3/22/2011

HABERMAS’S THEORY OF COMMUNICATIVE ACTION AND THE THEORY OF SOCIAL CAPITAL

Roger Bolton (Department of Economics and Center for Environmental Studies)

Williams College I am bringing together two clusters of ideas I think are important. One is the thought of the German writer Jürgen Habermas, a prominent philosopher whose ideas are meaningful to many of our colleagues who are what I’ll call “planning academics,” that is scholars who teach planning in universities. The other is a cluster of ideas on social capital and social networks.
Habermas is a contemporary philosopher with a worldwide reputation. One of his best-known ideas is communicative action, in which actors in society seek to reach common understanding and to coordinate actions by reasoned argument, consensus, and cooperation rather than strategic action strictly in pursuit of their own goals (Habermas, 1984, p. 86). However, it’s not only his general fame that makes him relevant to social capital and networks. There are other reasons more specific to geography and regional science. One is that many geographers, sociologists, and planning theorists appeal to his ideas in their work (though not many economists do).
Prominent examples are scholars who apply Habermas’s ideas to a general (but not Marxist) critique of late capitalist societies, to analysis of mass movements, and to normative assessments of planning practice (see for example Healey 1997, Forester 1985, 1992, Miller 1992, 2000, Barnes and Sheppard 1992).
Another reason is that Habermas provides a theoretical basis for a view of planning that emphasizes widespread public participation, sharing of information with the public, reaching consensus through public dialogue rather than exercise of power, avoiding privileging of experts and bureaucrats, and replacing the model of the technical expert with one of the reflective planner (Argyris and Schön 1974, Schön 1983, Innes 1995, Lauria and Soll 1996, Wilson 1997). In this view, the legitimacy of democracy depends not only on constitutional processes of enacting laws, but also on "the discursive quality of the full processes of deliberation leading up to such a result," as Stephen White (1995, p.12) puts it. John Dryzek notes Habermas prompts the policy analyst to work on conditions of political interaction and design of institutions rather than merely the content of policy proposals, and Habermasian ideal institutions rule out “authority based on anything other than a good argument” (1995, pp. 108-110).
A third reason, from almost the beginning of an understanding of Habermas's communicative action one sees the possibility of a connection to social capital. Communicative action is individual action designed to promote common understanding in a group and to promote cooperation, as opposed to "strategic action" designed simply to achieve one's personal goals (Habermas 1984, especially pp. 85-101, 284-8). Habermas does not use the term “social capital,” but a reader can see possible connections while reading what he says about other things. Some planning theorists believe a desideratum of planning is the encouragement of communicative action to facilitate the production of social capital. The relevance to planning is suggested by Habermas’s statement: “In the case of communicative action the interpretive accomplishments on which cooperative processes of interpretation are based represent the mechanism for coordinating action …." (1984, 101; italics "coordinating" in original, italics on "cooperative" added).
He is one of the most renowned philosophers and social theorists of our time and undoubtedly the best known German philosopher. His stance as a “critical theorist”—the most famous of the “Frankfurt School”—and his ideas of communicative action and the “public sphere” are known to many intellectuals in a variety of disciplines. There are many books and essays, and extensive traffic in messages on electronic mailing lists, expositing, interpreting, and criticizing him, and scholars apply his theories to politics, law, law, philosophy of science, education, theology, literary studies, even the performing arts (Singer 2000). No ivory tower theorist, he is a highly visible public intellectual and participates in many public discussions in Germany and in elsewhere in Europe. He is known as an advocate of reform and democratization of universities in Germany. After a series of lectures by Habermas in China, a leading Chinese philosopher, Jin Xiping, noted that translations of Habermas were available in China far more readily than ones of Heidegger or Derrida, and said, “Almost everyone knows Habermas as the last great social critic" (Calloway 2001). “He is comparable to Hegel [in] his enormous, positive, intellectual achievement ….”—this from James Marsh, who is also one of the sharpest critics (Marsh 2000, p. 565). Habermas is also known as a scholar who is thoroughly steeped in the thought of philosophers and social scientists who preceded him, and for extensive use of sociology and Anglo-American philosophy in his work. Perhaps of special interest to scholars in regional science is his reliance on but also and criticism of Max Weber.
The literature on social capital that is dominant in the social sciences today does not say much about links to Habermas. Therefore, it seems worthwhile to investigate possible connections, and also to compare a Habermasian approach to some examples of the more dominant approach. This paper is organized as follows: Section II is a brief biographical sketch of Habermas, then Sections III through VI describe and comment on important parts of his social theory, being on social actions (Section III), details of the theory of communicative action (Section IV), the theory of the lifeworld and how it complements the theory of communicative action (Section V), and the muted legacy of Marx (Section VI). Section VII presents preliminary conclusions on the relevance of Habermas to theories of social capital, and Section VIII describes two important recent models of social capital formation from economic theory. Section IX concludes.

Source: http://web.williams.edu/Economics/papers/Habermas.pdf

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