Brian King


My research concentrates upon several topics, particularly the impacts of conservation and development in Southern Africa, social and environmental justice, and the intersections between livelihoods, health and environment. While the majority of this work has been completed in South Africa and Botswana, I also have research interests within the United States.  

Livelihoods, health and environment

The first primary research direction is an examination of the production of livelihoods and environmental change in the developing world. This work evaluates the relationships between health and environment, focusing in particular on the effects of HIV/AIDS upon social and environmental systems. This research is demonstrating that livelihood patterns and environmental systems are experiencing transformations in response to the onset of disease within rural households. Understanding the particular trajectories of these patterns is critical to ensure effective disease management and support sustainable responses.

To support this research direction, I am the PI on a NSF CAREER grant Political Ecologies of Health: Coupling Livelihood and Environment Responses to HIV/AIDS ($485,292, September 1, 2011 – August 31, 2016, GSS 1056683).  This CAREER program is conducting intensive research in South Africa over five years working in close collaboration with research institutes and governmental agencies. This research is specifically examining how livelihood systems adjust in response to HIV/AIDS, how livelihood responses to HIV/AIDS rework access patterns and the rules governing resource use, and whether intra-household and intra-community variations shape livelihood responses to HIV/AIDS. This work asserts that attending to health-environment interactions is needed to understand how disease results in transformations to social and environmental systems, and how these systems in turn shape the trajectories of disease and the possibilities for sustainable disease management.

Selected publications:

  • King, B. Under review. States of Disease: Political Environments and Human Health. Under contract with the University of California Press.
  • King, B. 2015. Environment and health. For The International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier.
  • King, B. 2015. Environmental health. For The International Encyclopedia of Geography. Wiley-Blackwell and the AAG.
  • King, B. 2015. Political ecology and human health. For Handbook of Political Ecology, T. Perreault, G. Bridge, and J. McCarthy (editors).
  • King, B. and Crews, K. (editors) 2013. Ecologies and Politics of Health. London: Routledge. Information on the book available at:
  • King, B. 2013. Disease as shock, HIV/AIDS as experience: Coupling social and ecological responses in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Ecologies and Politics of Health, B. King and K.A. Crews (editors)
  • King, B., and K.A. Crews. 2013. Future ecologies and politics of health. In Ecologies and Politics of Health, B. King and K.A. Crews (editors)
  • Crews, K.A., and B. King. 2013. Human health at the nexus of ecologies and politics. In Ecologies and Politics of Health, B. King and K.A. Crews (editors)
  • King, B. 2012.  “We pray at the church in the day and visit the sangomas at night”: Health discourses and traditional medicine in rural South Africa. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Health special issue 2012). 
  • King, B. 2011. Spatialising livelihoods: Resource access and livelihood spaces in South Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(2): 297-313.
  • King, B. 2010. Political ecologies of health. Progress in Human Geography 34(1): 38-55.

Conservation and development in Southern Africa 

The expansion of national parks and protected areas throughout the developing world raises political, economic and ethical challenges for balancing the often competing needs of biodiversity protection and economic development. My work demonstrates that there is measurable community variation in the perceptions and benefits arising from community conservation initiatives and other conservation models.  This research helps show that communities need to be socially and spatially disaggregated in order to understand the diverse impacts of community conservation.  More recently, I have been studying the political and economic impacts of transboundary conservation projects which are being advanced by various stakeholders through various ecological and economic discourses.

Although my research has concentrated upon South Africa, my interest in these themes extends to other areas. Working with Dr. Kelley Crews and Dr. Ken Young (both at the University of Texas), we are directing a research project in the Okavango Delta, Botswana to assess the social and ecological effects of environmental variability. The uncertainty in terms of the location and intensity of the flooding has significant implications for human populations dependent upon various resources for livelihood production. Additionally, competing resource pressures from state and non-state agencies, in conjunction with anticipated variability due to climate change, are reshaping social systems within the region.  This research project is supported by a National Science Foundation grant ($606,369, August 2010 – May 2014, GSS 0964596).

Selected publications:

Social and environmental justice

Colonial and apartheid governments utilized space to forcibly classify and regulate human populations throughout rural and urban South Africa. Central to this project were the bantustans, which were intended to become discrete territories for the majority African population. I have conducted qualitative and archival research in the former KaNgwane bantustan since 1999 to examine how social and environmental systems were discursively constructed by colonial and apartheid authorities. This work considers the relationships between society and space to evaluate how the geographies of apartheid remain relevant for local populations while simultaneously providing opportunities for change. My research demonstrates that the post-apartheid transition remains socially and spatially structured by historical spatial economies but is creating new opportunities and avenues for development agencies to pursue their particular goals. The dynamic reimagining that is occurring is generating often conflicting agendas for these territories that include nature tourism, sugar cane farming and livestock grazing being advocated as idealized development schemes. 

Selected publications:

Development theory and practice

The last major theme of my research is an engagement with the field of development studies to interrogate how development theory and practice shapes social and ecological landscapes within Southern Africa and elsewhere. Building upon this research, I am working to integrate space more directly into livelihood analyses and critical development studies.  Additionally, the ‘institutional turn’ within critical development scholarship is also of interest in order to understand how social networks advance particular ideas, and how these ideas become hegemonic at the expense of competing alternatives.

Selected publications


At Penn State I have taught Human Use of the Environment (GEOG 430), Geographies of Environment and Sustainability (GEOG 30), and Geographies of Justice (GEOG 497). In the future, I will offer undergraduate courses on health geographies, development studies, and environmental justice. My graduate courses concentrate upon political ecology and international development. 

Prior to arriving at Penn State, I taught several undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Texas, including:

  • Conservation (GRG 306)
  • National Parks and Protected Areas (GRG 336)
  • Sustainable Development (GRG 342)
  • Poverty and Environment in the Developing World (GRG 396)
  • Teaching Geography (GRG 398)

Graduate advising

Prospective graduate students who share similar research interests should feel free to contact me.

Research Interests

  • development
  • conservation
  • Southern Africa
  • cultural and political ecology
  • health
  • livelihoods
  • justice

Previous Appointments

  • 2004-2008, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography and the Environment, University of Texas-Austin
  • 2007-2008, Faculty Research Associate, Population Research Center, University of Texas-Austin


  • Ph.D. Geography with certificate in Development Studies, University of Colorado-Boulder, 2004
  • M.A. Geography, University of Colorado-Boulder, 1999
  • B.A. Environmental Studies with Honors, Bucknell University, 1995


Kayla Yurco, Ph.D. Geography (current)

Arielle Hesse, Ph.D. Geography (co-advisor with Dr. Melissa Wright, current)

Maureen Biermann, Ph.D. Geography (current)

Jamie Shinn, Ph.D. Geography (current)

Daniel Kunches, Ph.D. Geography (current)

Erica Hann, M.S. Geography (current)

Paul Shaffner, M.S. Geography (current)

Christopher Parrett, MGIS Geography (2014)

Patrick Hammons, M.S. Geography (2011, recipient of the E. Willard Miller Award)

Lauren Anderson, M.S. Geography (2011)

Chelsea Hanchett, M.S. Geography (2010, recipient of the E. Willard Miller Award and Political Geography Specialty Group Student Paper Award)

Zachary Hurwitz, M.A. Geography at UT-Austin, co-advisor with Dr. Bill Doolittle (2009)

 Marina Burka (Undergraduate Honors Thesis advisor)

Sean McGrath (Undergraduate honors thesis, 2010)

Allison Bullock (Undergraduate honors thesis, 2009) University Co-op/George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Student Award recipient, Rapaport-King Scholarship recipient, First author on  publication in Journal of Environmental Management

Kevin Kalra (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, 2007)

Kendle Wade (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, 2007) Plan II Model Thesis Recipient

Tuyen Lee (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, 2006)

Marlena Del Hierro (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, 2005) Rapaport-King Scholarship recipient

Alex Wagner (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, 2005)

Megan Chavez, (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, 2005)


Courses Taught

  • GEOG 497B: Geographies of Justice
  • GEOG 030: Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems
  • GEOG 497C: Health Geographies
  • GEOG 597: Political Ecology and Health
  • GEOG 430: Human Use of the Environment
  • Parks and People


Wilson Award for Excellence in Teaching 2015.

Recipient of the University of Texas Jean Holloway Award for Excellence in Teaching 2007.

Finalist for the University of Texas Friar Society Centennial Teaching Fellowship. 2007. 

Nominee for the University of Texas President's Associates Teaching Award. 2008 and 2007.