Geography and ethics: the last word

DSCF1152Better late than never, the third and final of my ‘progress reports’ on the theme of Geography and Ethics is now available on the Online First page of Progress in Human Geography. This one is sub-titled ‘From moral geographies to geographies of worth‘ (and was actually completed almost two years ago). It discusses various streams of contemporary social theory in which ‘normative’ questions are approached in more or less ordinary, non-moralistic ways. As I have said previously, I have a sense of these three reviews adding up to a single narrative of sorts, though I’m not quite sure I can now remember what it was exactly, without going back and reading them all in succession. I understand that the next set of reviews on this theme are going to be written by Betsy Olsen, who I’m sure will bring a fresh perspective.

Here is the abstract for my final piece:

“Geographers’ discussions of normative issues oscillate between two poles: the exhortation of ‘moral geography’ and the descriptive detail of ‘moral geographies’. Neither approach gives enough room for ordinarily normative dimensions of action. Recent philosophical discussions of the implicit normativity of practices, and ethnographic discussions of the ordinary, provide resources for developing more modest accounts of normativity and practical reasoning. The relevance to geography of recent re-evaluations of the place of reflection and thought in habitual action is illustrated with reference to the antinomies which shape debates about the ethics and efficacy of behaviour change initiatives. The potential for further developing these insights is explored with reference to the normative turn in contemporary social theory, which includes discussions of conventions, practices of justification, lay normativity, phronesis, recognition and orders of worth. The potential contribution of philosophies of action and intentionality and social theories of the normative for moving geography beyond the impasses of moral geography versus moral geographies depends on suspending an inherited wariness about the normative, which might be helped by thinking of this topic in more ordinary ways. The outlines of a programme for geographies of worth are considered.”

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.

Geography and ethics: placing life in the space of reasons

Following on from a recent post about the first of three progress reports on Geography and Ethics for Progress in Human Geography, the second of these is now published on-line here – it will be published in a print edition subsequently. This report considers the relevance to geography and cognate fields worried about ‘space’, which have tended recently to derive ‘ethics’ as a kind of excess from poststructuralized ontologies, of discussions amongst philosophers who don’t normally show up under the heading of ‘Continental Philosophy’, who have been busy debating issues of naturalism, intentionality, mindedness, embodiment, and normativity in interesting and challenging ways – thinkers like John McDowell, recently in debate with Hubert Dreyfus, Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, Stanley Cavell. This range of work focuses on the ordinary ways in which normativity inhabits and shapes our practices – so it overlaps in some interesting ways with the social theory projects of, for example, Andrew Sayer, Axel Honneth, and Luc Boltanski, and some others, floating around at the edges of geography debates, but again, not quite managing to become central to those debates – I’ll try to explain how and why in the final one of these reports, which I have to write later this year. And try to do so in about 3000 words. Here is the abstract for the second piece:

“Discussions of ethics in recent human geography have been strongly inflected by readings of so-called ‘Continental Philosophy’. The ascendancy of this style of theorizing is marked by a tendency to stake ethical claims on ontological assertions, which effectively close down serious consideration of the problem of normativity in social science. Recent work on practical reason emerging from so-called ‘Analytical’ philosophy presents a series of challenges to how geographers approach the relationships between space, ethics, and power. This work revolves around attempts to displace long-standing dualisms between naturalism and normativity, by blurring boundaries between forms of action and knowledge which belong to a ‘space of causality’ and those that are placed in a ‘space of reasons’. The relevance of this blurring to geography is illustrated by reference to recent debates about the relationships between rationality and habit in unreflective action. Ongoing developments in this tradition of philosophy provide resources for strengthening a nascent strand of work on the geographies of practical reason that is evident in work on ethnomethodology, behaviour change, and geographies of action.”

Whatever happened to social theory?

 I’ve just been reading the new book by Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People. It is a full-scale elaboration of the importance for critical social science of what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ – people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. Sayer thinks this aspect of life is systematically downplayed or misrepresented in lots of social theory. I think he is probably right about that. The notion of lay normativity was used in Sayer’s previous book, The Moral Significance of Class, and the project on ethical consumption that I have been working on, for it seems like ages, made use of what we at least understood this term to be getting at – the importance of giving credence to the evaluations of their own practices that people provide in social science encounters, not least as being able to tell us something interesting about how practices work. Here is the publisher’s blurb for Sayer’s new book:

“Andrew Sayer undertakes a fundamental critique of social science’s difficulties in acknowledging that people’s relation to the world is one of concern. As sentient beings, capable of flourishing and suffering, and particularly vulnerable to how others treat us, our view of the world is substantially evaluative. Yet modernist ways of thinking encourage the common but extraordinary belief that values are beyond reason, and merely subjective or matters of convention, with little or nothing to do with the kind of beings people are, the quality of their social relations, their material circumstances or well-being. The author shows how social theory and philosophy need to change to reflect the complexity of everyday ethical concerns and the importance people attach to dignity. He argues for a robustly critical social science that explains and evaluates social life from the standpoint of human flourishing.”

It will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, Sayer’s book gets in critical human geography. Once upon a time, when I was little, Sayer was one of the big names of Theory in geography, in the 1980s heyday of critical realism. Apart from forays every so often to call for more robust normative reflection in the discipline (most recently in Antipode), Sayer is much less of a presence now. He wrote an excellent book in the mid ’90s, Radical Political Economy: A Critique, which I remember Marxist colleagues being apoplectic about because it took seriously non-‘dialectical’ styles of social thought and made productive use of Adam Smith and Hayek.The style of theory that Sayer performs, with its close attention to argumentation, is rather uncommon in geography now. I’m not necessarily sold on all of Sayer’s arguments – I think, for example, that he might find more support for his broad thesis about human vulnerability and ethics in thinkers such as Levinas or Derrida, or for the importance of everyday attachments to things that matter in styles of cultural theory concerned with thinking about the ordinary, such as Lauren Berlant’s work; these are not traditions Sayer has much patience with. Genre blindness? But I think his diagnosis of the limits of current styles of critical thinking has a lot going for it – critical thinking does find it really difficult to give credence to ordinary dispositions as having value in and of themselves beyond their function in systems of discipline, as effects of subjectification, or as indices of unconscious dynamics, or at best residues of untapped resistance or invention.

I happen to think that Sayer over-eggs the normativity-is-important cake by insisting on making the argument with reference to ethical theories – there is a less explicitly ‘moral’ strand of philosophy concerned with rationality, reason, embodiment, and values that might inform the sort of reconstruction of social science Sayer recommends. I have been trying to write about these same issues in a rather more tentative fashion, for a series of ‘reports’ on ‘Geography and Ethics’ due to be published any time soon. The first deals with some recent accounts of justice; the second with some of the philosophy mentioned above, focussing on notions of practical reason [Sayer has lots of interesting things to say on this topic]; the third is still to be written, and will focus on the kind of social theories of value, normativity and justification that Sayer, amongst others, has been developing.