Skip to content

Week 14 Reading Response: Placing Agency within Globlization

Week 14 Reading Response

The broad concepts of transnational urbanism are by no means uniformly articulated within the readings this week; collectively, the concerns and approaches are diffuse. However, there is little substantial conflict between the authors’ frameworks. It is, therefore, possible to identify a plethora of linkages between all the readings. I have chosen to examine the authors’ common concern with the translocal nature of local events – that is, the way these events are both constitutive of, and products of, global processes.

Michael Peter Smith’s article sets the stage well for this topic, because he contrasts transnational studies with globalization narratives, which all too often attribute too much to the global, and too little to the particular stories of transnational activities. In Smith’s view, “the emplacement of mobile subjects” (p. 7) through a description of their historical context gets above reductivist interpretations on both sides: globalizers cramming specific flows into a (supportive or critical) overarching story, and anti-globalizers insisting that each mobility event is discrete. Historical context gives both the linkages to global meta-processes, and the particularities that made certain mobility events unique, or even partial causes of a meta-process.

Patricia Landolt’s empirical comparison of transnational migration processes in three different North American cities can be seen as an application of Smith’s general advocation for a transnational understanding of urbanism. In Landolt, we see the specific ways in which local instances of general transnational movements are constitutive of those movements themselves: while she herself classifies the Salvadoran migrations to all three cities under a more general umbrella of Salvadoran migration, her central point is that “each of the three cities of Salvadoran settlement presents a distinct pattern of political practice” (p. 69). Her study of patterns of tie formation, grassroots organization and continuity of connection to El Salvador in each city is precisely what Smith refers to when he advocates that people be treated “as socially and spatially situated subjects” (p. 4; italics in original).

Ananya Roy approaches the question of how the local interfaces with the global, particularly in the context of urban policies and planning best practices. Like Landolt, she looks at empirical cases, but with Roy’s examination of the inSITE project on the Sand Diego/Tijuana border, it is a case of consciously transgressing a violent border condition, interposing a transnational “technology of crossing”(p. 409). Roy is not concerned with everyday life, as Landolt is with the Salvadoran immigrants, but rather with tools whose counternarratives of transnationalism serve as worthy exemplars of resistance against the reification of unidirectional North-South power relations. She wants to apply the ethos of projects like inSITE against “fast policies” that appear in global Southern cities, often imported wholesale as “best practices” from places like New York or Chicago.

I find Ananya Roy’s view on fast policy rather problematic for two reasons. First, at least to some extent, policy is lifted from both Northern and Southern cities. For example, we in North America look at Curitiba, Brazil as a transit model to be emulated. Second, why does it matter where the policy has been “lifted” from? If the point is to produce contextualized planning interventions and philosophies in, say, Nairobi, are policies from Hanoi not just as irrelevant as those from London? It seems that the goal is not “seeing from the South”, per se, but rather, dealing wisely with transnationalized urban policies, no matter where they are from.

James DeFillipis has a much different concern, and consequently a different approach, than Roy. Of all the readings this week, I would put him the closest to what Smith terms the “‘second-wave’ globalization discourse” (p. 3), although his examination of the linkages between structures such as capital mobility and agencies such as locality make him broadly compatible with the other authors. I think his call for a cultivation of local autonomy, where local institutions “transform the relationships between capital and the other actors in places,” (p. 2) is analogous to Roy’s call for “‘technologies of crossing’ and ‘slow learning’ that puncture such forms of dominance and hegemony” (Roy, p. 406).

Finally, Nikhil Anand and Anne Rademacher engage strongly with the local agency found in Mumbai’s slums. Their careful analysis of the politics of informal housing in Mumbai, which spans several decades, follows Smith’s recommendation to look at the historical context of events. While Smith is thinking specifically of transnational movements, the situation in Mumbai is the opposite; people are mostly place-bound, and developers are the mobile actors with translocal connections. Nevertheless, the historical analysis reveals that universal narratives about power relations cannot be tidily applied to specific situations; if anything, Anand and Rademacher demonstrate that, even without the extensive local organization that DeFillipis says must exist in order to articulate local autonomy, individuals and grassroots groups are still sufficiently agile to use global forces to their advantage.

This exploration of how each reading concerns itself with the agency of particular people reveals many questions, but I will close with one. When we look at the ‘situatedness’ of people and events – whether it be Salvadoran migrants, or global Southern urban planning efforts, or U.S.-Mexico border art that transgresses hegemonic discourses, or urban settlers aspiring to high-rise relocation – we can make a case for agency, for particular groups and events providing subtle inputs to the structural metanarratives of neoliberalism and globalization. My question is, in light of these particular stories, how do we ever make universal claims? More specifically to planning, if every urban situation is an instance that shows up the ill-fittedness of universalizing theories, do we not have more to worry about than the fact that we habitually shuffle cookie cutter policies between cities? Do we not also have to worry that theory itself, being the stuff from which policies are formed, needs to shrink back in terms of what it can claim to explain? Roy is concerned with “fast policy”, but I think these readings raise the possibility that “fast theory” is of equal concern.

Week 12 Reading Response: On Social Capital

This week’s readings all either directly or indirectly address the concept of social capital. Since I have my own experiences of how this term tends to be used (usually in a positive way, usually applied to communities as opposed to individuals, and more often spoken about by those on the political Left than the Right), I decided to look at how closely my understanding aligns with its usage in planning and urban policy circles. I found a publication by the Conference Board of Canada entitled, “The Value of Diverse Leadership”, which has a section entitled “Strengthened Social Capital and Cohesion”. It begins as follows:
Social capital and the attendant cohesion among people and groups create conditions for collaboration that stimulate greater creativity, thus contributing to enhanced prosperity in communities and organizations. Diverse leadership within communities tends to increase the social capital and cohesion of those communities, helping to make them stronger and more prosperous.

The first thing to note about this excerpt is that it is unqualifiedly positive about social capital, contra Briggs’ observation that “social capital itself might be said to have no intrinsic right or wrong to it until some judgment is made about its use” (p. 1282). To some extent, I understand why social capital is so often given a “free pass” in urban planning and governance. People tend to see its intangibility and non-excludability (in many situations) as an uplifting factor in community development. I think this boils down to a more “Coleman-ian” understanding of the term than “Bourdieu-ian”, in that people look at it more in terms of how it can be cultivated on a community level rather than how it is actually used by individuals. However, I think that Bourdieu’s understanding of social capital allows us to see that there are, in fact, winners and losers in the acquisition and usage of social capital. In the excerpt above, I think there is an unspoken assumption that, in addition to the creativity and prosperity of communities, the economic competitiveness of community constituents is also important. A more socially organized, well-connected group of people will beat out those who are less organized and who have less bridging connections – for individual jobs or community investment.

This brings us to Granovetter’s argument that weak ties are often more important than strong ties. When the excerpt above praises “cohesion” as a natural, positive outcome of social capital, I immediately think of Granovetter’s interpretation of The Urban Villagers, where he observes that the seemingly cohesive Italian community in the West End of Boston was unable to mobilize to resist the demolition of their neighbourhood (p. 1373). Of course, Granovetter’s point is that what appeared to be a tightly cohesive community from a participant-observer perspective was actually quite fragmented, due to the paucity of weak, bridging ties. These ties, I would speculate, are not what the above document refers to when it mentions cohesion. Yet when we speak of social capital as the ability to realize a community’s objectives, Granovetter’s argument for the necessity of weak ties makes sense.

The document in question also emphasizes the positive influence of diversity, which Putnam addresses in his article. He contends that “diversity might actually reduce both in-group and out-group solidarity” (p. 144). While it must be pointed out that the Conference Board’s document is actually encouraging diversity in leadership – something that would fall within Putnam’s suite of recommendations to facilitate a transition from short-term “hunkering down” to long-term acclimation to diversity – I have yet to see any social policy that acknowledges the possibility that diverse communities might reduce social capital in the near term. As an aside on Putnam, I want to point out that his conflation of bonding ties with strong ties makes it difficult to compare his findings with Granovetter’s theory, which makes a clear distinction between the strength of a tie and its position within a social network.

Putnam also points out that “too often, without really thinking about it, we assume that bridging social capital and bonding social capital are inversely correlated in a kind of zerosum relationship” (p. 143). His point is made apparent in Thompson’s article on the rise of social media, where Thompson asserts that people’s weak ties are increasing greatly through applications like Facebook and Twitter, while their strong ties remain constant (para. 27). Thompson also echoes Granovetter’s assertion that weak ties are very important in people getting what they want. I would argue that urban planners often overlook this individual instrumentality of social capital, favouring instead the fuzzier concept of community building. However, what if planning offices sought to use social media for more than public engagement and discussion about city projects, but also as a way to understand and respond to the actual, spontaneously occurring, non-spatial communities that existed in their city? What if they sought out a Lois Weisberg-type to make it their job to do this? The city would still have to take steps to mitigate that person’s personal biases about which communities mattered and which ones did not (something that Gladwell never addressed in his article on Weisberg). However, this would represent a step toward truly acknowledging the power of social media.

I will conclude with a criticism of Sampson’s study of how collective efficacy is negatively related to violent crime in neighborhoods. The article looks at a specific form of social capital, namely, neighbourhood capacity to resist violent crime. Given the spatially bounded nature of his study, I found it surprising that Sampson did not account for possible differences due to the physical quality of the built environment among the many variables he took into account. The causal relationship between quality of physical space and social outcomes is hotly debated within urban planning, and this might have been an opportunity to empirically examine the relationship between social capacity and the built environment. In terms of application for policy, the article briefly mentions that there is a degree of mutual causation between collective efficacy and violent crime (p. 923). Put in concrete terms, how, as a planner or policy maker in local government, does one increase long-term residential stability in a neighbourhood riddled with violent crime?

Week 11 Reading Response: The Meanings of Disorder

A couple of summers ago, I was part of an academic field study in Berlin. In anticipation of visiting a new city of which I had very little background knowledge, I began compulsively exploring Berlin via Google Street View. The more I examined the city, the more I realised that it did not fit my ‘mould’ of a city. It had no discernible centre, either of the old medieval or new financial variety. It appeared, to me, schizophrenic in its physical structure, with random old buildings sprinkled amongst broad boulevards of drab mid-century apartment housing and offices. In short, I could not ‘read’ this city. However, I noticed one remarkable aspect about the Street View version of Berlin that I felt confident in my ability to read: its rampant graffiti. Its presence surprised me, but it did not confuse me: graffiti is an unmistakable sign of a neighbourhood struggling with crime and poverty.

Then I arrived in Berlin. After two days in one of the most intensely vital, liberal, postmodern places I have ever experienced, I realized that the one thing I had thought I understood about the city – its graffiti ‘problem’ – had been as unreadable to me as everything else. I now saw the graffiti in its context – namely, a dominant middle class that is thoroughly comfortable with a touch of chaos in the urban environment. The graffiti was a fitting backdrop to the cracked sidewalks, tangles of shabby bicycles piled at every corner, over-wide streets and clashing building types. Berlin is shabby-chic like no other city, and proud of it. In recounting this experience, I am, of course, addressing Robert Sampson’s study on perceptions of disorder in the urban environment – something in which I have become increasingly interested since that trip. Yet I believe all the readings this week have something to say about the notion of disorder, and that approaching and relating each of them through that lens can, at the very least, raise some questions for clarification during our seminar.

I think my experience of Berlin highlights Sampson’s most important concept – that “despite the largely taken-for-granted notion of disorder, there remains a first-order question about what triggers our shared perceptions of it in the first place” (p. 10). In other words, perception of disorder is not an inescapable rational conclusion upon seeing graffiti, abandoned cars, or whatever. What puzzled me was Sampson’s subsequent optimism about the external validity of his Chicago-specific study. Here I agree with Diane Davis in her circumspection about drawing conclusions about all US cities, let alone all cities in the world. Given that perceptions upon observing disorder are strongly shaped by group interpretations and the social history of a place, it would seem that Sampson should be advocating for the specificity of such studies on disorder. As Davis points out, “few [cities] have [Chicago’s] complex historical array of determinants, let alone the dubious honour of consistently being among the nation’s most segregated cities” (p. 46), then later suggests that Sampson “extend his research agenda to include a variety of urban locales, and to conduct similar assessments on a variety of American cities, North and South, new or old, sunbelt or rustbelt” (p. 46).

This criticism aside, Sampson’s emphasis of perception, combined with his linkage of disorder to racial bias, seems an eminently relevant lens through which to assess Mike Davis’ piece on Los Angeles. Most importantly, I think Davis’ emphasis of militarized spaces far away from the marginalized zones of the immigrant underclass brings up the question of how perceived disorder in one area of the city can actually produce diffuse effects throughout the entire city. Davis, like Sampson, observes that people’s responses to disorder have “less to do with personal safety than with the degree of personal insulation…from “unsavoury” groups and individuals” (p. 203). However, in Sampson’s case, the dominant group’s response is to simply leave; in Davis’ case, the response is to hyperactively stake out urban spaces through the creation of an “archisemiotics of class war” (p. 206).

Likewise, Sharon Zukin focuses on diffuse processes of securitization throughout the city. In her case, however, she focuses on more subtle efforts that employ “a democratic discourse of aestheticizing both cities and fear” (p. 140), rather than Los Angeles’ more overtly militarized urban form. Thinking about Zukin’s analysis of the governance structures that have facilitated qualitative changes to public spaces in New York, it is easy to see how perceived disorder motivates actors on various scales. It situates urban decision-makers as individuals, members of certain classes, capable of conjuring up and evaluating certain city spaces in their minds. This is what I imagine when I read Zukin’s account of the changes to Bryant Park; in thinking about it along the lines of perceived disorder, it adds a valuable psychological aspect to Zukin’s narrative of economic and cultural structures.

All of the readings I have mentioned thus far, including Sampson, run the risk of understating the agency of minority groups, i.e. those with whom disorder is most strongly associated. This is not the case with Andy Merrifield, who focuses on how the multifarious activist groups within the Liverpool neighbourhood of Granby actually work at cross-purposes to each other in their efforts to improve their living conditions. Here is a case that would seem to confirm Sampson’s claims about the durability of inequality; Granby has been entrenched in poverty for decades. However, Merrifield’s observation of the concentration of immigrant groups within Granby, and the enormous difficulties these people faced when they attempted to venture outside their neighbourhood, also highlights Davis’ critique of Sampson that people are not equally free to move to whichever neighbourhood they like. Another problem the case of Granby poses for Sampson’s argument is that, despite its multi-ethnic quality, persistent poverty and cues of disorder (on this point, I must confess that I have once again resorted to Google Street View) remain.

On the issue of ethnic diversity and its relationship to the built environment, Fainstein also weighs in. As a planning theorist, she is interested in evaluating what she terms “the new orthodoxy of city planning” (p. 3), that is, diversity. Fainstein raises the interesting point that “planned communities designed with the goal of diversity…seem inevitably to attract accusations of inauthenticity, of being a simulacrum rather than the real thing” (p. 6). This once again ties into Sampson’s views on perception of the urban environment, though in this case it is a matter of negatively perceiving an over-ordered, ‘inauthentic’ environment, rather than negatively perceiving signs of disorder as uncontrolled chaos. What I wished for from Fainstein was a more explicit connection between her concept of the Just City and the authentic city. She frequently made reference to Amsterdam as a unity of the two, and she suggested that progressive urban policies such as funding for low-income housing could simultaneously increase diversity and justice. However, having looked at Fainstein’s piece in light of Sampson’s perspective on disorder, I imagine a case could be made that increased societal tolerance of disorder is at least an indicator of, and possibly even a contributor to, a more just city. My limited experience of Berlin causes me to lean toward that.

Week 6 Reading Response: The City and Nature

My time spent writing this post about urban nature is bookended by lengthy work sessions on a design project in Sauget, Illinois, an industrial village adjacent to the desperately poor – and 97% African American – city of East St. Louis. With a population of roughly 250, Sauget’s chemical plants, oil refineries, metal refineries, hazardous waste incinerators and manufacturing plants give it an enviable tax base, while East St. Louis has gone bankrupt, eliminating garbage pickup and having to be administered by the State of Illinois. On top of this, East St. Louis has some of the most contaminated residential land in the country, thanks in part to the industries in Sauget.

In light of the authors we have read this week, what can we to make of situations such as Sauget/East St. Louis? Looking at the problem from Schweitzer and Stephenson’s perspective, is this an example – albeit an extreme one – of environmental justice as a subset of broader urban injustice, or is it actually an anomaly of municipal parasitism that highlights the importance of circumspectness in trying to find general “rules” about environmental injustice patterns? Whichever way we see it, I think Schweitzer and Stephenson’s call for a deeper integration of environmental justice studies with urban studies is certainly justified by the East St. Louis condition, where issues of political power, “moving to the nuisance”, segregation and environmental blackmail have insinuated themselves into the area’s urban field for generations.

I also find Čapek’s view of nature-as-agent revealing in the context of East St. Louis. The city is on a massive floodplain in the Mississippi Valley. Because of this, nature’s agency has historically been understood primarily as a force that must be controlled in order to preserve the human artifice of industrial progress. In terms of studying the effects of the “post-natural” environment on the inner city body, East St. Louis would certainly be a fitting place. However, Čapek’s mentioning of the human body points to a noteworthy silence in the article, namely, the position of human beings and their activity vis-à-vis nature. Too often, it is assumed a priori that humans are separate from nature, rather than examining the “human animal”, and all that it makes and does, as natural. This would give a much different inflection, and perhaps different conclusions, to Čapek’s conception of “simulated environments”.

This discussion of humans in nature is precisely what Jane Jacobs was concerned with, for she saw this artificial distinction as a great source of harm in the process of urban sprawl taking over agricultural and forested land. However, Jacobs also places too much faith in the notion that the difference between a landscape of asphalt and a tranquil lakeshore is all down to misconceptions of what nature really is. As we have seen in other readings this week, there are real, meaningful differences between human environments and “natural” ones, especially when examining (post-) industrial landscapes. By extension, she sells short many urban green spaces that really do improve residential quality of life by acting as a counterpoint to the harsh lines and fast pace of the modern city. Overall, however, Jacobs is correct to raise the issue of how our ontological distinctions make a difference to what actually gets built, and what gets eliminated in order to build it.

It is interesting to keep East St. Louis in mind when reading Gottlieb’s account of urban environmental history. Public health concerns in that city may, for a while, have lessened with the rise of the bacteriological controls and decontaminants Gottlieb mentions. However, those concerns are certainly on the agenda currently, given our better understanding of toxicology, and how difficult it is to avoid toxic poisoning once soil and groundwater is contaminated (East St. Louis is adjacent to a Superfund site in Sauget). The other thing to note about East St. Louis in light of Gottlieb is its regional context. Gottlieb describes many developments in broad strokes, giving the impression that cities, in general, took certain measures, or that certain public health movements, in general, were a force in more or less all places. However, Southwest Illinois has been, in many ways, a spatial exception to the commonly expected give-and-take of cities. Directly across the Mississippi from St. Louis, many of these Illinois towns were founded by large, polluting industries for the express purpose of taking advantage of lax environmental regulations. Cities such as East St. Louis, being virtually under the thumb of large industries, arguably have never become truly civic entities, and therefore possess exceptional histories and trajectories of urban environmental health.

I will conclude by looking at Campbell’s article on sustainability, which contained elements that touched on each of the prior readings. His assertion of the importance in finding overlap between social development and environmental sustainability is in line with Schweitzer and Stevenson’s observance of environmental justice as one of many urban justice issues. By contrast, his advocacy toward bioregionalism in planning dovetails with Čapek’s call for natural processes to be foregrounded; indeed, Čapek could have used bioregionalism as a fifth inroad into examining the human-nature intersection. Campbell also echoes Jacobs’ warning about overly romanticizing the pre-industrial past. Jacobs is concerned that this results in abusive treatment of actually existing nature, while Campbell similarly argues that such utopic conceptions are unhelpful in solving the real problems that lay before us in promoting sustainability. Finally, Campbell articulates Gottlieb’s observations about the nature-industry relationship as one of the principle contradictions within sustainability. Gottlieb describes how municipal efforts to clean up rivers often gave up at the prospect of lost industrial wealth. Similarly, Campbell describes the inherent contradiction of profit maximization and resource depletion. In reality, Gottlieb’s observations about industrial activity and public health overlap into both property and resource contradictions. Nevertheless, there is a common sentiment with both authors that economic wealth, environmental preservation and social benefit are often pulling in different directions.

Book Review: Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis

Though Vancouver has long been an immigrant hotspot, the influx of Hong Kong Chinese to Vancouver during the late 1980s and 1990s was unprecedented in the city. In Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis, Katharyne Mitchell observes how, contrary to most waves of migration to industrialized countries, these newcomers had the power to dictate where they lived and what their role would be within the city, much to the consternation of the existing White population. Describing them as “the ultimate vectors of fast capital” (p. 5), Mitchell argues that this migration event was the place-specific articulation of an emergent neoliberal ideology. It was, therefore, a process of contestation between two forms of liberalism: a social liberalism intended to strengthen the Canadian nation-state, and a putatively “spaceless” neoliberalism that embraced globalized flows of capital and people.

Equally important for Mitchell to analyzing this clash of ideologies is demonstrating that it created “roughness” in space, a fact that is often elided by theorists and proponents of both varieties of liberalism who speak of space only in discursive terms; hence her dubbing of the work as a “spatial ethnography” (p. 11). She asserts that this approach shows “how the actions of individual agents who negotiate the contradictory structures of late modernity consolidate and contest different logics of liberalism in space” (p. 8), and how broad state and corporate policies are often concretized by these individual actions. Framed in this way, her examination of new and existing Vancouverites during this migration is consistently harnessed to her overall effort to locate theories about neoliberalism, social liberalism, hegemony and globalization in actually existing conditions.

It must be noted that Mitchell’s use of the ethnographic voice is highly selective. It is best understood as the most specific in a set of spatial and temporal lenses she employs in her narrative. This pattern is evident in the chapter, “Vancouver Goes Global”, where Mitchell describes an ideologically driven change in Canadian immigration policy that aligned with Britain’s decision to cede Hong Kong back to China, and the ensuing rush of people and capital from Hong Kong to Canada. She focuses on certain landmark events, such as the first major land redevelopment deal between the Province of British Columbia and a Hong Kong billionaire, which thrust Vancouver into the international real estate investment landscape. Though Mitchell interviews individuals about the deal’s significance, it does not read as ethnography, but rather as the transactions of large state and corporate entities.

The ethnographic lens appears later in the chapter, when she looks at the upper middle class neighborhood of Kerrisdale. In this case, elderly White residents were being displaced from their rental apartments to make for Hong Kong-driven condominium developments. Through interviews with residents, developers and local politicians, Mitchell fixes the broader tensions about cultural integration, conceptions of community and shifting notions of liberalism to a specific neighborhood.

Given her desire to “give a better theoretical account of concrete historical reality” (p. 6), Mitchell’s decision to move back and forth between abstract and concrete space is a sound one. However, the book as a whole spends too much time in the rarified domains of the liberal history and hegemonic theory to effectively serve her purposes. Similarly, she often resorts to a “bird’s-eye” analysis of the empirical situation, rather than the “street-level” narratives that she claims to be of such import.

As an example of this lack of specificity, the chapter on multiculturalism is largely ineffectual due to its failure to engage with the empirical. Here, Mitchell thoroughly outlines how Canada has traditionally employed multiculturalism as a component of national identity to maintain a viable state for capitalist investment, and how a neoliberal understanding of global, borderless multiculturalism problematizes Canadian multiculturalism. Yet at no point in this chapter does she engage with everyday spaces in Vancouver, despite the rich material that exists in the spatial contestations between immigrants and longtime Canadians.

Conversely, the book is most effective when it moves to everyday, specific geographies, such as in the chapter on housing changes. Here, Mitchell briefly covers the history of imperialist ideals of domesticity and community, and how the delineation of the “other” was integral to these identities. She then describes how Hong Kong immigration wrought rapid changes on the built form of several Vancouver neighborhoods. She focuses on new residents’ home preferences, which tended to be disproportionate in scale and less concerned with yard aesthetics than existing residents, and how both sides tacitly linked these changes to heritage, domesticity and community. Her use of personal interviews, as well as her focus on specific neighborhoods, helps the reader to gain a better sense of this particular inflection of the layered meanings of domesticity, familiarity and racism.

A final, smaller criticism is the book’s use of endnotes rather than footnotes. Normally this is inconsequential, but as an empirical work where notes often refer to specific research methods and further details, the use of endnotes makes this valuable information less accessible. Using footnotes would have strengthened the book’s empirical base and given more credence to Mitchell’s assertion that real life details matter when analyzing theory.

It should, at this point, be apparent that Crossing the Neoliberal Line is more accurately classified as ‘spatial critical theory’ that employs an ethnographic mode of inquiry, rather than ‘spatial ethnography’. Nevertheless, in so far as she includes ethnographic interviews, Mitchell demonstrates how the supposedly spaceless ideologies of social- and neo-liberalism are, in fact, deeply rooted in everyday urban lives and spaces. Her assertion that these abstract theories are only fully understood when applied to a concrete reality is well proven through this work. Unfortunately, the proof lies primarily in the disparity of insights between the book’s topics. Where she devotes generous space to speaking about individuals’ experiences, there is a rich interconnection between theory and reality; where she does not, we are left with little more than theory and history. Clearly, given her own categorization of the book, Mitchell sees the value of its ethnographic elements. She would have been well served to expand that aspect of the book, trusting the reader to fill in any theoretical or historical gaps.

Week 2 Reading Response: Foundational Readings

Taking these early sociological readings as a whole, I notice that they consider their era (the mid-late 19th Century) to be a time of great socioeconomic upheaval, uncertainty and crisis. This undertone is consistent through each reading, though their analytical approaches and conclusions differ. This offers me a different perspective on our current global crisis of wealth disparity and its attendant environmental degradation. On the one hand, for sociologists, it seems that no crisis is greater than the present one. On the other hand, and perhaps more soberingly, no crisis is distinct from what preceded it. I am thus reminded of Walter Benjamin’s conception of history as a continually unfolding catastrophe.

Durkheim conceives of the division of labour as a producer of what he terms organic solidarity; a solidarity that comes as a result of members within society recognizing their contingency upon other members, as though they are each merely parts of a larger organism. He brings this to a moral level by positing that people in this situation (and, of course, urban residents are far more contingent than rural residents) are insinuated into each other’s conscious, moral landscape. His conclusion is that law is a product of this moral conception of contingency. Human custom in such a situation is to preserve the balance of the whole, and since laws generally formalize existing customs, a society’s laws are representative of the degree and type of solidarity it exhibits.

Tönnies sees traditional, static, place-based, exchange-free community (i.e. Gemeinschaft) as being primary to Gesselschaft; moreover, the latter is associated with unhealth, and only by the contrivances of formal social institutions does it delay societal collapse. We can see in Tönnies’ conception of Gemeinschaft that this is more or less what Simmel has silently assumed as the starting point for “natural” social relations before the derivation of urban living imposed its changes.

For Simmel, urbanization is primarily represented as a change in personal perceptions and behaviors. The invention of the money economy, so central to all other urban changes, manifests most vividly not in the physical structures or social arrangements of the city (although Simmel definitely notes the changes to these aspects of settlements), but in the mind of the urbanite – her assignations, associations and decision mechanisms. In short, Simmel sees urbanization primarily as a way of seeing the world. It is self-perpetuating in so far as mental conceptions lead to an intensified physical urban condition, but it begins with the individual’s mental life.

Weber describes the essence of modern cities as being based on freedom from a subsisting, agrarian lifestyle (71). Again, like the others, there is an inference of the city being both the product and the cause of a division of labor. I think Weber’s observation that some cities are driven by the consumption of the wealthy while others are driven by the production of wealth still holds true today. It brings up the question of what unique classes can be found in these kinds of cities, and what each of those classes’ experience of the city is.

Of course, in reality no city is completely one type. However, having lived in Vancouver, a place dominated by tourism and real estate investment, it is a vastly different city depending upon whether one is part of the wealthy elite, middle class or underclass. This last point, I think, is a gap that remains in the other writings in so far as they fail to fully acknowledge how different the experience of the city is for different people. They seek to point out the universality of the urban mindset, the commodification of interactions, the overloading of stimuli. However, all these claims are set out in the abstract as a “general urban condition”, and are therefore difficult to assess. We could dissect them more effectively if we applied them to the constituents of Weber’s distinct types of cities.

I think Marx’s understanding of the essentially transient nature of capital accumulation is the most piercing observation among all the readings. He never explicitly links this quality as part of the urban condition in the same way that, for example, Simmel does with the concept of specialization. Nevertheless, of all the “syndromes” pointed out about cities among these authors, the one that resonates most with me in terms of the contemporary urban condition is the incessant cycle of capital investment and disinvestment that is constantly uprooting aspects of urban spatial and social structures.

Among all these authors, the notion of a “prior state” runs deeply as a departure point from the changes which they were experiencing at their times of writing. Whether this prior state is inferred, as in Marx, or stated explicitly, as in Tonnies or Simmel, it is portrayed relatively unproblematically in comparison to the modernizing changes that are occurring.

The static-ness of the prior state within the readings is, for me, a troubling concept. While many of these assertions about a more exchange-based society in which the needs of capital reproduction dictate people’s daily lives are asserted to manifest themselves most intensely in cities, I have found them to be just as strong in certain rural locations. Specifically, the farm on which I grew up on the Canadian Prairies has, within two generations, turned from a partially subsistence-oriented operation into a wholly specialized business. More importantly, the forces of global capitalism and specialization have not exerted pressure on the area to urbanize, but rather for people to acquire ever-larger tracts of land on which to turn a profit. I therefore find Simmel’s description of changes in mental life to be not a wholly urbanizing force, but rather either urbanizing or ruralizing, depending on the context.

Week 3 Reading Response: The Chicago School

In Herbert Gans’ article, he states, “the concepts that scientists use do not have to reflect those of the lay world. Thus, theoretical physicists can work with string theory and dark matter but are not required to conduct studies of heaven or even the sky. However, social scientists…cannot distance themselves quite as casually from lay concepts” (214-215). What Gans is getting at is the fact that, while there may exist just as much scientific rigor within the social sciences as within the hard sciences, the former is always necessarily engaged in a subject with which the general populace has direct experience, if not always organized knowledge. This has strong implications, not only for sociology’s conceptual ideas, but also for the way in which research is done. As the readings this week make clear, sociology is reflexive, with theory never straying too far from the “real situation” of whatever it is studying.

With Dubois, we see a strong motivation to understand an acute and protracted social problem (poor living conditions and opportunities for Black people) in a particular place (Philadelphia). His motivation goes beyond simple understanding, however. He seeks to employ an unbiased, rational cataloguing of the problem to change the hearts and minds of both Whites and Blacks. Through household interviews, observations of public life and historical study, he seeks to gather data and allow the conclusions to rise from that data. In what seemed to me a surprisingly honest acknowledgment of confirmatory bias, Dubois states from the start the difficulty in avoiding bias in any case where the researcher must use his discretion.

Beginning with Wirth, the readings leave behind the empirical, focusing instead on how to conceptually understand human settlements and interactions. Nevertheless, there is still a concern with how empirical studies can be driven and interpreted by these conceptual understandings. Wirth asserts that urbanization had achieved such a rapid pace that sociology had no firm grasp on the city, either in its understanding of the city’s social workings or in the social problems it created. He seeks to show that urbanism is a new way of living that has layered itself upon and modified the old, rural ways of life. Wirth draws heavily from Simmel’s observations about the instrumentalization of relationships in urban life, but his focus is more on its effects on social linkages than on the individual’s psychological horizons.

Park, Burgess and McKenzie employ the concept of ecology to construct a model for patterns of human behaviour, though their focuses vary between the emergence of society (Park), spatial growth (Burgess) and community types (McKenzie). One example from Park serves to illustrate the extent to which these authors apply the concept of ecology. Park draws on ecological ideas of dominance and succession to describe how cities’ land use patterns develop. Areas of highest rent are likened to the largest trees, in so far as they shape the character of the entire area. Succession, or the orderly path of maturation within an ecosystem, is likewise applied to the development of a city. These authors thus adapt concepts that originated in the scientific study of relationships between plants and animals in the natural setting, applying it both to social relations themselves, as well as its material accretions.

To conclude, I would like to return to the notion of sociology as a subject that engages with a commonly observed reality. While each author acknowledges this fact, either explicitly or tacitly, they all seem to assume that the agenda for sociological research has been, and will continue to be primarily set by the academic community. I think this overlooks the reflexive nature of the discipline; sociology is a popular mode of thought to a much greater degree than, say, physics. While rigorous study is often lacking in the average person’s speculations about the workings of society, many elements of what we observed in the readings is often present. DuBois’ study consists of observing and talking to people, albeit in a focused and systematized manner. The Chicago School’s powerful analogy of the city (and human society) as a type of ecosystem employed metaphor as a tool to understand the complexities of the city. Both of these practices are typical of lay efforts to understand their own environment.

That the everyday person is sociologically engaged has always been of some importance. I bring it up here for two reasons. First, the barriers to studying and communicating about urban society are lower than they have ever been; ubiquitous Internet technology has ensured that. Second, as Gans notes, the sheer variety of conditions that exist among settlements seems to be outstripping the capacity of academic research, both in its ability to keep abreast of what exists, and to prioritize an agenda for studying it. In light of these factors, lay sociology may now be more useful and more necessary than ever before.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.