Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis

I am co-teaching the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and blogging about roughly half of the 18 topics on our syllabus. Last Friday morning, we discussed Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis. The readings were:

  • Bent Flyvbjerg, “Social Science that Matters” (2006)
  • Bent Flyvbjerg, “Making Organization Research Matter: Power, Values and Phronesis” (2006)
  • Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, Chapter 10, pp. 141-65
  • David Garvin, “Making the Case,” Harvard Magazine, September-October 2003

Flyvbjerg started as a planning professor in Denmark who uncovered and successfully addressed corruption in the city of Aalborg by finding specific information and using it to challenge power. The key moment was when he discovered five lines of a specific memo which guaranteed that “The Chamber of Industry and Commerce” (a private interest) would be included in all official meetings about redesigning the city center. He asked why they would be there, and that revealed a whole scandal. The Chamber was actually pro-car and had been the most powerful force in city planning.

Flyvbjerg has since developed a broader theory of social science as “phronesis,” the Greek word for practical wisdom. His theory has been highly influential; for example, it provided one inspiration for the Perestroika movement in political science.

In Latin, the word phronesis was translated as prudentia. The English derivative word “prudence” is too narrow, but it reminds us that phronesis is a virtue, not just a cognitive skill. Aristotle distinguishes phronesis from:

  • Sophia (wisdom about abstractions, often spiritual in nature)
  • Techne (art), which is knowledge about how to make things or make things work
  • Episteme (knowledge that consists of general propositions, connected logically, and therefore teachable)

Flyvbjerg asserts that social science tries to be an episteme, but as such, it does not work. “No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This approach is a wasteful dead-end.”

Questions for discussion:

  •  Is that true (no predictive theories at all?)
  • Why would predictive theories be hard to come by in the social science?

Two reasons (not in the Flyvbjerg reading) why we should not be satisfied by social science as episteme.

  1. Social science studies people and confers power over people, but people who are studied can find that out and adjust their behavior strategically. For instance, if criminologists discover a technique that works to prevent crime, criminals will defeat it.
  2. Knowing what is right means understanding and properly applying concepts (such as love, courage, kindness) that have two features that make them intractable for scientific reasoning: they inextricably combine facts and values, and they have unpredictable moral valences, being good or bad in different circumstances. Only a holistic evaluation of the situation can tell us what is right to do.

In contrast to episteme, phronesis tells you the right action in a particular situation. A “right action” is both smart/effective and good. Aristotle claims that phronesis combines understanding and virtue; it is impossible to exercise phronesis and do wrong. Phronesis is a virtue and not an art.

Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics, chapter 6)

Practical wisdom [phronesis] … is concerned with things human and things about which it is possible to deliberate. … No one deliberates about things invariable, nor about things which have not an end.

Nor is practical wisdom concerned with universals only-it must also recognize the particulars; for it is practical, and practice is concerned with particulars. This is why some who do not know, and especially those who have experience, are more practical than others who know; for if a man knew that light meats are digestible and wholesome, but did not know which sorts of meat are light, he would not produce health, but the man who knows that chicken is wholesome is more likely to produce health.

… What has been said is confirmed by the fact that while young men become geometricians and mathematicians and wise in matters like these, it is thought that a young man of practical wisdom cannot be found. The cause is that such wisdom is concerned not only with universals but with particulars, which become familiar from experience, but a young man has no experience, for it is length of time that gives experience. …

All the virtues are forms of practical wisdom. [For example, instead of being naturally fearless, to have the true human virtue of courage is to exercise phronesis] … It is clear, then, from what has been said, that it is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor practically wise without moral virtue.

Flyvbjerg advocates that “social scientists and social science professionals [be] analysts who provide food for thought for the ongoing process of public deliberation, participation, and decision-making.” They do so by immersing themselves in a concrete situation and asking (with all due methodological rigor) the following four questions:

(1) Where are we going?
(2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
(3) Is this development desirable?
(4) What, if anything, should we do about it?

He also advocates a different relationship between knowledge and power. We are taught the Baconian ideal that knowledge is power. As scholars, we generate knowledge and then hope it influences power (or possibly try to disseminate the results so that we are more influential.) But actually power and knowledge are closely and reciprocally connected. For example, what data are collected is determined by power. So we should be “reflexive” about power, incorporating a strategic analysis of power into our research.

For instance, if a given research finding is resisted or disbelieved, that may be evidence that power is shaping rationality and should be challenged. The resistance is informative (but only if you push).

Aristotle neglected power but it is at the core of the analysis for Flyvbjerg. “Power is seen as productive and positive, and not only as restrictive and negative.”

Values in Phronesis

“By definition, phronetic organization researchers focus on values and, especially, evaluative judgements.”

Flyvbjerg strongly endorses “dialogue” with laypeople. Is that how he finds out whether the change is “desirable”?

Distancing themselves from foundationalism does not leave phronetic social scientists normless… . They find their point of departure in their attitude to the situation being studied. They seek to ensure that such an attitude is not based on idiosyncratic morality or personal preferences, but on a common view among a specific reference group to which they refer. or phronetic social scientists, the socially and historically conditioned context – and not the elusive universal grounding that is desired by certain scholars – constitutes the most effective bulwark against relativism and nihilism. Phronetic social scientists realise that as researchers, their sociality and history is the only solid ground under their feet; and that this socio-historical foundation is fully adequate for their work.”

Note the following features that are absent in purely positivist social science (although they are practiced by many fine scholars): a combination of values, facts, and strategies; a forward-looking orientation; a sensitivity to power that does not preclude hope that something good can be achieved; and a presumption that the researcher is part of the community that must act (“what should we do?”).

Implications for Pedagogy

If phronesis is the best account of social science, how could it be taught? Perhaps through the pure case study method, as developed originally in the Harvard Business School. Garvin notes “Case discussions help students develop persuasive skills. Management is a social art; it requires working with and through others. The ability to tell a compelling story, to marshal evidence, and to craft persuasive arguments is essential to success.” He also notes that the case method is designed to teach the habit of making decisions and the courage to act under uncertainty.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.