Negotiating polyvocal strategies: re-reading de Certeau through the lens of urban planning in South Africa

Blog by Lauren Andres, Phil Jones, Stuart Paul Denoon-Stevens and Melgaço Lorena

31 Oct 2019, 4:22 p.m.
Lauren Andres, Phil Jones, Stuart Paul Denoon-Stevens and Melgaço Lorena



Michel de Certeau’s work on space and everyday life has informed debates in the fields of urban studies, planning, geography and sociology for decades.  His theories have significant gaps in them, however, and we have used this paper to challenge and develop de Certeau’s ideas around strategies and power. 


De Certeau famously developed the idea of ‘tactics’ as everyday actions that resist the ‘strategies’ of the powerful, but never really explained how these strategies operate.  Our paper examines the idea of strategies by re-interrogating The practice of everyday life (De Certeau, 1984) alongside some of de Certeau’s earlier work.  We argue that de Certeau represents strategies as being single and coherent (‘univocal’) whereas in fact the interests of different powerful actors frequently come into conflict and must be mediated in order to secure changes in society.


We use the example of South African urban planning to show that the strategies of the powerful are both polyvocal and subject to negotiation.   De Certeau talked about strategies emerging from a singular lieu propre (‘proper place’) which was a metaphor for institutional authority.  The efforts to reform the South African planning system in the post-apartheid era, especially with regards to the creation of new planning legislation, demonstrates how strategies in fact operate from multiple and often conflicting lieux propres. Urban planning as a profession has significant authority in its own right and is far from simply being a technical tool delivering the will of politicians.  Of course, professional planners are a diverse group, with different interests and agendas both personal and professional and the also report to elected officials who have varying degrees of control over their activities.  Nonetheless, supported by the lieu propre of their professional status, planners have considerable power to reshape the built environment.  It remains, however, a profession built on negotiation and compromise.  


This paper shows that future work drawing on de Certeau’s widely applied idea of tactics must take much greater account of the tensions and contradictions between the different strategies and lieux propres.  By examining how tactics operate in the context of diverse and highly complex strategies, scholars will be able to shed new light on how a variety of urban processes operate.


Read the accompanying article Negotiating polyvocal strategies: Re-reading de Certeau through the lens of urban planning in South Africa on OnlineFirst.



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