The troubled relationship between practitioners and academics. (A belated answer to Efe Sevin)

Tunja, Colombia

by Ares Kalandides

During the closing panel of the 2nd International Place Branding Conference in Bogotá, we had a rather long discussion on the relationship between practitioners and academics. The controversy was triggered by a statement of mine that we should think about a conference without “communication practitioners”. A few days after the conference, Efe Sevin, more or less declared the academics quite a nuisance and asked for more cases and less criticism.  I didn’t answer then, but I should now.

Place marketing and branding started as a practical discipline, before anybody even thought of conceptualizing its methods or questioning its principles. And even then, most of the earlier stuff was about how to apply the principles of product marketing to cities: if you can market a shampoo, you can market a city. It was the utter failure of these practices that made practitioners themselves start rethinking. Serious conceptualization did not take place until the early 1990s and with it came the critical approaches – interestingly enough by geographers. What interested them was not that much what went wrong in the implementation of place marketing, but rather, how place marketing fits into a broader neoliberal globalization. This led to a complex discussion on the multiplicity of place identity, the democratic legitimacy of place marketing, the commodification of places etc.

Here, something very strange happens: On the one hand academics tend to look at what practitioners do, try to understand it, analyze it and, if necessary, criticize it; on the other hand most practitioners totally ignore any of the issues asked by academics. The first problem here is this strict differentiation between practitioners and academics, a mistake committed by both sides. This pure distinction between theory and practice reminds me of the 19th century approach that tended to juxtapose the two as totally separate entities. So for 20 years now, I have been listening to practitioners present their work without any serious progress in questioning what they do. There are excellent and there are mediocre presentations, but the bottom line is the same: the only question is how to best brand/market places and not what place branding/marketing is about.

Now, this has very serious consequences for the trade. I am not interested in the utter uselessness of certain bad practitioners, because in every business you will find good and bad ones. I am rather interested in the de-politization of place branding practices, which are thus presented as purely technocratic, non-political solutions. How could we ever think that something so much involved with society, with the relations among places, with power constellations and the distribution of ressources can be anything but deeply political? Taking it out of the realm of politics and reducing it to a managerial skill can either mean that some practitioners are incapable of seeing beyond the tip of their own nose or that they couldn’t care less.

It is very important – and not only in place marketing – to think about what we are doing and why, about who does it and what its broader consequences are. By focusing only on how to do it, we reject any responsibility for what we do. This is where critical conceptualization can come in very handy: it can give back the trade its societal (thus political) conscience.

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2 Responses to The troubled relationship between practitioners and academics. (A belated answer to Efe Sevin)

  1. Ares, interesting article. I couldn’t agree more with the basic statement of the non-existence of a hard distinction between practitioners and scientists. Also, the scientific studies of geographers does indeed mainly focus on marketing and branding of countries, regions and cities as but one of the phenomena that the neo-liberal shift in spatial policies has brought about.

  2. Efe Sevin says:

    Mihalis, thank you very much for the response. Let me try to clarify a couple of points I made in my original post Theorizing or Terrorizing . In essence, I agree with your conclusion.

    My reaction was partly based on my observation, especially during the Bogota conference. It was a great mix of scholars and practitioners. Martin, you are right about the hard distinction – but just by looking at the nature of questions and presentations, you could understand whether a person was ‘mainly’ a practitioner or a scholar. To give you a personal example, I remember a great presentation about Green Brands. But the only question I had in my mind was about its methodological rigor.

    My ‘fear’ is losing all these practice-study communication channels and end up in a position similar to the field of international relations – where you actually need to write a couple of books to convince people the study of international relations might be related to -well- international relations…

    Scholars do need practice and more cases to better observe this social phenomenon, yet if we keep criticizing practitioners solely based on their academic skills, I fear we might use the couple of communication channels we have left with them. Right now, there is cooperation and collaboration between academia and market. By answering questions about the broader consequences of place branding, we encourage better practices. And I believe this is how knowledge production should take place in social sciences.

    PS: Do I read some Weber in between lines?

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