Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Arrested Development

So I’m in the process of trying to organise the material I’ve collected thus far, with the goal of focussing my remaining empirical research to fill in gaps in arguments I actually plan to make in writings related to my research grant (as opposed to my standard mode of operation, which is randomly to pursue whatever interesting material happens across my path when I’m in the field…). I particularly need to make some targeted decisions about what to do with some interesting tangents that have come up during interviews and observations that were primarily designed to capture other things: which tangential material should I leave to one side? Which material should I try to make more robust through some more rigorous research targeted to the tangent? Which topics should be addressed on a theoretical level via secondary materials, with perhaps the occasional illustrative use of field material for… local colour?

The first pruning decision I need to make, I think, involes a set of random quotations that, to me, cast interesting light on how developers understand capitalism in practice. Thus far, I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time observing developers in the area, and have done a scattering of formal interviews. The purpose of this research, however, has been either (1) to fill in some gaps in the documentary material on the history of the planning and development process, or (2) to get a sense of how developers are trying to differentiate their projects from others in the very competitive residential housing market created by the proliferation of development fronts in the Whittlesea area. [I should note, before a wandering supervisor discovers this post and panics, that this is not the sum total of the research I have done: I am outlining only the rather small dimension of the project that has specifically tried to test a rough historical reconstruction of the planning and development process by soliciting corrective feedback from selected developers.]

Along the way, though, I’ve stumbled across occasional comments that are interesting on a different level – mainly because they cast light on a practical understanding of structural constraints that, to my mind, often aren’t sufficiently recognised (although there are of course exceptions – David Harvey comes to mind for my first point below; Weber is the obvious point of reference for the second…).

The first set of comments have fallen out of formal interviews on the history of the planning process in the Epping North and Plenty corridors. I’ve had a couple of individuals mention in passing that the push to open new development fronts is driven, not by the conventional notion of demand in the housing market, but rather by the completion of older development fronts, as this places pressure, particularly on large developers, to find somewhere else to invest capital for a return. On one level this is a fairly obvious point – and yet it’s an obvious point that connects with some very interesting theoretical issues relating to how you define capitalism and understand the sorts of social pressures that generate the dynamism of this social form. …I think… It certainly allows for a discussion of factors that drive urban expansion that are more “structural” – moving beyond traditional class-based or social-exclusion oriented political economic theories. It also allows a nice problematisation of some populist economic conceptualisations of supply and demand. So my thought is that it could provide an “in” to differentiate some of my concepts from other narratives that are perhaps a bit more familiar…

Yet, as far as I can tell, absolutely no one is interested in this issue. Broaching the subject sends even my supervisors into instant fits of narcolepsy – and they’re actually paid to be interested in my work… So perhaps this point is just too obvious… Alternatively, perhaps I’m not communicating why this obvious point nevertheless has interesting theoretical implications… I’m not sure, and I don’t particularly know how to become sure at this point.

Methodologically, if I do want to keep this concept, I have a few choices: if the concept seems problematic (i.e., if it’s an account of the development process that seems likely to feel counter-intuitive to readers), then I may need to do some simple, targeted interviews with developers to confirm that this is a common perception of what drives development. I’m not sure, though, that the basic concept will seem that counter-intuitive: my guess is that this sort of understanding of what drives the development process is one of these things that people actually do generally know – they just don’t realise that the various theories they then use when they write about development don’t actually allow them to make sense of this knowledge… (If this sentence seems very murky, I’ve written on this basic issue as a recurrent problem in my research… The post I’m pointing to may not be any less murky, but will at least communicate that I routinely operate in this kind of gloom…)

If the concept does seem relatively intuitive, then I may not specifically need to direct much additional research energy into the issue – there may be some potential to have some additional discussions with a few more developers, just in order to get a sense of the range of ways in which different people discuss the issue. This material would then be essentially illustrative – a way to concretise points that would probably otherwise be articulated with reference to a rather abstract literature.

All of this assumes that the basic point is not too soporific to include…

The other set of comments that falls out of occasional interviews and observational work is the notion that at least some of the developers and consultants working in the Mernda Strategy Plan area, specifically, claim to have chosen the area because of the highly developed, and therefore predictable, regulatory environment created by the rather extensive local Council planning process. These comments interest me for the way they could be played off against a popular policy rhetoric about government needing to get out of the way of capitalist enterprise – as a way into a discussion of the ways in which regulation is itself “structured” by the quite specific need for predictable business environments that enable rational calculation of costs and a level playing field for competitors…

While the underlying argument can be made fairly easily, I think, on a purely theoretical level, but as an empirical claim about developers’ conscious opinions about regulation, it’s probably a bit more problematic: developers are in intensive and ongoing negotiations with the local Council, and have a strong incentive not to be too critical of the underlying regulatory approach to an itinerant PhD student who plans to publish their words… At the same time, for various reasons I won’t outline here, I would expect that a more neutral sampling of developer opinions would yield at least some voices that would be much more critical of the local regulatory environment. If, that is, this is an issue that developers would be inclined to discuss at all – although I suspect I could work around this problem – there are a few potential indirect paths into what I want to know…

But I don’t know if it’s worthwhile gathering specific data on the issue. I could establish the basic point, if needed, via a social theoretic literature review – and I don’t specifically think that local interview material will make any claims more empirically robust (although interview material is much more likely to lead me to a narrative that can be followed by people who might have little interest in a purely theoretical discussion of the issue).

Again, though, this material doesn’t seem to interest anyone except me… Too obvious? Unclear why anyone should care? Not sure… I always seem to start in conceptual places that cause people to invest in that extra cup of espresso, before turning and saying something like, “But don’t you really want to write about power?”

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