Even without the assistance of skilled third-party mediators, interconnected stakeholders still have to deal with each other and engage “together” in problem-solving work. That will require not only the reflective practices of individuals’ learning—the focus of Donald Schön’s Reflective Practitioner (1983)—but also the interactive and deliberative practices of working together with others (Forester 1999, Chapter 5; Forester et al. 2019).
This deliberative work will involve not only the first-generation’s inevitably selective experts, but others too—residents, neighbors, business interests, advocates, politicians—and it will involve not just the second-generation’s argumentation but also the third-generation’s give-and-take of negotiations—but now lacking mediators’ assistance and active intervention. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, planners and community leaders in New Orleans, USA, had to work with remaining residents, with displaced residents, with struggling businesses, with local, state and federal officials, with NGOs, and so on.
These common imperatives of deliberating or working together bring us now to a fourth-generation view of theory and practice tensions. I can make this case best by reporting a series of intriguing classroom experiments that I have done in the last few years.
I have long been worried that Schön’s social-psychological framing of “reflective practice” (italic by the author) too easily ignored very real practical, moral and political, and, not least of all, theoretically compelling issues of “deliberative practice,” the on-going efforts of learning and working with others.
I had often explored with my students the practical work of “listening.” In listening well to others, of course, we attend not just to the literal words we hear but to the persons speaking. We can learn from what they do not say, or from how they emphasize something, or speak in jest, or in frustration or in anger. In all these ways we may learn, and so we can say that listening has acquisitive properties. But once I asked my students to consider not this acquisitive aspect of listening, but its performative or generative face.
“What difference has it made to you,” I asked them to write out briefly, “when someone else has really been listening to you? You’ve had something to say that mattered, and someone else has not just been politely hearing you out, but they’ve really been listening—what difference did that make to you?”
I asked this question first a few years ago in a second year, undergraduate class in Urban and Regional Studies at Cornell University, USA. The results were quite surprising and interesting, I thought, but maybe they just reflected the views of a quite biased sample: a young, maturing group of college sophomores. The initial results were discussed first in small groups and then presented to the entire class. The differences made, the students reported, were that they were:
respected; taken seriously; recognized; safe; included; more likely to reciprocate; supported; cared for…
Here were practical impacts that my students identified as the results of another person’s really listening to them. I had asked “what differences” had been made, and their responses, then, began to reveal “the pragmatics of listening.”Footnote 11 But then I realized that these responses indicated much more than that, too.
These students had begun here to identify the qualities of what we might call, “the moral infrastructure of deliberation.” Depending upon the variably attentive work of listening, they had suggested, deliberators—people working together—could actually produce more or less respect or disrespect, acknowledgment or humiliation, recognition or dismissal, inclusion or exclusion, sense of safety or danger. Hardly one of these qualities of relationship, these qualities of deliberative interaction, seemed really considered or accounted for in Schön’s theory of reflective practice!
But these qualities—being disrespected or humiliated or dismissed or excluded, or their opposites—obviously seemed to matter practically in problem-solving, planning, or public policy practices. So here, it seemed, I had stumbled onto a significant theory–practice gap! Experts, for example, could be technically competent and self-assured but nevertheless disrespect community members, and cooperation could well suffer. Officials preoccupied with their own agendas might seem dismissive—of experts and community members alike—and resistance might ensue, and so on.
But these results were just from college students, I thought. Then 2 years later, I addressed an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA) symposium of mid-career professionals—graduates of the “Special Program in Urban and Regional Studies” program (the SPURS program) who worked in ministries and planning organizations around the world. In the middle of my presentation on the workshop’s theme—extending Schön’s work on reflective practice—I asked them to take out their smart phones, to address a message to me, and, in the subject line, to tell me in a few words what difference it had ever made to them when a colleague had really listened. I soon received 30-odd responses, and here came yet another surprise: Their responses were virtually identical to those of my younger students at Cornell University, with one exception: The mid-career professionals added in, “empowered,” as well—meaning practically, here, that they might be even more able to act.
Now, I thought, I really had been too dismissive of my own students’ youthfulness. A far more diverse, multi-national group of accomplished professionals had corroborated the students’ responses. Ready now to take these two sets of suggestions more seriously, I repeated this “experiment” in several more classes, at New York University, USA, and the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, too—with strikingly similar results. I began, also, to explore the related question, “What difference did it make to you when another has NOT been listening well?” Here, less surprisingly but still instructively, responses indicated that disrespect could lead to anger, dismissal could lead to resentment, threats could lead to defensiveness, being rendered invisible could lead to distrust and withdrawal, to take several examples.Footnote 12
These findings, I believe, teach us about a fourth-generation’s view of gaps between theory and practice. If our problem-solvers are so highly trained as scientists or economists that they cannot work with people different from themselves, we might well have fine theorists who are nevertheless incompetent practitioners. How often have we heard complaints that various “experts” have spoken in languages that others could not understand, or that they failed to pay attention to local concerns? But now, taking a more pragmatic view, we see new problems: it’s not the experts’ theory alone that’s problematic, it’s their practice, their behavior: their disrespect, their humiliation of others, their being seen as threatening, their apparent lack of concern if not empathy, and more—all these not captured in their theories at hand.
“Working with others,” then, is apparently not as simple as it sounds, and here we have unearthed issues of practical ethics in the form of deliberative malpractices. These include, but are not limited to, contingencies of respect, recognition, reciprocity, and care, or their practical opposites and the reactions they can engender—disrespect and anger, humiliation and resentment, arrogance and lack of cooperation. These concepts are less familiar to natural and social scientists than to moral philosophers. But my research suggests that socio-ecological practice studies will remain more superficial than they need to be if they ignore the practical and moral risks of the deliberative malpractices revealed by this fourth-generation view (De Leo and Forester 2017; Forester 2018b).