Theorising Cities Now: Putting Comparison to Work for Global Urban Studies
Dr Jennifer Robinson (University College London)
This paper argues that global urbanism, the commitment to producing an understanding of the urban which is potentially open to the experiences of all cities – to a world of cities – is best served by a comparative imagination. The spatiality of theorising the urban experience maps well onto the core elements of a comparative imagination – thinking across different “cases” to produce conceptualisations which contribute to wider understandings of the processes being analysed, and which might then, in turn, be considered in relation to other contexts or cases. However, as the comparative methods which have conventionally underpinned urban studies are not well placed to serve the project for a more global urbanism the paper will present some tactics for a reformatted comparativism. Reconfiguring the tactics and form of the comparative imagination aligns with significant issues in the wider theorisation of the urban which are currently provoking considerable debate. Can we understand cities as assemblages of circulating phenomena, or as outcomes of wider social processes? To what extent is it possible to configure a conceptually adequate theorisation of the urban? How do concepts of cities relate to the phenomenal elements of the urban world which present themselves to us through observations and encounters? These rather abstract theoretical debates are analytically closely connected to the practical challenges of producing a more international urban studies. Above all, an orientation to an open and revisable conceptualisation of the urban, willing to work with, puzzle through and make room for the differentiation and diversity of urban life is essential for enabling the emergence of a more inclusive global urban theoretical practice.
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Photo credit: Cairo street at night, © Ben Snooks, Flickr, via CreativeCommons