It takes a city to learn about cities? Pitfalls and delights of urban comparative research

By Marco Allegra

What constitutes a city, how are cities organized, what happens in them, where are they going? — in a world of cities these and many other questions invoke a comparative gesture. The budding theorist finds herself asking of the many studies she reads from different parts of the world: are these processes the same in the city I know? Are they perhaps similar but for different reasons? Or are the issues that are being considered of limited relevance to pressing issues in the contexts I am familiar with?

(Robinson 2011: 1-2)

Comparative research is a key theoretical and methodological maneuver in social sciences. In the simplest possible definition, it means learning about something by comparing it to something else – as opposed to the simple description of a single case.

It could even be said that every effort in theory building and abstraction implies some form of comparison: when we use or produce theory, we invariably measure the applicability of a concept across a variety of cases; we create different classes of objects based on observable elements that we assume are most significant; and we try to explain different outcomes in relation to different variables at work. Urban research is no exception – indeed, “city” is a comparative concept in itself, to the extent that we observe each single city, as Jennifer Robinson would have it, against the background of a “world of cities”. 

“A city before the world of cities: Çatalhöyük, Turkey, founded ca. 7,000 BC” (Source: Wikipedia- Omar Hoftun, 2013)

Comparing, however, is never easy – as every PhD candidate working, say, on housing policies in Portugal and Italy would know. Of course, social housing in Portugal and Italy would be “similar” in some way (otherwise it would not make sense to use the category “social housing” for both countries); and inevitably “different” in some way (because of the different historical, cultural, and political trajectories that characterize the two contexts). Indeed, every comparison is likely to result in a list of similarities and differences; the challenge for any scientist is, very obviously, what to make of it.

The model of natural/hard science offers a rather convincing answer to this challenge (epitomized by disciplines such as physics and chemistry): we can produce theory by measuring how outcomes vary in the universe of cases observed depending on the variation of key variables. In the ideal, experimental setting (e.g. a clinical trial of a new drug), we start with a hypothesis (e.g. that the drug works) that is systematically tested in a controlled environment across a large number of cases (i.e. a random sample of 200 patients). By restricting the number of variables observed and controlling their variance (i.e. administering the new drug to half of the sample and a placebo to the others) we can determine whether or not our starting hypothesis is valid.

While quantitative, statistical studies are widely used in social sciences (including the increasingly popular, if expensive, Randomized Controlled Trial), I would argue that a PhD student working on housing policy finds him/herself in a rather different epistemological environment than their colleagues in physics or medicine – this is the topic of a previous post published on this blog.

Let’s say that we are interested in an exercise of comparative urban studies – a field of interest for many scholars here at ICS. For example, we would like to understand whether or not the idea of “divided city” appropriately describes the dynamic of segregation and fragmentation in contemporary urban environment. The problem of course starts with the very idea of “city” – everybody knows what a city is until they try to spell out an explicit definition of it: Braga, Lisbon and New York are certainly cities, but can we say they represent the equivalent of patients X, Y, and Z in a clinical trial? And from here onwards things get even messier: how can you create a formalized model of the functioning of a city? How can we operationalize the idea of urban fragmentation in a simple, mathematized form? How many variables impact on these dynamics? How many variables can be realistically observed in our research? And how can we reproduce something like a controlled experimental environment to understand which variable determines a given outcome?

Should we raise white flag and abandon every ambition towards theory building, leaving it all to our colleagues able to test hypothesis through experimental research? Not at all: the imperative for science might well be to be of some use to society, but no one ever said that only formalized theories and mathematical models are useful – well, some people say that, but they’re wrong.

Scholars such as Bent Flyvbjerg have argued that “[j]ust as social science has not been able to contribute with Kuhnian normal science and predictive theory to scientific development, so natural science has had little to offer to the reflexive analysis of goals, values, and interests that is a precondition for an enlightened development in any society. However, where natural science is weak, social science is strong, and vice versa. For Aristotle, the most important task of social and political studies was to develop society’s value-rationality vis-à-vis its scientific and technical rationality” (Flyvbjerg 2001: 53).

How can we be useful and meaningful as (urban) scholars? Jennifer Robinson has offered a significant theoretical and methodological contribution toward a more conscious approach to comparative urbanism (here, here, and here): relaxing the research’s theoretical assumptions (especially in the use of a priori groupings when defining the units of analysis); avoiding reductionist causal assumptions and the reliance on single-factor explanation; directing our attention on networks and connections amongst different urban realities; relying on case studies and ethnographic research for theory building (Bent Flyvbjerg himself has written about how you produce theory through detailed case studies).

All in all, I would argue that, as a general rule of thumb, it is probably a good idea to focus more on cities than on abstract categories, and that theory should provide us the conceptual tools for dealing with the intricate and localized nature of urban phenomena. As one of our great urban theorists, Manuel Castells, argued, theories on cities should therefore be ‘‘produced and not simply tested by the interpretation of our case studies’’ to the extent that what we need ‘‘is not trans-historical theories of society but theorized histories of social phenomena’’ (Castells 1983; xviii, 340).


Marco Allegra (Laurea, International Relations, University of Torino; MA Near and Middle Eastern Studies, SOAS – University of London; PhD Political Science, University of Torino) is a Principal Investigator at ICS-ULisboa, where he integrates the research group Environment, Territory and Society and the Urban Transition Hub. His area of expertise includes Middle East politics, planning theory and urban studies; his current research activity focuses on housing policy and the role of knowledge in the policy process.

marco.allegra2010@gmail.com

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