Ethics and Planning Research
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Ethics and Planning Research

Francesco Lo Piccolo, Huw Thomas, Huw Thomas

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Ethics and Planning Research

Francesco Lo Piccolo, Huw Thomas, Huw Thomas

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About This Book

The consideration of ethics in social research has gained increasing prominence in the past few years, particularly research which seeks to inform public policy. This important and unique book provides a thorough examination of the issues relating to research ethics in planning for an international audience. The authors examine alternative frameworks within which ethical action can be discussed and critically describe the key institutional arrangements surrounding the management of ethical behaviour in research. Also included are highly relevant accounts of ethical challenges faced in planning research.

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Chapter 1
Introduction

Francesco Lo Piccolo and Huw Thomas

The Genesis of the Book

The book is the outcome of a developing interest of the editors in ethical issues in planning research. At the heart of this interest has been a realisation that what troubles researchers in planning is rarely some variant of a crude temptation of the flesh, as illustrated in the image on the book’s cover. To be sure, it does no harm to be reminded that even Aristototle’s focus on learning could be diverted at times (though we must also remember that diversion at an appropriate time is reasonable and commendable). But as much of the material in this book makes clear, the kinds of concerns which give rise to real anxiety among researchers in planning involve considerations more subtle, more all-embracing than a simple fight against an easily defined temptation. They revolve, often, around a search for clarity about what it is to do research that is worth doing – worth doing both intellectually and socially/politically.
The original ideas were pondered over some time ago, partly jointly and partly individually, as the editors reflected on their research experiences. Having conducted investigations over many years into the pluralistic composition of the city’s social structure, the role and conditions of minority groups (not just ethnic ones) contained within it, the majority-minority ratio and the relative recognition of rights of citizenship in planning processes and policies, inclusive and excluding forms of (participatory) planning processes, and related legal and institutional aspects in these areas of research, all these experiences have forced us to question the ethical implications of our research time and again. The questions raised were both conscious and unconscious. And while our reactions were sometimes instinctive, we were aware of, and could draw on, the general social science literature on research ethics, which has become increasingly sensitive to the social context of research, not simply matters of individual probity. It is widely acknowledged that social researchers must be sensitive to the power relations within their research – those implicated in that which they are investigating (see Flyvbjerg 1998) and those power relations between the researchers and those with whom they have dealings. Thus Ladson-Billings (2000, 73) cautions researchers about the dangers of regarding poorer communities as ‘data plantations’, while Fine et al. (2000) point out the ways that social research can become caught up in consolidating social relations which are ethically/politically questionable.
There have been some discussions of research ethics in relation to disciplines cognate to planning – such as the built environment disciplines (Wilkinson and Morton 2007), or Geography (see Askins 2008), but there has been little which relates directly to planning. We believe that disciplinary-specific discussions can play an important role in furthering understanding and practice in relation to research ethics for two reasons. First, because the details of context are central in any discussion of what might be salient in a particular case. Of course, planning researchers can learn from discussions in Geography or surveying, but in the end they have to apply these lessons to a different kind of research setting, involving different institutions, histories, relations…The second advantage of disciplinary-related discussions is that they may draw upon, and indeed help create and consolidate, a practice community, a community in which members share a sense of purpose in relation to a shared endeavour, and a sense of what kinds of things might and should count as good reasons for action. They share a way of seeing things (see Wenger 1998; Lo Piccolo and Thomas 2008). We are not entirely sure that such communities exist in relation to planning research, but if they do, or if they might, then a book like this may help in their flourishing.
Though it is clear that there has been an increasing concern about social science research ethics among institutions and individuals (Israel and Hay 2006) which makes the book timely, our interest has also been fuelled by some relatively recent personal experiences which have induced us to think anew about the weight, relevance and importance of the sphere of ethics within the scope of our research activities and our daily relationships with colleagues, doctoral students and students more generally (Lo Piccolo 2008; Thomas 2005). Responses to these papers, and other kinds of discussions (such as academic gossip, story-telling or observations on a more structured theoretical basis) have led us to believe that our experiences, and concerns, are not unique within international planning education. This has led to the desire to try to draw on a wider range of experience than simply our own, to get beyond simple anecdote, and ideally begin to set out options for how experiences and issues in research ethics in planning can be understood and addressed systematically.
The awareness that we were exploring a little-investigated field, and that we could not address the research only through our own points of view, and consequently of the need to compare our observations with the experiences of other colleagues who may have encountered similar experiences and dilemmas (in different contexts) led us to establish a Thematic Group on ‘Research Ethics and Planning’, within the framework of the different Thematic Groups launched by AESOP.1 This Thematic Group was based on the contention that research into planning raises ethical issues which are distinctive enough to warrant more attention than the routine references to standard social science discussions which are the usual responses given by research monographs and doctoral theses. Our purpose in this Thematic Group has been to explore a way of thinking about planning research that considers the social context of moral perception and behaviour; by doing this we hoped to shift the emphasis of discussion from individual probity to the circumstances which help researchers develop and use sound ethical judgement. In the initial proposal to launch the Thematic Group, we stated that:
this approach has implications for the kinds of institutions within which planning research can be undertaken, and the likely source of the most potent threats to both excellence in research and ethical behaviour. The purpose of the Thematic Group is to build up a framework for considering ethical issues in planning research. Most researchers could list some of the ethical observations that they feel should shape the conduct of research; some will have personal experience of ethical dilemmas related to research. This Thematic Group would like to explore whether anything systematic can be said about how such ethical issues arise, hence how they might be understood, and addressed.
The Thematic Group on ‘Research Ethics and Planning’ was established in 2005, and has held regular meetings and debates during the association’s annual conferences. In all truth, and this aspect will be taken up again later, participation in the Thematic Group on ‘Research Ethics and Planning’ was restricted to a limited number of scholars, in spite of general expressions of interest shown by many and stimulating discussions which took place during some of the meetings. Indeed, right from the beginning of our ‘adventure’, we sensed the difficulty, and at times embarrassment (if not discomfort) experienced by many of our colleagues in confronting this topic, without doubt delicate, arduous and at times embarrassing.
Despite such reservations, a round-table entitled ‘Research Ethics in the Context of Racialised Conflict and Oppression’ was held in Naples in the summer of 2007, on the occasion of the XXI AESOP Conference ‘Planning for the Risk Society: Dealing with Uncertainty, Challenging the Future’; the round-table excited great interest, participation and an animated debate. Only some of those called to participate in the round-table in Naples2 went on to contribute to this volume; others declined for various reasons. Just as many of the colleagues who, despite our invitation and their declared interest in the subject, subsequently forwent the opportunity to contribute their papers and observations. We decided to mention these contingent events not, obviously, for anecdotal support; this aspect, although in some ways marginal and also linked to the fortuitousness of circumstances, highlights the difficulty involved in dealing with this topic, and the embarrassment and discomfort that it can evoke in every one of us when it must be faced, starting with our own personal experiences in research. This aspect increased our determination to pursue the project, and involve, eventually, a large number of colleagues, whose contributions are contained in this volume. However, the autobiographical approach has prevailed in a larger part of the volume’s contributions, as explicitly requested by the editors.

The Purposes of the Book

The first purpose is to help planning researchers engage constructively with a working and policy environment in which research ethics has an increasing profile. In most advanced capitalist countries there has been increasing attention given in recent years within the governance of social research to securing ethical behaviour (Israel and Hay 2006). Within the UK university research ethics committees now have their own journal (Research Ethics Review). In most universities the fresh attention being given to research ethics in social research applies right down to undergraduate study. In addition, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has promoted its own policy on research ethics, sponsored training sessions, and has funded initiatives such as the research seminar series on ‘the social relations of contract research’. It is clear from the overview provided by Israel and Hay that the UK is in line with developments elsewhere. Planning research – especially that within universities – is subject to this new, more vigorous (and possibly more rigorous) regime. Inevitably, it has raised the awareness of researchers (and students) about research ethics, and the issues and dilemmas associated with it. There are discussions of these matters in general texts on research methods, but this volume will provide a discussion with the circumstances of planning research in mind. It has been argued in different contexts – e.g. business ethics – that those teaching ethics to students need assistance in reviewing the ethical dimensions of their own circumstances (Chesley and Anderson 2003). This is a significant difference from general discussions because it is in the nature of ethical discussion that precise circumstances are central to ethical judgement (Campbell 2006; Flyvbjerg 2001). A book which has planning research specifically in mind, therefore, will be of great value to planning researchers and students of planning.
Secondly, the book provides an opportunity for researchers in planning to think about the implications for their work of the changes in governance and planning which have been both a spur for, and object of, some of their research. In large measure, these derive from a perennial set of ethical issues surrounding research which seeks to inform public policy. These are not unique to planning – even historians who seek to engage with public policy find that ethical issues then arise (Johnes 2007). In broad terms these concerns relate to:
• relations between the researcher and client (and the potential influence of the latter on the research project and outcomes);
• the ‘life’ of the research findings once they are released by the researcher (for example, the possibility of their being used to promote unjust or exploitative policies), and, related to this;
• the role of the research in a broader policy and political context and the possibility of its facilitating political projects which the researcher finds ethically troubling.
The way that these kinds of issues play out in a planning context has been explored a little by Healey (1991), but the changing context of governance, and the political economy of higher education within that,3 makes it timely to have a comprehensive look at research ethics in planning.
Yet there are ethical challenges which are distinctive of the kind of research which at least some planning researchers undertake, and the book will address some of them. The definition and use of space is bound up with social justice in the broadest sense: issues of distribution of resources (Eversley 1973), and the construction of – and struggles over – identity and respect (Massey and Jess 1995). In thus involving both the politics of distribution and recognition (Fraser 1995) the appropriation, control and management of territory (all understood in the broadest sense) is central to the way power is exercised in society. Planning researchers are particularly likely to find themselves researching in contexts of social tension and/or conflict, therefore, sometimes associated with clear oppression and injustice (see Bollen 2000; Gleeson 1999; Home 1994; Yiftachel 2006). These circumstances are only more extreme versions of the challenge to any planning researcher – that her/his work is enmeshed in struggles over the spatiality of the good society, and how this should be ordered, and that defining the field or terms of research inquiry, let alone undertaking the research and drawing conclusions about the world, is itself a contribution to those struggles. This book will have a section of reflective case studies by researchers of various planning locales about:
• how they came to recognise the ethical dimension of their work,
• how they addressed this dimension, and
• the implications of their experience for their own research practice and the training preparation of researchers.
These will be valuable in their own right to other planning researchers and planning students, and will also feed into the concluding chapter of the book where approaches to ethics will be re-visited in the light of the case studies, and conclusions drawn for research practice and research training in planning.

The Organisation and Contents of the Book

The book has three parts. The first considers some of the influential ways of thinking systematically about ethics in the Western intellectual tradition. While these are not drawn on explicitly in the case studies in part three of the book, they do offer the reader one way to interpret this material, and – indeed – their own lives as researchers. Consequentialism, the subject of Nigel Taylor’s chapter, is an approach to ethics which emphasises the primacy of right action in the good life, and has a distinctive approach to understanding what constitutes a right action: that which has the best consequences. The utilitarian version of consequentialism has been extraordinarily influential in shaping public policy and private morality in Western countries, despite its having some obvious difficulties. Taylor examines some of these as they might relate to the work of planning researchers.
An increasingly influential alternative to consequentialism is virtue ethics, another very broadly defined approach with many variants. As Huw Thomas explains, what is distinctive about virtue ethics is its focus on the nature of a person’s character (without necessarily ignoring actions, of course). Different theoretical frameworks often have different emphases in their view of topics. Within virtue ethics moral education assumes a significance as something which is perhaps more difficult to do properly than is commonly appreciated.
Major figures in the Pragmatist tradition – hugely influential in planning theory via the work of north American theorists – had important things to say about education and also about the socially engaged intellectual. Niraj Verma’s chapter draws on Pragmatism to argue that ethical considerations are at the heart of research activity – because they relate to research as a cognitive activity, and are not simply about the management of desires.
The second part of the book discusses some of the institutional context within which research into planning takes place. Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) reminds us that ethics cannot be discussed in a social vacuum because sensible and worthwhile discussions of ethics should be about people as they are, in the world as it is, or could reasonably be expected to be. Discussions of research ethics need to understand the institutional context within which research is conducted and the factors which influence the mentality and behaviour of researchers. Three of the chapters – by Kanishka Goonewardena, Rob Imrie and P. Anthony Brinkman – discuss some of the pressures which researchers in planning schools can find themselves under. Both Imrie and Goonewardena highlight the ways in which Western universities are increasingly aligning themselves materially and philosophically with business. So, for example, university managers talk of the need for entrepreneurialism, academics at all levels think in terms of ‘outputs’, and competition is central to university life at all levels – between individuals, between schools, between universities, between national constellations of universities, and so on… Some of this is not at all new, but some is: in particular, the rigour with which competition along easily measurable dimensions of academic life has been enforced in academic life in very many countries. Its causes are in part sensitivity to the hegemony of neoliberalism in many countries, and in part an embracing of that political economy and its core values by many academics. The consequences for ethical research, argue Imrie and Goonewardena, are profound.
P. Anthony Brinkman’s thesis overlaps with these kinds of considerations, but also has some different elements. The phenomenon that he discusses – a research silence in relation to potentially embarrassing topics – is not a recently discovered one. It pre-dates the new political economy of higher education, and according to Brinkman points to the significance of power relations within universities and academic disciplines. Brinkman’s concerns resonate with some of those of Filippo Schilleci, who reviews the ineffectiveness and partiality of attempts to evaluate initiatives to manage protected areas in Sicily. He ...

Table of contents