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Generalisation Dilemma in Political Theory

Political Theory
Normative Theory
Theoretical
P19
Emanuela Ceva
University of Geneva
Nikolas Kirby
University of Oxford

Wednesday 16:00 - 17:00 (29/06/2022)


Abstract

Speaker: Marta Wojciechowska, Kings College London There exists a widely discussed tension between the current focus of a mainstream political theory on the Anglo-Saxon, or Western experiences, and the global nature of problems that the theory aims to target. In response, past decades have observed a rise in decentralisation efforts, as illustrated by critical studies of diverse intellectual traditions (e.g. Dallmayr 2010), drawing attention to global aspects of power (L.K. Jenco, Idris, and Thomas 2020b), incorporation of empirical methods into theorising (Ackerly 2018; Longo and Zacka 2019; Herzog and Zacka 2019), or emphasisng the role of context in which normative theorising happens (Simon 2020; Skinner 2002; Laegaard 2019). This article contributes to these efforts by uncovering a dilemma affecting empirically-informed political theory. The dilemma arises between two goals of such a theory: inclusion of a plurality of lived experiences as a basis of normative theorising and identification of norms that could have broader applicability. The article refers to this dilemma as a generalisation dilemma. The dilemma has important consequences for the theory interested in global (or context-overarching) problems. Affected theory may fail to accomplish its goals, risk prioritising privileged types of lived experiences, and consequently undermines the logic of decentralisation. As an example of the theory affected by the generalisation dilemma, the article discusses a branch of political theory interested in normative and political questions of urbanisation. Since more than half of the world population currently lives in cities and the process of urbanisation is projected to continue (UN DESA 2018), normative questions of urban living are an important topic in the field. Urban political theory is grounded in real-life experiences of urban living and employs empirical methods to identify normative rules (de-Shalit 2018; Meagher 2007). Due to the global character of urbanisation, the theory is concerned with a phenomenon that is broader than the scope of experiences included. Being affected by the generalisation dilemma, urban political theory struggles to deliver its aims. As the article demonstrates, current normative arguments within the political theory of the urban are neither drawn from the pluralist forms of urban living nor relevant for global urbanisation. To ease the consequences of the generalisation dilemma, both for political theory interested in the urban as well as broader normative political theory, this article proposes a two-step strategy. Firstly, it follows existing practices of grounded normative theory (Ackerly et al. 2021) to expand the notion of normative agency. Secondly, it draws on the interpretive developments within social science to engage in a contextualised comparison between bottom-up ideals. This strategy facilitates the incorporation of a broader scope of urban experiences than currently included by the political theory of the urban. Further, it helps to identify which grounded norms already have wider applicability and arise in different contexts.