Planning and Critical Theory: Opening up Political Possibility (1)

This is a first of a series of posts that is going to examine the theme of urban critical theory, planning, and political possibility.  In this first post, I want to take a quick look at the interpretation of Habermas’s communicative theory by John Forester. Many planning theorists have addressed Habermas and effectively created a new “paradigm” of planning theory, communicative planning theory (CPT). Although there are numerous problems, critiques and uneasiness with this theory, even in Habermas’s original conception, the breadth of literature addressing this theory points to its important and attractive qualities. Forester is particularly fond of this theory for its ability to address power and to act in a critically pragmatic way. Forester thinks of organizations in terms of their productive (legitimacy, authority, etc) and their reproductive capacities (inclusion/exclusion, renewed membership, etc), and the strategies organizations and their members use to reproduce beliefs, consent, trust, and attention in highly politicized contexts.  He explains that critical theory highlights the questions of the maintenance and vulnerability of hegemonic power.  In the following quote from his book, Critical Theory, Public Policy, and Planning Practice: Toward a Critical Pragmatism,  he digs into the benefits of critical theory concerning power in organizations:

” A critical account of organizing lead us directly to a dialectics of power and resistance: power exists as a social relationship reproduced by concrete actions. Power, too, has its limits its vulnerabilities. If we can investigate how the reproduction of power as hegemonic patterns of attention, for example, can be itself vulnerable, we would be able then to inform possibilities of resistance to various forms of domination. Furthermore, if policy making shapes our political future, in part by restructuring the political and administrative organization of schools, hospitals, relief services, banks, regulatory agencies, and so on, then the theory of communicative action should inform our understanding of the political significance of various policy proposals and alternatives” (Forester 1993:11).

It is this sort of use of communicative action and critical planning theory which might be beneficial, even if it is somewhat flawed. Critiques of CPT highlight the problems of the “ideal speech position” which I agree seems strange, yet the idea of highlighting power dynamics grounded in relationships of domination-oppression, then perhaps there is some value in this theory. I am not so quick to dismiss CPT as others may be, yet I do understand its limitations.


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