Histories of Planning
Histories of Planning
Several working groups have been formed to tackle the way in which considerations of scale and scope, logistics, and decision-making impacted knowledge production in the fields of science. Individual projects explore the divergent cultural and material repertoires that actors employed to make things work. The focus is on knowledge production in action, thus emphasizing the entanglement and dynamics of knowledge forms in their historical "making." As things have to work out and ends have to be met, humans identify physical realities and discuss how to handle them. They spell out cognitive capacities, validate knowledge, apply or dismiss ideas and practices. Different histories of planning are explored to see how individuals, communities, and states envisioned and fashioned spheres for creativity and negotiation that were then developed, experimented, and stabilized to make things work.
Every activity, even the most humble, involves an element of planning, a process of negotiating knowledge and action that aims at making things work: an objective is identified, possibilities and constraints are considered; materials, skills, tools, and techniques are allocated; thoughts and things are organized, managed or adjusted. Choices are made and put into action. It may be an individual act or a collaborative effort, it may happen implicitly or be made explicit, in most planning processes, general patterns attain validity as much through experience and empirical method as through theorizing and abstraction.
Scrutinizing “histories of planning” unpacks knowledge production in action, thus emphasizing the entanglement and dynamics of knowledge forms in their historical ‘making’. As things have to work out and ends have to be met, humans identify physical realities and discuss how to handle them. They spell out cognitive capacities, validate knowledge, apply or dismiss ideas and practices. They identify patterns or methods that worked in the past and stabilize them, creating precedents. Purposeful planning also allows spontaneity and the ad-hoc nature of knowledge production to manifest. As it clears space for experiments and novelty it is suggestive of power relations, determining who had space to experiment, and at what level novelty was possible. How did individuals, communities and states envision and fashion spheres for creativity and negotiation? And how did they then develop, experiment, and stabilize them to make things work?
In recent years research on epistemic identities, objects and spaces has substantially enhanced our understanding of where, when and how scientific or technological knowledge was ‘made’, and ‘circulated’. In this research much emphasis has been given to historical debates around knowledge identities: the practical, embodied, implicit, tacit, or the theoretical, metaphysical, intellectual, analytical realms of knowing. Such approaches have worked particularly well in the study of eras and areas that had “science” and in which the nature of the scientific or technological contribution was clearly set.
Research on the longue-durée, the deep time of history, whether ancient, medieval, premodern or even ongoing artisanal realms of industrial regions - on societies that for want of a better word can be called “traditional” - has drawn attention to the highly transitory and contingent nature of all historical formats of knowledge, an issue that STS and anthropology scholars equally emphasize through their study of contemporary techno-scientific forms of knowledge production. This research has also shown how materiality or different material orders (from the everyday artefacts that surround us to the landscapes in which we live) have contributed to the witnessing of knowledge production. From this perspective, the historical identification of knowledge, its forms and expressions, needs to be naturalized within the context of how actors sought to handle the very dynamics of knowledge and action.
In this research project the concept of “planning” serves as a proxy for manifold notions and terms that historical actors have used to address and frame how to “make things work”, rather than an idea of planning that eighteenth- to twentieth-century European elite worlds expressed in terms of risk management and future-orientation. Whether offered by an individual, a community or a state, planning historically has meant approaching issues as dynamic and procedural activities: knowledge and skills were subject to purpose and having “made things work” was the gauge of success.
“Planning” in this broader perspective is suggestive of process, of sequence or patterns. It asks questions about the logic of materiality and patterns of thought, and attempts to stabilize these logics through creation of precedents, algorithms, or contingencies. It looks at how people deal with the ad hoc nature of knowledge production, whether building a dam, organizing a training programme or baking a cake. Approximation, improvisation, and flexibility are seen in relation to the creation of norms, strategies and policies. Between the ideal plan and its implementation, some bodies of knowledge are institutionalized and others ignored. Goals, achievements and failures, skills and materials or the lack thereof are mapped out in guidelines, models, recipes and blueprints, that often later show the coordinates of the field of effort.
In eleventh-century Song (960-1279) China, for instance, scholar-officials attempted to institutionalized a set of methods to ‘counterbalance diseases or malfunctions’ that included hydraulic engineering, crop selection, and moral training, as well as philology and philosophy. In addition, animal care featured prominently in this new field of expertise as its importance emerged against the backdrop of the Song’s gradual loss of political control over the Northern plains where people traditionally reared cattle and horses - the major source of locomotive energy for civil transportation and warfare. In an attempt to make the limited animal resources go farther, candidates for the civil service were trained in how to “repair/reassemble” the original bodies of the animals and were asked to produce diagrams, illustrations and textual descriptions of these processes to qualify for employment in the state apparatus. These eleventh-century documents then served future generations of scholar-officials during the Ming era (1369-1645) as templates, instigating them to create even more knowledge about animals, illnesses, and the material and therapeutic properties of their surrounding world.
But the concept of “planning” is not just relevant to the China of a thousand years ago. To use an extreme “modern” example, “planning” can be a theme that takes us from the privacy of a toilet to the public systems of ordering knowledge and materiality – water supply, waste management, building codes, installation techniques - that need to function around it. Or, when considering the “planning” of the medieval cathedral, issues from the food provisioning of workers to the coordination of stone cutting throughout the structure to the layout of altars and chapels to methods of working suspended many metres above the ground need to be synthesized. It is the historian’s task to recover and then integrate the perspectives of historical actors on making things work, whether this is eleventh-century Chinese households requiring ancestral shrines or nineteenth-century American children requiring vocational training six days each week, but Sabbath-keeping on the seventh.
From a global perspective, and from the viewpoint of its procedural character, research on planning promises substantial insights into the dynamic entanglements of knowledge forms, the relationship between management and methodological varieties, and the role of systemic choices and procedural improvisations for the identification and application of systematic knowledge. Particular emphasis will be given in the first phase of this collaborative research project to the ways in which scale and scope have historically impacted knowledge dynamics, and to the role that structuring actions and the nature of a manager’s knowledge and beliefs (ethics and decision-making) have played in the historical formation of knowledge fields.