I had this weird dream... At a conference I was sitting in, there was a presentation from another researcher studying the same problem as me... but in exactly the opposite paradigm. I was yet again shaken by the thought that all science is just a hidden tribal warfare between old philosophical ideas. This one that bothers me all the time is not about the nature of reality or what is good knowledge. It is a very personal question about whether I should make more rational decisions... and what the hell is it about them that can make them more rational. In my PhD I study qualitatively how rationality feels in the context of locational decisions of those who are highly educated. The other researcher claimed to be doing the same – but their model fit 80% of the behaviour explained - quantitatively. It. Sounds so simple. I don’t think the choice can be reduced to that. But let’s outline the contours of my PhD thesis before going on a tribal warfare amongst potential friends.
Globalisation has intensified perceived competition between places seeking to attract talent and investment. This has led to the rise of place marketing and branding efforts aimed at promoting the distinctiveness and quality of places. However, attracting talent requires understanding subtle perceptions of place beyond economics and even some social sciences and the humanities. This is where our disagreement with the other researcher would have focussed. They just assumed they could survey respondents, model and – 80%. Yet... concepts from human geography like 'place attachment' (bonds with a place) and 'topophilia' (positive affect towards a landscape) highlight the affective, symbolic and emotional bonds between people and places that are hard to capture at the mode objective, zoomed-out view that a quantitative paradigm is great for. But all I am supposed to say is that we are studying a different aspect or scale. I would just feel they are plainly wrong. I raised that in a question in their presentation and other colleagues agreed but a majority doesn't necessarily make us right, does it?
Relevant Literature for my PhD
My thesis reviews literature across geography, behavioural economics and psychology. The aim is to investigate personal accounts of multiple location choices over time. Rather than assuming place attachment is stable, singular, passive or always positive, the focus is on how skills of place attachment develop through lived experience.
There is potential of the discipline of behavioural economics (along with social and positive psychology which it borrows it’s concepts from) to help with explaining the locational choices made by individuals in response to the associated marketing/branding activities that are used to enhance the attractiveness of places by those responsible for their management.
In examining the nature of peoples’ locational decisions, the focus is particularly on the heuristics - which can be thought of in terms of ‘cognitive shortcuts’ by some and learned or adaptive abilities to ignore information by others. This is in contrast to neo-classical economists’ view of ‘homo economicus’, making optimally rational decisions which deliver maximum personal utility. This is what the other researcher had to assume in order to use their methods but I don’t.
Research Questions and Objectives
Richard Florida's 'creative class' theory tried quantifying place quality to attract talent, but overlooked the subtle experiential aspects as well. My thesis looks to go beyond surveys, lab experiments and other quantitative paradigms in order to study real-world locational decisions under uncertainty. They are very important to the individual and yet overlooked by academic funders or practitioners.
The questions I had did develop from a personal quest to understand what made me move more than 10 times in my life. How do past place experiences shape intuitions about future moves? Can healthy place attachment become an explicit skill to reduce uncertainty, not just a passive bond? Why is it so hard to feel like an insider in a new place?
The goal of the PhD is a conceptual model of how place experiences shape decisions, and practical guidelines for nurturing healthy place attachment. The thesis explores whether place attachment can transform from an implicit intuition to an explicit, learnable skill. In an uncertain world, attachment skills may help people adapt to new places, reducing stress.
The potential to turn place attachment into a learnable skill is what I have come to term "place actualisation" in line with the reinvigorated humanistic and positive psychology surge evident in the last few decades.The dynamic, temporal aspects of the study bring out a model that synthesises past rational, explicit decisions into future implicit intuitions and brings out how getting better at understanding one’s learning style can help them find a place that fits their practical, social and emotional needs.
These themes are now being integrated back into the literature and future directions seem to point this kind of study towards concepts from the positive psychology literature where a concept such as place-actualisation can integrate the findings into a coherent even though less parsimonious model than the firm 80% of the other researcher.
Locational decisions are a fruitful context for augmenting geographic concepts like place and space with behavioral economics and positive psychology. The resulting insights can enhance the understanding of practitioners who use the language of marketing and economics and help them understand that humanistic and positive concepts can be just as pragmatic as those of the market-oriented disciplines.