Sustainable Development Goals through a Social Science Prism

Rosie Read


Earlier this year, I was pleased to receive a CEL Education for Sustainable Development award, in respect of a unit I lead entitled Globalisation and Marginalisation. I am a social anthropologist based in the Department of Social Sciences and Social Work in the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences. Over the years I have led it, this unit has grown substantially. It is now delivered to undergraduate students across six social science and humanities programmes in three different BU faculties.

This unit engages students in social science debates about contemporary capitalism as a world system, and the global interconnections which shape the social, economic and cultural contexts in which we live. This central aim is explored through various weekly topics including the nation-state, migration, culture, consumption, work and social movements. Students are invited to consider social science materials which explore the possibilities and challenges of achieving several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, notably decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), the reduction of inequalities (SDG10) and environmental sustainability (particularly SDGs 12 and 13).

My approach to teaching is to encourage students to critically evaluate these challenges as social and political problems. For example, students are invited to consider how far capitalist economic growth, on which so many jobs depend, relies on a global ideology encouraging permanent and unsustainable, consumption. If so, how might this be changed?

The last theme in the unit compares and contrasts movements for radical political change at the global level (e.g., anti-globalisation and environmental protest movements) with more moderate initiatives aiming to effect incremental change within existing economic and legislative structures (e.g., fair / ethical trading schemes and standards). Students are encouraged to evaluate the possibilities and limitations of each approach for mitigating the most egregious dimensions of global capitalism in respect of social inequalities and environmental sustainability. This year, students considered the merits of each approach in respect of climate change. I found this to be a rich topic. Students were highly receptive to, and engaged with, the question of climate crisis, which, thanks to protests such as Youth Strike for Climate, is now increasingly understood in terms of generational justice. I intend to expand this dimension of the unit in future.

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