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The power of pragmatism
Jane Wills and Robert W. Lake

This chapter provides a thorough introduction to an edited book that comprises fifteen chapters exploring the power of pragmatism in relation to social research and the production of knowledge. The chapter outlines the historical development of the pragmatist tradition and its core ideas before exploring its application to social research, past and present. We make a strong case for pragmatic social research, outline its key components and highlight its implications for research practice and outcomes. In the penultimate section, we address some of the long-standing concerns about pragmatism in order to provide critical context to the chapters in the rest of the book. The final section introduces the structure of the book and summarises the substantive chapters that follow.

in The power of pragmatism
Pragmatism and politics in place 
Alice E. Huff

In this chapter, I make the case for pragmatic readings of social and political life as opposed to those associated with agonism (as developed by Chantal Mouffe and others). Drawing on evidence that demonstrates how the experience of working across difference to re-open a school building in New Orleans both grounded participants’ political commitments and altered them, I argue that agonistic theory is limited by its inattention to the lived experience of negotiating difference and by its assumptions regarding the futility of doing so in non-adversarial ways. In contrast, Deweyan pragmatism offers a useful counterpoint by centralising experience and emphasising the value of learning from engagements across difference. A Deweyan lens trains scholarly attention on the knowledge people create as they work across difference to understand and shape their own circumstances. In so doing, it encourages scholars to grapple with the limitations of their own expertise and points to potentially transformative practices that might otherwise be ignored.

in The power of pragmatism
Crispian Fuller

This chapter examines the contribution that G.H. Mead’s conception of the self can make to understanding political subjectivity, and deploys this approach in a case study of urban politics in the UK. Mead argued that the social self is created through relations with other human actors, but that the emergent and impulsive ‘I’ of the self can disrupt, reject and challenge intersubjectively created ‘significant symbols’ that guide and give meaning to actors and society through recognition by both the conveyer and responder, shaping what he called the ‘me’. Mead’s conceptions of the ‘I and me’ of the self, and the role of powerful significant symbols, are deployed in an examination of new forms of city-regional government in England. This case study demonstrates how political agency is partly constructed by broader significant symbols that are utilised in the construction of this new governance arena, and how local actors seek to conform to or contest this new political landscape. The chapter applies Mead’s pragmatism as a counterpoint to dominant academic ideas about the power of neoliberalism and the post-political in understanding these and other developments.

in The power of pragmatism
Knowledge production and social inquiry
Editors: Jane Wills and Robert W. Lake

This book makes the case for a pragmatist approach to the practice of social inquiry and knowledge production. Through diverse examples from multiple disciplines, contributors explore the power of pragmatism to inform a practice of inquiry that is democratic, community-centred, problem-oriented and experimental. Drawing from both classical and neo-pragmatist perspectives, the book advances a pragmatist sensibility in which truth and knowledge are contingent rather than universal, made rather than found, provisional rather than dogmatic, subject to continuous experimentation rather than ultimate proof and verified in their application in action rather than in the accuracy of their representation of an antecedent reality. The power of pragmatism offers a path forward for mobilizing the practice of inquiry in social research, exploring the implications of pragmatism for the process of knowledge production.

Going beyond a communicative approach 
Ihnji Jon

This chapter makes the case for pragmatist philosophy in planning theory and practice. I argue that pragmatism can help us to understand trends in contemporary planning theory, as well as develop a more promising future direction. The chapter introduces the two major branches of contemporary planning theory: (1) communicative planning and (2) radical planning. I explore how pragmatic planning can go beyond some of the limits of communicative approaches while also embracing the insights of radical planning. Emphasising early pragmatists’ emphasis on lived experience and the importance of pluralism, the chapter argues that pragmatism can connect different ideas in contemporary planning theory with great potential for practice, improving outcomes for publics.

in The power of pragmatism
Owain Jones

Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, the extent of the global ecological crisis, latterly labelled as ecocide, has become starkly clear, but political, cultural and ethical responses have been minimal. What responses there have been remain ineffectively stuck within the reductive logics of modern approaches to knowledge production and application. This chapter seeks to set out why pragmatist, non-representational and anti-representational approaches offer some hope for creative and effective responses, not only to the ecological crisis but also to the wider crisis of modern knowledge. I argue that these alternative forms of knowledge-practice are ecological in their embracing of process and interconnectivity, and that they offer forms of locally articulated, creative, radical incrementalism within the mesh-works of collective life. The chapter highlights the strength of pragmatic ways of thinking that unify thinking and doing, and the importance of making creative interventions in and beyond the academy.

in The power of pragmatism
Pragmatism between rationalism and sentimentality 
Robert W. Lake

This chapter concludes the edited collection published as The power of pragmatism. It takes us back to the ‘quest for certainty’ in knowledge production with which we opened the volume. The chapter makes the case for adopting a pragmatic orientation to embrace uncertainty as both unavoidable and potentially productive. Recognising the seductive temptations of certainty that appear to provide order, progress, authority and respect, the chapter advocates the a priori acceptance of contingency as an antidote to dogmatism. This requires a sceptical orientation towards all statements of truth and a very different approach to knowledge production. The contributors to this volume advance and illustrate the power of pragmatism as a mode of knowledge production in the social sciences.

in The power of pragmatism
Liam Harney and Jane Wills

This chapter reflects upon the lessons learned through an experiment in pragmatic social research conducted in east London in the UK in 2015. The project drew upon the pragmatism of the Chicago School of Sociologists and the work of Ernest Burgess, Robert Park and G.H. Mead as well as the earlier work of William James and John Dewey. The E14 expedition tried to test whether, and if so, how, university researchers could work with a range of citizens to address public problems in a genuinely open way, listening to the full range of opinion and ideas. The project exposed the extent to which academic social scientists are often deaf to political opinions that are believed to be misguided, confused and/or incorrect. It also exposed the role played by the social infrastructure of pre-existing relationships, trust, shared interests and identity in underpinning and enabling effective collective action. The chapter advocates paying greater academic and political attention to the things that make public action and problem-solving possible, including being open to different ideas and beliefs, and nurturing the social relationships that enable democratic behaviour and practice.

in The power of pragmatism
Trevor Barnes

This chapter explores Richard Rorty’s pragmatist model of ‘conversational philosophy’. By experimenting with new descriptions and novel vocabularies, he aimed to break through old impasses where the conversation has lagged or stalled or been abandoned. For Rorty, experiments in ‘re-description’ potentially reignite the conversation, allowing us to undertake acts that we have never undertaken before. In this view, the point of philosophy is not to mirror the world but to enlarge our cultural repertoire, allowing us to realise new achievements. The chapter applies this approach to the work of the maverick American human geographer, William Bunge (1928¬–2013). Bunge understood maps to be geography’s language, and he believed that by changing the vocabulary of cartography he could break through the crust of previously held conventions, creating something new, potentially changing society and social relations for the better. The chapter looks at three different phases of Bunge’s experiments in cartographic re-description: his early work within spatial science on formal map transformations; his later work in black inner-city Detroit; and his last substantive work on the Nuclear war atlasto warn against atomic Armageddon.

in The power of pragmatism
A pragmatist notion of critique as mediation 
Klaus Geiselhart

While scientists protest publicly against right-wing populists bending truths, humanists and social scientists are remarkably quiet. This is not surprising since constructivist relativism and poststructuralist ideas about the politics of knowledge have been widely adopted. This chapter explores the ideological conundrum facing social scientists and argues that pragmatism can provide resources for finding a way forward. By formulating specific criteria by means of which theories and truths can be compared and evaluated, pragmatist epistemology positions the academic as a social advisor or mediator. Moreover, on the basis of pragmatic democratic theory, it can be argued that politics is not only agonistic but needs a conciliatory moment to function sustainably. In this spirit, academic criticism should be understood not only as opposition but also as mediation. Rather than just opposing dominant thinking, the academic can engage in a cooperative vein, contributing to the decisions that are taken by mediating between different positions and points of view.

in The power of pragmatism