Flyvbjerg, Bent, Todd Landman, and Sanford Schram, eds. Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis.

Author:Quest, Linda
Position:Book review

Flyvbjerg, Bent, Todd Landman, and Sanford Schram, eds. Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xi + 308 pages. Paper, $32.99.

This book from economic geographer Brent Flyvberg, political scientist Todd Landman, and sociologist Sanford Shram is a treat to read. It assembles fourteen articles, with the editors' first, last, and in-between, and fuses the elements into a cohesive whole. All the social sciences are incorporated. The projects are real ones--originating in the field, where the authors were occupied interacting with participants, clarifying genuine problems, and contributing to working strategies of amelioration. Flyvberg in particular saw his reputation grow from his research into the "Great Belt" underwater tunnel bridge project in Denmark. His work drew international attention to the regularity and extent with which such megaprojects exceeded budgets, ran overlong, fell short on public benefits, under-produced revenue, and had negative environmental impacts. Flyvbjerg, with his associates, documented the habitual repetition of such mistakes. Public goods are at stake, as distinguished from academic points or procurement kickbacks. They found that current computer technologies--namely virtual modeling--offered an applicable corrective to cost and schedule overruns. Each of the many contractors could input and see their own and others' progress on a daily basis, helping them stay on budget, on schedule, and in synch with one another.

What is phronesis? Phronesis has been marginalized among Aristotle's virtues. It is practical wisdom and is not for everyone. Phronesis is not for magisterial authorities who state "because I say so." It is not for persons intolerant of ambiguity or uncomfortable with conflict. It is not for unseasoned persons or narrowly specialized ones. Who is phronesis for? Might it be for polyarchal adults? Polyarchal is Robert A. Dahl's term, and since the present volume uses Dahl's definition of power, perhaps "polyarchal," with its connotations of diffuse centers of power, can serve. Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz are also used for their work with power. So is Machiavelli. Would these four be earlier examples of phronetic practitioners? Perhaps. The authors suggest that phronesis demands "intimate familiarity ... grown from the bottom up ... with the contingencies and uncertainties of any particular social practice ... in contextualized settings" (p. 16-17)...

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