Understanding place as a cultural system: implications of theory and method

15 Jun 1996

This dissertation seeks to provide insight into the relationships between public philosophy and the theoretical and methodological implications of social inquiry; to increase understanding of what it means to conceive of place as a cultural system; and to increase understanding of what it means to take a civic science approach to social assessment.This dissertation is based on four pieces of work. The first piece is an examination of the relationships between public philosophy, theory and methodology: how knowledge is defined and created; the relationship of the knower to the known; and who can be a knower. A public philosophy framework was developed by drawing from Sandel's theory of public philosophy and a Stanley's theory of civic forums. The framework was then used to contrast a deliberative democratic public philosophy with a competitive pluralist public philosophy. The second piece of this dissertation is the conceptual development of a theory of place, based on conceiving place as a cultural system, and the development of categories that provide empirical access to meanings and symbol systems through the examination of social events and actions.The third piece is based on a unique opportunity to participate in a setting in which these issues were being played out in lived experience. This opportunity involved working with the White Pass Community Self-Assessment project in rural southwestern Washington. Involvement in this project allowed the theoretical discussion of this dissertation to be grounded in a real world application. The project afforded the researcher an opportunity to experiment with the role of research facilitator, and observe and learn as a participant from within an actual civic science effort. The final piece includes a critique of standard social impact assessment and a comparison of a social impact assessment with the White Pass process.The study demonstrated that research, as a social activity, entails many choices, including choice of theory and method, that have implications for research outcomes, including how these choices affect places as cultural systems. The study showed that, given the opportunity, citizens will engage in research as lay scientists and can produce useful and meaningful knowledge. In this study, civic science and social learning processes increased the usefulness, meaningfulness and benefit of social assessment for citizens and resource agencies.

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