Urban Problems: new paper theorising why ‘the city’ matters

A new paper, entitled The situations of urban inquiry: thinking problematically about the city, co-written by Gary Bridge and myself, is now available in the Early View at the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (Feel free to let me know if you would like a PDF copy of the piece, if you can’t access the Journal direct). The paper is an intervention in ongoing debates about the objects of urban theory (planetary urbanization, comparative urbanisms, southern urbanisms, all that). We argue that ‘the city’ should be approached ‘problematically’ (not the same as saying that it should be problematized), an argument we expand on by way of an engagement with Foucault’s thoughts on problematization and Dewey’s more sustained treatment of problematic situations. 

Here is abstract: 

“In the context of debates about the epistemological and ontological coherence of concepts of critical urban studies, we argue that urban concepts should be conceptualized problematically. We do so by aligning Michel Foucault’s genealogical work on problematization with John Dewey’s pragmatist understanding of problem formation and responsiveness. This approach brings into view the degree to which debates about urban futures are shaped by a variety of critical perspectives that extend beyond the academy and activism. We elaborate this argument through examples of global urban policy formation and practices of neighbourhood change. Approaching urban concepts problematically suggests a move away from the idea of critique as a form of scholastic correction towards an appreciation of the contested fields of practice in and through which critical understandings of urban problems emerge.”

Swindon Studies: Social Science in Simpleton

carfaxOne of the recurring features of academic life is the way in which particular intellectual traditions of thought are associated with particular places, as in multiple Chicago Schools, for example, but also in the way in which particular places come to stand as vectors for general theoretical claims – Paris and modernism, obviously, but more prosaically, certain places, like Baltimore or Vancouver or Columbus, Ohio, come to serve as the empirical reference points for the working through of theoretical ideas about capitalist urbanization, neoliberalism, governance and scale, and the like (this is not quite the same, but not unrelated either, to the ways in which towns and cities are presented as sites for experimentation).

When I was an undergraduate and postgraduate, the so-called ‘locality debates‘ were the focus of much of the most interesting discussion of the relations between social theory and spatiality. The very question of how to think about the relation between places, on the one hand, and knowledge of general trends, on the other, was at the centre of these debates. A whole set of issues – the relations between the abstract and the concrete, the empirical and the theoretical, the nature of case analysis, the relations between different axes of social differentiation, questions of ‘scale’ – were worked through in these debates. In the early 1990s, they ended up being supplanted by debates about ‘postmodernism’, which had all the appearance of intellectual pluralism and philosophical weight, but were often rather simplistic by comparison.

Swindon has a small part to play in this lineage of spatial theory in the social sciences. Of course, since 1988 a lot of social science has been commissioned, managed, and audited in Swindon, under the auspices of the ESRC most obviously, and more recently the AHRC and EPSRC too – including a succession of urban-oriented research programmes (Ian Gordon has analysed four decades of urban research programmes in the UK from the 1960s onwards, and it would be interesting to update this in light of more recent initiatives around Urban Transformations, Connected Communities, Urban Living Partnerships, the GCRF and the like). But as an object of urban and/or place-based social science research, Swindon also has a minor claim to significance. I mentioned in my last post Mike Savage’s account of the way in which post-1945 British social science evolved through a distinctive form of effacement of place, typified by the affluent worker studies which were not-necessarily-famously undertaken in Luton but were emphatically not studies of Luton. Swindon doesn’t merit a mention in Savage’s reconstruction of a ‘landscaped’ conception of social inquiry. But Swindon’s status as an object of social science illustrates some of the different ways in which specific places come to play a synecdochical role of one form or other in shaping images of the social.

mouldingsMichael Harloe’s Town in Transition, published in 1975, is the most important contribution of ‘Swindon Studies’ to urban theory more generally, I think it’s fair to say. Harloe had worked for the Borough during the town’s expansion in the late 1960s, and the book was one product of the Centre for Environmental Studies, the think tank that served an important medium for spatial thinking in the 1960s and 1970s whose alumni included Doreen Massey (somebody should really be writing a geneaology of the institutional worlds that generated spatial thought in this period). Harloe’s book is a fantastic account of the politics of post-war planning, where politics is understood as a matter of compromising, lobbying, building alliances, strategising across scales. Intellectually, the book stands at the cusp of the theoretical transformation of urban studies in the 1970s (not least through the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, of which Harloe was a founding editor in 1977) – there is not much trace of the sorts of Marxist political economy or state theory in it, but that’s OK, it has weathered well precisely because of its resolutely organisational and strategic sense of the political.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-13-00-09By the 1980s, Swindon had become one of the places used to make sense of the reconfiguration of cities and regions, centres and peripheries, that was a central focus of intellectual debate in the so-called ‘spatialization’ of social science that was inaugurated by the theoretical transformations that are not yet evident in Town in Transition (it is of course slap-bang in the middle of the then much-talked about high-tech, ‘sunbelt’ ‘M4 Corridor’). Swindon was the site for one of the locality studies funded under the ESRC’s Changing Urban and Regional System initiative (which was originally conceived and proposed by Doreen Massey). In this guise, it was made into the test-case for assessing whether theories of “growth coalitions“, originally developed in the context of North American urban politics and policy, could be usefully applied in the UK (the answer was ‘sort of’, in so far as Swindon might once have had something like a stable, consensual civic coalition promoting expansion and diversification through to the 1980s, but then it didn’t). Then, in 1997, Swindon was presented as the very epitome of ‘the city for twenty-first century‘, in a book that gathers together and synthesises the findings of a succession of ESRC projects on the town and the region of which it is part (the 20ish year gap between the Harloe book and the Boddy et al book in 1997 suggests that the next book-length academic study of Swindon is due to be written just about now….). More interestingly, perhaps, Phil Pinch used Swindon as one model of ‘ordinary places‘ (the other one was Reading), places that presented challenges to the tendency of radical political theory to take rather special places as the models for general claims about political possibilities. More recently, Sophie Bowlby chose Swindon as the site for her research on the changing nature of women’s friendship networks across the lifecourse because of its typicality (she told me that when I bumped into on a train from Paddington, as you do). And in the research of Linda McDowell and her colleagues on the intersections of class, ethnicity, masculinity and labour market dynamics in the UK, Swindon again functions as an interestingly ordinary place (compared to Luton, these days), one which they use, amongst other things, to complicate narratives of politics and anti-politics.

It should also be said that all of these examples of social science research on Swindon are pursued by academics based in other places – in places like Reading, Oxford, or Bristol, University towns all of them, of different sorts. Swindon still struggles to build any significant higher education presence of its own (it’s surpassed by Luton in that respect). But perhaps this has something to do with why Swindon gets to be the place where you can learn about the value of ordinary things.

In fact, when you take the trouble to look at the social science about Swindon, you begin to see that it might have a small claim to be the exemplary ordinary place, if such a thing makes sense. But you can also see Swindon as an example of the different ways in which places are figured in social science (of the different forms of ‘geographical reasoning’ to which life-in-places is subjected) – sometimes the town is seen as representative of wider trends and patterns (in this sense, Swindon gets to be what Luton was for social science in the 1960s), even “a starkly exaggerated example” of national trends; sometimes it is framed in comparison with, or even counterpoint to other places (this is how Harloe presents the lessons of the ‘local’ and ‘national’ politics of Swindon’s growth); sometimes as the focus of forms of conjunctural analysis (as in the locality studies research). These don’t quite exhaust the ways in place and/or the local get framed in social analysis, but they do cover three important versions – if you had the time and inclination, you could even imagine writing a piece in which “Swindon Studies’ gets to enact the different conceptual operations through which geographical specificity is translated into theoretical generality. Mind you, I’m not saying ‘It all comes together in Swindon’. It doesn’t (in fact, in more ways than one, a lot of ‘it’ just passes by).

Are We There Yet? Or, is this what fieldwork feels like?

UntitledI have just returned from Johannesburg, a city I have not been to since 1997, when I first went to South Africa. I had a nice time, and as ever, I learnt a lot in a  short space of time by being in a very different place. I have spent lots of time in South Africa in between that first trip and now, but apart from going in and out of the the airport and a brief day-trip in the early 2000s, not any time in Jo’burg. So it was an occasion for reflecting on what it is I have been doing coming and going to South Africa in the meantime.

I remain unsure whether or not the time I have spent in South Africa counts as ‘fieldwork’, a rather precious idea in GeographyLand, the everyday world which I inhabit. Does visiting other people’s countries and finding things out about them counts as ‘fieldwork’? I certainly think I have done ‘research’ in South Africa (actually, mainly, in Durban), but I’m still not sure why I am meant to think that the quality or significance of research is meant to depend on the implied sense of immersion or exposure associated with the idea of fieldwork.

IMG_0791I have been to South Africa 17 times in the last 19 years (it’s a long flight, you have time to count these things…). Adding up all those trips, which have been as long (or not?) as 3 months and as short as a week, I have spent almost a whole year of my life there since 1997. These trips have been funded by ‘seed’ money from the University of Reading, the OU, Exeter (and who knows what grew from that money), and by proper grown-up research funding from the British Academy, and especially from the Leverhulme Trust (an historically ambivalent source of funding for African research, it should be said). Some of these trips have been associated with formal research projects, some of them with conferences, and some of them just occasions to go and meet people and find things out. And it should be said that pretty much anything I have learnt while in this other place has been dependent on the generosity of South African academics, activists, lawyers, policy makers, journalists, and the like – generosity with their time, their insight, and their own analysis of the world they live in. ‘Being there’ turns out to be an opportunity to listen to the testimony others.

Actually, the more I go to South Africa, the less and less I think of it as a place in which to pretend to do ‘research’ – I initially went to do research on media policy, on my own, in my own name; but then I ended up collaborating with other people, which seems the only reasonable way of proceeding – in my case, falling under the spell of Di Scott, and then being part of a multi-person project on democracy in Durban with all sorts of other nice and smart people, and more recently accidentally conjuring writing projects with Sue Parnell and a shared project with Sophie Oldfield. Along the way, I have passed through all sorts of spaces of research knowledge: hotels, apartments, different cities, taxis, bookshops, beaches, living rooms, offices, bookshops, coffee shops, libraries, bookshops, shopping malls, bookshops in shopping malls. I have gone from researching media policy to researching urban-based environmental politics, using ‘methods’ including interviewing to watching TV and listening to the radio, to using more or less formal ‘archives’, on one occasion delivered in person as a pile of paper, on another accessed by being ushered into a cupboard at the SABC.

I’ve actually learnt a lot about Theory across all these visits, in a weird inversion of Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’ – about the way that ideas of the public sphere, or governmentality, or class, or decolonisation, amongst others, resonate and settle in a place like South Africa. Most recently, this has been my main excuse for visiting, to learn more about how ‘urban theory’ circulates through and emerges from South African situations.

So, anyway, I wonder still why it is that time spent in South Africa should present itself (to me, but also to others faced with me) as a source of something like ‘field’ experience in a way that, for example, time spent in the USA seems not to. I have, I think (I know), actually spent more time in the States as an adult than I have in South Africa, including a whole year of immersive ethnographic observation of GeographyLand at Ohio State. I have an American sister. I’ve walked pretty much the entire length of Peachtree Street (although not all at once). But none of that is translatable into a claim of professional expertise about American life and culture and politics in the way that, I suspect, time in South Africa could be. And in saying that, I know it is the case because I have a distinct sense that I have not been very good at constructing an aura of either ‘developmental’ or ‘ethnographic’ or ‘(South) Africanist’ expertise on the basis of all that time in South Africa.

And now back to life in Swindon. A non-city much the same age as Durban, half a century older than Johannesburg, and about 300 years younger than Cape Town. But no less weird than any of them.

Environment and Urbanization Issue on the New Urban Agenda

To coincide with an event at the IIED today focussing on the likely outcomes of the Habitat III process, and assessing the so-called ‘new urban agenda’, all of the papers in the April 2016 issue of Environment and Urbanization are freely available between the 5th and 12th May (including the previously advertised paper by myself and Sue Parnell on the place of urban theory in current global urban policy debates). The issue includes a series of papers on the theme From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III. Further details and reflections on the event will be posted on the IIED website in due course. 

Urban Theory in the New Urban Agenda

eanduThe latest issue of Environment and Urbanization contains a collection of papers examining different aspects of the emergence of the so-called ‘new urban agenda’ in global development policy, titled From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III. It includes the paper by myself and Sue Parnell, ‘Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda‘ which tracks some of the intellectual influences circulating around these worlds of policy-making and agenda-setting (Sue also has another piece tracing the longer history of global urban development agendas in World Development).

To repeat a previous invitation, if you would like a copy of our paper, do let me know and I will forward it along. Once more, here is the abstract for the paper:

“The success of the campaign for a dedicated urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) reflected a consensus on the importance of “cities” in sustainable development. The relevance accorded to cities in the SDGs is twofold, reflected both in the specific place-based content of the Urban Goal and the more general concern with the multiple scales at which the SDGs will be monitored will be institutionalized. Divergent views of the city and urban processes, suppressed within the Urban Goal, are, however, likely to become more explicit as attention shifts to implementation. Acknowledging the different theoretical traditions used to legitimize the new urban agenda is an overdue task. As this agenda develops post-2015, the adequacy of these forms of urban theory will become more contested around, among other concerns, the possibilities and limits of place-based policy, advocacy and activism; and ways of monitoring and evaluating processes of urban transformation along multiple axes of development.”

Urban Theory and the Urban SDG

IMG_3127Sue Parnell and I have a paper, “Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda, forthcoming in Environment and Urbanization, in a special issue dedicated to exploring the significance of the so-called ‘urban SDG’ and the associated ‘new urban agenda’ associated with the Habitat III conference later this year. Our paper explores the intellectual background to the campaign that culminated in the inclusion of the ‘urban’ goal (Goal 11, which commits to making cities “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”).

If you’d like a journal-ready copy of the piece, let me know. Here is the abstract of our paper:

“The success of the campaign for a dedicated urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) reflected a consensus on the importance of “cities” in sustainable development. The relevance accorded to cities in the SDGs is twofold, reflected both in the specific place-based content of the Urban Goal and the more general concern with the multiple scales at which the SDGs will be monitored will be institutionalized. Divergent views of the city and urban processes, suppressed within the Urban Goal, are, however, likely to become more explicit as attention shifts to implementation. Acknowledging the different theoretical traditions used to legitimize the new urban agenda is an overdue task. As this agenda develops post-2015, the adequacy of these forms of urban theory will become more contested around, among other concerns, the possibilities and limits of place-based policy, advocacy and activism; and ways of monitoring and evaluating processes of urban transformation along multiple axes of development.”

Changing imperatives of urban thought in South Africa

IMG_3313I have been meaning to congratulate Sophie Oldfield, of Geography at the University of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities, who has been awarded British Academy Newton Advanced Fellowship. The fellowship involves a collaboration between UK and non-UK universities, in this case between Sophie at UCT and me at Exeter. The project, South African Urban Imperatives Past, Present and Future: Theory Building with Knowledge Beyond the University, has various strands, with an over-arching focus on  exploring the changing notions of commitment and engagement in urban scholarship in South African over the last 40 years or so. It’s very much a development of Sophie’s challenging research work on the difficult politics of engagement between academy and activism. I’m really looking forward to working together with Sophie on the various aspects of this project over the next couple of years.

Here is the abstract for the overall project:

“The Fellowship starts from the premise that urban scholarship has been central to defining the strategic possibilities of political change and socio-economic development in South Africa for 40 years, either side of the transition from apartheid to democracy. The Fellowship focuses on the distinctive imperatives of engagement that shape South African urban scholarship. These include practices of activism, consultancy, forms of co-production, and more conventional forms of academic expertise and critique. The Fellowship will focus on the reorientation of urban social science in post-apartheid South Africa, in light of changing societal imperatives of development, reconciliation, and transformation. In so doing, it will draw into view the ways in which academic knowledge articulates diverse forms of non-academic knowledge that express diverse interests and needs.”

Space, Politics and Aesthetics: New book by Mustafa Dikeç

9780748685974I took part in a ‘conversation’ on the theme of Spaces of Democracy yesterday at UCL, organised by Liza Griffin and others, one of a series of events co-organised by the Bartlett School and the OU’s OpenSpace research centre. The other participants were Erik Swyngedouw and Mustafa Dikeç. I gave a potted version of the argument of the book I’m meant to be writing, in response to the question ‘Does democracy need the city?‘.

Mustafa has a new book hot off the presses, Space, Politics and Aesthetics, about thinking spatially about politics alongside Arendt, Nancy, and Ranciere. There is already one review available here.

Doing Theory Slowly: more on media, practices and urban politics

9484-aldabra-giant-tortoise-1920x1200-animal-wallpaperFollowing up on the link to the Society and Space page with the podcast of a discussion between myself, Scott Rodgers, Allan Cochrane and Tim Markham, I thought it would be useful to recall the ‘arc’ of the conversations that Scott, Allan and I have been having since 2007. The podcast mentions the idea of ‘slow theory’ (an idea we might have stolen from a former OU colleague, Mike Saward), which is one way of capturing the process of collaborative thinking that we have been involved in that time.

– This all started when Scott was an ESRC-funded post-doc at the OU, from 2007-8, and then in turn working at CCIG at the OU.

-As part of the initial project, we held a workshop on the theme of Mediapolis, in June 2008.

– That generated the first published output of the collaboration, an edited section of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in 2009, containing papers on the connections between urban thinking and media thinking by Gary Bridge, Kurt Ivesen, Kevin Ward, and ourselves (here and here).

– Then, in 2009, we organised a set of sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, on the theme of ‘Where is urban politics?’.

– This was the basis of the Symposium of the same title in IJURR, published at the end of last year.

– The Society and Space paper on Mediated practices and urban politics is something we have been working on across these other activities, and has gone through various iterations. This paper is our attempt, I guess, to draw together the animating concerns that the three of us have bought to the collaboration.

– The podcast is a record of us talking through some of the background hang-ups that shape the paper.

Overall, I think that’s a decent return on the initial ‘investment’ – not so much in terms of quantity of outputs, but certainly, for me, in terms of the quality of the ongoing discussions we have engaged in while organising, convening, editing and writing together.