Negotiating local autonomy

Robert W. Lake

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58 Scopus citations


The political apathy of the late 20th century is being offset by a counter-movement seeking to replace technocratic + political decision making with localized citizen activism. The objective of this movement is to expand the scope of local autonomy, defined here as the capacity of localities to control the social construction of place. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques, increasingly used in public policy decision making and implementation, offer the normative potential for expanded local empowerment through validation of alternative value structures and modes of discourse. If ADR reduces the salience of rational-technical discourse in public policy making, then adoption of ADR should contribute to local enfranchisement, producing greater local control over the construction of place and augmenting the expression of local autonomy. As evidenced in the case of negotiation with local communities over the siting of hazardous waste facilities, the empowering potential of ADR has been subverted in the process of its implementation by the state. To explain the failure of ADR to empower localities in practice, I identify a series of structural barriers to local autonomy embedded in the state's negotiation process. Contrary to ADR's theoretical inclusivity and normative embrace of parallel discourses, these structural barriers undermine local autonomy by reasserting the dominance of rational-technical discourse in the policy-making process. The state's success in controlling negotiations to maintain pliable communities, however, is short-lived. When understood as a continuing and constitutive relation between the local and the non-local, local autonomy that is blocked by truncated negotiations finds expression through other means.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-442
Number of pages20
JournalPolitical Geography
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1994

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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