BLOG No. 6: Some thoughts about universalism and generalisation

By Miguel A. Martínez, Professor of Housing and Urban Sociology, Institute for Housing and Urban Research, Uppsala University


Debates on the relations between urban phenomena in the Global North and the Global South have recently been framed by postcolonial (also known as decolonial or anti-colonial) approaches. These have mainly invited scholars to question their Euro-Anglo-centric and developmentalist bias. This insight can be traced back to the dependency and centre-periphery theories in the 1960s, and to the critical views on imperialism and colonialism much earlier. Above all, its recent echo in urban studies has called to make metropolitan regions, urban processes, and authors from the Global South more visible, in addition to produce more nuanced, contextualised, and comparative analyses everywhere. Also, indigenous views, in a broad sense (as those expressed by all types of locals), would deserve recognition and close examination, according to this framework. Furthermore, these scholars are also prone to engage in critical reflections of the researchers’ positionality and theoretical and methodological choices, as well as to question the political implications of their academic activity (Leitner et al. 2020), in a similar vein as the proponents of participatory action-research did since the 1970s in various settings of the Global South. 

In my view, the above assumptions of the postcolonial approach have been very beneficial to challenge mainstream social sciences that have regularly dismissed knowledge production from the Global South. However, I also find weaknesses in that theoretical inspiration. 

On the one hand, the dichotomy North vs. South carries many inconveniences. The issue of the researchers’ positionality is not a straightforward one, for example. The intersection of class, gender and ethnicity plays out both within the Global North and the Global South, including the academic trajectories between privileged and marginalised environments, back and forth. Academics can hardly claim a legitimate representation of the most oppressed groups in any society, although a situated and critical research may make a difference in order to understand oppressions and suggest emancipatory ways out. Furthermore, the significant variations within both the vast territory of the Global South and the tinier lands of the Global North may mislead researchers. In short, none of these are socially homogeneous spaces or regions. Just consider, for example, the historical, political and economic differences between some Asian ‘developmental states’ such as South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) group, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, specific OECD countries in Latin America (Mexico, Chile and Colombia) and the others in the same continent, and the Eastern and Southern parts of Europe (or Global Easts). Specific contextualisations and accounts of the relevant scales and actors at play are needed for every portion of the Global South under examination.

On the other hand, postcolonial insights especially look at the complexity and diversity of urban spaces and phenomena. In most cases, the epistemological consequence of such an approach is relativism and emphasis on the local differences and particularities (Storper & Scott 2016). Generalisation or explanatory analyses are thus usually avoided. Although universal truths in social science are impossible to achieve due to the effects that scientific statements may have in society once disseminated, an extreme relativist epistemology wrongly avoid the determination of social structures and processes that can be generalised under certain circumstances. Careful attention to differences (historical contexts, above all) and diversity is a necessary departing point for knowing the specific social dimensions of urban phenomena, but does not suffice for making conclusive observations. In contrast, a critical realist or dialectical epistemology aims at neatly identifying the collective structures and the actions within – or interacting with – them, which may illuminate significant patterns of social relations, as well as constraining and enabling conditions, active in various historical-spatial contexts. Notwithstanding, as Harvey (2000: 16) suggests, regarding ‘particularity’ and ‘universality’ we should investigate how ‘one is always internalized and implicated in the other’. Without assuming the core tenets of positivism (the pursuit of cause-effect laws and accurate predictability, the fragmentation of the world in isolated facts from each other, the exclusive mathematical expression of knowledge, etc.), it is sensible to acknowledge that regular phenomena such as power conflicts occur under similar conditions of possibility, so nuanced comparisons and generalisations are advisable. In this respect, I would argue that a limited epistemological universalism sets a feasible horizon for social science but should not contradict universal claims of justice, equality, human rights, and democracy, to name a few. Political and moral universalism is a crucial driver of critical social science for both the selection of research topics and the interpretation of results. Therefore, I suggest investigating urbanisation processes and social inequality from a critical realist-structuralist perspective that takes into account their manifestations across the Global North and the Global South.

References

Harvey D (2000) Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leitner H, Peck J and Sheppard E (2020) Urban Studies Inside/Out. Theory, Method, Practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Storper M and Scott AJ (2016) Current debates in urban theory: A critical assessment. Urban Studies 53(6): 1114–1136. DOI: 10.1177/0042098016634002.

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