Theorizing the Urban by Whatever Means Necessary

Several years ago, my friend and I attended an AAG presentation by Robert Sampson, the famous American urban sociologist. During the middle of the presentation, my friend walked out. After the session, I asked him why he left. He said, “I hate that kind of theory.” While I conceded that there were some shortcomings in Sampson’s work, I suggested that certain parts of his theory were interesting for understanding local political activism. My friend would hear none of it. For him, nothing from that “kind” of theory was salvageable.

Pierre Bourdieu famously said that sociology is a combat sport. Sometimes, this seems to be the case in urban studies. Sacred truths, loyalties, and identities bind urban scholars into opposing camps. Theoretical debates sharpen symbolic boundaries and oftentimes take the form of existential combat. Colleagues from opposing camps become “the enemy”. Theoretical insights from the other side are considered “polluted.” Robert Sampson’s insights on local politics, for instance, were discounted outright. Because of Sampson’s association with the tainted Chicago School. For my friend, anything with a remote whiff of this theoretical tradition must be rejected.

Scholars reproduce the fractured field of urban studies through the training of students. Students often classify different urban scholars according to their theoretical camps. Classification helps students remember the many theoretical interventions they read. But, no classification scheme is value free. Students learn which theoretical camps are good and bad. They evaluate the merits of an individual’s theoretical contributions by the theory’s positioning in the field rather than the theory’s ability to interpret an empirical puzzle. While academic supervisors may implore them to do the latter, the general tendency is to do the former.

One might ask, what is the problem with spirited intellectual debate? Heated debates certainly create enormous levels of emotional energy and help forge academic identities. They create a sense of group belonging among young and aging scholars alike. But, the hardening of boundaries between camps limits our abilities to use all the theoretical tools at our disposal. The more heated the battle, the less we evaluate a theory in terms of its ability to explain and interpret real urban phenomena. Valid theoretical insights are summarily dismissed simply because of their association with the wrong theoretical camp. This form of balkanization contributes to insularity, which limits our theoretical toolkit and hampers innovation. Individuals become caged into their own specific echo chambers, happily reading and citing friendly theories while willfully ignoring the contributions of their adversaries.

In the book Racial Origins (2014), Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond eschew isolation and embrace theoretical pluralism. Scholars, according to the authors, need to build theory through “whatever means necessary.” Their effort to create a new theory of race draws from pragmatism, Durkheimian sociology, Bourdieusian sociology, critical race theory, and Marxism. By carefully weaving together insights from these diverse camps, they construct a compelling new theoretical framework for understanding race in the United States.

If the point of theory is to understand society in order to change it, then we need to create the best theories possible “through whatever means necessary.” To understand the concentration of capital by the few and the marginalization of the many, we need to transgress the bright boundaries that separate theoretical camps.

This brings me to IJURR’s unique and important role within the field of urban studies. This journal was created in the 1970s by critical urban scholars. In those years, the field of urban studies was dominated by the Chicago School. It held on to its power by questioning the legitimacy of all theoretical newcomers. The Chicago School had developed a set of sacred principles and looked upon this new generation of critical urban theorists as polluters. Urban sociology needed to be defended from the barbarians. The founders of IJURR smashed the Chicago School’s monopoly over urban studies by creating a new venue for Marxists, critical Weberians, feminists, and others. The journal served as a connecting point that allowed scholars from different theoretical camps to reach out and learn from one another. As a result of its theoretical pluralism, IJURR positioned itself as the theoretical vanguard of urban studies.

The Chicago School has continued to pursue interesting and sophisticated empirical studies but it has struggled to create new theoretical insights. The insularity of the Chicago School contributed to its theoretical stagnation in a time of major urban transformations. As cities become more complex and interconnected than ever, the Chicago School’s interpretive capacities are limited by a theoretical toolkit devised almost 100 years ago. Certain theoretical insights are still very useful but the Chicago School has resisted adopting theories on political economy, cultural studies, and even economic geography. By contrast, IJURR’s commitment to intellectual diversity has helped mitigate against similar tendencies in critical urban studies. IJURR continues to push back on the tendency for field fragmentation and theoretical solipsism because of its assertive embrace of pluralism.  Pluralism does not mean consensus. It means the aggressive interrogation of multiple theories to explain for urban injustices.


Walter Nicholls

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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