the field of environmental policy and sustainability.


On completion of the module a student should be able to

Part A – in respect to research in general

  1. critically assess alternative approaches to social research and to recognise their strengths and weaknesses;
  2. examine the empirical content and relations of ideas introduced in other modules;
  3. identify suitable methodological approaches for a given research question;
  4. understand the epistemological principles (theories of knowledge) that govern the activities of social research;
  5. critically examine different strategies of data presentation and analysis;
  6. develop a dissertation project and conceptualise and plan the research process and its component steps;
  7. apply skills in selected methods relevant to a postgraduate dissertation.

 Part B – in relation to sustainability and environmental policy studies: 

  1. understand the purposes and problems of contrasting approaches to knowledge production in the environmental sphere, including approaches that take ‘objective’ approaches to sustainable development and those that treat it as a contested concept
  2. make good decisions about whether, how and how far environmental sustainability can be made measurable
  3. understand how, and under what conditions, environmental knowledge impacts upon decision-making
  4. understanding Focus Groups and assessing their use as a method for researching public awareness and concerns on sustainability related issues
  5.  understand how Documentary Analysis is undertaken and used to assess documents and strategies on sustainability related issues.

How the module will be delivered

Part ‘A’ will be delivered by lectures supported by ‘masterclass’ workshops on particular research designs and methods. 

Additionally, students will be required to attend four from a choice of research methods masterclasses delivered by experts from the field. For illustrative purposes in the past these have included the following:  

Part ‘B’ will be delivered by a combination of lectures, seminar discussions (including use of previously circulated reading), group work exercises and a computer-lab session involving the use of Footprint ReporterTM an online carbon and ecological footprint software.

Skills that will be practised and developed

Whilst studying this module, students will practise and develop a number of skills.  Students will learn to identify the relative merits of contrasting epistemological and methodological perspectives on the research process.  They will learn when and how to use different research methods.  They will develop skills in ideas generation and in the identification of a researchable topic.  Students will also develop skills in writing research proposals and undertaking literature reviews.  Whilst not actually carrying out independent research in this module, students will be given the necessary skills to design and implement a piece of research on their own.  

For Part B, students will acquire skills that are particularly relevant to the sustainability field:
•    how and whether to make sustainability ‘measurable’; 
•    the basic methodology for Ecological Footprinting, and use of software to calculate footprints; 
•    the use of Focus Group discussions in sustainability related research; and
•    the use of Documentary Analysis in sustainability related research.


How the module will be assessed

Research Proposal - 100%

The opportunity for reassessment in this module

Students are permitted to be reassessed (usually once) in a module which they have failed, in line with course regulations. The reassessment will usually take place during the summer.

Assessment Breakdown

Type % Qualifying Mark Title Duration(hrs) Period Week
Written Assessment 100 N/A
Research Proposal
N/A 1 N/A

Syllabus content


This section should provide a descriptive outline and summary of the topics to be covered during the module. This should distinguish clearly between mandatory content and areas where students may choose between options or develop their own topics.

Part A of the module will begin by introducing students to the epistemological bases of social science research for “planning” (in its widest sense) and, after C Wright Mills, introduce the “planning imagination”.  This part of the module will then go on to outline the dominant research traditions in the social sciences and explain how these are intimately linked to choices made at each stage of the research process.  The connections between epistemology, methodology and method are established here.  The logic of enquiry for undertaking effective research is then explained along with an introduction to using quantitative methods, qualitative methods, mixed methods, case studies, secondary, documentary and archive research, visual research methods and field observation/ethnography.  This part of the module concludes with discussions on data analysis and presentation.

Part B offers a tailored suite of classes designed to explore research issues especially relevant to environmental problems and sustainability debates. Five additional two-hour sessions will be provided, as follows:

•    Positivist and constructivist approaches to sustainability research: managing the contested nature of sustainable development productively and choosing the right approach for your project. 

•    Rendering society-environment relations researchable – what can we measure, and what are the risks? 1: lessons for survey design.

•    Rendering society-environment relations researchable – what can we measure, and what are the risks?  2: understanding Ecological Footprinting, and how knowledge impacts on decision-making.

•    Researching consumers: understanding Focus Groups, and their use as a method for researching public awareness and concerns

•    Analysing documents: understanding Documentary Analysis, and its use as a method for analysing documents, strategies and reports.

•    Coursework Workshop: to support students in completing their coursework, students will be given the opportunity to review and discuss a selection of research proposals submitted by previous students. 

Essential Reading and Resource List

For Part A:

Bryman, A. (2012) Social Research Methods (4e) Oxford OUP.
Franklin, A. and Blyton, P. (eds.) (2011) Researching Sustainability: a guide to social science methods, practice and engagement.  London.  Earthscan.
Hennick, M (2011) Qualitative Research Methods.  London.  Sage.
May, T. (2011) Social Research: Issues, methods and process (4e).  Maidenhead.  OUP.
Silverman, D. (2010) Doing qualitative research: a practical handbook (3e).  London.  Sage.
Singh, K. (2007) Quantitative Social Research Methods,  Thousand Oaks, Sage.

For Part B:

Collins A, Cowell R, Flynn A (2009) “Evaluation and environmental governance: the institutionalisation of ecological footprinting” Environment and Planning A, 41 (7), pp1707-1725.

Collins A & Flynn A, (2007) ‘Engaging with the Ecological Footprint as a Decision Making Tool: Process and Responses’, Local Environment, 12 (3), pp295-312.

Collins A, Flynn A, Wiedmann T & J Barrett (2006) The Environmental Impacts of Consumption at a Subnational Level: The Ecological Footprint of Cardiff, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 10 (3), pp1-16.

Collins A, Flynn A, Munday M & Roberts A (2007) ‘Assessing the Environmental Consequences of Major Sporting Events: The 2003/04 FA’, Urban Studies, 44 (3), pp1-20.

Collins A, Flynn A, Wiedmann T & J Barrett (2006) ‘The Environmental Impacts of Consumption at a Subnational Level: The Ecological Footprint of Cardiff’, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 10 (3), pp1-16.

Evans A. B, & M. Miele (2012) ‘Between food and flesh: how animals are made to matter (and not matter) within food consumption practices’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30, pp 298-314.

Franklin, A and Blyton, P (2011) Researching Sustainability: A Guide to Social Science Methods, Practice and Engagement Earthscan, London

Sonnino, R (2014) The new geography of food security: exploring the potential of urban food strategies,  The Geographical Journal, doi: 10.1111/geoj.12129.

Background Reading and Resource List

Not applicable

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