Mithen: The World in A City

The World in the City: Reframing the ‘Global’ in an Urban Key

Nick Mithen, European University Institute

How to incorporate the global into the humanities and the social sciences remains a subject of intense debate. This essay suggests that viewing global processes through the lens of the city offers an alternative viewpoint, able to negotiate some of the shortcomings associated with much global historical and social analysis. An urban perspective also represents an opportunity for dialogue between intellectual disciplines, and between scholarship and the non-academic world.

Of late, various political and social theorists have been keen to assert the sustained importance of the nation-state in the 21st century. They do so in revision of the late 20th century spate of globalization theorists – some enthusiastic, others dystopic –predicting the eclipse of state-oriented systems of political governance in the face of a globalized economic structure, and a globalizing social, political and cultural superstructure. Observing that the world is not ‘flat’, and that a state-centric global political structure continues to define the life of the majority of the world’s inhabitants (even, and indeed increasingly, in Europe, supposedly a bastion of post-national political culture), their redefinition of the role of the nation-state has offered an insightful and timely critique of the established narrative of globalization.

At the same time, the socio-political global which such critics rail against often ends up a straw man, not representative of some of the more nuanced theorists of globalization. Furthermore, simply returning to a state-centric perspective fails to engage directly with the key insight of the global turn: its deflation of the nation-state, not only as an institution but more fundamentally as a scale of social process. Or rather, state-centric social analysis can competently answer a number of state-centric sociological questions, but has a limited capacity when, and is even an obstacle to, engaging with larger scale global or smaller scale local scenarios. There remains a sense in which the problematization of scale which the global turn represents offers a platform from which to better understand the complexities of human social life, though there is little consensus as to how this task might be pursued.

This dynamic has also played out in historical scholarship, although it has been the subject of considerably less explicit theorization. From the 1990s, historians began accelerating the development of the project of global history. By the 2000s, historical scholars of many different orders and disciplines were eager to situate their work within global and trans-/post-national paradigms. As well as spawning a huge amount of valuable historical scholarship, this trend has had the highly important impact of countering the spectral presentism which continues to hang over much theorization of the global in the social sciences. It has demonstrated that the world has always been interconnected, structured dynamically through a complex mesh of networks, movements of people, things and ideas, which do not correlate to national or civilizational borders. Indeed, this scholarship demonstrates that such borders existed only in a partial and permeable sense. While the scale and intensity of interconnection between disparate people and places may ebb and flow, and may have, in the past five hundred, two hundred, or fifty years, reached unprecedented levels, the fundamental insight is that global scale processes are not inherently new or inherently modern.

This historicization of the global has offered a valuable reframing of the sociological debate. At the same time, many of the critiques of globalization theory have been transposed into historiographical debate. Postcolonial historians have identified the spectre of the modern, the West, and the diffusionist logic which hide behind histories of globalization. With aspirations to describe the whole world, or to stress continuity across large areas, some strands of global history present an excessively flattened world, operating at a level far abstracted from the social realities of individuals and communities. Attempts to trace global lives threaten to promote both a fetish of mobility and, somewhat counterintuitively, a cultural essentialism. Both tendencies stem from the depiction of a frozen world which facilitates, but does not directly act upon the movement of individuals, objects, and ideas which bounce from one coherent place to another. In short, the omnipresence of the global has encouraged a certain texture of social-historical analysis with which not all historians are comfortable.

Reflecting the debate in the social and political sciences, this critique of the rhetoric of globality has encouraged a revival of national or regional histories that, nevertheless, often reflect upon and work through, rather than ignore, the legacy of the global turn. Other ways of renegotiating the global have been an emphasis upon the globality of things, of spaces, or a tract about world-making or world-building, which seek to subjectivise the global as the experience of individuals or communities. Still, the limitations of these approaches indicate how the incorporation of global perspectives into historical analysis remains something of an open question.

What I want to suggest here is a way to engage with the fundamental insights of the global turn whilst also satisfying the critics of the global as conceived and applied in the social sciences and historical scholarship. Additionally, I want to include ways of addressing globality as it is commonly represented in everyday life, the media and political debate. The approach I propose incorporates a two-part methodological maneuver, though in fact the two points are two sides of the same coin, or at least they infer one another. Firstly it demands an engagement with geographically-sensitive and materially-engaged perspectives on human society – past and present. This implies a greater awareness of place when locating people, things, and ideas in space, and an integration of humans and the world which they inhabit. The second aspect of this methodological stance is an orientation around and through cities and urban centres. In a radical inversion of national and global-as-universal paradigms, cities’ (and towns’) actual-existing materiality – rather than politically- or absolutely-defined artificiality – enables studies to offer a texture of analysis that represents more accurately lived experience. Such a social and spatial logic facilitates, in turn, a more dynamic and representative way of talking about the global.

The post-anthropocentric logic demanded by the study of an urban environment is conducive to a nuanced understanding of social process. The city is a contested assemblage, composed through myriad networks and processes which draw together different people and objects. It combines different social, political, material and cultural forces, manifest in specific individuals and institutions. This networked orientation around the place/s represented by the city facilitates a form of scalar continuity. Within the city space the smallest and largest scales of social process are situated on a continuum, and global flows of people, things, and ideas are reframed by local dynamics while also contributing to their transformation. Abstract binaries and categories – macro/micro and local/global, as well as national, cultural, and civilizational – are less transcended than dissolved. It is through appreciating the physical density of the city that the interaction of different scales and forms of social process can be captured and animated, and their particular character and relational meaning understood.

Starting with the city as an assembled social place facilitates an understanding of global-scale processes as traced through their situated manifestations. The world described is thus demonstrated to be causally defined, but in a complex way, as myriad practices and micro-narratives collide and combine to produce contingent and unpredictable consequences. Thus the social is structured, and comprehensible, but in a layered, loose and ultimately holistic sense, demanding thorough and rigorous, as well as expansive and imaginative analysis. From the perspective of a city, the global is not wrought wholly meaningless, but its analytical value is certainly diminished, integrated as it is into the ordinary/extraordinary fabric of social life. Given the ubiquity of uncritical rhetoric of globality both within and beyond academia, this shift is significant.

Much of this reframing of the global through the city has drawn upon innovations in the social sciences, in geography, anthropology, science and technology studies (STS), sociology, and urban studies. Such perspectives have had a lamentably minor impression upon historical scholarship. This is a shame as they collectively represent a conceptual tool-box through which historians could develop more nuanced understandings of issues of scale in social analysis, and as such ways of integrating and normalizing the global. It is also a shame as it is through historical application that such methodologies are able to develop, made more nuanced by their animation in concrete scenarios.

The specificity of cities is their capacity to draw together different people, objects, and ideas in a complex layered meshwork. Their analysis also ought to draw together different scholars, from different disciplines and backgrounds. Just as the anatomy of the city – its streets, squares, and places – uniquely dramatizes the entirety of human life, so too can its exploration offer a uniquely interdisciplinary forum through which to reflect upon the depths of the human condition.