Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

1.1 What do we mean by ‘theory’?

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Figure 1 ‘Theory’ helps us to make sense of complex problems

Since this course is about different styles of spatial theory, it is worth considering for a moment what we mean by ‘theory’, and how it might help us get a handle on the messy, complex and often confusing predicaments that are constantly being engendered by urban environments and processes.

Put simply, theories are sets of ideas, concepts and procedures that have been developed to help make sense of certain aspects of existence. Ideally, a theory shows enough of its own working that others can follow its reasoning, can be convinced by its usefulness and can deploy it in new contexts. So, while all theories are put forward at particular times and in particular places, their purpose is to travel: to have at least some degree of relevance in situations beyond the setting in which they were first crafted.

Having a theory, or multiple theories, at hand offers an alternative to needing to begin our thinking from scratch each time we encounter something new or questionable in the world. Theories equip us to engage with events or processes as they take place and to speculate about what might happen in the future. They do this by providing ways to register what is significant: guidelines for identifying – amidst the clamour and bustle of our surroundings – the most important things going on. And they offer procedures by which these significant things should be observed, analysed and explained to others (see Pryke et al., 2003).

Of course, there are different ways of thinking about theory itself. For many researchers and thinkers, ‘theory’ is not simply a set of operations and assumptions that are brought to an exterior reality, as if from beyond. Working with theory, couching new theories or modifying received theory are all seen as practices: they are ‘doings’ that are part of the rest of a world of practices or doings. As such, theory makes a difference to the world or worlds it grapples with, however subtle this might be.

Another way of looking at this is to say that ‘practitioners’ – people who are going about their daily activities and working with the stuff of the world in all manner of ways – are also, in a sense, theorists. They too are following procedures and assumptions a lot of the time, and if pressed may be quite capable of offering explanations for what they are doing and why they are doing it.

So, whether we see ourselves as thinkers, researchers or practitioners, or as citizens or members of a community, most of us are working with theory in some sense: with germs of theory, fragments of theory, intermingling theories – and sometimes with fully articulated theoretical positions.

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