Abstracts and bios 4

a non-occidentalist west: learning from theories outside the canon

Ben Purvis

The boundaries of urban studies: what space for ‘urban science’?

Urban research remains a fragmented area of study, hampering the imperative to develop pluralistic understandings of the city as a holistic entity. Mappings of urban research tend to be solely focused on urban studies and related domains such as planning (see e.g. Harris and Smith 2011; van Meeteren et al. 2015). There appears to be relatively little dialogue between the critical social science literature seeking to understand what the urban means in our current age, and the largely technoscientific enquiry of developing an ‘urban science’ within other research domains (see e.g. Batty 2013), despite much overlap in topics and themes (Purvis 2020). This fracture is particular prominent in discourses focusing on urban sustainability; Cauvain (2018) argues that the dominant research culture surrounding urban sustainability holds a heavy STEM bias which acts to marginalise scholars from an urban studies background, particularly those with more critical epistemologies. This mirrors a wider trend across the academy, as well as the marginalisation of the social dimension of sustainability (Dempsey et al. 2011; Davidson et al. 2012; Opp 2017).

Whilst crossing disciplinary boundaries is often lauded, it has also been met with scepticism and defensiveness from some scholars who through the lens of uneven power dynamics view this as a direct assault from universalising positivists (Holmwood 2010, Derudder and van Meeteren 2019). Certainly, a more positivist urban science can learn from critical urban studies, but what can urban studies learn from urban science perspectives?

This paper focuses upon the disconnect between urban studies and a broadly defined ‘urban science’, and in particular how the urban has been conceptualised and understood across these domains. By exploring literature in these areas, the common theme of the ‘urban boundary’ is drawn out as a recurrent definitional problem for delineating the ‘city’ from the ‘not-city’. It is argued that an engaged pluralism can address some of the tensions between urban studies and an urban science, leading to new knowledge in both domains.

Batty, M (2013) The New Science of Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cauvain, J (2018) Social sustainability as a challenge for urban scholars. City 22(4):595–603.
Davidson, KM et al. (2012) Assessing urban sustainability from a social democratic perspective: a thematic approach. Local Environment 17(1):57–73.
Dempsey, N et al. (2011) The Social Dimension of Sustainable Development: Defining Urban Social Sustainability. Sustainable Development 300(May 2009):289–300.
Derudder B, van Meeteren M (2019) Engaging with “urban science.” Urban Geography 40:555–564.
Harris, R, Smith, ME (2011) The history in urban studies: A comment. Journal of Urban Affairs 33(1):99–105.
Holmwood J (2010) Sociology’s misfortune: disciplines, interdisciplinarity and the impact of audit culture. The British Journal of Sociology 61:639–658.
Opp, SM (2017). The forgotten pillar: a definition for the measurement of social sustainability in American cities. Local Environment 22(3):286–305.
Purvis B (2020) Operationalising Urban Sustainability: defining, measuring and modelling. PhD, University of Nottingham
Van Meeteren, M, et al. (2015) Pacifying Babel’s Tower: A scientometric analysis of polycentricity in urban research. Urban Studies 53(6):1278–1298.

Jens Kaae Fisker & Letizia Chiappini

Coding the Urban Differently: Thinking Parasitic Platform Urbanism with Serres and Lefebvre

The growing interpenetration of the urban and the digital has itself become somewhat of a dislocating vector vis-à-vis urban studies. In particular, it has given rise to the emergence of middle range concepts such as platform urbanism, the smart city, urban digitalisation, and so forth. We rework such concepts by way of a postfoundational rereading – in a Gibson-Grahamesque sense of the term – of particular works by Michel Serres and Henri Lefebvre. Our first starting point is Serres’ The Parasite which revolves around a figure of the included third that he also explored in Hermes (both published in 1982). We use this to rework a weak theory of platform urbanism as parasitic and explore the options available for coming to terms with, and acting upon, the kind of parasitism that we encounter today at the intersection of the urban and the digital. By engaging with prior readings of Serres (e.g. Brown, 2002), we identify three basic options: to incorporate, to expel, or to substitute parasites. We also explore how the ubiquitous nature that Serres attributed to parasitism is reflected in platform urbanism, where it is not always easy to discern between the parasite and the parasitised. Indeed, the very image of a platform suggests a relation between a host (the platform) and a guest (the user) which belies the fact that it is the platform, as guest, which is parasiting upon human relations, as host. Once we invert the image, new avenues of possibility open up.
Our second starting point is Lefebvre’s method of residues which he presented in Metaphilosophy and elaborated upon in Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, or, The Realm of Shadows. True to Marx’ maxim of studying the world in order to change it, Lefebvre held that achieving transformation has to be seen as a practice of metamorphosing the residues that accumulate when totalising systems – such as capitalism – fail to become totalities. We explore how the method of residues may find use in urban studies by applying it to our Serres-assisted weak theorisation of platform urbanism as parasitic. This entails posing and answering the following questions: what are the residues that accumulate in the on-going parasitic platformisation of urban space? How may these residues be metamorphosed to realise the differential production of urban space? Platformisation, however, is closely intertwined with other homogenising processes such as digitalisation, planetary urbanisation, and globalisation which therefore also relate to the residues of parasitic platformisation. This exercise taken as a whole is an experiment designed to figure out where postfoundational approaches to urban studies may take us. It may turn out to be a blind alley or it may take us somewhere entirely unexpected. We do it out of curiosity and because we believe that the task of dislocating urban studies requires precisely this kind of journey into the unknown.

Miguel Montalva Barba

To Move Forward, We Must Look Back: White Supremacy and Settler Colonial Logic at the Base of Urban Studies

The concretization of the Chicago School solidified and inscribed in the city their obsession with the “Negro Problem,” race and race relations, and (im)migration. Their fixation not only framed modern sociology with an emphasis on the Other but cemented a taken for granted undergirding whiteness at its base. As a discipline, until we can name, point, understand and highlight that form of violence, urban sociology will be deficient in understanding the city, particularly, but not limited to the US. Some of this reckoning is already underway, centralizing the importance of WEB DuBois, post-colonial social efforts, but urban sociology needs to do more on this front. As an alternative, I offer Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the settler colonial theorization to move away from an unstated whiteness. This paper highlights key aspects of American sociology’s development, their theoretical developments, and contemporary consequences. It highlights explicitly work on the ghetto, underclass, and gentrification. By looking at these three concepts’ legacies, this paper shows how whiteness, white supremacy, and settler colonial logic have been the organizing principle in American sociology. To dislocate urban studies, we must first acknowledge and accept our history and legacies to be able to recenter our theoretical and analytical frames.