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Last modified: 28.05.2013

Today I want to address what is really a classic theme in the social sciences; the notion of ‘critical’ research. I want to approach this from a particular point of view, namely the position I have tried to articulate within mobilities research over the last decade. Before reaching this point however, I will address a few key markers in the field to position the debate.

When I was a student in the social science program the notion of ‘critical’ research often was tied into two or three key positions. The direct readings of Karl Marx or neo-Marxist positions were held to be ‘critical’. Indeed so was also the work by a Frankfurt School theorist such as Jürgen Habermas (actually he was THE critical theorist par excellence in our program those days). And finally the works of Michel Foucault was acknowledged to be ‘critical’. Many more theorists were of course read and studied but for the fleshing out of my argument these suffice. The key perspective of ‘critical’ social research seems on this (admitted very diverse and indeed incommensurable) background to be to study how the various ways power and oppression manifested themselves in society. I realize I am ‘painting with the wide brush’ here. But stay we me for a while and I’ll try to explain a few developments in this line of thinking. Various minority studies and environmental dimensions has also entered the scene of ‘critical’ research let alone the whole ‘post’ turn from various strains of constructivist thinking and post-modern critique. I myself was a busy reader of Habermas in the beginning of my study days only to become more and more attracted by Foucault later on. However, I have always had a keen interest in philosophy and not least the historical underpinnings for current ways on thinking. This led me, through multiple detours, back towards the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche as well as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Here I want to speak a little about the latter. In what has become labeled as the ‘manifesto’ for Critical Theory or the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their seminal book ‘The Dialectics of Enlightenment’ (1944), explored the deeper underpinnings of Western rationality, thinking and technology. The book is much acclaimed but also (to my opinion) rather disorganized. But often with such landmark texts there are precious gifts waiting for those who dare dedicate time and effort to penetrate deeper into its layers. The book was written during the late years of the Second World War by two exiled neo-Marxist thinkers that had to flee the Nazi regime in Germany. Thus sitting in exile in the US the text is far from positive even though it can be read at many levels. The key idea I want to draw from the book in this context is the notion of ‘critical’ as something very profound and actually close to some of the ideas articulated by Foucault who investigated the question ‘What is this Reason that we use, and what are its historical effects’? The task of a ‘critical’ social research in society was surely to cast light at the intolerable and unjust conditions under which may societies had come to organize themselves. But also to explore the double dimension of reason and rationality that created ‘progress’ and growth. So next to efficiency and economic growth lay inhumanity, domination and even the threat of self-destruction for the human race. Some years ago when I still was very active in teaching philosophy of science I wrote a book chapter (in Danish I am sorry) that some readers might want to consult for the detailing of the meaning of ‘critique’ and the discussion of a more traditional ‘critical’ social research (see Jensen, O. B. (2004) Kritik, refleksion og videnspolitik, in Christensen, J. (red.) (2004) Vidensgrundlag for Handlen Aalborg: Aalborg Universitetsforlag, pp. 273-292.

Now, this is not a lecture on classic thinking within critical theory and philosophy. I have already mentioned a few rather interesting names if anyone wish to explore the issue further. Here I want to turn to the aftermath of reading such theories and the way it influenced my own thinking. A small detour is needed by way of etymology. The notion of ‘critique’ has different etymological roots but one takes us back to the old Greek notion of ‘krinein’ which means to ‘separate’ or ‘take apart’ as well as ‘krites’ which means to ‘judge’ and ‘krisis’ meaning ‘verdict’. From this I believe we have enough ideas to connect up to the ideas that ‘critical’ means to assess and evaluate if social phenomena are just or unjust, manipulative or transparent. But moreover, we may also have to discuss in relation to what? Here the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School would propose (as a huge generalization I know), that democracy, participation, and deliberation would be the ‘yardstick’. Others like Foucault had a hard time with such (idealist) procedural notions and wanted simply to point at the detailed ways that power constructed the social subject, and under which conditions.

Ok, having followed me thus far you are now ready to follow me the last bit towards my notion of ‘critical mobilities thinking’. The basic point of departure is an acknowledgement of the capabilities within ‘critical’ social research to point at social exclusion, power, and domination etc. But also (and here I really risk to evoke the wrath of my peers) not being too interested in how to create new ways of social flourishing and affordances for new types of social interaction. I moreover often utilize another crude simplification, namely that between ‘analytical’ and ‘interventionist’ disciplines. This is absolutely only a simple heuristics since I know disciplines are much more complicated. However, having said so my experience with urban design, architecture and planning (to a certain extent) is rather different from the world of sociology, geography and anthropology which I am well familiar with too. The former do thrive on a special activist and interventionist energy … they urge to re-shape, design, alter, and make physical imprints on the world, whereas the latter prides itself (and with good reasons) to provide us with rigorous analysis and coherent theory buildings. But from my deliberate border crossings in these territories I tend to think of both dimensions as important to any ‘critical’ research practice. Moreover, I often have seen that the design-oriented and ‘interventionist’ disciplines offer the impetus to question theoretical understandings simply because they make me question the concepts we have when I am facing a project of physical design as for example a metro station (an urban design studio I have been running for 6 years and which has been hugely influential for my thinking). The key assumption for me in mobilities thinking is for example to explore the ‘more than’ in the statement ‘Mobilities is more than movement from A to B’. Now this simple statement has led me to think that the design fields are often less traditional and more open-minded in thinking about for example the potentials of transit spaces to become interesting sites of interaction. From work on how to re-design and challenge a simple and instrumental notion of ‘mobility as A to B only’ the design fields has opened up my eyes to a perspective of ‘critique’ that targets many of the ‘analytical’ disciplines and their naturalized and taken for granted assumptions. So in this manner the ‘analytical’ and the ‘interventionist’ perspectives has let me to think that a ‘critical mobilities thinking’ should include both a critical awareness of the ‘classic’ themes such as power, social exclusion, and marginalization (the so-called ‘dark side’), but also the ‘critical’ power of questioning basic ideas like ‘all transit spaces are per definition non-places’ or ideas like ‘commuting is waste of time only’. I have come to the conclusion that if we subscribe to the latter types of statement we do not understand the complexity of the phenomenon of ‘mobilities’. I realize that some might think I am an advocate for more freeway traffic or uncontrolled mushrooming of shopping malls – well, I am not! But I am an advocate for a re-interpretation of the concept of ‘critique’ to both include issues of ‘problems’ as well as ‘potentials’. As I write in ‘Staging Mobilities’:

There is an important argument springing from this notion of ‘more than A to B’ which ties in with the fourth point in this chapter. This has to do with the ability to see mobilities practices and sites as carrying potentials for more than just transport. And equally important that such ‘potential thinking’ may be the route to solving some of the grand challenges that ties mobilities into issues of global climate change, resource scarcity and massive demographic shifts. What I termed ‘mobilities potential thinking’ is thus a radical way of thinking about mobilities in a much less predetermined way. Related to ‘critical mobilities thinking’ the notion of ‘mobilities potential thinking’ is about exploring how sites of mobilities and practices of mobilities may be underutilized and may carry potentials for new types of practices, cultures and forms of interactions that may provide people with new and positive experiences. I realize that the many ‘mays’ are indicative of the uncertainty as well as the very different perspective of Staging Mobilities compared to ‘mainstream’ social analysis. If there is one thing to learn for the design fields it is that every intervention (regardless of how well-informed and recurrent) in principle is an open and non-determined act within a field of emergent properties. People may do this, and they may do that but we cannot know with 100% certainty. The designers like to think of this as part of the creative stimulus to their work – knowing that they are not designing for machines and objects, but for humans in complex settings of social interaction. I believe there is yet another point to derive from this uncertainty and lack of pre-determination which is the point about ‘potential thinking’ as a function of this uncertainty. If the future is uncertain and outcomes are contingent this may be challenging to both analysis and intervention. But it could equally inspire to more imaginative and creative thoughts about things taken for granted – like ordinary acts of everyday life mobilities and what these mean to social life. This connects to the other dimension of ‘critical mobilities thinking’ which I have termed the ‘dark sides’ of mobilities. To some ‘analytical’ disciplines the uncovering of the ‘dark sides’ whether these are related to social conflict, power and exclusion, or to issues of crisis, failure and breakdown are understood to be the key focus (most ‘critical’ social research in fact). However, there is scope for more explorative and deeper understandings if these ‘dark side’ issues are related to key questions in the ‘interventionist’ fields with their focus on how actually to create systems, to deliver services, to connect people etc. (Jensen 2013:192-193)

My work with people within architecture and urban design has led me to articulate this more enhanced notion of ‘critical’. I still believe that a ‘critical’ research practice has to work on issues of power, marginalization and social exclusion. But I also think that being ‘critical’ means to look into the naturalized and ‘taken for granted’ ways we seem to think of mundane everyday life practices (this being my key field of research interest). One such field is mobilities. And here I think we are facing a huge challenge in order to think ‘out of the box’ if I may utilize such a managerial type of nomenclature. From my collaboration with urban designers in particular I have come to see that their interest in new designs, new interaction opportunities, and new ways of organizing the built environment actually provides my mobilities thinking with a very important ‘critical’ impetus. Here I for example think of the way most in the public (and also skilled researchers within social science) automatically tend to think of transport as a necessary evil that has to be undertaken in order to displace one’s body from one important place to another. If we think this way we completely miss out on what commuting and other recurrent mobility practices mean to the configuration of self, other and the understanding of the built environment. From working with designers who constantly are on the lookout for how to re-shape and challenge the existing order of things, I have come to see that being ‘critical’ is as much about looking for ‘potentials’ as it is looking for ‘problems’ if I may phrase it in overtly simplistic terms. Let me explain in more detail: An urban designer (in fact any designer, but this is my horizon of work and reflection) is met by a number of restrictions (e.g. laws, economics, urban stakeholder’s interests etc.). Now under these conditions the creative process of creating useful and useable solutions frees quite a lot of creative ‘potential thinking’. If we couple the potentials of new experiences, better social interactions opportunities across social groups, and un-explored opportunities like new businesses with the analysis of problems ranging from social exclusion, power, and segregation to equally important issues of systems breakdown and vulnerability, risk and resilience, or environmental pollution and hazards I think we are facing a much more rich research agenda. We are also facing a much more multi-facetted notion of what it means for research to be ‘critical’ and in my opinion it is not only something related to pointing at relations of oppression (important as this may be), it is also to unleash the creative energy from the ‘interventionist’ perspectives that lead us to become ‘critical’ of the habits and practices of everyday life mobilities.

More could be said on what the social sciences may learn from the design fields, and if this blog post has spurred your interest Chapter 9 in the ‘Staging Mobilities’ book is devoted to the issue of ‘learning from the design fields’. Also the new initiative I blogged about earlier with setting up a group for ‘Mobilities Design’ is an attempt to bring this discussion further. The material design of objects and places seem to be a very good background to exploring both the ‘problem’ and the ‘potential’ side of ‘critical mobilities thinking’.

I will end this complex topic with a very simple formula that I use on my power point slides when traveling around with this ‘story’. In all simplicity we are exploring this relation:

CMT = P + P

/ Ole B. Jensen