Sam’s AAG 2017 and “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop Roundup

I just got back from attending the American Association of Geographers’ 2017 annual meeting in Boston, MA. The day before I also participated in the  “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop at the University of British Columbia. Both events went pretty well and I thought I’d try recapping some of the major points like I did last year, as I found it a helpful exercise for processing what I saw. Note that like last year, I’m summarizing here from memory and incomplete notes, so if I misrepresent anyone’s research feel free to get in touch at s… and tell me!

Doing Critical Geography I and II

Our research team FEAST organized a paper session and a panel on ‘doing critical geography’ that was designed to invite everyone to reflect on challenges they faced translating critical geographic theory into method. This was a common challenge we graduate students faced and ended up talking about a lot at our weekly team meetings. The paper session saw a nice variety of challenges and approaches, with Jillian providing some great examples of how she tried to incorporate three methodological principles into her work: 1) mutual benefit, 2) restructuring power relations through research and 3) challenging the idea of neutrality.

I spoke about two major methodological challenges I faced (participants having different recollections of past events and my own adopting of the ‘program speak’ of planners and nonprofit staff I was speaking to) and how I tried to view these as a form of data and indicative of my positionality rather than the ‘shortcoming’ they might be viewed as by a positivist paradigm.

Paul-Antoine Cardin gave us an interesting look at his role in the Tshishipiminu Partnership of the Mashteuiatsh reserve (of the Montagnais du Lac St-Jean Innu band) and Laval University, which is working on collaborative Community Impact Assessment of hydroelectric and natural resource projects in the area. He argued that their process of “engaged acclimatization” was a form of slow and embedded scholarship that saw mutual benefit for both sides of the partnership and worked towards decolonizing knowledges.

Désirée Rochat and Leslie Touré Kapo presented some collaborative work based on a debate they are having regarding the role of activist-scholars in researching popular education, racialization, and youth in the global city. They argued that the majority of research on racialized urban youth ignore complexity in favor of fitting research findings into established stereotypes. Instead they argue that activist-research needs to incorporate a greater focus on 1) orality, finding ways to communicate beyond written text, 2) avoiding exploitative partnerships that shift the burden of research onto participants, and 3) a focus on conflict and youths’ own theorizing about their everyday experiences over time to avoid unhelpful generalizations.

In the panel session we had some very grounded discussions of scholar-activism and positionality on researching nonprofits, social justice, and food. Participating were FEAST’s own Madelaine Cahuas and Lauren Kepkiewicz in addition to Naya Armendarez Jones, Kristin Reynolds, and Sarah Nelson. While each panelist (and audience member!) had different approaches, one takeaway for me was the need to breakdown expert/non-expert or academic/activist binaries through different forms of knowledge production and dissemination, characterized by e.g. Madelaine’s use of testimonio, Lauren’s member-checking, or Naya’s use of the university system to benefit activists through e.g. distributing money from grants.

Overall I thought the sessions went well; we’ll be meeting shortly to discuss potential venues for publishing some of this work.

“The Whiteness of Theory” – Ananya Roy

For the rest of the post I’ll just be summarizing and commenting on a few of the talks I found most interesting this year. First up is Ananya Roy’s “The Whiteness of Theory” from the session 2444 Who’s Afraid of Racial Geographies? Variations on Anti-racist Critique. Fraser started her talk by referring to Dawson’s (2016) critique of Nancy Fraser’s (2014) “expanded conception of capitalism.” Fraser argues that capitalism requires patriarchy for its reproduction, but as Dawson points out, she fails to incorporate an analysis of racism in the reproduction of capitalism.  Roy uses this as a prominent example of the failure of “capital T” Theory (i.e. formal architectonic academic theory) to account for race. She proposes connecting the black radical tradition and postcolonial theory to form a global theory of racial capitalism. While she agrees in principle with Fraser that any critical theory requires a theory of capitalism and its reproduction, she argues that starting from theories of capitalism that center the experience of people of color (she points to Du Bois, Robinson, and Fanon, among others) will work against the color blindness of much critical theory within geography.

I found the talk interesting for two main reasons. First, I find it interesting that Roy is pretty explicitly waging this critique within geography. She mentioned Laura Pulido’s (2002) essay “Reflections on a white discipline” that details her (and others’) need to engage less with geography and more with ethnic studies due to the multiple forms of intellectual and personal ignorance of race and racism she encountered in the discipline. While Pulido has maintained a relationship with geography, it seems to me she works more selectively in geography today due to the tiring work of having to continually explain or bring up race in the discipline. The (what seems to me) increasing discussion around race and postcolonial theory in geography and the path forward suggested here by Roy gives me hope that a generational shift might be occurring. However, as many have pointed out, the institutional structures maintaining the “unbearable whiteness” of geography persist and it will take continued sustained and coordinated action – especially through antiracist work on the part of white people – to make change (Derickson, 2016).

Second, her talk fit in well with the sessions I was attending this year. It seems lots of geographers are (re)turning to Du Bois’ (1935) Black Reconstruction in the Trump Era. This work was engaged with in at least five of the talks I saw this year as geographers continue to ask the perennial question of how to work towards liberation under racial capitalism and democracy. Of course, there are no easy answers, but this passage from Black Reconstruction chosen by Lisa Lowe in her discussion of how the British Empire imported Chinese bonded labor to the Caribbean to break/avoid slave revolts presents an inspiring vision of global solidarity:

“It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny. [. . .]

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts. [. . .] The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” (1935, p. 15–16)


Planetary urbanization and comparative urbanism

For this last section of the post I want to reflect a bit on the comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization debates in urban studies/geography. While this is of course a long-standing and on-going debate, I engaged with it a bit more than usual this year with a conference before the AAG and at several sessions at the conference.

The discussion occurring at the “Doing Urban Studies Differently” workshop at UBC was part of a continuing conversation happening in urban studies around comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization, arguably the central debate in the field today. Attending the workshop were Jennifer Robinson from UCL, Eric Sheppard and Helga Leitner from UCLA, Jamie Peck from UBC, and an assortment of graduate students. There was a panel with faculty, a panel with graduate students discussing their research, and break-out sessions where we discussed some empirically-focused papers. Thanks to UBC Geography graduate students for organizing the event.

I thought the workshop went well, at least leading to some productive discussion about modes of comparison and more detailed discussion of the empirical case studies. In reading and discussing I found Robinson (2016a, b) the most useful statement of her positions. The tables in both pieces summarizing comparative tactics or schemas are useful for thinking through the possibilities of comparing cities or processes of urbanization. I wish I had seen them when considering my comparative method for my Master’s!

However, the central point I found lacking in the discussion at the workshop (and at the conference as I detail below) was the question: what is theory for? While Leitner and Sheppard made reference to ethico-political commitments in motivating their theorizing, to me praxis is central here. To get a bit cheesy I’d return (surprise, surprise) to Marx’s Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Theory should be evaluated based on how it helps you understand the world in order to change it. The follow-up here is that in order to evaluate theories you have to have some way of comparing or evaluating them, i.e. you have to think about explanation. I don’t mean that you have to revert to a positivist scientific idea of an empirical truth, but you do have to have some standards for assessing the relative merit of theories for understanding the world. This was a point of agreement at the AAG session I’ll talk about later: if your theory can explain the phenomena you are interested in, that’s great. It is conceivable that urban studies will have different competing theories, many of which offer compelling explanations.

The conversation continued in a different venue at the AAG. Christian Schmid (one of the primary theorists of planetary urbanization along with Neil Brenner) organized six sessions on the topic. I only attended the final one (3213 Planetary Urbanization 6: Critical Appropriations), where they invited a few of their interlocutors to come and present. Jennifer Robinson was there, along with architecture professor Milica Topalovic and urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone. Robinson urged the planetary urbanization team to again consider a more revisable and modest mode of theorizing, suggesting that the empirical issues they were wrestling over in the previous sessions should be taken as proof that the particular and the universal will always be held in tension. Topalovic said she found the ideas of planetary urbanization compelling, but has been unable to articulate them with architectural practice. I wish she’d said something more concrete about her struggles to do so.

I found Simone’s talk perhaps the most interesting of all the planetary urbanization stream talks at the AAG. He was the discussant, so no paper title, but it was something like, “Extended/Extensive, Intensive/Compression.” I’d never seen him speak before; he has a very distinctive spoken word style of delivery. He distinguished himself from the other talks by engaging directly with some of Lefebvre’s ideas from planetary urbanization theory, in his case the ideas of extended and concentrated urbanization (see Brenner, 2013). These ideas were originally presented in a materialist political economy mode of the expansion of logistical and infrastructural networks (extension) and the concentration and accumulation of capital (concentration). Simone, however, playfully adopted the same ideas to think about multiple coexisting and overlapping temporalities, modes of inhabitation, global connections, etc. He thinks from Jakarta to ask Brenner, Schmid, and collaborators, under contemporary processes of urbanization, “what is concentrated? What is extended?” He finds that it is not only material political economic relations, but a multitude of forces. He questioned their “romance with integration” and the need to find explanation in the accrual of details. I’m not sure their projects are ultimately fully at odds, but I certainly found his presentation (and its style) thought-provoking.

Starting directly after that session (likely not a coincidence) were four sessions titled “Critical urban theory in the ‘urban age’: Voices from another planet” (3449, 3459, 3649, 4249) organized by Natalie Oswin from McGill University and Geraldine Pratt from UBC. I went to the first three sessions and overall I thought there were many great papers. I was a bit disappointed that many of the papers didn’t directly engage with the ideas of planetary urbanization (like Simone did above), but also recognize that this was explicitly theorizing “from another planet” (a feminist, postcolonial, and queer one) and that there is a certain politics to simply presenting another way of doing things rather than directly engaging. There has also already been a lot of that direct engagement at past AAGs and in journal articles.

I’ll just talk briefly about one of the papers from this track, “Splanetary Urbanization” by Cindi Katz, mainly because it offered the most direct critique of planetary urbanization – and it has a great title. Katz is playing on the idea of “man-splaining” here and that summarizes the central critique she’s making here: that planetary urbanization is very much a “theory boys” project. She supports efforts to move away from technocratic empiricism in urban studies, but finds their mode of theorizing masculinist. She offers two critiques:

  1. Brenner and Schmid’s theory evacuates social difference and agency. They pay very little attention to social reproduction, difference, and subjectivity. A key critique for me is that she points out that while they have done much to translate and understand Lefebvre’s work on the production of space, they do not include his work on everyday life. Katz therefore concludes they focus too much on one side of the dialectic of Lefebvre’s work.
  2. In their theory there is no outside to the urban, which again has the effect of removing agency and leading to accounts of social activity devoid of people or a sense of political possibility. A key point for me that she made here is that social practices are analytically separable from urbanization processes. She instead continues to advocate for a minor theory approach, making more revisable, relational, fluid, modest, and populated theory claims.

Katz illustrated thes points through two examples. First, she discussed her ongoing collaboration with Gwendolyn Warren, who was the young community researcher involved in Bill Bunge’s Fitzgerald project in Detroit in the 1960s. By working with Warren, she is uncovering the hidden history of the project, in which Warren was largely absent (erased?). She views this as a way of minor theorizing from another planet by drawing connections across time and space, gesturing towards structural theory, but always peopling the account and dwelling in subjectivities and interpersonal relations.

Her second example was the map Riot! from Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro’s (2016) Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. This map also draws speculative connections across space and time, for example by showing that the Fugitive Slave Riot of 1826 occurred just blocks away from 2011’s Occupy Wall Street.

Overall I thought Katz did a great job identifying the masculinist presentation of planetary urbanization theory. However, I’m personally not ready to give up fully on the idea of “capital T” theory. I still see value in being able to make generalizable, large-scale conjectures about how the world is and how it is changing. I think one needs to have some idea of that in mind to inform one’s research and politics. How else can one theorize social structures and systems like capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.? I suppose I need to do more work to think about how to both offer compelling explanatory theories that are politically helpful while avoiding masculinist cultures of theorizing. I will turn to Katz’s (1995, 1996) earlier work on “minor theory” and the other oft-discussed approach at the workshop and conference: conjunctural or relational comparison approaches (Hart, 2016; Peck, 2016, 2017).


Brenner, N. (2013). Theses on Urbanization. Public Culture, 25(1), 85–

Dawson, M. C. (2016). Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order. Critical Historical Studies, 3(1), 143–

Derickson, K. D. (2016). Urban geography II: Urban geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction in America: an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and

Fraser, N. (2014). Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism. New Left Review, 86, 55–

Hart, G. (2016). Relational comparison revisited: Marxist postcolonial geographies in practice. Progress in Human

Katz, C. (1995). Major/Minor: Theory, Nature, and Politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 164–

Katz, C. (1996). Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), 487–

Peck, J. (2016). Transatlantic city, part 1: Conjunctural urbanism. Urban

Peck, Jamie. (2017). Transatlantic city, part 2: Late entrepreneurialism. Urban Studies, 54(2), 327–

Pulido, L. (2002). Reflections on a White Discipline. The Professional Geographer, 54(1), 42–49.

Robinson, J. (2016a). Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 187–199.

Robinson, J. (2016b). Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies. Progress in Human Geography, 40(1), 3–29.

Solnit, R., & Jelly-Schapiro, J. (2016). Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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