“Historians of Cities and Global Historians Have Much to Learn From Each Other”: A Conversation with Nancy Kwak

The Conversations section of our blog seeks to foster critical exchange about the theoretical and methodological implications of bringing together global and urban history. The blog’s editors will occasionally interview scholars to discuss questions of global urban history, spanning across different regional and thematic concerns.

For this post, we are delighted to have spoken with Nancy Kwak, Associate Professor of History at UC San Diego. She is the author of A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which won the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (2016) and the Kenneth T. Jackson Best Book Award from the Urban History Association (2016). With Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, she is the co-editor of Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban History, out this fall from University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kwak photo

Nancy Kwak


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. Do 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? 

Nancy Kwak: I agree that “global urban history” is a relatively new label despite the obviously global and urban aspects of topics like empire, for instance, or circuits of migration, progressive reform movements, and so on. There is already a significant body of work that I would label as global urban history: Carl Nightingale wrote a spectacular book on global segregation, Carola Hein likewise for port cities (and coming soon, for petroleum cities), Chris Klemek for transatlantic urban renewal, and Florian Urban for global mass housing; Andrew Sandoval-Strausz and I just finished putting together a collection of exciting new work (Making Cities Global), and there’s a new Global Urban History Project being organized to support and build this sort of research. Then there are older but still important texts like Bob Fishman’s study of urban utopias, Peter Hall’s history of planning, or my personal favorite, Anthony King’s history of the bungalow. So clearly there’s a lot that is happening within what I would call global urban history, even if the term isn’t uniformly applied.

This leads to your related question—why has global urban history taken awhile to become a self-identified field? In the US and Britain, urban historians have a long tradition of looking closely at the form and function of individual cities, or even of individual neighborhoods, streets, and single buildings. They have been concerned with grassroots activism, local and national politics, and the specific details of built form, design, and landscape. As Shane Ewen observes in his book, What is Urban History?, this sort of close attention to local experience lends itself more easily to comparative approaches.

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Market in Soweto, 2011 (photo by Damon)

But this emphasis on local particularity and attention to difference plays out in an interesting way for scholars of cities in the Global South, too: Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong, for instance, reject the universalizing, totalizing tendencies of global metropolitan studies, instead arguing for greater attentiveness to the rich diversity of what they call worlding cities. They argue that frameworks like capitalism, colonial history, and postcolonialism elide the heterogeneous experiences of places and people. I like this line of argument because it restores a sense of contingency and local knowledge to the process of city-making and city life while still retaining the possibilities of cross-border research. I am also inspired by the way Brodwyn Fischer frames local and global in her discussion of informal urbanism in Cities from Scratch: we could easily discuss the “slum” as “an epiphenomenon of global history,” she observes, but “the thing that informal cities around the world hold most in common—what brings them into existence and allows them to survive—is their entrenchment in local dynamics.” She adds, “one might say the global informal city is also the rawest form of local self-expression, the space where literal and figurative facades thin away, revealing more transparently the relationships of power and culture that define each locality.”

Question: In our own work, we have observed a lack of exchanges between urban historians working on different world regions. This concerns different aspects from workshops and conferences that are often organized along the lines of regional specializations to scholars’ potential preference to publish their research in journals that focus on the history of a particular region. Your research, however, reflects a more global focus among Americanist scholars after the so-called “transnational turn” in U.S. history. It also brings together urban history and the history of U.S. foreign relations, which is an uncommon combination. From your position at the nexus of these fields, do you share the above observation about a lack of exchanges between urban historians with different regional specializations? If so, where do you see the reasons for this and how could this be remedied? And if not, where do you see the most promising exchanges occurring?

This is a great question and one that I think about every time I attend a conference. When you look at conference programs, you can usually find a growing number of Latin American panels, some East Asian ones, and an abundant overflow of panels on European and US urbanism/suburbanism. To some extent, this segregation makes sense and is an acknowledgment of the importance of local and regional knowledge. On the other hand, it does make it difficult to make intellectual connections and to escape the confines of area studies.

Kwak book cover.jpg

I think at least part of the reason why people find it difficult to engage across regional lines is because of the daunting amount of knowledge required. This was true in my own research. When I began investigating the historical linkages between homeownership and development aid, I had only read recreationally in Latin American, Southeast Asian, and West African urbanism. To my dismay, my peripatetic research subjects traveled to cities far outside my area of specialization. I did not know how far Cambérène was from central Dakar. I wasn’t sure if Keelung had better harbors than Kaohsiung. I needed a map to see which cities were linked on the Pan-American Highway. Even more critically, I had to get my historical and historiographical bearings. And then, there are also enormous regional differences in research topics, questions, and approaches that make it clear the very idea of a “global urban history” is informed by particular western academic trends. I’m not sure there is a quick remedy to these challenges, but there are enormous intellectual rewards for thinking and reading across these boundaries.

Question: Comparative and global accounts of the history of cities often draw on a master narrative. This is especially common for urban history since the nineteenth century, where historians frequently use concepts such as “urbanization,” “modernization,” or “Westernization” to describe the historical trajectory of cities. While these narratives provide a connecting thread between the urban past in different world regions, scholars have also criticized them as potentially Eurocentric. European cities have, for instance, often been portrayed as the vanguard of “urban modernity” that was simply “copied” in other world regions. At the same time, however, the absence of master narratives might leave scholars only with individual stories about single cities. How might global accounts of urban history combat both the tendencies toward provincialism embedded in case studies and the flattening often attributed to global or transnational approaches?  

I’ll start with an anecdote. I once went to dinner with a rather famous transnational historian from the United States who laughingly recounted an experience he had giving a keynote to a group of Asian scholars on “The Asian City.” This trip was the first time he had ever stepped foot in this part of the world, and given his lack of knowledge he felt he could only confidently put forward a general argument: “There is no Asian city.” His audience loved it, he noted with satisfaction. Years later, I still think about this conversation and about scholars boldly putting forward general statements about cities and the history of cities across the globe. Susan Parnell and Sophie Oldfield have a wonderful discussion in their Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South about the distortions produced by the distribution of researchers around the world and about this sort of politics of knowledge. While Parnell and Oldfield direct their critique at urban studies, I think their comments apply equally to global urban history.

Master narratives are problematic. I might go so far as to say that global urban historians should simply avoid crafting all-encompassing narratives; there are far too many experiences and ways of understanding the urban to force all into one universal trajectory. There is obviously nothing wrong with telling the history of industrialization, suburbanization, or urban decline in cities like Manchester or San Diego, for instance, but this lexicon cannot adequately or wholly explain urban change in twentieth-century Manila or Jakarta. Instead, Western, industrialized, and Anglophone experiences need to be properly provincialized. Global urban history should enrich and make more heterogeneous our conceptual maps. Scholars’ training and geographic and linguistic expertise should become correspondingly more expansive.

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Singapore’s bustling port, ca. 1910

I don’t think the opposite of a master narrative is a perplexing multitude of local histories. When done well, global or transnational histories should add more texture and depth to our understanding of urban processes rather than laying out a prescriptive, Rostovian narrative of growth. Even single city biographies can be enriched by global approaches. Cities generally do not operate only at local scales, and they evolve in response to larger political or economic needs. Is it possible to fully understand urbanization in Singapore, for instance, without looking at Malaysian water access or Southeast Asian markets? Can the growth of Long Beach be explained without a consideration of transpacific trade networks? Can a study of Paris ignore migration? Varying approaches bring forward the regional, transnational, and global aspects so vitally present in each city’s history.

Question: So far, our questions have mainly concerned the challenges of comparative and global approaches to urban history. For the last question, we would like to focus more on the opportunities of these approaches. In contrast to urban history, global history has been one of the fastest growing subfields of history in recent years, recently occasioning critiques that it has reached an imperial overstretch. And, notwithstanding renewed attempts at contouring global history, there is neither agreement nor certainty about its shape, scope, and aims. Yet proponents of comparative and global approaches to the history of cities have stressed the new insights that can be gained from looking beyond a single urban or regional context. Can historians of cities learn anything new from global history? Conversely, what exactly can global history learn from urban history?

Yes, absolutely—both historians of cities and global historians have much to learn from each other. Urban historians would do well to consider the city as part of a metropolitan region integrated with rural economies and linked to global circuits. Likewise, global historians have denaturalized the nation as the central unit of analysis but could further explore the spatial, urban dimensions to many global networks and linkages. New authors are showing the way: Andrew Friedman explores the geopolitical architecture and the physical landscapes of political power in Northern Virginia, for example, and Daniel Immerwahr incorporates spatial analysis in his discussion of a global community development movement from the 1930s to the 1960s. Clearly, the wheels are in motion for both urban and global historians.

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