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Research project: The multiple orders of planning: spatial development strategies for towns in rural Sichuan

Lisa Melcher

Spatial planning is driven by and materialization of values, ideas and societal imaginations. Which investments are most sought for, the architectural form of town centers, interventions in the housing market: These are decisions being taken by planners or politicians, and these decisions reflect worldviews and conceptualizations of how society, polity, economy and culture work. There have already been numerous explorations of the political-economic institutions at local and national levels that condition e.g. the local growth strategies focused on the land market. My research builds on these explanations and reaches for identification and conceptualization of additional logics in spatial planning, which I expect to be based in values and narratives of the world. The theoretical framework that enables me to think a multiplicity of – sometimes contradictory – social mechanisms, objectives and values in spatial planning is derived from Boltanski and Thévenot’s (1991/2006) orders of justification and from theinstitutional logics perspective of Thornton, Ocasio and Lounsbury (2012).

In my empirical research, I focus on professional planners working in towns in rural Sichuan. Planning in this context is understood as a professional discipline rooted in academic and technical discourse, as well as a task of administration rather than politics. This is not to say that spatial planning is not at the same time highly political: it distributes resources and decides between alternatives options regarding public policy and spatial development. This tension between professional ethos, functions and charges of administration as well as political logics of personal career and negotiation of interests can be expected to be routine in planners’ work. I will examine how exactly it plays out in the setting of small towns in a rural context.