On Wicked Problems

Here is the pre-production version of a paper just accepted for publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, entitled ‘The wicked city: Genealogies of interdisciplinary hubris in urban thought’. (You can access a PDF of the final draft here).

The paper is one, probably the last, output from ‘The Urbanization of Responsibility‘ project, supported by a Leverhulme Fellowship back in 2014-2016, but which lasted longer than the funding, as these things do of course. (If someone gave me another fellowship, I might have the time to sculpt the various urban-focussed things that have come out of that project into a coherent looking book. Probably won’t happen).

Here’s the abstract to this latest piece:

“Across multiple academic disciplines and fields of policy, cities are now ascribed wide-ranging task responsibility for addressing a wide range of global issues. This paper elaborates a genealogical mode of analysis for understanding the ascription of causal and practical responsibility to urban processes. This analysis is developed through a case study of the revival of interest in the concept of wicked problems. The paper pinpoints aspects of the original account of wicked problems that are crucial to appreciating the significance now played by this concept in discourses of metrophilia. The focus is on the specific sense of ‘wickedness’ outlined in this original account. The career of the wicked problems idea is reconstructed, with an emphasis on different views of expertise and how these are related to the changing status of the city in recent accounts of wicked problems. The paper identifies differences and similarities between the two prevalent ways in which the invocation of the concept of wicked problems is used to ascribe responsibility for shaping urban futures – a ‘taming’ perspective and a ‘sharing’ perspective. In concluding, it is argued that the career of the idea of wicked problems brings into view the constitutive link between generalised ascriptions of task responsibility to urban processes and a set of chronic concerns about the ambivalence of urban expertise.”

Book Launch: Housing in the Margins

I’m slowly catching-up with things I’ve missed over the last weird year-or-so, including the publication of books by people I used to know…

Below are details of an online launch event (tomorrow!) for a new book by Hannah Hilbrandt, Housing in the Margins: Negotiating Urban Formalities in Berlin’s Allotment Gardens. The event is organised by The Urban Salon. Amongst other things, the book works over debates about ‘Theory from the South’ and associated themes by making use of ideas developed in relation to informality in fields of ‘development studies’ and non-western contexts and seeing how they help make sense of things going on in Berlin.

Online Book Launch and panel discussion

Informality and housing precarity: Urban perspectives across North-South 

5pm UK time Wed 16 June 

For the zoom link and registration please visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/informality-and-housing-precarity-urban-perspectives-across-north-south-tickets-157588733143

The Urban Salon is delighted to host a panel discussion together with the Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU Berlin on the occasion of the launch of a new book from Hanna Hilbrandt (University of Zurich), Housing in the Margins: Negotiating Urban Formalities in Berlin’s Allotment Gardens. Inspired by concepts of informality which have been generated across the global South, the book develops new perspectives on practices of housing governance in Berlin through the twentieth century: normative judgements, room for manoeuvre and ongoing minor acts of negotiation add up to a way to mobilise the concept of informality as “routine enactments of rules and regulations”. The panelists will respond to Hanna’s detailed ethnography of the technically illegal use of allotment garden structures as dwellings in Berlin, both at times of housing crisis and on an ongoing basis.  

Hanna Hilbrandt is assistant professor of social and cultural geography at the University of Zurich. Her research explores marginality and exclusion in housing and urban development as well as socio-spatial inequalities in the context of global economic restructuring. 

Panelists are: 

Julie-Anne Boudreau (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) 

Francesco Chiodelli (Università degli Studi di Torino) 

Alex Vasudevan (University of Oxford) 

Respondents: Matthew Gandy (University of Cambridge) and Dorothee Brantz (Technische Universität, Berlin) 

Chair: Jennifer Robinson (University College London) 

For further details, and to subscribe to the Urban Salon mailing list, please visit http://theurbansalon.com/ 

The Right to have Rights after Brexit

Geography Directions

By Clive Barnett, Kuba Jablonowski and Sam Kinsley, University of Exeter

The United Kingdom’s formal departure from the European Union on 31st January 2021 involves the removal of rights of UK citizens to free movement and residence in EU member states. At the same time, for EU citizens already living in the UK, it involved the removal of their legal rights to residence previously assured by virtue of the UK’s membership of the EU. After Brexit, EU citizens already living in the UK are now subject to domestic immigration laws and border controls. In short, Brexit is an instance in which the fragility of the right to have rights is laid bare, precisely because it is a process in which the contingency of people’s status as bearers of rights is exposed to view.

The European Union Settlement Scheme (EUSS) is the policy framework and administrative procedure designed to transfer…

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The Afterlives of Theory: representing ‘the priority of injustice’

Academic work has a weird temporality to it, things develop slowly, research takes time, getting things published even longer. Having taken a long time to write, once published, books make their own way in the world. The post-publication pathways of The Priority of Injustice seem now to have now passed through the review stage. In addition to two ‘Author Meets…’ sessions now published in Political Geography and the AAG Review of Books, the book has been nicely reviewed by Alan Latham (who does raise the pertinent question of why people like me worry so much about traditions of thought that take no notice of the academic worlds which people like both of us actually inhabit) and Jean Carmalt (who compared the book to a Jackson Pollock picture, I think in a good way).

I now seem to be in the stage where I find myself speaking on behalf of the argument laid out in the book – representing it one might say. (If you’re keen, you can now watch me on YouTube talk to these themes at the CONGEO online meeting in December, the Conference on Political Geography, Geopolitics, and Territory Management, organised by Brazilian geographers).

The very first review of the book was written by Stephen Przybylinski, and last week I took part in a Zoom-mediated seminar organised by Stephen as part of the Just North research programme, a European-wide research network anchored at Uppsala University (amongst other things, the project has developed some excellent resources outlining the key aspects of different traditions of theorising justice). Along with Sophie Watson and Mustafa Dikeç, both ex-OU colleagues, I spoke about what I made of the idea of ‘spatial justice’.

Spatial justice is actually not a theme I have a strong attachment to: it’s one of a family of ideas around which justice-issues have been discussed in and around GeographyLand over the last three or four decades (One thought I floated during the seminar was that this particular strand of thought might have something to do with the coming-late to spatial theory in planning studies, where the influence of Lefebvre and ‘the production of space’ theme has been perhaps more singularly influential than in human geography). The discussion last week also helped clarify for me, at least, the degree to which ‘spatial’ in the formula ‘spatial justice’ refers not just to the idea that forms of inequality, or exploitation, or domination have spatial manifestations, but to the stronger tradition of thinking that the main task is to locate the root causes of these forms of harm – in the dynamics of ‘the production of space’, ‘the urbanization of capital’, ‘accumulation by dispossession’, perhaps even in the ‘constitutive movement of spatialization’ of political itself. Without rehearsing the argument all over again, the ‘priority of injustice’ approach outlined in the book and elsewhere addresses the limits of thinking that ‘critical analysis’ consists primarily of knowing about root causes. It directs attention instead to the variable geographies of claims-making processes, and in so doing it promotes a more pluralistic sense of what geographical vocabularies are good for in analysing political practices: from this perspective, there isn’t really anything interesting to say in an ontological register about space or spatiality (God forbid). [Gary Bridge’s work on ‘situational justice‘ has developed some of the implications of this way of ‘thinking spatially’].

The Priority of Injustice was presented as a prolegomena to a further inquiry, although I can’t say I had a clear sense of exactly what directions I would follow once it was finished. In amongst other things, my own sense of where further work, by me at least, developing the core themes of the book might lead falls into two areas:

First, it would be useful to actually flesh out the conceptual theme of the priority of injustice more fully – in my book, it was only the explicit focus of the final chapter, a kind of end point after journeying through various other issues in critical theory and democratic thought. The idea I was trying to capture, and name, is articulated in what one might think of as a minor tradition of political thought – perhaps inaugurated by Judith Sklair, although with antecedents in the work of Hannah Pitkin, Barrington Moore Jr, Elizabeth Wolgast, Anthony Woozley, and Edmond Cahn. There is also critical theory strand of thinking along these lines, including Nancy Fraser, James Bohman, Axel Honneth, Rainer Forst, but especially Iris Marion Young. And then there is Amartya Sen. That, roughly, is the three-way genealogy I sketched in The Priority of Injustice. There are important theoretical differences in amongst all those thinkers (some ordinary language philosophy, some third generation critical theory, some social choice theory). These differences are also evident in recent, more explicit attempts to elaborate on the priority of injustice theme (sometimes using that phrase, sometimes not – I’m doing the work of suggesting the associations): work by Eric Heinze, Francisco Blanco Brotons, Brunella Casalini, Vittorio Bufacchi, and Herbert Spiegelberg. Some of this recent work is more philosophical in orientation, even tending towards replacing theories of justice with equally foundational concepts of injustice; perhaps the more interesting strand is work that opens up the task of political theorising to more worldly, if not necessarily empirical, forms of analysis: this includes the work of Thomas Simon, picking up on Sklair’s provocations, and Michael Goodhart (as well as Sen’s The Idea of Justice). And all of this work might belong to an emergent shift of aspect, towards the analysis of ‘negative‘ phenomena such as evils, harms, injuries, vulnerabilities, and wrongs – not simply as unfortunate indications of ‘non-ideal’ situations, but as constitutive dimensions of normativity itself. Cora Diamond’s work, for example, would belong to that expanded field. (I’m just thinking aloud to myself now).

So, that’s one pathway worth pursuing – to see if it’s possible to elaborate some family resemblances across those overlapping strands of thought.

Second, it turns out that an empirical pathway for exploring the priority of injustice theme has opened itself up, which is nice. One thing that the idea of ‘spatial justice’ does indicate, like say the idea of racial justice, or environmental justice, or climate justice, is that issues of justice always arise in relation to some more or less substantive object – discussions about justice take on meaning in so far as they are about something, some issue of some sort. The ‘about-ness’ of justice isn’t incidental, merely practical or non-ideal, or a matter of application – it’s at the core of the type of conceptual priority flagged in the phrase ‘the priority of injustice’. Anyway, I now find myself working on a research project which investigates empirically the generation and processing of claims of injustice in relation to a specific field of contention, exactly the type of inquiry envisaged in The Priority of Injustice. This project looks at claims-making in the conjuncture of post-Brexit administrative reform and programmes of digital governance, taking as its empirical focus the politics surrounding the UK government’s European Union Settlement Scheme. One argument I have been proposing, in making representations on behalf of the priority of injustice, is that there is geography of claims-making that deserves more attention. This project isn’t, on the face of it, terribly geographical in its focus, not right now anyway, as we start out, but that might be an important methodological principle at play there – rather than setting off looking for certain sorts of spatial processes or practices, we might find it more fruitful to allow the geographies of this particular field of contentious claims-making to emerge through the process of inquiry.

Risk and Responsibility in Popular Responses to COVID-19

Geography Directions

By Nick Clarke, University of Southampton, and Clive Barnett, University of Exeter

In the UK as elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic raises a whole series of geographical issues, not least because of the centrality of explicitly spatial strategies adopted by governments in response to the virus. Broad policy directives that aim to change people’s behaviour have ranged from embodied practices of hygiene, to stay-at-home orders, national ‘lockdowns’, and regionally differentiated ‘tier’ systems. And these rules and regulations have carried different normative force, from recommendations (e.g. handwashing) and authoritative guidelines (social distancing) to legally enforceable rules (restrictions on non-essential movement outside the home). These strategies target spatially defined practices of mobility, interaction, and habitation – practices of home and work, commuting and travel, neighbourliness and family. It is these practices that constitute the spaces of encounter through which people engage with wider public discourses.

In our research project, Learning to…

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Place, Space and Politics Book Series

If anyone out there has an idea for a book that might fit the remit of the Routledge Research in Place, Space, and Politics Series, then do have a look at the instructions for submitting a proposal, or get in touch with me if you prefer. To get a feel for the range of issues and approaches covered in the Series, you can find a list of all the titles published so far here. And here is a reminder of the aims of the Series:

“The Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series offers a forum for original and innovative research that explores the changing geographies of political life. It seeks to draw into focus emerging interdisciplinary conversations about the spaces through which power is exercised, legitimized and contested. Titles within the series range from empirical investigations to theoretical engagements, and authors include scholars working in overlapping fields including political geography, political theory, development studies, political sociology, international relations and urban politics. The series seeks to engage with a series of key debates about innovative political forms, including topics such as transnational mobilization, global justice movements, global governance, the right to the city, the commons, new public spaces, cosmopolitanism, the digitalization of governance and contention, material politics, new localisms, and policy mobilities; and to address key concepts of political analysis such as scale, territory and public space. This series provides a forum for cutting edge research and new theoretical perspectives that reflect the wealth of research currently being undertaken around new forms of spatial politics.”

Algorithmic Politics after Brexit

So, it turns out that Kuba Jablonowski, Sam Kinsley and I have been successful in an application to the ESRC’s Governance After Brexit programme, part of the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) initiative, for a project entitled ‘Algorithmic politics and administrative justice in the EU Settlement Scheme’ (The EUSS is the UK government scheme designed to determine the post-Brexit UK immigration status of EU citizens and their families who are currently living in the UK under EU free movement law. One might think of the EUSS as a live experiment in how ‘the right to have rights‘ is being enacted in one contemporary context).

The project will run from the start of 2021 through to the end of 2023. Here’s a quick summary:

“The research aims to analyse the process of administrative reform associated with Brexit, and the intersection of this process with the digitalisation of administration and governance in the UK. It takes the evolution of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) as its empirical entry-point. By investigating how grievances and claims of injustice emerge from the operation of the EUSS and are monitored and challenged in the public sphere, the research will seek to understand how practices of administrative justice are reconfigured by the interaction of automated algorithmic systems with rights-based practices of monitoring, advocacy and litigation.”

Watch this space – I’m sure we’ll post further information as the project gets underway.

Researching Popular Responses to Covid-19: New Website

There is now a dedicated website for the ‘Living with risk and responsibility‘ project I am working on with Nick Clarke exploring popular responses to Covid-19, making use of Mass Observation materials generated this year. You can find it here: https://covidresponsibility.org/

Do let us know any questions or queries you might have about the project.

The Strange Case of Urban Theory

One of the last things I did before the start of the first lockdown was submit a paper for publication, something which now seems like a very old-fashioned thing; who knows, perhaps time will allow for that sort of thing again, one day in the future. Anyway, the paper is now published, online in advance, in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society: it’s titled ‘The Strange Case of Urban Theory’, and is part of a special issue soon to go live on the theme of ‘Urban and Regional Theory: Negotiating Generalisation and Particularity’. The paper is one of the outputs of the Leverhulme project on ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘ that I held, formally, from 2014-2016, but which of course still lingers in life and mind in various ways. It’s my effort to say something into the debates in and around urban studies about the geographies of theory, comparison, that sort of thing. And it was an opportunity to finally cite David Harvey’s Explanation in Geography, approvingly.

This is the abstract of the paper:

“Recent debates in urban theory have centred on the problem of whether universal concepts can have applications to particular places. These debates could benefit from more serious attention to how urban thought involves styles of analogical reasoning closer in spirit to casuistry than to explanatory theory. The difficult status of ‘the case’ in urban studies is explored through a consideration of different types of universality in this field, leading to a re-consideration of ideas of experimentalism and wicked problems. Further attention should be given to the multiple styles of reasoning through which urban knowledge is produced and circulated.”

Access to the published paper requires a subscription to the journal of course – send an email and I’ll send you a copy; or, you can access the final pre-publication version here.

Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

It’s not exactly good news to find out that you have been successful for a funding bid to do research on Covid-19 – it generates a rather ambivalent response, the usual sense of self-satisfaction that such news generates tempered, to say the least, by the situation that is its very condition of possibility. Anyway, I’m already over thinking things – Nick Clarke and I have been awarded funding under the British Academy’s Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, for a project entitled Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19. Nick is the PI on the project, which builds on his previous work using materials from Mass Observation to examine popular understandings of politics in the UK, and which arose out of conversations between us sparked by a blogpost I wrote just at the start of lockdown, which in turn was riffing off a set of conceptual themes from a research project from what nows seems like previous life that we worked on together, which investigated what we called ‘grammars of responsibility‘ in everyday life. At Exeter, the project is part of a wider set of humanities and social science projects on Covid-19 related topics, curated by the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health and The Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis).

Anyway, in place of a fuller explanation of what we are meant to do on the project, which I guess we’ll get to writing about sometime between exam boards and online pivots to blended enhancement, here is the short summary of the project:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in the UK have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and their role in complex chains of causation. We aim to investigate how citizens have engaged with these demands, with the objective of contributing to conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to emergency situations including future pandemics. Specifically, making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted sometimes conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.”