Urban History: Three Themes to Guide the Field

I just returned from the European Association for Urban History’s 13th International Conference on Urban History in Helsinki. “Reinterpreting Cities” was the theme organizing dozens of sessions and excursions. The EAUH sponsors a biennial conference that “went global” and opened its scope beyond Europe in 2012. While the majority of papers relate to European history, this is an amazing conference and I encourage other Americanists to consider participating–the 2018 meeting will be held in Rome.

I attended to broaden my thinking about urban history, and to learn more about how cities are understood beyond the United States. I became an urban historian by way of Art History/Material Culture/American Studies, never taking formal courses in Urban History. Now that I am embarking in earnest on a second book, I want to think about the study of cities as systems. Three of the EAUH keynotes were incredibly helpful to that end, and inspired me to blog a bit about them here. In this post, I will talk a bit about the Opening Ceremony address (8.24.16) by Maarten Prak, Professor of Social and Economic History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Prak’s provocative lecture, “Urban History Agendas and Pre-modern Citizenship,” had everyone talking throughout the conference. He opened by repeating Peter Clark‘s list of goals for the field of urban history from the 2012 Prague conference: projects should display interdisciplinarity and attention to the longue duree, and should be comparative, global, and create a “joined-up picture.” Prak noted that as an academic administrator working extensively with economic historians, he finds them more successful than urban historians at achieving funding, in part because they can demonstrate the intellectual coherence of their field. He proposed elevating three specific themes to the center of the study of urban history: migration, creativity, and citizenship.

The study of migration needed little elaboration, as it already enjoys a special place in the study of cities. He emphasized the effects of the movement of people on cultural and social change (referencing the work of Patrick Manning 2005 and Lucassen & Lucassen 2014), and the societal transformation brought about by migration.

On creativity, he described innovation as an urban phenomenon. Here Prak drew upon Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, 1999. Thinking about cities as “creative milieux,” he reminded us to think about the life-cycles of innovation. Prior to 1850, we might look to artisans as innovators, then corporate structures during the 19th and 20th centuries, and post-1950, the state.

Finally, Prak addressed citizenship. He traced the definitions of citizenship back to Artistotle and Machiavelli, but called for thinking beyond the “legal” definitions of citizenship (Fahrmeir 2007) and embracing the “practical” definitions proposed by sociologist Charles Tilly 1995. Here, one studies transactions between people and the state, each with rights and obligations to one another.

Prak then elaborated on the theme of practical citizenship, tracing it briefly through the histories of Europe, China, and the Near East, reaching the conclusion that national citizenship does not mean an end point of history, instead representing merely a phase in the development of history.

Speaking to colleagues at the conference, not everyone was convinced that these themes reflect a roadmap for the field, but many did agree that some sort of thematic unity could be helpful. Prak acknowledged the didactic nature of his address, lightheartedly noting that he also respected the work being done by the rest of us on themes outside his rubric. Others at the conference also poked a bit of fun, as in this slide from a talk by Harm Nijboer and Claartje Rasterhoff, depicting Prak as Moses holding the tablets, captioned, “11. Thou shalt study urban creativity.”

Prak slide

I found all of this fascinating. While Prak was addressing earlier eras, migration and citizenship seem quite linked from the perspective of the modern United States, as we consider the ways in which the movement of people shapes the growth of housing, transit, and other urban systems, often with immigration as a related theme. In the American context, “identity” seems a more comprehensive theme, encompassing not just “American identity,” but also a wide variety of types of belonging that our subjects might experience–in their jobs, neighborhoods, loyalty to ideologies, religions, sports teams, etc. Urban creativity, too, seems a vital area of study, whether through technological innovations, literature and the arts, or other areas.

The second two keynotes probed these questions further. Swati Chattopadhaya gave an absolutely brilliant talk on the subaltern and our perspective as scholars, while Friedrich Lenger turned our attention to European history after 1850. I will post about those soon.