Conversational Cuts featuring Bish Sanyal from MIT

Conversational Cuts featuring Bish Sanyal from MIT

Robin Chang, 22 Jan, 2018

What does planning culture (PC) mean? How does it influence our way of sense-making within our communities and also beyond our borders? With an interest to extend the discussion on comparative planning cultures, we reached out to our North American counterpart last year – Bish Sanyal – to connect, and together, consider the values and practicalities which scholars and professionals might encounter through planning culture. This discussion informed preparations of our chapter on Planning Culture: Research Heuristics and Explanatory Value in Planning Knowledge and Research edited by Thomas W. Sanchez.

Beginning with Difficult Conversations

We started by asking Bish to explain his current encounters with PC through the Special Programme in Urban and Regional Studies, also known as the Humphrey’s Fellows Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (MA) on the East coast of the US:

Bish: It’s very interesting because we get around 60 mid-career professionals from around the world who come to this program for a year. It was started at a time when the United States first opened up, creating this program where people from around the world came to really learn from the American system and the American views of modernization. And it was a very clear idea at that time that somehow the west has done better, has industrialized and these countries that are industrializing at this moment, that they would come and probably learn from the American experience, though everybody knew that there was a big difference in terms of context, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of state capacity etc.

So, I took over the project and program in 2004, right after the September 11th attack on the US. By the time the fellows came to the country, it was not as simple as what we had thought of in the 1960s. I wanted a more frank conversation amongst them about what [was] happening. Terrorism was a huge problem that we could hide […] but we to confront it sooner or later. From the people who [were] coming here – I wanted to know and understand: What is their view of what is happening? And when they go back – they leave immediately after a year – and they go back in very high level positions, how or what will be their approach to this issue?

[The] US government, to make things even more complicated, funds some of our program through the state department. They started bringing in fellows from countries that actually were hostile to United States. We had fellows from Pakistan – from difficult countries – but the US thought this [was] diplomatic, and maybe [by] bringing them here and explaining what we are about [would be] helpful for them when they go back. [To show] that their view of the United States would not be very crude, [instead] more nuanced [and] that they would understand that there are differences in opinion within the country. And so, we had these people whose countries, in many cases, were at war. Like we had fellows from Afghanistan or Iraq. For me to say to them – when a country is at war – look, let’s look at modernization, it doesn’t do it. You need to address their concern that is on their mind.

I took it very seriously at that moment… to first of all create a serious, open conversation: What’s going on? What to do? What is the value to protect? Why? How does history interpret it? Where is politics? And that’s why I took a very different stand. In the past when they came, we’ll say Okay, you are from Jordan or India […] and they would wear their garb and they would have a potluck where they would bring their food. And everything then was kind of fine, because it was kind of in the mode of this multiculturalism. Everything goes, just colour it, just give space for everybody and it will be fine. And I actually thought [this] required a confrontation – intellectual interrogation of values. I thought that the program should be based on actually open up conversations about things that I call … Difficult Conversations.

Bish then went on to describe the type of diplomatic but confrontational opportunities incited by his difficult conversations. The notion that the fellows had a chance to question each other about their own rituals, traditions, and practices became clearer and more precise. From the simple descriptions of how his students connected over issues including but not limited to head scarves and segregation, the idea of having individuals articulate and  open themselves up to questioning of their beliefs and traditions expanded to an idea of Habermasian deliberation and dialogue through which deference and rationality regarding cultures, instead of difference was underlined. This fundamental change in attitude was hopefully instilled in the educated ambassadors who studied within the program. Despite initial doubts from the federal funding agencies, Bish then continued to describe how he along with others have been able to continue the challenge of rationally understanding culture, but emphasized that this should be an continuing endeavour as culture is not static, but has to evolve.

Disseminating Difficult Conversations

Ensuing this thematic introduction, Bish details how his notion of encouraging others to deliberate practices, seeking rational justifications instead of simple acceptance is further developed through commentary from other colleagues and specifically collaborations with his mentor John Friedman:

Bish: So, I am a student of John Friedmann and I did my PhD with John. John has visited me at MIT since I had invited him to speak. And we started a little conversation in which John mentioned issues of culture…planning culture. Noticing the lack of work on planning cultures he suggested we collaborate on the topic. For John, culture was such an important a variable at that moment before we published the book in 2005. Friedmann saw PC through territories – an idea that he introduced in American planning. I understand this may originally be a European idea. Idea of territory and why a territory can be called a territory because it has a coherent culture. And he saw that as a way of stopping, this kind of mass-scale globalization that he thought was leading us to homogenization. And I was skeptical. I was skeptical because I found that the arguments for homogenization are very strong, but in reality when you look at outcomes, there was lot of variations. So that made me think that the nature of the governments in the first-world states and the argument at that moment was that all the world first states are going to become similar looking in terms of what they prefer, how they spend money, their commitment to people. Whereas in real life, the world first-states in Europe actually showed very different outcomes. They saying that the same neo-liberalism unfolded differently in every country. So I was very intrigued when John was arguing about culture – because my hunch was influenced by if the political setting, and the groups that are pushing for things –  that in a way explains the outcome in a setting. So this idea of culture versus politics has been a big issue.

It goes far back to the 1960s. And people more in the right, often times, for wrong reasons, pick up culture and people who are left say no, it’s political power….it’s class that explains…So, there was an ambiguity and since John had proposed this idea of territory, I thought okay, let’s do this and let’s invite 10 people from 10 different countries. And I wrote to them very specifically in my letter to them: Look, please explain the relationship between the state, the market and civil society. How do these three relationships have unfolded in your particular setting? So, let’s say…what exactly has the state committed to do for the citizens? And where does this commitment come from? Is it different, like the fact that you have health care and we don’t? And how did it happen here in America, that we didn’t have it? Is it as important as let’s say France? Germany? So, I was asking them explain that kind of relationship and why, or if the relationship has evolved. They’re shaped partly by the current practices. But that doesn’t mean that they remain static. And so, when the people responded, including John wrote a piece for the book…uh…I think it was very hard for them to write on how other countries influence each other. Except for Booth, who you also cite in your paper. He wrote a piece on how um German laws actually influence British land use planning. I was really impressed by the way that you historically look at the flow of ideas. And it opened up the idea that yes, Globalization had a different intensity. But this idea of inter mixing flow of ideas, goes far back. It also tells us that what we are considering as static or kind of the “DNA of a place” does not work the way we necessarily think. Things do change and that came out as one of the major finding of all of the major case studies. Every one of them, including the one written by Leonie Sandercock on Australia…some of the changes were good, some of the changes were not good. But they were changing.

Since publishing the PC book in 2005, I have not seen any specific work on PC, but I have seen some work that argue for or that show the flow of ideas. That how the ideas went across the borders, and the kind of conferences or exhibitions…like in a global exhibition or global fairs…where people bring their things and show each other. Or Basically showing their technological strength. Like what the country knows and how advanced it is and people are very impressed. So in looking at those events, but I haven’t seen  very interesting comparisons. Let’s say very specifically labour laws, uh? Have they changed as a result this? Or let’s say, environmental protection laws – to what extent have they evolved? It would be interesting to take one particular sector and then to go into depth on it.

Moving Forward with Difficult Conversations

Following up on that, our guest interviewee outlined a greater need for rigorous research about this notion of culture going into specific sectors as a starting point to more rigorous research:

Bish: I think that as we do the work, we should be carefully about the way that we define culture. I think there’s a lot of new stuff that has come up about when culture became a category about culture as opposed to culture as embedded into the whole system. You know, the whole work that has been done on economy. When does “economy” becomes a separate category? And I think we shouldn’t be hung up on planning culture per se. But we want to look at outcomes. And then to see to what extent, what explains the variation. And within that story, if we see something that we can call planning culture, like let’s say…we see how people think about what is the role of the government? Right? No, I would say that’s cultural…that you develop a sense of what government is about. What are its commitments? What are its limits? What are the rules and regulations? What can you regulate? What should not be regulated?

Future steps highlighted by Bish, counterpointed the reality that while some research and learning has happened on the topic, there is still work to be done. The lack of more rigorous, empirically based methods that also considered what researchers in our department have coined the practice-turn is still an issue. Bish had identified a few opportunities, through studies on law – its evolution and influences – for instance to address the lack of more progress on effective study of PC. He even went on to illustrate the implications of the regional refugee crisis as a window through which PC, or at least the arguments which helped new PC stick surfaced. An interesting through experiment on its own, the practical difficulties in pursuing such studies would be problematic when studying legislations in countries such as Germany, where laws are rather static. But the idea of comparatively studying the change, or lack thereof, in laws could prove illuminating in the pursuit of understanding comparative PC.

In a final note that reflected on Bish’s latest PC work from 2016, he clarified the encouragement to consider theocracy in PC. This notion was shaped by events of the day which included much coverage and discussion about normative cultures and practices in response to the refugee crisis. This encouragement was an attempt to better understand theocracy as the study itself, but more so the role of region and believes in shaping daily practices and normative ideologies that drive cultures:

Bish: I think we are not, by making that normative assumption that religion and beliefs should be different or separate from the public domain, we are not understanding how they actually work. How these practices/religious beliefs, where are thy coming from? How are they influencing the sentiment of people about what is a good life. Or who should be practicing this? What are the rules of the different institutions? And we can’t hide it. I think that it is impossible anymore to put it aside. With the way that things are happening. Including in the US. That, you know? So, I was proposing – let’s open the conversation! Let’s say: Okay, let’s look into it. Maybe, did we make a mistake by separating the two domains, by saying that this is completely private? Particularly for common people – I am not talking about the elite of developing countries but for average common people who are in the cities. Some of them are joining the terrorist groups. I think by not understanding what is the basis of their meaning? We rather know that too before we address the issue.

I think if we look at social commitment and distributive policies of government. Let’s say government budget is a document about who should be getting what. And those…so…how much taxation….who is going to get what? Are we going to pay for the people who are not working and are at home? How much? How long? And these arguments have a normative bearing. They don’t come from nowhere. They come from historic tradition. They come from people who are deliberating. I feel like in those deliberations, religious values are very polarizing. I think that what the pope is trying to do now is exactly to bring that conversation back. And you see among the popular around the world. People are realizing the normative lacking in our conversation. And so, if you don’t propose another normative, then religion is going to take over the conversation. But what are we proposing? Our proposals of normative views and modernization etc. have been discredited so much. And that’s why going back to your first question: about creating a forum where these kind of things are discussed in detail and in a very analytical and rigorous way…is a very important task for academia.

From our discussion, the value of PC became even more poignant. It is more than the glue of normative practices and beliefs which help us blend into the communities with which we self-identify. It is more than even a task for academia or the quotidian. It is a changing force that drives how our urban environments flourish or decay, and how our policies and governance can become more considerate and adaptive. Surely, that is convincing enough a definition and even argument to pursue research and learning in PC more earnestly?

Credits: The Department of European Planning Cultures is grateful for the willingness and time Bish Sanyal shared for the interview from February 2016.