Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Departing the Text

My research team presented today to the management group of the local Council whose strategic and sustainability planning staff were a major force in putting together the grant application that funds our research, wrote the actual parameters for the individual PhD projects, and continue to provide ongoing funding and practical support for our work. The other Council staff have been less closely involved with the project, and have become increasingly curious about these mysterious researchers who periodically pop out of their archives, only to skuttle away when they have collected a bit more data. Today’s presentation was intended to bring some of these other key staff members up to date on our project.

I actually wrote a presentation for the event. I don’t usually do this, because I don’t like looking away from an audience while I’m speaking to them, and I do like making judgments on the fly about what’s working and what isn’t, and changing the content of what I’m presenting so that I minimise the number of blank or sleepy faces looking back at me. As it turns out, having a written talk didn’t change this much – I think I might have read the first sentence before I… departed the text.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d post the written version of the talk here (I can’t post the version I actually presented, because I have no precise memory of what I said…). This talk is obviously written for a non-academic audience and, since I wrote it, I’ve been trying to decide whether I agree with it, or whether the process of trying to translate what I do into a very different language has sufficiently alterred the meaning that I can’t properly defend the work.

Ironically, the part that I can defend least is the factual description of my PhD project as set out in the grant. Now, this description isn’t wrong: the grant does perceive that planning theory should be seen as a kind of structure-agency standoff. But I personally don’t find this to be the best way to describe the state of the literature and, if I weren’t providing background on the grant to one of our funders, I would probably use a different theoretical frame.

The discussion of the relation of philosophy to practice I do believe – but only if you understand “practice” in a very specific (and somewhat counter-intuitive) way. This problem is magnified by the actual examples of “practical things” I discuss during the talk, which are not, by themselves, the sorts of evidence I would use for the sorts of conclusions I draw during the talk… I also feel a bit of a twinge for not nodding to figures like Hacking and Rorty, to whom I owe a substantial debt for this way of speaking about the relationship between practice and the emergence of new philosophical categories. But I’m also not sure that they would appreciate this level of bastardisation of their ideas…

In any event, the (undelivered) talk is pasted below:

My talk will be a bit different from the others, in that I won’t spend a lot of time talking about my research methodology – although I’m happy to speak about the “mechanics” of my research in the question and answer session. In this talk, however, I want to focus on something more basic: I want to address the question of how an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant – the sort of grant that is designed to fund applied and practical knowledge, rather than “pure” research – should come to have a philosopher and social theorist attached to the project.

The grant that funds our research – a grant that was largely written by Council planning staff – stipulates that at least one of the research projects should devote itself to an essentially philosophical task: the grant points to a divide in the planning theory literature – one of those dramatic academic divorces that appears to result from the conceptual equivalent of irreconcilable differences – and asks whether there is some way to bridge this divide. In this case, the divide is that between “communicative” planning theories – which tend to explore the potential for new forms of choice in the planning process – and “structuralist” planning theories – which tend to explore constraints that limit the choices we can make in the planning process.

Philosophers often approach this kind of problem as a conceptual one, believing that, if only we could think about the problem more clearly – develop more powerful concepts, approach the issue more rationally – we could resolve the underlying philosophical dispute.

My training, however, teaches me to approach philosophical work in a slightly different way – to explore the possibility that our key conceptual problems are, at base, practical problems – that we can’t think our way past the core conceptual problems, because we haven’t yet figured out how to act our way past the core practical problems.

When you approach philosophical problems in this way, it changes the nature of philosophical work: it turns philosophy into an empirical discipline, links it with more traditionally empirical disciplines such as history or sociology, and makes it possible for philosophy to contribute to a research project such as this one, which focuses on applied knowledge.

Approaching philosophical work in this way, I hoped to explore whether the planning and development process in Whittlesea suggests ways that we might begin to resolve some of the practical problems that have made it so difficult, I believe, for us to bridge some of the great conceptual divides in the planning theory literature.

When I first began my work on this project in early 2005, I noticed that the theme of the upcoming Whittlesea Community Festival was “Bridging the Gap”. This theme seemed auspicious to me, in light of my research task, and I decided to attend the festival. As it turns out, this community festival, which provided some of my earliest impressions of Whittlesea, was in fact a rich source of material that suggested that a dramatic practical reconciliation is underway in Whittlesea – that governments and developers here are engaging in a range of eclectic practices that demonstrate how it is possible to “bridge the gap” between practices and concepts that would have seemed irreconcilable, only a short time before.

Let me provide a couple of concrete examples.

One of my first impressions from the festival came from VicUrban’s marquee for the Aurora development. When I approached the marquee, VicUrban’s public relations staff were gathered around a scale model of Aurora’s first stage, pitching the Aurora philosophy that a greenfield suburban site could embody the principles of sustainable development. VicUrban staff described the third pipe water recycling system, the transport-oriented nature of the development, and other environmentally-friendly features, fully expecting that these features would be selling points to interested passers-by.

Now, to generate “buzz” around its marquee, VicUrban had also sponsored an adjacent stage, with performances of different kinds scheduled throughout the day. As I approached, a singer set up on the stage, and began to perform Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. So I was treated to the sight of a state development company promoting its flagship greenfield development, with its sponsored artist performing under a large VicUrban/Aurora banner directly adjacent to the marketing staff, singing: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone. They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

In many ways this is a priceless image – memorable, certainly, but also philosophically significant, in the sense we’ve just discussed.

The first thing that struck me about this event was that, while the performance seemed unintentionally ironic, it was not interpreted by the VicUrban staff, or by the curious potential customers who continued to gather around the marquee, as a protest or a deliberately critical act. VicUrban staff didn’t appear nervous that the performance might cause potential customers to have second thoughts about living in a greenfield development on the outer urban fringe; potential customers were drawn by the performance, and apparently saw no conflict in staying on to ask questions about Aurora, Stage One.

This calm reception suggests the degree to which some level of “environmental” commitment has percolated well into the mainstream, such that “environmental” features in a home or a neighbourhood can become one goal that consumers seek, along with other goals such as affordability or safety or community. This background level of mainstream environmental awareness is often criticised by activists who are seeking more dramatic transformations – but this criticism shouldn’t distract us from the importance of the gradual historical transformation that has generated a broad consensus that environmental issues deserve sustained consideration from governments, private industry and the general public. This transformation now places us in the position where we can argue over whether environmental issues receive sufficient priority – which, from an environmentalist’s point of view, must be a far better position than having to debate whether environmental issues deserve consideration, full stop.

On another level, the very existence of a developer like VicUrban suggests how far we’ve moved, in practical terms, from the battle lines that were drawn during the crisis of the welfare state in the 1970s and 1980s, when questions were first raised in a concerted way about whether private industry could provide a better model for the provision of some traditionally public services. It is easy to forget how unthinkable it seemed, to combine public and private service provision in the various and creative ways that we now routinely combine them. Early concepts of how to respond to the crisis of the welfare state were often all-or-nothing affairs: either the bare bones state, with the maximum possible privatisation of service provision, or the perpetuation of the welfare state along the lines of the post-war model. Since that time, through the sorts of compromises and innovations into which we are inevitably forced when old practices are poured into new circumstances, we have taught ourselves that more options were available to us – that there could be more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our philosophy.

So the close observation of practice shows the philosopher what is possible. This gives you an idea of what you can do for me – what I will learn from the close observation of Whittlesea. But what does the philosopher contribute to the process? Can you potentially learn anything from me?

Perhaps. I have argued that practice shows us what is possible – it therefore makes new concepts available, and concepts, being promiscuous things, can spread far beyond their points of origin and transform other practices in turn. Philosophers have a role in this process – experimenting with new concepts, exporting them to places far removed from where they originated, helping to expose the reach and define the limitations of new ideas.

Philosophers also have a role, I believe, in helping us evaluate the lessons we have taught ourselves through our practice. For, while practice teaches us that something is possible, the fact that we can do something, doesn’t mean that we ought to do it, or that a particular practice is the best possible form of practice available to us at the present moment in time. Philosophers can therefore translate the traditional philosophical problem of what is good and what is true, into the task of analysing whether we are fully exploiting the best possible concepts and practices available to us. It is in this sense, I believe, that philosophy properly takes its place as an applied discipline.

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