Towards a multitude of voices

Birthdays are often used as an opportunity for reflection and this should also be the case for the 40th anniversary of the “International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.” In fact, 40 years is a long time, and personally I just started to learn reading when IJURR was founded. My reflections can therefore hardly be based on participation and personal memory, but I have to rely on written and published materials. Moreover, analyzing everything that was written and published in IJURR thoroughly would be difficult for very practical reasons, so I decided instead to take a sample. Working for IJURR as a book review editor, I found it most appropriate to focus on book reviews, which I use as a proxy indicator for more general developments. The sample I have analyzed consists of the book reviews in every first issue of the years 1977, 1987, 1997, 2007 and 2017. While this is far from comprehensive, I would still argue that this small sample allows for detecting both some general trends with regard to the topics, places of origin and debate cultures within urban studies and more specific developments within IJURR.

The questions I have asked myself are: What were the core themes in urban studies throughout the decades and how was this reflected in the books reviewed? Which topics were taken up? Who was allowed to speak for the field? And finally, where are we concerned with now (compared to forty years ago) and what are the potentials and challenges of the current situation?

Here is the empirical material:

Back in 1977, when IJURR was founded, the book review section was clearly positioned in the field of political economy and consisted of three different reviews on a monograph written by Manuel Castells and Francis Godard with the title “Monopolville: analyse des rapports entre l’entreprise, l’État et l’urbain à partir d’une enquête sur la croissance industrielle et urbaine de la région de Dunkerque” All the reviews were rather extensive and I think it is more than noteworthy that they were all authored by French scholars and reflected on a book written in French. The intensive discussion about Castells’ book was supplemented by a piece on “Methodological sectarianism in urban sociology” in which Patrick Dunleavy took two books as the basis to reflect on the lack of common ground with regard to methodological approaches in urban sociology.

Ten years later, in 1987, both the number of books and the range of topics had considerably expanded: Housing, class structures and political theory still stood in the centre, but additional book reviews would also deal with the role of multinational corporations in the Third World, with gentrification, or with suburbanization trends in the U.S. The countries dealt with were, however, still the classical capitalist “North”, i.e. the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Western Europe. This is also reflected in the composition of the authors, six of which came from the UK, two from the U.S., and one from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and France.

In 1997, this trend had both intensified and modified.  While housing, class structures and urban politics remained of core importance, the range of topics also reflected on the emergence of global cities, urban planning, and cultures. Both a German-language book and a German author were newly introduced (compared to the previous decade). Furthermore, the review about Japanese planning was written by a US-based, yet Japanese-origin scholar.

The contrast to the book reviews published in March 2007 issue is striking. In the new millennium, both the reach of topics debated and the authors of reviews have considerably widened and now included reflections on “Public Space and the culture of childhood”, the place of feminism in urban studies, ethnic diversity in Las Vegas, political mobilizations of homeless people and the changing linkages between home ownership and financial markets. The national background of reviewers has, however, changed less dramatically, now including authors from the Netherlands, the UK and the U.S.

In the most recent issue analyzed, in March 2017, the world of urban studies seems to have become an increasingly diverse place. Book reviews now deal with land rent theories, World-class city making in Delhi, ethnographic research on Shanghai’s nightlife, the role of violence in Latin American urbanism, everyday practices of exclusion in Berlin, and post-suburban developments in North America. While U.S. and U.K. institutions kept its central role in providing authors writing reviews, more and more reviewers had their origins outside the Anglo-Saxon world. In addition, the books reviewed not only cover wider parts of the planet, but also the U.S./UK-based scholars show a considerably increased interest in developments outside their home turf.

These are the empirical facts. How can we make sense of this development? What is the picture that can be gained from the trends described?

I think I should start with a disclaimer: The sample analyzed is rather small and, in addition, the selection of books to be reviewed and review authors depends very much on the discretion of the book-review editor. As a consequence, some degree of arbitrariness needs to be taken into account. Notwithstanding these considerations, I think that the picture is quite clear. Forty years ago, when IJURR was founded, the international urban studies world consisted of an overwhelming number of scholars from the U.S. and the UK and a small number of West European core countries, plus Canada and Australia. The books reviewed were mostly written against the context of the specific urban experiences made in these countries. Political Economy was a central point of reference and doing urban studies was part of a wider political project.  Closely related, it seems that it was easier to identify central issues and more time was taken to discuss individual contributions at length.

If we compare this picture to the situation in 2017, fundamental changes are hard to overlook. Judging both by the books reviewed and the authors of reviews, the world has become much a bigger and at the same time more diverse place. Also, there hardly seems to be any dominant paradigm, subject area or political project anymore. What we face today is not a field of scientific inquiry with an easily identifiable numbers of topics, key persons and theoretical and methodological approaches anymore, but a world in which ethnography and economic geography, political economy and postcolonial approaches, and London and Delhi stand on increasingly equal footings.

In sum, throughout the subsequent four decades, it seems that both IJURR in particular and urban studies in general have indeed moved towards producing a more globalized body of knowledge. While the backing of Anglo-Saxon academic institutions is still crucial for making debates possible, it is also clear that today’s IJURR world has indeed opened up to a wider multitude of voices and experiences. While this has at least considerably weakened parochialist tendencies, there is also a flipside of this development. More than ever before, the field of urban studies seems to be characterized by a sense of fragmentation – I’m tempted to say balkanization. What urban land rent theory and ethnographic studies on urban nightlife have to do with each other and how they can be brought into conversation is an increasingly open question to me. Simultaneously widening and deepening debates remains a challenge.

Matthias Bernt

IJURR Editorial Statements

IJURR Editorial
Julie-Anne Boudreau, Matthew Gandy and Maria Kaika (2015) Volume 39.1

Reflections on the Academic and Economic Environment
Julie-Anne Boudreau and Maria Kaika (2013) Volume 37.6

IJURR: An Editorial Statement
Jeremy Seekings and Roger Keil (2009) Volume 22.3

The Origins of the Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies, or the Advantages of Owning the Title and Having Charitable Status in the Running of Journals
Chris Pickvance (1998) Volume 22.4

IJURR: Policy Statement
Patrick Le Galès, Susan Fainstein and Linda McDowell (1998) Volume 22.1

IJURR: looking back twenty-one years later
Michael Harloe, Enzo Mingione, Chris Pickvance and Edmond Preteceille (1998) Volume 22.1

Founding Editorial Statement
Michael Harloe (1977) Volume 1.1


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