The Urban and the Powerful: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Global Urban History

Göran Therborn, Cities of Power: The Urban, The National, The Popular, The Global, London, Verso, 2017, 408 pp. $35/£20/$47 CAN.

Reviewed by Gemma Masson, University of Birmingham

The recent growth in popularity of global history has caused many scholars to investigate how we can encourage students and colleagues, previously so rigidly locked into their own very niche specialisms, to work on the bigger picture. The latest publication from sociologist Göran Therborn can be described in a single word: interdisciplinary. Historians seeking a theoretical framework for their research may be apprehensive about what, at first glance seems to be a complex and technical sociological text, but through the skillful interweaving of history, politics, sociology, and architecture,this work is accessible and relatable to urban scholars in all fields. The book sets out to assess the impact that the urban, the national, the popular, and the global have had on each other. It also weaves both material and ideological factors into the study of cities. There is throughout the text an overarching teleological tendency to emphasize “modernity” and the “journey to modernity,” which can be contentious for some historians. However, Therborn seems to predict any potential criticisms of his handling of “modernity” and from the very start of the book he sets out to address this issue.

Beginning with a chapter on cities and centers of power and modernity, Therborn lays out his definition of “modern,” writing that “to be modern is a cultural time orientation to the present and towards the future, no more and no less” (24). This is how Therborn defines “modernity” for his purposes and while it is a strong definition for modernity it does seem not to apply accurately to periods like the Renaissance, literally “rebirth,” where everything about the Ancient and Classical worlds was in fashion, from political ideals to architecture. So, we are at a loss as to what a “modern” action or person would be in periods like this. The definition of “modernity,” if taken in isolation, also seems somewhat at odds with some of the book’s later passages, where Therborn discusses the naming of city streets after historical figures and also touches upon the use of neoclassicism in modern architecture, for instance in the U.S. and also in fascist countries. These are examples of “modernity” looking towards the past.


Aerial View of Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, built 1922

Therborn then devotes the following four chapters to what he calls “National Foundations.” These chapters serve to contextualize how different areas of the world developed into nations and how that later impacted the way in which their cities developed. In the chapter on Europe the analysis focuses largely upon systems of governance and sovereignty. The following chapter on settler secessions sets the discussion of Europe in a global context. It begins by describing how the capitals of settler states were governed with the systems imported from the European states whose inhabitants had originally colonized them. The chapter focuses largely on the Americas and their processes of finding new identities after breaking with Europe. These new identities manifested through the creation of new governance and culture separate from the governance and culture of the former colonizers. Chapter 4 is entitled “Nationalizing Colonialism” and deals with postcolonial nations with the caution that they do not all follow the same narrative. Therborn particularly emphasizes the duality colonial capitals deal with, having the remnants of their colonizers and still something that made them unique and how these factors came together into an identity that was something new in each case.

The final route to nationhood that Therborn addresses is what he dubs “Reactive Modernization,” namely a situation where the sociopolitical transformations within a state occur in reaction to an external threat from another state, either real or imagined. These changes are usually implemented from the top down, encouraging fear of cultural decline and the external threat. Countries that Therborn classifies as fitting into this narrative include Japan, Qing China, the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Iran and Siam/Thailand. He also emphasizes the importance of capital cities for these reactive cases, identifying several factors common to these capitals, which distinguish them from European capitals, both in their use of space and their monumental architecture. However, the modernization of these cities did include the import and assimilation of European examples. This argument is well supported but does seem to lend itself, as does most of this book, to Eurocentrism.

therborn coverThe remaining five chapters look at urban developments within nation states across the globe. Chapter 6 looks at popular uprisings in modern urban centers and offers a combination of examples drawn from the entire spectrum covered in the first half of the book. Therborn places European examples side-by-side with case studies from the Americas and Asia which facilitates good comparative study of these different models of national urban centers. The next two chapters detail cities as power centers in relation to the political ideologies of fascism and communism. The analysis concentrates upon European case studies, notably Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the USSR.

Chapter 9 explores the idea of the world city/global city, with a focus on architecture and the use of space. The discussion then progresses to Therborn’s current perception of global capitals, asking whether they contradict the classic idea of the capital of a nation-state by taking away their national character. Drawing on case studies from across the globe, Therborn brings modern history and politics to bear on the analysis. He also ends on a note of optimism with a view to the future of cities, which he attributes to the resurgence of popular urban reform.

In conclusion, this book is strongly recommended for all urban and global historians, as well as historians of modernity, for the detailed theoretical framework it provides. Another strength is the consistent use of relatable case studies so that historians and area specialists across the board will find examples that speak to their research. These factors mitigate any criticisms that can be leveled at the text, especially its overly teleological and Eurocentric approach.


Gemma Masson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham, U.K. Currently she is in the writing-up stage of her thesis, which aims to be A Prosopography of the Urban Janissary in Eighteenth-Century Istanbul. Her research addresses questions of identity, both contemporary and in secondary historical literature as well as the issue of corruption.

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