Theorising from where? Reflections on de-centring global (southern) urbanism

Hyun Bang Shin

One of the major contributions of the postcolonial critique of urbanism is the call for de-cen- tring knowledge production, especially the emphasis on the need for ‘theorising’ from the Global South so that urban processes embedded therein are not rendered simply as variants of the Global North. What can we learn from this endeavour to re-assert the importance of southern cities, and are there any limitations in our existing practices? Does the focus on a select number of southern cities result in replicating the extant shortfalls of urban studies from the Global North? Are postcolonial and neo-Marxian critiques of urbanism mutually exclusive? In this short chapter, while advocating the current efforts amongst critical scholars to give more weight to the studies of the Global South, I reflect on these questions, introducing some of the latest contributions from scholars working in and on what I refer to as the Global East (Shin et al., 2016) as a deliberate attempt to interrupt the North-South binaries.

Theorising from the global south?

De-centring the production of knowledge on global urbanism involves moving away from overreliance on Western cities (e.g., London, Chicago and Vancouver) as sources of theoretical inspiration and treating all cities across the globe as ‘ordinary cities’ placed on the level-playing field (Robinson, 2006; Roy, 2009). Analytical generalisation is pursued by scholars working on the Global South to challenge the existing wisdom on the urban way of life and what urbanisation means to different places and people.

While acknowledging the contributions made by the emphasis on southern cities as new sites of theorising, I posit two shortfalls that can be observed in existing practices. First, a persistent problem is the absence of certain global regions. Critical scholars have been lamenting this absence, voicing their dissatisfaction with the way some regions are under-represented. For example, in a recent international conference on ‘the frontiers of the urban’ held in November 2019 at the University College London, Oren Yiftachel called for efforts to ‘theoriSE’, stressing the need of accumulating more work on learning from what he defines as ‘global Southeast’, which covers the Middle East and Turkey. In another conference on urban geographies of postcommunist states held in Kyiv in 2017, multiple sessions were organised to probe ‘theorising cities from the global East’. Here contributors lamented the absence of the former‘second world’ whose post-communist transitional urban experiences were missing in the vocabularies of urban scholarship. As the session organiser later reiterated,

|t|he demise of the Second Worlds political project - communism - wiped the East off the global map, any distinctiveness of more than 70 years of communist rule erased. The East is too rich to be a proper part of the South, but too poor to be a part of the North.

It is too powerful to be periphery, but too weak to be the centre.

(Miiller, 2017:2-3)

Global East is also a term I have elsewhere introduced (see Shin et al., 2016) to use East and South-East Asia as a disruptive means to “problematise the existing common practices of grouping all regions other than Western European and North American ones into the Global South” (ibid.: 456), practices that often render East and South-East Asia invisible. All these emergent efforts add weight to the ongoing project of decolonising urban theories and de-centring knowledge production but at the same time signal the lack of presence of certain regions from the global urban scholarship. There is still more work to be done to re-insert cities outside the West (or North Atlantic) in the global epistemological map of urban theorising.

Second, a trap researchers may often find themselves in is that researchers, willingly or unwittingly, portray a picture of the world that is divided into two binaries: Global North and Global South, which are increasingly limited categories that constrain analytical enquiries. For students of East Asian (and to some extent, South-East Asian, if Singapore is considered) urban studies, there is a recurring - often imposed - dilemma as to where their region fits. As a scholar researching Asian cities, I get to hear occasional murmurs from students who are questioned by their professors about their attempt to use South Korea as a case study to discuss development in the Global South. Similarly, Hae and Song (2019: 10) also bemoan “the invisibility of East Asian societies within the dominant geographical nomenclatures of Global North and Global South”. Such invisibility may perhaps stem from the understanding that East Asia’s trajectory of urbanisation does not fit into the characteristics of the Global South. Indeed, a study proposing ‘a paradigm of Southern urbanism’ summarises three distinctive characteristics of cities in the Global South but considers them to be different from cities in ‘North Atlantic and Northeast Asia’ (Schindler, 2017: 60). In a similar vein, other scholars may hesitate to use Singapore,Taiwan and South Korea as case studies in their research on the Global North: after all, despite their status as high- income countries according to the World Bank, they are ‘postcolonial’ and non-Western, having experienced urban development trajectories dissimilar to those ofWestern Europe and North America. In other words, they are inadvertently in interstitial spaces, neither Global North nor Global South.

The rise of East and South-East Asia, to some extent, provides an opportunity to disrupt the North-South binaries, which do not capture the more complex web of spatial connectedness. If the export of urban development experiences occurs from, say, South Korea to Ethiopia, is this South-to-South mobility? For some who do not regard South Korea as part of the Global South, such a policy transfer gets lost in the usual categorisation of Global North and South, but it may present an interesting moment of disruption to the conventional study of global urbanism and expose the increasingly limited utility of the North-South divide.

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