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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Urban Studies

Critical Urban Studies: New Directions edited by Jonathan S. Davies and David L. Imbroscio, with an introduction by Clarence N. Stone (SUNY Press)

Urban scholarship has had detractors of late, particularly in mainstream political science, where it has been accused of parochialism and insularity.

Critical Urban Studies, edited by Jonathan S. Davies, Reader in Public Policy at the University of Warwick and David L. Imbroscio, Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville, offers a repudiation of this critique, reasserting the need for critical urban scholarship and demonstrating the fundamental importance of urban studies for understanding and changing contemporary social life. Contributors to the volume identify an orthodox perspective in the field, subject it to critique, and map out a future research agenda for the field. The result is a series of essays pointing scholars and students to the major theoretical and policy challenges facing urbanists and other critical social scientists.

In Critical Urban Studies, Davies and Imbroscio demonstrate the vitality of urban studies in a double sense: its fundamental importance for understanding contemporary societies and its qualities as a dynamic and innovative field of inquiry. Urbanists have detractors, particularly scholars in mainstream U.S. political science. In 2007, Bryan D. Jones, a former urbanist, and two graduate students, Joshua Sapotichne and Michelle Wolfe, launched a scathing attack on the urban politics subfield. They argued that it has become parochial and moribund, ignoring significant approaches in mainstream political science and failing to contribute anything to it. Other than urban regime theory, they claimed, it has contributed little of value for two decades or more. In response to challenging orthodox theories, Davies and Imbroscio organized a debate on Critical Urban Studies: New Directions, taking in the whole urban field, to emphasize the falsity of Jones' critique and to engage the field with the renewed spirit of social critique emerging since the late 1990s. Two panels, convened at the 38th meeting of the Urban Affairs Association (UAA), convinced them that critical urban studies is a matter of considerable interest and debate. The first panel looked at developments in critical urban theory, the second critical urban policy; and they have structured Critical Urban Studies accordingly.

Davies and Imbroscio asked each of the contributors to Critical Urban Studies to identify an orthodox perspective in urban studies and subject it to critique, while mapping out a future research agenda for the renewal of critique. As the result of their endeavors, the volume reflects the most recent developments in the practice of critique in the urban field, challenges prevalent orthodoxies, and identifies the key challenges posed for critical urban studies by contemporary city life. It thus reaffirms and renews the tradition of critique through which the international field of urban studies has made its name.

Elvin Wyly opens Part I: Critical Urban Theory with a qualified defense of positivism in urban enquiry. Urbanists have been particularly critical of positivism. However, Wyly argues that the urban discipline is wrong to reject it wholesale. Positivist research, characterized by rigorous observation and measurement, has an important role to play in radical urban inquiry. In Chapter 2, Mara Sidney accepts Wyly's claim about the potential of positivist urban research to be critical, while also revealing the critical potential embodied in an episternic rival to positivism: constructivist and interpretive analysis. She further demonstrates how a constructivist, interpretative approach could do much to revitalize the study of urban politics. Warren Magnusson's contribution in Chapter 3 finds great value in critical urban studies' ability to see like a city envision the world as resulting from distinctively urban practices as opposed to the conventional state-centric view of the world. Seeing like a city rather than seeing like a state presents a profound challenge to orthodox political science by detaching the discipline from its traditional state-oriented moorings. Doing so, Vlagnusson demonstrates, transforms contemporary political science into an urban discipline, as urban political phenomena now marginal to the discipline instead become central to it.

In Chapter 4, Julie-Anne Boudreau also asks that we envision the world as constituted by distinctively urban practices and characteristics. If we do so, she argues, then it is plausible to conceive of a specifically urban standpoint from which to generate knowledge and do research. Such an urban epistemology possesses significant critical potential, while challenging the orthodox view that a researcher can produce knowledge in a disembodied way In Chapter 5, Davies renews his critical engagement with urban regime theory, arguing against Clarence Stone that urban politics needs Marxist theory. In a period of neoliberal crisis and ever-rising inequality; a Marxist conception recommends radically different forms of political action based on the potential for revitalized class struggles. Concluding Part I of Critical Urban Studies David Imbroscio argues in Chapter 6 against the likes of Bryan Jones and his colleagues, and instead suggests that urban politics must resist the allure of the mainstream and its methodological and normative orthodoxies including ontological individualism, pluralism, and (neo)liberal political economy.

Part II, Critical Urban Policy, begins with chapters by Jeff Spinner-Haley (Chapter 7) and Yasminah Beebeejaun (Chapter 8) engaging the issue of diversity. Spinner-Haley questions the orthodox view in urban studies that blames the nefarious actions of the abstract entity of the state for racial and class segregation in the United States. Such a view, he argues, is much too simple a portrayal of the problem and neglects the role played by the actions and preferences of individual citizens. His analysis provides a sobering retort to those urban scholars who fail to come fully to terms with the complexities surrounding efforts to protect minority interests from majoritarian impulses in democratic politics. He argues that multicultural theories and policies based on the goal of racial equality have come under attack in recent years and been replaced by a newly hegemonic policy narrative, community cohesion. He attacks this new orthodoxy, arguing that it reflects a colonial attitude toward black and minority ethnic groups, treating them as immigrants not citizens. She mounts a robust case for multiculturalism, while maintaining that the defense of difference "is empty if not linked to debate about justice and equality."

The next two chapters by James DeFilippis and Jim Fraser (Chapter 9) and Edward Goetz and Karen Chapple (Chapter 10) challenge orthodoxies concerning how best to confront spatially concentrated urban poverty. DeFilippis and Fraser critique the orthodox theoretical justification for creating mixed-income housing and neighborhoods offered by mainstream urban policy analysts. They offer their own theoretical justification for mixed-income housing and neighborhoods, a justification that suggests policies both normatively and programmatically superior. Goetz and Chapple question the related orthodoxy of what Imbroscio elsewhere identifies as the dispersal consensus in U.S. anti-poverty and low-income housing policy. Goetz and Chapple's analysis marshals considerable empirical evidence challenging the dispersalist position by demonstrating that such policies are often both ineffective and unjust.

Finally, in Chapter 11, Thad Williamson takes a critical view of the urban sprawl debate. What troubles Williamson is the overconfidence of much of the conventional critical urban scholarship on sprawl. Such scholarship views the notion that sprawl is a bad thing as a self-evident truth. Williamson takes the defense of sprawl seriously but shows how such a defense ultimately founders on both empirical and normative grounds.

The essays in Critical Urban Studies advance the enterprise of critical urban studies. They challenge a wide range of prevalent orthodoxies and illuminate several new directions on which subsequent critical scholarship and practice can build. They lay the foundation for reconceiving the conduct of empirical inquiry and knowledge production, revamping the nature of disciplinary work in the social sciences and revitalizing the field of urban studies itself with a renewed sense of confidence and intellectual vigor. The contributors provide thorough critiques of established urban policies that hinder social justice while offering progressive alternatives. They also press policy advocates committed to social justice to develop more rigorous and justifiable understandings of the immense challenges posed by contemporary city life.

Critical Urban Studies revisits the tradition of critical scholarship characteristic of the urban studies field. The essays reevaluate and challenge the critiques. The inventive essays will inspire future urban scholars and activists to further advance the theory and practice of critique in even deeper and more transformative directions. By provoking controversy at this time of global crisis, Critical Urban Studies functions to begin the debate.




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