“World History Needs More Urban Mess”: A Conversation with Carl H. Nightingale

Since its launch in November 2015, the Global Urban History Blog has published posts on a range of different cities and topics. The blog grew out of the observation that an increasing number of historians are bringing together global and urban history in innovative ways, possibly creating a new field of historical research. The blog aims at facilitating exchanges between these scholars, since we feel that historians working on cities in different world regions, who also share an interest in global history, need to connect better. It also seeks to foster a critical conversation about the theoretical and methodological implications of bringing together global and urban history. Since global urban history is a research field in formation, this is an ideal moment to take stock and reflect on the direction in which scholars are heading. The new conversation section of our blog is designed to provide a home for these reflections. The blog’s editors will occasionally interview scholars to discuss questions of global urban history, spanning across different regional and thematic concerns.

Carl H Nightingale

Carl H. Nightingale

We are thrilled that for our first conversation we were fortunate enough to speak to Carl H. Nightingale, Professor of Transnational Studies and American Studies at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Nightingale received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and has authored numerous works on race and American and transnational urban history. His widely acclaimed book Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (University of Chicago Press, 2012) was the co-winner of the Jerry Bentley Prize 2012.

Question: During the past ten years, the growth of global history has also inspired historians of cities, who increasingly investigate the role of cities in empires, long-distance trade, and maritime networks. Urban historians have also shown a growing interest in how global connections manifested themselves in the local spaces that they study. Conversely, scholars of global history draw on urban history as a way to situate their studies in concrete locations. Concentrating on cities as nodal points, for instance, has allowed historians to render more tangible the elusiveness of the far-flung connections they are so interested in. Such a concrete spatial focus may thus not only provide more manageable units of analysis, but also prove to be an effective antidote to some reservations regarding global history. Indeed, Frederick Cooper’s warning about the “lumpiness” of global connections can be illustrated most vividly through urban history.

Even so, explicit combinations of the labels “urban history” and “global history” seem to remain rare—a surprising finding if one considers the two fields to be as congenial as outlined above. This scarcity also contrasts with proliferation of the prefix “global” in other established subfields of the discipline, as in “global intellectual history.” But our first question to the participants of our discussion should really be whether you agree at all with the diagnosis that global history and urban history have not often been coupled explicitly so far? And if so, do you find this surprising and where do you see the reasons for this? If you disagree, where do you see the most important precedents for combining the two?

Carl H. Nightingale: I agree with much in this opening statement. Let me take a couple of points separately and perhaps add a few things to each before trying to answer your question.

Global history and urban history: I agree that urban and global history have much to offer each other. The examples you give of the virtues of the marriage between the two fields—or even the creation of a new field—are apt.

We could indeed learn more about the “lumpiness” of connection through a global urban history. But we need to remember that the main advantage of the global frame is not that there are lots of things that operate solely on truly global scales, though there are such things: the main advantage it is that the global frees us to look at the intersections of forces of historical change that operate on all geographic and temporal scales at once, and that are constantly intersecting with each other. That is why I have somewhat reluctantly grasped at the jargonic neologism “diascalar” to describe the sensibility that should guide larger-scale or “global” urban history. Basically a diascalar imagination allows us to identify the size of the many things that affect urban development and urban politics, exploring how cities act as sites in which the largest scale things, medium-sized things and smaller things meet up with each other in the cauldrons of urban politics. There they absorb each other, recreate each other, “process” each other maybe, and even sometimes completely recreate each other, thus diversifying urban space, urban identities, urban practices, and urban politics itself—but also the historical forces that entered the city in the first place, for they emerge as something else when they move somewhere else. It answers the question: Why does this city look different from other ones even if it is so deeply connected to others? Why do cities diversify even as their hyper-connectedness makes them open to inspiration from other cities? In the process, we are not only identifying the lumpiness of connection, we are also explaining it.

SegregationTo use another sense of “lumps,” we need to be able to be lumpers and splitters at the same time, to group together diverse places that nonetheless have bigger things in common or that connect them; and to recognize that connecting cities and seeing them absorb the same things does not mean they will all be the same after the absorption. As things spread from city to city, they will diversify as well, creating new things that can spread to multiple cities and diversify more. This closely describes, for example, the practices of segregation that I traced as they moved from city to city.

Cities as nodes: Yes, we need to think of cities as nodes in networks of connection. But that only raises more questions: What exactly does a node do? Is it solely there because the connection needs it? Is it passive? No, on both those points. Does the fact that it is located in a city mean anything to the city itself—its politics, its shape, its people’s identities? Yes, of course! Let’s identify these nodal urban spaces. For they are extremely complicated things that, far from being passive, create connections as much as the other way around. They take up actual space in the city and as such only come into being in the contexts of conflicts between people of many different interests and identities and geographic scope of operation, all of whom are at least part of the time physically inhabiting the city and fighting over its development. Of course nodes are ports, airports, train stations, expressways, crossroads, warehouses, financial centers, marketplaces, but they are also immigrant neighborhoods, (segregated or not, subject to mob violence or not), all kinds of specialized buildings, and they are city halls, and municipal offices of all types; even the charter documents of those municipalities themselves can be “nodes” as they contain material from elsewhere and help create similar charters in other places. The sewers, the streetlights, the prisons, the street layouts, the hospitals, hotels, monuments, apartment buildings, homes, everything in the city can be and in many cases has been analyzed as the result of some large-scale importation, such as to a new “node” of sewer engineering or streetlight design that was then recreated in some ways by its entry into the particular urban space and the particular conflicts over that urban space that brought that node into being. From there, now recreated, any one of those spaces could be the touch point for a new large-scale movement of something to somewhere else. And that doesn’t even count the most important potentially large-scale but always multiply-scaled importation—that of the city’s human inhabitants. People enter the city from variously sized distances away, they are changed by the city, they change it, and they determine what the city is going to take in and send out in the future. So cities aren’t just nodes, they are the creations and the creators of connections.

Soweto 1976

Scene from the Soweto Uprising 1976, Symbol of the Struggle Against Segregation

If studying lumpiness and studying the creation and the spatiality and the products of nodes is important, as I think it is, then we need urban historians to take connection more seriously and we need world historians to take nodes more seriously, especially the urban ones that are most important to most networks of connections.

Another valuable contribution of global urban history involves the bigger interdisciplinary fields of urban studies and urban theory. Social scientists, social theorists, and geographers have been active in creating a global urban studies since at least the 1980s. They have done very little historical reading, though, so their sense of context and change bears little of either the longue-durée time-scales or the subtle causalities of change that are the very raw material of the world historian’s craft and that larger-scale urban historians have begun to explore as well. Theorists of the “global city” or of “global urban networks” or of “regional urban agglomerations,” tend to write stories of change that are rather mechanistic, based on impersonal processes such as “globalization” and often miss subtle dialectics of continuity and change or contestation and contingency. Rarely do they imagine transformations of a longer time-scale. Also rare is the messy stuff of urban history, the multi-front conflicts between diverse interests and identities that have long been urban historians’ greatest stock and trade. As we pursue a global or large-scale or diascalar urban history we could thus offer much to interdisciplinary urban studies, if only we can forge the cross-disciplinary links that we have so far done little to forge—or if we can, frankly, write urban histories that directly challenge approaches in other disciplines and that somehow reach the readership that a Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells, or a David Harvey has managed to reach long ago.

So, to finally answer your question: I am cautiously optimistic about the progress of these missions. There are many ways to do larger-scale and diascalar urban history. You can do it in the context of a single case study, you can do it comparing two cities or three or four, you can do it by following a single urban planner or a school of planning or a housing reformer or a municipal reformer or an urban sanitation expert or traffic engineer from city to city, or you can follow a particular practice across several cities, or examine the ways in which cities became global command-centers of anything from financial systems to anti-imperial movements, and you can finally do it on the larger scales by looking at urban phenomena or urban networks more synthetically in many places or across the entire world all at once. Most global urban history today starts with a relatively small prism and moves outward. But there are enough examples of all of these approaches that globalized (or diascalar) urban history has become a field of very real practice. We’re not just making theoretical calls into the wilderness anymore.

To encourage more synthetic work, assuming that’s what we need to do to reach out to urban studies more broadly, urban historians will probably have to spend more time reading and hanging around world historians—and of course also geographers, urban theorists, and sociologists. None of that has happened yet. Mostly that’s because scholars in each of these fields have their hands full with subjects that are very difficult and time consuming, and can only organize the resources to get to so many conferences every year; the professional payoff of building networks outside one’s field and discipline aren’t as strong as the promise of the intellectual payoffs. A true marriage will only occur when there are regular established conferences, perhaps governed by an Association of Global Urban Studies—the acronym AGUST would suit its imperial ambitions well!), that include all of these groups, where we can think collectively about what exactly each of our fields brings to the other, where we can trade ideas on training, method, collaborative work, media of expression, and where we can encourage and critique the many genres of study that the field of large-scale and diascalar urban history could contain. In the meantime, the one-off panels and conferences and special issues and volumes of collected essays and the monographs and synthetic treatments that have proliferated will have to do. Same with this excellent blog and website!


Some of what you say points to older links between urban and global history, even though social scientists may have stressed this earlier than historians did. Still, if one looks at urban history as a distinct field of study replete with its own journals and book series, beyond your own work one is hard pressed to find a great many examples of studies dealing with cities in more than one country or world region—and particularly work on the urban history of what today is called the Global South. As this graph suggests, urban historians seem to continue to focus mostly on U.S. and European cities. Do you think that this might represent a problem for global history, which usually comes alongside pleas to overcome conceptual and topical Eurocentrism? Is the very fact that between 1700 and 1930 most of the world’s largest cities were in Europe, North America, and East Asia an obstacle for combining urban with global history, so that histories of world regions whose populations mostly lived in the countryside during many centuries are neglected by urban history?

CHN: These are all very important concerns, and the graphs you have provided do present a dismal picture or urban history outside the “West” in general. That said, my guess is that if you look at the journals in Latin American, African, Atlantic, Asian, Australasian, and Pacific history, there will be a fairly healthy dose of urban-focused projects whose authors made perfectly strategic decisions to avoid urban history journals, in part because of the very Eurocentric bias that these graphs confirm. When I did my synthetic research for Segregation I did probably more trolling of area studies journals than urban history journals on subjects outside the US and Europe. Whatever the case, there is an imbalance, and that is probably overwhelmingly due to the same factors that create similar imbalances in all fields of history and that all historians have rued for decades.

Your question does contain the interesting implication that more synthetic types of large-scale urban history—as opposed to case studies or smaller comparative studies that take larger phenomena into consideration—could begin to address the gap, and I think there is a lot to that point. This is another place where global historians can point the way for urban historians. Though I imagine that the field of world history itself suffers plenty of Eurocentric and Western-centric bias, the field is at least based on the idea that you shouldn’t stop there. That’s yet another place where urban historians can learn from world historians—if we’re interested in larger-scale or diascalar urban phenomena we shouldn’t stop there either. Even if it’s impossible to acquire the money, language/cultural skills, and time necessary for multi-continental multi-site projects of original research, it is possible to couple a few in-depth archival projects with synthetic readings of the work that is out there, even if it means reading journals outside of urban history or world history. That’s how I constructed the narrative in Segregation; it’s a technique that world historians are also familiar with, even if they don’t always write on cities. An “Association Global Urban Studies” conference could explore how to do that kind of stuff better, and also inspire more geographically inclusive studies as well.

Madras Mid18

Mid-Eighteenth-Century Map of Segregated Madras, one example in Nightingale’s book.

Dovetailing with the wider trends in history over the last thirty years or so, practitioners of global history have identified in “methodological nationalism” their hereditary enemy. Yet, when speaking to urban historians, they might well be preaching to the converted in that urban history has never viewed the nation-state as its natural category of analysis. Can historians of cities learn anything new from global history? Conversely, what exactly can global history learn from urban history—especially seeing that global history is a field reluctant to predefine its spatial unit of analysis, whereas urban history has in this pre-definition its very raison d’être?

CHN: I’ve answered the question about the mutual benefits to urban and world history in several spots, so let me try to bring them together concisely: World history can teach urban historians to think more about connections, to encourage us to take the risk of leaping beyond our archive into the synthetic, and to be more geographically inclusive, especially of cities in the Global South. Urban historians can teach world historians how to be messier and richer with their understanding of the complexities of urban nodes and of the lumpiness of connection more generally, and also to acknowledge the powerful, if contingent and equally messy, role cities play in creating large-scale networks by encouraging money, things, people, ideas, practices, and institutional forms to flow through those networks. Since those things usually arrive first in another city, receiving cities also help to diversify the things that pass through those networks when they do arrive there. Global urban historians can teach urban studies more generally about the larger scale and subtleties of change. I’m sure there’s more than that, and I look forward to hearing about others’ experiences.


Venice’s Ghetto Nuovo – originator of the term “ghetto”

As for units of analysis: I think it’s fine that world historians have been unwilling to define their unit of analysis, because the real advantage of world history, as I stated earlier, is to allow us to look at historical phenomena on all possible scales (except the galactic or universal—that will require “Big History,” if it’s truly necessary). That freedom of scalar imagination should include the scale of the nation-state. For all the constraints on the power of nation-states, they remain enormously powerful, and things that are more “global,” like banks, corporations, the UN or the EU, all have constraints on their power too, even if they too are very powerful and worth studying. However, to the extent that urban historians have worked exclusively on a national scale, or have defined our subject with reference to a nation-state (“American Urban History,” for instance) then we ought to either get rid of that title or at very least be very wary about our contribution to any exceptionalist nationalist narrative. Exceptionalist national narratives are only propaganda, and have no place in history of any kind.

So, what is the scope of our analysis as urban historians? Cities, sure. Local things, maybe to some extent. But, as we have agreed, they also are subject to internal smaller “sub-local” micro-dynamics and larger ones at provincial or national or colonial, or regional, or continental, imperial, or oceanic, or hemispheric, or even global phenomena—and also creators of those phenomena as well. That’s the basic reason that our field needs to move from being defined as local and embrace larger-scale and diascalar analysis. Note there is no reason to “exceptionalize” the city or proclaim its superior virtues in the same way people have oversold any single nation-state or nations-states in general. Cities are capable of good and bad. But there’s no reason historians should be left out of the recent resumption of the “what is a city?” debate—which, once again, has arisen in urban theory, sociology, and geography, not urban history. One drift of that debate, articulated most clearly by the theorist of urban design Neil Brenner, is that cities simply cannot be conceived as only inhabiting the densely built-up spots where they are “located”: they affect and are affected by everything around them, from mountains and deserts and oceans to countrysides to polities, economies, cultures, and populations of all sizes. What a city is, then, hangs more on the question of the relationship of humanity to the rest of the world as we transition to the Anthropocene era, when we humans cluster ever more enthusiastically in cities than ever before, and cities—if done right, maximizing the good they can do and minimizing the bad stuff they can do—have become maybe our only feasibly remaining toehold on the great blue ship that spins us through the very largest of all spaces. If contributing to knowledge that will help us get cities right is not a good reason for large-scale and diascalar or global urban history, I don’t know what is.

Editor’s note: The table “Regional Focus of Articles in Urban History Journals of the Last Years” has been edited to correct minor inaccuracies. 26/09/2016

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One Response to “World History Needs More Urban Mess”: A Conversation with Carl H. Nightingale

  1. Pingback: Some Reflections on Imperial Port Cities in the Age of Steam | Global Urban History

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