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Bent Flyvbjerg

Professor, Research Director, Dr. Techn., Dr. Scient., and Ph.D.

Notice: On April 1, 2009, Bent Flyvbjerg moved to University of Oxford. Flyvbjerg's Aalborg website is up to date until the time of his move. After this date, please see his site at Oxford:



What is Phronetic Planning Research? What is Phronetic Social Science?

Phronetic social science is an approach to the study of social phenomena based on a contemporary interpretation of the classical Greek concept phronesis, variously translated as practical judgment, practical wisdom, common sense, or prudence. Phronetic planning research is phronetic social science employed in the specific study of policy and planning.

Aristotle is the classic philosopher of phronesis. In Aristotle’s words phronesis is an intellectual virtue that is "reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man." Phronesis concerns values and interests and goes beyond analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge or know how (techne) and it involves what has been called "the art of judgment," that is to say decisions made in the manner of a virtuoso social actor. Aristotle was explicit in his regard of phronesis as the most important of the three intellectual virtues: episteme, techne, and phronesis. Phronesis is most important because it is that activity by which the analytical and instrumental rationality of episteme and techne is balanced by value-rationality.

The principal task for phronetic research is to clarify values, interests, and power relations as a basis for praxis. The point of departure for such research can be summarized in four value-rational questions, which researchers ask and answer for specific problematics in their fields of interest, for instance in urban policy and planning:

(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?

Question (2), the power question, is what distinguishes, in particular, contemporary from classical phronesis. The "we" referred to in questions (1) and (4) consists of those researchers asking the questions and those who share the concerns of the researchers, possibly including people in the community or organization under study. Thus the "we" will always be situated in relation to a specific context. Phronetic researchers are highly aware of the importance of context and perspective, and see no neutral ground, no "view from nowhere," for their work.

It is a basic tenet of phronetic research that in so far as social and political situations become clear, they get clarified by detailed stories of who is doing what to whom. Such clarifications provide a main link to praxis. Hence a main task of phronetic research is to provide in-depth narratives of how power works and with what consequences, and to suggest how power might be changed and work with other consequences. The result of phronetic research is an account of the possibilities, problems, and risks we face in specific domains of social action.

In sum, the primary purpose of phronetic social science is not to develop theory, but to contribute to society's practical rationality in elucidating where we are, where we want to go, and what is desirable according to diverse sets of values and interests. The goal of the phronetic approach is to add to society's capacity for value-rational deliberation and action.

For more on the theory and methodology of phronetic social science and for practical examples, see Making Social Science Matter (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Specifically for planning research, see "Phronetic Planning Research: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections" (Planning Theory and Practice, 2004) and "Bringing Power to Planning Research: One Researcher's Praxis Story" (Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2002).

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Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Fibigerstraede 11 - 13, DK-9220 Aalborg East, Denmark, Phone: (+45) 96 35 80 80