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Imagining Urban Futures Programme working paper

This working paper is part of the Imagining Urban Futures Programme working paper series

Comparative urbanisms: past work and future agendas

Kevin Ward


Recently there have been a number of calls from across the social sciences for a renewable of the ways in which cities are compared. These echo past pleas dating from the early 1970s, chiefly from anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists. Curiously the absence of human geographers from the early expressions of concern appears to have been repeated this time around. This is perhaps something of a surprise. While on the one hand a foundational feature of human geography might be considered to be a comparative element, on the other, there has been relatively little attention paid by those within the discipline on the methodological challenges posed by comparative studies. This article provides a sympathetic but critical review of the various literatures that have dealt with issues of comparative urban methodologies. The author argues that although providing a series of valuable insights these literatures suffer from three significant weaknesses. These are, first, a failure to move beyond an understanding of geographical scale as an epistemological and ontological given, second, a treatment of cities as bounded and closed entities and, third, an inability to break free from traditional emphasises on government systems and its overly narrow conceptualization of ‘the political’. In seeking to address these issues, this article argues for an approach that is both comparable and relational.

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