Category Archives: Theory



Neil Brenner, “Debating planetary urbanization: for an engaged pluralism,” Working Paper, Urban Theory Lab, Harvard GSD, Summer 2017.

This essay reflects on recent debates around planetary urbanization, many of which have been articulated through strikingly dismissive caricatures of the core epistemological orientations, conceptual proposals, methodological tactics and substantive arguments that underpin this emergent approach to the urban question.  Following brief consideration of some of the most prevalent misrepresentations of this work, I build upon Trevor Barnes and Eric Sheppard’s (2010) concept of “engaged pluralism” to suggest more productive possibilities for dialogue among critical urban researchers whose agendas are too often viewed as incommensurable or antagonistic rather than as interconnected and, potentially, allied.  The essay concludes by outlining nine research questions whose more sustained exploration could more productively connect studies of planetary urbanization to several fruitful lines of inquiry associated with postcolonial, feminist and queer-theoretical strands of urban studies.  While questions of positionality necessarily lie at the heart of any critical approach to urban theory and research, so too does the search for intellectual and political common ground that might help orient, animate and advance the shared, if constitutively heterodox, project(s) of critical urban studies.


Nothing includes everything’: towards engaged pluralism in Anglophone economic geography
Trevor J. Barnes1  and Eric Sheppard

An Argument for Seeing in Urban Social Science

Jerome Krase

 An Argument for Seeing in Urban Social Science

Ethnographic and other qualitative researches are often relegated to a lesser status despite significant contributions to social science. However, ethnography as a research best practice is firmly anchored in theory, method, and subject matter. This essay synthesizes ways of looking at immigrant and gentrified urban neighborhoods in global cities as visible expressions of cultural and class changes that are expressed in vernacular landscapes.

Keywords: Visual, vernacular, global, methods, theory


“When we first pass through local spaces in global cities we are like tourists using our eyes
 to decipher the clues and cues to which we are exposed. Is this a safe or a dangerous place? Am I welcome here or should I leave before it is too late? What kind of neighborhood is it? Are the local residents rich or poor? What is their race, ethnicity, or religion and how (or why) does it matter? Some things are easy to tell on a street, such as there things for sale here? Legitimate merchants make it obvious that they are seeking customers with signs that compete for attention, but for the sale of illicit goods, the signs are subtler. Yet it seems that for the knowledgeable purchaser they are still there in plain view. This reading the “street signs” so to speak is not merely an aesthetic exercise. What we see makes a difference in how we respond to the places and the people we find in our increasingly complex and changing urban surroundings.‟ …(continue below)

The Material and Visual Cultures of Cities

The Material and Visual Cultures of Cities
Karen Wells

“The author adapts Lefebvre’s (1991) triadic theorisation of the production of space to the study of objects and ways of seeing in cities. Governmental power is condensed in monuments, planning, mapping, and film; capital organises the spaces and events of the city through the circulation of commodities and the destruction and reconstruction of urban space. Local cultures of consumption on one hand and spectacular events on the other shape the lived experience of the urban. In tracing the history and networks of things and images, the article unravels the reification and fetishisation of urban life that would hide the power relations that structure everyday life within the glittering spectacle of the commodity or the smooth veneer of the monument.”

Material and Visual Cultures of Cities


A Theoretical Primer on Space

A Theoretical Primer on Space

Robert P. Fairbanks II


The following paper chronicles a recent movement in the study of urban environments toward an appreciation of space and spatial theory. In recent years, urban anthropology has undergone a transformation by integrating a broad array of spatial theoretical perspectives from cultural geography, political economy, urban sociology, and regional and city planning. In order for the discipline of social work to gain access to these developments, this paper seeks to introduce and facilitate an advanced understanding of the roots of spatial analysis and spatial theory. Subsequent to this undertaking, a review of the interdisciplinary literature based on the tenets of spatial and geographical analysis will be provided. The latter review will proceed along the following two separate lines of categorical analysis: 1) Marxist geography; and 2) Cultural geography.

Knowledge of space is critical to understanding the production and transformation of social relations, and in this regard the built environment is an important concept for any endeavor in social analysis, including those undertaken by the discipline of social work. Space is a multi-dimensional concept that is at once economic, political, semiotic and experiential, and in this sense it is an integral component of social interaction and an indispensable vector for critical theory, particularly when added to the vectors of time and being. Yet the questions raised by Henri Lefebvre’s postulations that daily life depends on the production (and consumption) of space remain largely unanswered, even in academic works coming out of Marxist geography that hold the category of space as their primary raison d’etre (Gottdiener, 1994). By reviewing a subsection of the growing academic literature on space and spatial theory, this paper seeks to demonstrate how the consideration of socio-spatial relations can enhance our understanding of people in their spatial environments. By introducing an appreciation of culture in relation to material forces such as space, and by emphasizing the social relations that these material forces evoke,  spatial theory allows social work theorists to forge a relationship between the analytical categories of political economy, space, and culture. The challenge of such an undertaking is to consider the reciprocal construction of culture within certain spatial locations, particularly in relation to processes of capital accumulation and politics. The purchase of this challenge is profound, however, particularly for social workers seeking more cogent strategies for deploying concepts such as ecology, geography, and the “person in environment” approach.

As Michael Dear contends, “space is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening in the same place” (Dear, 2000, p.47). Henri Lefebvre staked much of his intellectual life on this simple proposition, yet the core of his work becomes infinitely more sophisticated when he draws our attention beyond mere inventories of what exists in space or a basic discourse on space – neither of which can produce a true knowledge of space (Lefebvre, 1974). In contrast, Lefebvre’s ontology asserts a greater importance for space as being present and implicit in the acts of creation and being, whereby the process of life itself is inextricably linked with the production of different spaces (Dear, 2000). Contrary to the idea that space is merely a reified alembic that boxes things in, Lefebvre implores us to appreciate the built environment as being structured through social relationships. People create space; thus the production of space is an inherently political project in which space is a mediating force that integrates an infinite number of active and dynamic cultural processes. In appreciation of Lefebvre’s prolific writings on space and the virtual revolution in critical thought that he has catalyzed, the purpose of this paper is two-fold: 1) To advance a foundational understanding of spatial theory; and 2) To explore a number of recent interdisciplinary writings that attempt to integrate a broad array of spatial theoretical perspectives with an appreciation of the political economies of geographical landscapes and the politics of everyday life. The second section of this undertaking will be broken down into two separate subsections in order to facilitate a more nuanced exploration of spatial analysis: A) Marxist Geography; and B) Cultural or human geography. It is hoped that this review paper will catalyze further discussion and eventual integration of spatial theory into the discipline of social work.

Space as a vector of Social Analysis: A discussion of Time and Space in the Abstract

Did it start with Bergson or before? Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic.

Michel Foucault, 1980

Space is never empty: it always embodies a meaning.

Henri Lefebvre, 1974

In his 1989 groundbreaking work titled Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Geography, Edward Soja advanced a compelling argument for the primacy of spatial analysis in social theory (Soja, 1989). He decried the fact that the nineteenth-century emphasis on historical epistemology continued to pervade the critical consciousness of modern social theory at the direct expense of a spatial imagination in the contemporary present:

So unbudgingly hegemonic has been the historicism of theoretical consciousness that it has tended to occlude a comparable critical sensibility to the spatiality of social life, a practical theoretical consciousness that sees the lifeworld of being creatively located not only in the making of history but also in the construction of human geographies, the social production of space and the restless formation and reformation of geographical landscapes (Soja, 1989, p. 10).

Soja moved on to chronicle a movement taking place primarily in the 1980s among postmodern and critical geographers to reassert the interpretive significance of space “in the historically privileged confines of contemporary critical thought.” Soja’s sentiments are actively manifesting in disciplines as wide-ranging as sociology, urban studies, critical geography, history, and anthropology, all of which have seen a veritable explosion in the realm of spatially informed scholarship and criticism. This ferment in critical discourse has introduced a new emphasis on spatial concepts and metaphors such as simultaneity, domain, horizontality, place, and heterotopia in attempts to counterbalance the previous dominance of temporal notions such as sequentiality, linearity, history, and utopia.

What is to be made of these recent arcane developments in critical discourse, and why have they become so prominent in contemporary urban theory? It should first be noted that social theorists and philosophers have long recognized that the rhythm of the day (time) and its localization (space) are two of the most important parameters of everyday life. However, as Soja notes, these new developments in spatial geography are reflections of and reactions to Western social theory’s longstanding tendency to take space for granted, thus constructing a perception of passivity in space as merely the stage upon which humanity forges its world through time. The longstanding separation of history from geography and the dominance of time over space has had the effect of producing images of societies as being cut off from their material environment, “as if they were fashioned out of thin air” (Coronil, 1997, p.24). In this deceptive light, the social appropriation of space, as well as the ways in which space acts upon society, appears as immaterial, irrelevant, or lacking in terms of revolutionary valence and interpretive significance.





Space, Difference, Everyday Life presents a state-of-the-art collection of essays engaging Henri Lefebvre’s oeuvre, explicating this inimitable French Marxist’s longstanding commitment to “urbanize revolutionary theory and revolutionize urban theory.” Belatedly, Lefebvre’s reputation has grown exponentially as a leading figure in European philosophy and social theory; and his pioneering works on space, everyday life, and global urbanization have revitalized urban theory, geography, planning, architecture, and cultural studies. In this context, this volume breaks new ground in spatial disciplines as well as critical theory: first, by bridging “spatial” Lefebvre discussions with broader reflections on his contributions to radical thought; second, by comparing influential Anglo-American explorations on Lefebvre’s work with those of the Continental—especially French and German—traditions; and, third, by proposing a new “third wave” of Lefebvre scholarship, going beyond both urban “political-economic” critiques and “postmodern-geographical” appropriations, to propose new trajectories for reading Lefebvre today.A highly nuanced, heterodox and provocative Lefebvre emerges in these pages–creatively involved in postwar intellectual debates, while offering us various strategies to intervene usefully in contemporary questions concerning space, time, difference, urbanization, state, colonizaton, and radical politics.

Book in pdf format:


Introducing Visual Culture: Ways of Looking at All Things Visual

Introducing Visual Culture:
Ways of Looking at All Things Visual


Emergence of a new paradigm for studying all forms of visual culture as parts of a cross-media system

Some Key Points to Consider

  • “Visual Culture” studies recognizes the predominance of visual forms of media, communication, and information in the postmodern world.
  • Has there been a social and cultural shift to the visual, over against the verbal and textual, in the past 50 years, and has it been accelerating in the past 10 or 20 years?
    • Or are our written, textual, and visual systems continuing an ongoing reconfiguration in a new (recognizable) phase?
  • Study of visual culture merges popular and “low” cultural forms, media and communications, and the study of “high” cultural forms or fine art, design, and architecture.
  • “Visual Studies” intersects with the notion of “mediasphere” in mediology, the study of media systems and media as a system.
  • Getting clear on terms: “visual” | “culture” | “system”
  • The “visual culture” approach acknowledges the reality of living in a world of cross-mediation–our experience of culturally meaningful visual content appears in multiple forms, and visual content and codes migrate from one form to another: 
      • print images and graphic design
      • TV and cable TV
      • film and video in all interfaces and playback/display technologies
      • computer interfaces and software design
      • Internet/Web as a visual platform
      • digital multimedia
      • advertising in all media (a true cross-media institution)
      • fine art and photography
      • fashion
      • architecture, design, and urban design
  • We learn the codes for each form and code switch among the media and the “high” and “low” culture forms.
  • The experience of everyday life can be described as code-switching or hacking the visual codes around us to navigate and negotiate meaning (see William Gibson, Pattern Recognition).
  • But: Important to deconstruct potential visual/textual binary opposition: most of our experience of media is a hybrid of texts, images, and sounds, rather than pure states of any one mode. [Barbara Kruger’s image/text art strategies: 1|2|3 | Ed Ruscha’s word art | ] 
    • Challenge is studying visual culture as a system, but not as a pure state of visuality (i.e. a system of visual meanings that are not purely imagistic–not formed only of images–but include texts and graphic design, design of functional object, architecture, logos.
    • Cases studies: W and Vogue | (examples of digital images, text, design)

Visual Culture and Institutions of Meaning
Visual Culture Produced by / Embedded in Social Institutions


Visual Culture/Visual Studies: Inventory of Recent Definitions

Visual Culture/Visual Studies: InSourceventory of Recent Definitions

Visual culture works towards a social theory of visuality, focusing on questions of what is made visible, who sees what, how seeing, knowing and power are interrelated. It examines the act of seeing as a product of the tensions between external images or objects, and internal thought processes.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 14


I think it’s useful at the outset to distinguish between visual studies and visual culture as, respectively, the field of study and the object or target of study. Visual studies is the study of visual culture.
Mitchell, W.J.T., “Showing seeing: a critique of visual culture”, Journal Of Visual Culture, 2002, Vol 1(2), p. 166


Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision.
Mitchell, W.J.T., “Showing seeing: a critique of visual culture”, Journal Of Visual Culture, 2002, Vol 1(2), p. 170


In short, a dialectical concept of visual culture cannot rest content with a definition of its object as the social construction of the visual field, but must insist on exploring the chiastic reversal of this proposition, the visual construction of the social field. It is not just that we see the way we do because we are social animals, but also that our social arrangements take the forms they do because we are seeing animals.
Mitchell, W.J.T., “Showing seeing: a critique of visual culture”, Journal Of Visual Culture, 2002, Vol 1(2), p. 171