Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)


Department: Geography


Type Open Level 3 Credits 10 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • Any Level 2 GEOG module.


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To critically explore the historical development of the notion of the ‘human,’ its inclusions and exclusions, and to examine how these relate to the politics and practices of humanitarianism.
  • To introduce students to debates in the academic fields of legal geography and socio-legal studies as they relate to political geography, with a focus on international humanitarian law, human rights law and the laws of war.
  • To develop with students their theoretical and conceptual understandings of humanitarianism including its moral, legal, political, military and philosophical underpinnings.
  • To apply these conceptual and theoretical understandings to critically engage and reflect on contemporary global events where the human or humanitarianism are at stake.


  • To be human is to suffer. Yet the question of what to do about human suffering is at once moral, political, economic and—overwhelmingly—urgent. In a globally connected society, at any given moment, we are confronted with the knowledge of the immensity of that suffering. And often in that knowing, we are also compelled to act.
  • This module takes up the question of who is included in the category of human. We will explore the historical articulations of the human/ humanity as these relate to suffering, violence and deliberate harm, and consider how the category of the human has animated a particular form of concern, attention and action: humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is commonly understood as the neutral and independent provision of assistance, care and relief to those in imminent danger. Its very premise is underwritten by ideals of a universal humanity and an ethos of empathy and compassion. However, such ideals and ethos themselves draw on unequal valuations of lives. In the realm of practice, humanitarianism often engages in forms of governance that depoliticize (and perhaps even contribute to) the causes and perpetuation of human suffering. How are we to make sense of these contradictions?
  • This module explores the theories and histories that inform humanitarianism; examines the historically and geographically contingent development of norms and legal instruments governing humanitarianism, the conduct of war and the treatment of refugees; and asks how the conditions of humanitarianism’s initial articulation continue to reverberate through practices that value human lives differently. We will explore concrete instances of humanitarian practices and interventions through conceptual lenses drawn from moral and political philosophy, history, anthropology, black feminist thought, sociolegal studies and (human!) geography. Case studies explored in the module may include: the instrumentalization or appropriation of humanitarian assistance in conflict (Biafra, Ethiopia, Sudan), international responses to genocide / ethnic cleansing (Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Myanmar), the differential treatment of civilians/combatants/displaced people in diverse conflicts (Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Ethiopia), as well as responses to human/natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • On successful completion of the module students:
  • Will gain an in-depth understanding of the historical contingency and exclusions of definitions of the human in relation to foundational theoretical, political and legal texts
  • Will be able to demonstrate a grasp of international legal frameworks, and their practical operation as these relate to humanitarianism and the human.
  • Will be able to identify and critically evaluate a range of conceptual approaches to the study of humanitarianism.
  • Will be able to identify defining moments in which what humanitarian means has been (re)articulated, and their significance.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • On successful completion of the module students will be able to:
  • Demonstrate a conceptual and critical understanding of humanitarianism and the human
  • Critically engage with geographical, socio-legal and other critical approaches to humanitarianism
  • Apply theoretical and conceptual insights into humanitarianism and the human to analyse historical and/or contemporary events
Key Skills:
  • At the end of this module, students are expected to be able to:
  • Demonstrate clear and effective academic written and oral communication skills including: engaging in close reading and collective discussion of texts, presenting an analysis of texts or events to an audience, producing reflective and persuasive writing, and engaging with each other’s work in a constructive manner.
  • Demonstrate an ability to reflect critically on information from a range of sources including international treaties, academic texts, governmental reports, grey literature, data repositories, news media, and film.
  • Demonstrate an ability to synthesise information and to develop an argument in relation to contemporary issues and problems

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • • Lectures will present central (academic and political) debates in the field and provide illustrative case studies. The first four lectures will be paired, with each pair followed by discussion- based seminar. The first pair of lectures will introduce students to the concepts, theories, and philosophical underpinnings of humanitarianism and the human, while the second pair will explore the role of the law in humanitarianism. The final three lectures will consider selected case studies, both historical and contemporary.
  • Seminars will centre guided small group discussion to allow students to work through theoretical understandings introduced in lectures and readings, to apply such understandings to contemporary examples, and receive formative feedback.
  • Oral presentations and peer-feedback in the workshop will allow students to hone core skills in presentation, argument building, constructive ways of engaging in peer critique, and to receive and offer formative feedback.
  • The coursework asks students to explore the relationship between understandings of humanitarianism and the human in relation to an independently chosen case study. Essay plans will receive formative peer-to-peer feedback during the Project & Peer Review workshop in week 10. Summative essays will be assessed for critical understanding of concepts, debates and approaches to the study of humanitarianism, critical thinking, independent empirical research and synthesis, the development and evidencing of persuasive arguments.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 7 Varies 2 hours 14
Seminars 2 Varies 2 hours 4
Project & Peer Review Workshop 1 Varies 2 hours 2
Preparation & Reading 80
Total 100

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5 x sides of A4 100% None

Formative Assessment:

Peer presentation of essay plan In-Class week 10 Formative feedback will be provided throughout the module, especially during the seminars and workshop where students will be expected to prepare in advance and reflect during their interactions with staff and fellow students. The seminars and workshop seek to cement theoretical understanding of key module themes, and offer students the opportunity to offer and receive peer feedback on their preparatory work for the summative

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University