18 January, 2016

CFP- RGS-IBG - Be constructive! Situating sustainability research between positivism and reflective positionality

Proposal for a paper session at the Annual Conference 2016 of RGS-IBG, London, 30 August – 2 September, 2016

Constance Carr, University of Luxembourg
Markus Hesse, University of Luxembourg

Sustainable development remains a powerful concept across European and global fields of policy-making. Spurred by the all-encompassing threat of climate change, the rhetoric of a great transformation successfully occupies current policy and practice. However, in contrast to the doom and gloom predictions, and in stark contrast to the sheer magnitude of the challenge of dealing with such complex set of problems, recent policy ideas and recipes seem trivial, and overly rationalized and optimistic. With respect to this, there are two interrelated issues that we want to explore in this session.

First, much of this new rationality of sustainability moults into popular labels such as ‘green’ or ‘smart’ where the city is the primary setting. This search for practical solutions in the city is further buttressed by the ‘sustainability business’ and associated green-washing practices that have emerged, as well as a variety of tools to assess, monitor, evaluate, and certify sustainability initiatives (indicators, metrics, and planning orthodoxies such as density, integrated, or holistic planning) that have become standard practice. Scholars have been active to identify the pitfalls here: Elgert & Krueger (2012) discussed the epistemology of metrics; Wiig (2015) interrogated the corporate strategy of a multi such as IBM behind ‘smart city’; Angelo & Wachsmuth (2015) criticized ‘methodological cityism’ in political ecology; Purcell (2006) showed the limits to localism; Mössner (2013) exposed socio-political limits of green cities. These criticisms highlight that there is something else to explore beyond current notions of sustainability. In this session, we welcome further critiques of existing attempts, as well as imaginaries of sustainability that embrace more contemporary imaginaries of urban geographies. These may include:
  • Critical reflections on super-optimist projects such as transition towns, or green cities (e.g. localism, methodological city-ism, green-washing in urban marketing);
  • Research on the disparity between the normative of sustainable development and current policy realities (How has this disparity changed? How is it produced? What lays outside the current lens? How has green urbanism changed over time and across places?)

The second issue relates to expectations of knowledge proliferation in academia, as research communities are increasingly embedded in contradictory settings, expected to provide results and not problems, to be frank but constructive, and moreover, to be elite, excellent, income-generating as well as critical. In this respect, there is thus good reason to analyse the research-policy nexus, as Woods & Gardner (2011), Pain (2006), and Beaumont et al. (2005) have explored, examine the construction of knowledge claims as Rydin (2007) has explained, and rework some considerations with regards to rationalist modes in sustainable development and emerging sustainability modernities. We thus also want to, additionally, interrogate the tensions between the construction of positivist sustainability on the one hand, and the position of the critical researcher on the other hand, treading the fine line between Dennis Judd’s claim that urban scholars tend to assume that “everything is always going to hell” (Judd 2005) and Elbert Hubbard’s classical “positive anything is better than negative nothing” (Hawthorne 1902). Concrete questions in this regard may include:
  • Who is producing and endorsing claims to knowledge in practices of sustainable development urbanism?
  • What are the possibilities and limitations for researchers to balance constructive interventionism with realistic limits of sustainable development and all its complexities, messy politics, wicked problems that are observed in human geography?
  • How is it possible to pursue state-led contract work while maintaining critical integrity?
  • What are relevant reflections the ontology, methodology and ethics of applied SD research practice?
Lastly, we also welcome contributions that address how these two issues intersect and are interrelated. Please send abstracts of ca. 250 words, including a preliminary title, by February 10, 2016 to Constance Carr (constance.carr@uni.lu) and Markus Hesse (markus.hesse@uni.lu)

Call for Abstracts Deadline
February 10, 2016

Angelo, H. & Wachsmuth, D. 2015. “Urbanizing Urban Political Ecology: A Critique of Methodological Cityism”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.12105
Beaumont, J., Loopmans, M. & Uitermark, J. 2005. “Politicization of research and the relevance of geography: Some experiences and reflections for an ongoing debate”. Area 37: 118-126.
Elgert, L. & Krueger, R. 2012. “Modernising sustainable development? Standardisation, evidence and experts in local indicators”. Local Environment 7(5) 561-571.
Hawthorne, H. (1902) “Contemplations: being, several short essays, helpful sermonettes, epigrams, and orphic saying selected from the writings of Elbert Hubbard” NY, The Roycrofters.
Judd, D. R. (2005). “Everything is always going to hell. Urban scholars as end-time prophets”. Urban Affairs Review 41 (2), 119-131.
Lyons, N. (ed.) 2010. “Handbook of Reflection and Reflective Inquiry: Mapping a Way of Knowing for Professional Reflective Inquiry”. Springer, DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-85744-2
Mössner, S. 2013. Sustainable Urban Development as Consensual Practice: Post-Politics in Freiburg, Germany. Regional Studies 10.1080/00343404.2015.110287
Pain, R. 2006. “Seven deadly myths in policy research”. Progress in Human Geography 30: 250-259.
Purcell, M. 2006. “Urban democracy and the local trap”. Urban Studies 43(11) 1921-1941
Rydin, Y. 2007. “Re-examining the role of Knowledge within planning Theory” Planning Theory 6(1) 52-68.
Wiig, A. (2015). “IBM’s smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility”. City 19 (2-3), 258-273.
Woods, M. & Gardner, G. 2011. “Applied policy research and critical human geography: Some reflections on swimming in murky waters”. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2) 198-214.


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  2. Dear Tim, thank you for the positive feedback! And, thank you for the link to Sustainability International. Do you work there?