Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Dissertation Scratchpad: Best Intentions

So yesterday’s research meeting, aside from providing a number of comments that could be taken out of context in interesting ways, also provided some opportunity to me to revisit in a public forum the most unprofound of my research findings: the notions that (1) developers can in certain circumstances like particular kinds of regulation, and that (2) developers’ need to invest capital as older development fronts close off is a major factor in creating pressures to open new development fronts. The last time I posted on these issues, my questions were, essentially: Doesn’t everyone already know this? And: Do I have anything particularly new and interesting to say about this phenomenon, whether everyone already knows about it or not? These were, essentially, the questions I posed in my (impromptu and, I must confess, somewhat involuntary) presentation to the research meeting.

The presentation attracted a number of responses – some potentially quite useful and some, to be honest, fairly off-the-wall. I mean, it’s not every day that you point out that most people understand the term “capitalism” as, essentially, a synonym for the free market – and then have someone reply, “Oh yes – but all the people who think that are raving socialists!” Hmmm…

On the more useful end was advice that it might, in fact, not be completely and utterly boring and redundant to document developer attitudes toward regulation in a more systematic way, given what I would like to argue about presuppositions in the policy literature – that, perhaps, “everyone” doesn’t know this… And at least someone – “one” one, at least – could see the value in making this kind of argument. So perhaps that tangent stays in, and gets developed into something more systematic over the next several months… (Isn’t it a wonderful thing, how very little reinforcement it requires, when the issue involves convincing me to research something I want to research in the first place… I blogged a while ago on the concept of “ideological amplification” – a term that describes how people, when grouped with others with similar views, tend to reinforce and push one another toward more extreme views. A similar term might be required for what I am currently doing, which seems to be grasping for any view that could possibly reinforce my own predilections – perhaps “ideological desperation” will do…)

I also canvassed the “three communities” narrative – my, at this point still somewhat aimless, fascination with the different referents for the term “community” that crop up, particularly in community meetings. In the shorthand version of this narrative, I generally mention the “community” of the developers – a somewhat nostalgised image used for marketing purposes, and sometimes “bought” by families moving into the area; the “communities” of the folks who have actually been living in the area for some time – highly differentiated and local, simultaneously internally conflicted and cohesive, and often difficult for planners and developers to grasp because their boundaries don’t map well onto any administrative divisions; and the “community” of the planners – a hypothetical group of people who don’t yet exist, but in whose name planning decisions are routinely made (and who, to some degree, are also visualised as an entity created by those planning decisions).

Perhaps because I was speaking to a roomful of mainly-planners, it was the planners’ “community” that attracted the most attention on the night. The main question related to how sceptical I am about whether planners “really” care about bringing a particular kind of community into being, or whether the planners use the rhetoric of community as just some kind of ideological veil for more cynical goals. I have to admit, I get this kind of question a lot, regardless of what I’m researching – it’s a product of two dimensions that are reasonably constant in my work:

(1) I tend to take people’s stated ideals very seriously; and

(2) I don’t tend to use this as a foundation for an “unmasking” critique – I don’t, in other words, tend to spend a lot of time worrying about whether these ideals also serve to bring about results that favour particular individuals or social groups.

I want to be very careful what I mean here: I’m not unaware of how particular ideals might benefit particular persons – that would be negligent research. I just don’t believe this information is terribly illuminating for what I’m generally trying to understand, which is the qualitative character of the ideal itself, and the relationship of specific ideals to particular moments in history. To say this crassly: all human societies have power- and wealth-hording bastards, but those bastards don’t always justify their actions in the same ways. I’m interested in the question of why specific justifications arise when they do – why people find specific justifications compelling, and not others. I’m interested in this question, among other reasons, because I think it will give us a far better insight into the emancipatory potentials available to us, than an unmasking critique ever could…

This specific research interest lends itself to certain lines of inquiry that are probably a bit less available to people who focus on unmasking critiques: among other things, I can begin to consider the possible ways in which “false consciousness is also true” – the ways in which particular views, while they might also reinforce individual or group interest in specific ways, nevertheless cannot be explained solely with reference to the concept of “interest”, but must simultaneously be examined for their compatibility with other elements of the historical context. My research interests often open me to the possibility that people can – and, in my opinion, often do – manage to sincerely believe in the ideals they advocate. I think we handicap ourselves – particularly when thinking about political practice – when we fail to recognise the possibility for people to invest in a very uncynical way in political ideals (both ideals that favour their “interests” and, has received a great deal of commentary in the US recently, ideals that arguably don’t…).

I won’t belabour this point here – although I’m sure I will write more on the issue as I move into more intensive writing – but I did want to comment that I consistently receive the (to me) strange reaction that I am being “generous” in thinking this way – as if I am paying someone a compliment by taking their convictions seriously, rather than focussing on the ulterior motives purportedly lurking underneath. I find this strange in that I generally feel that the “unmasking” move of reducing ideals to interests is actually quite… idealistic at its core: it assumes that, at base, people are rational, and are invoking particular ideals only as a matter of personal convenience – that they could presumably be persuaded to cast these ideals aside if the appropriate incentive were provided. I’m not convinced that I can share this conviction that humans cannot become irrationally bound to their beliefs – and I’m certain I don’t share the tacit assumption that ideals can, in a sense, be randomly chosen, unconstrained by anything other than what would be most expedient to personal or group power…

At base, of course, it doesn’t necessarily matter to the argument I’m trying to make in the current thesis – my research interests allow me to take people at their word, so to speak: to take seriously their narrative of what they are trying to achieve, and to analyse why this narrative becomes plausible at a specific moment in time. Among those embracing or contesting any particular narrative, I would expect to find a continuum – from true believers, all the way through to cynical opportunists – all of them exercising an agency structured by what is historically plausible at a given moment in time.

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