‘Beyond the straw men.’

Post-colonial urban theory and ‘Western’ urban theory: perspectives and possibilities

This small-scale interdisciplinary workshop, with the confirmed participation of Jenny Robinson, Filip De Boeck and Yaşar Adanalı, intends to engage with the recent wave of scholarship on postcolonial urbanism that seeks to unhinge, unsettle, contextualize or ‘provincialize’ Western notions of urban development. It aims to explore the tension field between these approaches to urban studies and more Western-based approaches, including theories on neoliberal urbanism and the world cities paradigm (members of the Global and World Cities research group at Ghent University will be participating as well). How productive is the postcolonial urban critique? How can the postcolonial perspective be employed without risking throwing away what we have learned from more established urban theories? What is to be gained from overthrowing the divide between what was until recently called ‘development studies’ and urban studies, not too long ago inhabited by mostly Western scholarship? Can so-called ‘Southern’ urban theory function as a mirror for Western theory by shedding light on phenomena normally overlooked in Western cities? How does this emerging field relate to occurrences such as rural-urban migration, informality, neoliberal urban megaprojects and gentrification? How do we avoid constructing straw men out of postcolonial urban studies and Western urban theory, missing nuanced perspectives in each that could make the critique more interesting and productive? With a group of geographers, historians, ethnographers, political scientists and others engaged in urban issues we hope to discuss these questions in depth.

 We will focus on the following themes / key questions:

1-The postcolonial critique:

How valid/justified is the postcolonial critique when looking at your own work, i.e. the (non)-applicability of theories such as gentrification, neoliberal urbanism, world cities, Eurocentric assumptions about and hierarchization of cities? Which elements do you reject? Which urban dynamics have you uncovered that prove or disprove the postcolonial critique:

2-Postcolonial urban theory

Which elements of postcolonial urbanism do you find useful (e.g. informality, ‘worlding’ cities, social and spatial polarization and fragmentation, the role of religious movements and traditional elites, claims on the state, a politics of anticipation, zones of exception, transnational migrant practices, self-reliance, user involvement in service provision, etc.)? Which elements could enrich urban theory, as it exists today, in the North as well as the South? 

3-Relationality and globalization:

How do cities ‘already inhabit each other’? I.e. what are transnational connections and genealogies, relations that transcend or displace global/local dichotomies? What are ‘global’ processes of urban development? How do you see the global-local construction in urban theory, and the postcolonial critique that the global is often seen as originating from the West? How does the world city paradigm look at Southern cities?

4-The politics of knowledge production:

Who defines topics of study, and who funds urban research? What are the politics of urban comparison? Who identifies the cities that are being compared? How can we ensure a process of knowledge production that takes into account the full dimensionality of all cities and avoids unjustified generalizations and Eurocentric assumptions?

The workshop will take place on November 12-13, 2014 in Ghent (Belgium) and will be hosted by the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University.

This GCGS workshop is organized in cooperation with the Middle East and North Africa Research Group (MENARG), the Conflict Research Group (CRG), Social and Economic Geography (SEG), Communities Comparisons Connections (CCC), which are part of the Ghent Centre for Global Studies (GCGS), and the Architecture and Urban Planning Department, Ghent University, Belgium.

workshop program