Session 20

20. Navigating between Social Sciences and Spatial Planning – Methods as an Ambiguous Concept

While sociology and urban planning might seem respectively to represent the theory and the practice of knowledge about cities, their relation has usually been distant.” (Abbott 2020: 1) Increasingly, however, planners and sociologists are working together in research projects and are confronted with different knowledge traditions and methodological understandings of the other discipline. Many people who start a research study from a planning background want their work to contribute to solving some problem in the practical world. Scholars with a sociological background, on the other hand, often want to contribute to theory building. In other words, planning research work, particularly in comparison with many other sciences and social sciences, tends to be strongly oriented to a practical purpose, having an action orientation and explicit normative focus. These different knowledge traditions also lead to different ideas about what methods are or must offer to fulfil the researchers’ purpose. Despite profound and controversial methodological discussions in the social sciences, there is overwhelming agreement that the methods used must meet certain standards of repeatability in order to arrive at descriptive-analytical results. Planners, on the other hand, also use normative and activating methods in addition to descriptive and analytical ones, as they are often interested in directly applying or implementing the knowledge they have acquired during the research process. Thus disciplinary conflicts are preordained. Sociologists might not accept a SWOT analysis as a method since it is normative per se or criticise the casual application of quantitative standardized methods for activating surveys in community development. Planners, on the other hand, might find some spatial sociological research pointless because it lacks applicability, and they may devalue theory building as a pure intellectual thought exercise that does not help to improve spatial conditions. With this session we want to get to the bottom of these different disciplinary approaches to methods of spatial research and strengthen the dialogue between planning and the social sciences. The supposed superiority of social science methods is to be contrasted with methodological experiences and necessities of spatial planning in order to strengthen the acceptance of methodological approaches out of the box in the long run. Potential contributions may present (but are not limited to):

(a) Theory driven methodological reflections about the interaction of spatial planning and social sciences;

(b) Practical research experiences and eventual methodological conflicts in interdisciplinary projects;

(c) Examples of methodological approaches with action orientation and/or explicit normative focus in spatial research;

(d) Methodological conflicts in joint projects but also with regard to publications, discussions with reviewers etc.