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A Turning Point for Planning Theory?: Overcoming Dividing Discourses


Communicative planning theory (CPT), which emerged in the 1980s and 90s, unsettled assumptions about what planning is, how it works, and how it ought to be done. It also challenged ideas about what theory should be for and what form it should take. CPT refers to the work of a cluster of scholars in planning and related fields who conducted fine-grained, interpretive research on planners and planning processes, using concepts from social theorists as tools to make sense of what they observed and to develop normative perspectives on practice. They focused in considerable part on communication, interaction and dialogue, and drew new theorists into planning thought, including most notably Habermas, Foucault, and Dewey. They wrote stories of practice along with reflections on them. While CP theorists each took a different angle, they became a community of sorts, sharing drafts of manuscripts, discussing ideas on panels and in personal correspondence, building their work on one another’s ideas.

As CP theorists proliferated, their work drew increasing attention in the planning academy. This came to a head in response to an article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (Innes 1995), which asserted that CPT could become the dominant paradigm in planning theory. A storm of criticism broke out, surprisingly not primarily from the rational model theorists whose work they had challenged, but from the political economists and neo-Marxists, whose work had also been an important part of planning thought since the 1960’s. Panels and conferences were set up to “debate” CPT and proceedings were published in journals. Writing articles critical of CPT became almost a cottage industry. Many of critics’ claims, however, were grounded in oversimplifications and misunderstandings of CP research and ideas. CP theorists continued to focus on their own work rather than responding to what amounted to attacks. The few who offered limited responses seemed unable to change the critics’ views. 

Today planning theory seems to have become a set of dividing discourses. People talk past one another. Blame, criticism, and incivility often crowd out scholarly dialogue and inquiry (e.g. Bengs 2005). Theorists are divided into camps, speaking in different languages to different ends. Students are often confused and frustrated, craving a way to make sense of the differences. While the brouhaha may have started as a war over turf and over which views will be dominant, the result today is that we as theorists have little ability to learn from our differences. The situation is neither conducive to constructive conversation, nor to building richer and more robust theory. The most difficult obstacle to such conversation is that the critiques have framed a set of dichotomies among perspectives, making them appear incompatible. 

Purpose and outline of the paper 

This paper takes on the project of helping the field move toward a common discourse through which we can explore and learn from our differences. We will not try to merge the perspectives—rather we will identify some of the tensions among them as evidenced by these dichotomies and use these as fuel for new ways of see our common enterprise. Along with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory (Bernstein 1976), we contend contradictions are normal and that we must not only accept, but also embrace them if we are to learn and move forward. Our situation is similar to that of physicists trying to resolve the contradictions between quantum theory and general relativity, where research shows mysteries and paradoxes. This situation offers an opportunity for learning and new discoveries which could transform our understanding of the universe (Overbye 2013). 

We have to learn to live with dualities in our constantly changing world. In this paper we will offer one way to do this using the lens of Castells’ theory of communication power (Castells 2009). We start with brief summaries of the critiques and of Castells’ theory. We then examine four contradictions that emerge from the critiques: community knowledge versus science; communication power versus state power; collaboration versus conflict; and process versus outcome. Finally we offer thoughts on how planning theory can move beyond dividing discourses to richer theory.

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