In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Comparative Urbanism

  • Introduction
  • Historical Foundations and Major Influences

Geography Comparative Urbanism
Tauri Tuvikene
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0221


“Comparative urbanism” refers to research that acknowledges the diversity of urban experiences, avoids assumptions of theoretical best fits prior to any investigation, and develops knowledge through close engagement with the diverse empirical reality. Comparative urbanism is a topic long in the making, but also rapidly emerging since the early 2000s. Led by urban studies journals such as Urban Geography and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, with multiple special issues on the theme, the line of research has aimed to expand the horizons of thinking on cities. Writing against a Euro-American mainstream that focuses on a limited number of major American or European cities for conceptualization and theory-making, through work by authors such as Jennifer Robinson, Ananya Roy, Colin McFarlane, and others, comparative urbanism proposes to take every city as potentially useful for theorization. Embarking from foundational works by scholars such as Charles Tilly, Janet Abu-Lughod, or Charles Pickvance, comparative urbanism tackles the existing perspectives and expands the urban theorization and empirical learning base beyond the Global North. Hence, many of the proponents of comparative urbanism have their roots in existing area studies. On the one hand, comparative urbanism is a caution for area-based studies to avoid being boxed into narrow scholarly niches. On the other hand, comparative urbanism has enabled a louder voice for area studies scholars, providing them with a more cutting-edge position in the field. Nevertheless, the target of comparative urbanism is not simply to put cities “off the map” on the map (and “back” on the map), but to revise the direction of theory-making and the conceptual development. Namely, instead of seeing theories emerging in abstract, the theorization always involves thinking from concrete cases. Mostly, however, those concrete examples at the center of such conceptual advances have been London, Chicago, or Los Angeles, instead of Johannesburg, Moscow, Mumbai, Tallinn, or Bafatá. Comparative urbanism, then, argues to switch the perspective, which does not simply expand the scope of empirical material, but also enlarges the set of questions to be asked, insights provided, and conceptualizations raised. Thus, a revised urban studies offered by comparative urbanism scholarship entails shifts in ways of doing research, and particularly the ways of comparative analysis. Instead of simply building from preexisting theory toward cases, more innovative methods of research should be envisioned. That includes unexpected comparisons of cases considered previously incommensurable or comparisons that invent new ways of narrating understandings of cities and urban processes. Such a challenge toward the taken-for-granted practices of research has not taken place uncontested, but has rather invited critiques from those defending existing conceptual frameworks, theory-making, and verification practices. Nevertheless, the proposal for comparative urbanism has found its place in urban studies and is increasingly receiving novel theory-inspired empirical insights and conceptual revisions.

Historical Foundations and Major Influences

Comparison is at the center of any research, and so the problem of what and how to compare has a long history for urban research. Which cities could reasonably be put side by side to draw out their similarities and differences, and what kind of assumptions lead such comparative exercises? Also, what exactly is compared and what are the elements of comparison? The classic works Abu-Lughod 1975, Abu-Lughod 1999, Pickvance 1986, and Tilly 1984 highlight three different elements for urban studies: Pickvance favors the methodological intricacies of proper comparative analysis; Tilly the difference of comparison for system creation from individualized case-based comparisons; and Abu-Lughod, who is the most prominent of these three within comparative urbanism, explores the value of in-depth and historically positioned comparative case studies. Much of the classic work is driven by the question of how to write across the “three worlds”: the First, Second, and Third Worlds. Thus, Communist countries—the “Second World”—were also important for comparative urban researchers, constituting a serious theoretical question for scholars of the time about the socialist difference, which challenged (or confirmed) the validity of their theoretical constructs: whether socialist countries were just a minor variance to the general trend of cities, or something fundamentally different. The argument for the latter, without yet succumbing to the solipsistic area studies perspective, led R. A. French, and F. E. Ian Hamilton, together with other scholars, to work out the concept of the “socialist city” (see French and Hamilton 1979). This notion later morphed into the “postsocialist city.” Globalization, then, has arguably brought places together. Indeed, globalization constitutes a key topic for comparative research, raising questions of convergence (Dick and Rimmer 1998), as well as arguments of variation due to the different paths of local histories despite similar backgrounds of places (Hart 2002). And what could be more converged than the global cities. However, Abu-Lughod 1999 particularly complicated the narratives of global cities by showing the contingent history and emergence, as well as uncertainty, of becoming “global” and the variations of what otherwise seems like unitary category of “global cities.” Pickvance 1986 provides a way to advance studies that are at the same time general and specific by offering the frame of plural causation: analysis of how similar phenomena are a result of different causes. The same logic leads Paul Kantor and H. V. Savitch to the utilization of mid-level theories—such as bargaining—for understanding similar trends across variation (Kantor and Savitch 2005). These antecedents to comparative urbanism provided core structures and questions for the later theoretical and practical elaborations.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet. “The Legitimacy of Comparisons in Comparative Urban Studies: A Theoretical Position and an Application to North African Cities.” Urban Affairs Review 11.1 (1975): 13–35.

    Through her in-depth empirical work, Abu-Lughod questioned the at-the-time prevalent evolutionary approach to cities that positioned a singular narrative of urban development at the center. She highlights the importance of the emergence of various forms of urbanism outside European and American centers. In order to understand these forms of urbanism, a unitary historical path of development is not preferable, and attention should be directed instead to the close scrutiny of common mechanisms, which are not necessarily converging but can also lead to divergence.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

    A dense and thorough account of longer histories of global cities through past ups and downs of three major metropolises in the United States. While this books looks at US cities, Abu-Lughod is very attentive to the importance of local political histories of some of the most metonymic of global cities, including their global character and associated elements that have long histories as well as unique geographies.

  • Dick, H. W., and P. J. Rimmer. “Beyond the Third World City: The New Urban Geography of South-east Asia.” Urban Studies 35.12 (1998): 2303–2321.

    This article examines Southeast Asian development through convergence and divergence, which have varied throughout precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history. Urban studies of that time still had a strong preference for the generalizing narrative of the Third World city, but, as the authors maintain, the process of globalization has made this approach obsolete for Southeast Asian cities. Thus, the article favors a more widely applicable theorization instead of studying cities in their area studies conceptual perspective.

  • French, R. A., and F. E. Ian Hamilton. “Is There a Socialist City?” In The Socialist City: Spatial Structure and Urban Policy. Edited by R. A. French, and F. E. Ian Hamilton, 1–21. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 1979.

    Writing in a context where active debates between approaches favoring unitary social studies and those differentiating socialist urban developments from the capitalist ones, these authors make the point for the latter. Writing through historical models of a “socialist city” and underlying ideological as well as economic factors of city building, French and Hamilton favor analysis that notes internal integrity of the socialist system of cities and difference from the rest of the world.

  • Hart, Gillian. Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-apartheid South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    An in-depth study of two locations in South Africa—industrial development points Ladysmith-Ezakheni and Newcastle—in close economic interplay with Taiwan. The book challenges understandings of globalization as working externally on the conditions of place. The book thus maps the divergence of two places where, in globally connected post-apartheid neoliberalism, the divergent relations with the past together with local tensions lead to multiple trajectories.

  • Kantor, Paul, and H. V. Savitch. “How to Study Comparative Urban Development Politics: A Research Note.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29.1 (2005): 135–151.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2005.00575.x

    Taking a more systematic analytic lens than is common for much of urban studies, the paper notes the lack of comparisons in the field. The challenge, however, is to develop rigorous and consistent analysis with potential replication while still maintaining contextual sensitivity. The article argues for the use of bargaining as an analytical framing—a mid-level theory—that enables to see how a common process varies across cases, contexts, and scales.

  • Pickvance, Chris G. “Comparative Urban Analysis and Assumptions about Causality.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 10.2 (1986): 162–184.

    Pickvance offers a systemic and argumentative study in favor of comparative analysis, which he differentiates from comparative research: comparative analysis is not simply about similarities and differences, but also seeks to analyze different models. Developing through the work of historical thinkers such as J. S. Mill, he highlights the importance of plural causation: the same phenomena could be caused by multiple effects in different systems.

  • Tilly, Charles. Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984.

    While not an urban-oriented study itself, this book has functioned as inspiration for various comparative urbanism works (see, in particular, the writings by Jennifer Robinson). The division of comparisons to individualizing, universalizing, variation-finding, and encompassing has provided an influential methodological grounding for urban comparisons.

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