Styles of urban thinking

COLIN: You’ve spoken and written before about a “style” of urban thought, one of conceptual approximations, of provisional understandings that can be refined, rejected, consolidated, and so on. I wonder whether you’d say urban theory and urban studies are anywhere near this? What do you think needs to change in urban studies and urban theory in order to create that kind of approximating form of urbanism where we can get things wrong and shift things around, and so on because I don’t think that is encouraged a great deal; there is a strong element of career stage about it.

ASH: It’s a really tough big question. Categorical and canonical thinking is compelling and has the weight of tradition behind it, and it’s very difficult to overturn that. But when categorical thinking stops delivering, and those categories don’t help us anymore, then there is a little opening for emergent thinking. When ontology' itself demands a rethinking of core categories, it may not be a bad thing to have a proliferation of concepts. Critical urbanism has seen a proliferation of concepts in recent years so as to get close to the manifold and always changing city. I don’t think that’s a problem.The problem has to do with questions of rigour, clarity, testability. The obligation to test the rigour and applicability of new concepts and methods sometimes has been sacrificed in the rush to develop new languages of the urban. If experimental thinking becomes loose thinking, then I think it is right that we are criticised.

COLIN: There is also something about different kinds of rigour here. When you talk about conceptual approximation, for example, I think partly what you’re opening up there is a different kind of rigour. One in which, for example, you might go into a field situation with a certain degree of uncertainty and hesitancy over the concepts. This is different from a tighter sense of the concept that has a more rigid internal consistency, with a deeper commitment to that concept. If you set out stating that the concept you are using is deliberately open and reviseable - and certainly the way in which we’re thinking about global urbanism is relevant here - then you could well be deemed unrigorous from the start. That’s a battle in and of itself.

ASH: Sure. But theory, to me, is simply a testing ground. Theory is not a map of the world, and the moment in which you make theory into the substantiable aim, it can become dogma. Theory is an intellectual opening that requires verification.


Amin, A. and Howell, P. (2016) Releasing the Commons: Rethinking the Futures of the Commons. London: Routledge

Amin, A. and Thrift, N. (2017) Seeing Like a City. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Easterling, K. (2016) Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London:Verso.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2011) Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it Can Succeed Again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, P. (2012) ‘The topological quality of infrastructural relation: An ethnographic approach’. Theory, Culture, and Society 29, no. 4—5: lb-42.

Jensen, C.B. and Morita, A. (2017) ‘Introduction: Infrastructures as ontological experiments, Ethnos, 82, no. 4: 615—626

Spivak, G.S. (2005) Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press.



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