2012 Lynd Award: Urban Theory as Context Specification

Terry Nichols Clark
University of Chicago
2012 Fall, Vol. 25, No. 1

I am honored to receive the Lynd Award. I propose to celebrate a truly community approach. My simple argument is that we in the West exaggerate individualism. We give prizes to individuals, seldom teams and themes. Yet, teams are critical in much of social science. Not just for data but for building complex theories which specify how interpretations shift by location. Team members from different locations add value. Most of my publications are coauthored, indicating these debts. When I have been congratulated, I reply, I could not have done it without you. To date no one has disagreed, including the janitor.

Community does not necessarily imply harmony, but can include stimulating disagreement and debate.

In this sense I counter the creativity as individual genius theme from Balzac, Baudelaire and now Rich Florida and Rich Lloyd. Talent surely counts. But part of talent is adapting existing structures, or building new ones, where multiple talented persons join, disagree, and extend ideas.

Western views are challenged when we find in parts of Asia like Korea where there is little bohemia or individualism, and Tocqueville’s principles fail, in that participation does not increase legitimacy.

Rather than rejecting past results and declaring our way is right, we can build on past work by detailing its context. Rarely is prior work wholly wrong, but it often holds only under specific conditions. We can identify new dynamics like Marx’s capitalism, class politics, inequality, postindustrial society, new social movements, globalization, the rise of entertainment, and the Occupy movement. As such new developments emerge, we can refashion past elements to capture new specifics.

When I first explored the community research scene as a graduate student the hot topic was Floyd Hunter vs. Robert Dahl. 166 case studies debated these issues, mostly single city studies. They minimally compared locations or asked why they specifically differed from each other. Most just said they were right. Some of us felt any conversation could mitigate such intellectual isolation and dogmatic assertion. Thus Chuck Bonjean, Mike Aiken and I started this Community and Urban section of the ASA whose ComUrban list now serves us daily entertainment. Who needs the TV soaps when we’ve got Com Urban? It’s a lively, reality team show that improves us.

Similarly, Ken Newton and I started the Community section of the International Sociological Association (which later led Manuel Castells and others to start another urban research committee, continued by John Logan and others.) Stein Rokkan and Ken Newton developed the ECPR. The FAUI (Fiscal Austerity and Urban Innovation Project) built on these.

Through these associations, we meet new people, themes and teams. If we see top global experts drastically disagree, for years, it can lead others often new or younger to redefine the themes. These new themes, elaborated by teams, bring paradigm changes.

Why differences among themes? Simplest answer: local contexts vary, and many processes are sharpened by clarifying how the local context transforms them. Example: when journalists asked Mayor Daley I why he gave city contracts to his sons’ insurance firm, he replied famously: “It’s a father’s duty to help his sons.” If the same question had been put to the mayors of New York or LA, they would have answered “WE used competitive bidding.” Since Harold Washington, Chicago mayors have learned to answer competitive bidding, esp. as they know how to do competitive bids.

This way the research question becomes not what is normatively right or wrong, nor what is the one universal answer, but why is Chicago different, in this instance? Philosophers define theory as interrelated propositions and the assumptions under which they hold. Our forte as community scholars, is that we can identify and study impacts of specific assumptions by comparing local areas. Then a critical theory bit becomes for instance why did Chicago legitimate clientelism and patronage? And how do these deep structures transform other urban dynamics from migration to neighborhood identity, such as labeling some people yuppies, like other Chicago ethnic groups, or City Hall erecting rainbow colored statuettes to declare a neighborhood gay friendly, even when the gay associations oppose them. Tocqueville’s rules often fail in County Cook and locations where the Irish Ethic (Clark 1975) dominates, like much of Asia and Eastern Europe (Clark and Silva 2009). (My urban work overlaps with work on the sociology of knowledge, science, and universities, where I and others have also tried to show how contexts transform meaning e.g. Clark 1973; Gross 2011).

The strong postmodernist take is that each individual or neighborhood is unique, and some participants in the so-called LA school refuse comparison. But rather than just throw tomatoes at the LA Michaels, Dear and Davis, some 20 of us and started a new Chicago forum: We first met at one another’s homes for a few years until we became enough of a family to accept disagreements, then taught two courses together and published a book on New York Chicago and LA perspectives, called The City Revisited. (Judd and Simpson 2011). My chapter there on The New Chicago School did not label one approach right or wrong, but stressed the underlying leitmotifs as neighborhood scenes which encourage a Hollywood Chinatown style in LA, and Irish Catholic precinct captains in Chicago, and more or less inequality for specific reasons (Zhong, Clark, and Sassen 2007), etc.

How join the global and local? The abstractions like Macdonaldization may explain some patterns but they in turn encourage a city like Susan Clark’s Boulder Colorado to stress local authenticity, and outlaw bigbox franchises. As Japonica Brown-Saracino has creatively stressed, neighborhood authenticity can be strengthened by new arrivals themselves. It depends on the people and context.

Some may ask if the sound and fury of the urban soap opera can generate scientific progress. I would answer sometimes and stress not the views of one or two active proponents in a debate, but the often silent majority. Active debate brings new syntheses and solutions. Illustrations include organizational environments, local area effects, the comparative perspective on community power, specifying how and where class politics changes, new political culture, and scenes as analytical building blocks. Or methods like multilevel modeling, hierarchical level modeling

(HLM), geographically weighted regression (GWR), and quantile analysis, and conceptually paired/contrasting case studies, deviant case analysis. Bohemia, to cite a recent urban hot button, changes drastically if we move from the West to Asia (see Figures and the SDI report on Seoul, Tokyo, and Chicago).

Conflict is explicit among proponents of many alternative perspectives, but if we focus more on actual group leaders and their dynamics we can document and explicate change. Thus, my Bronzeville neighbor Mary Patillo (2007) shows why most Brownsville citizens felt Obama was a sellout in playing down black ethnicity.

Some of my fondest memories are of the community of scholars with whom I have learned. From sharing sushi with Kobayashi in Tokyo, interviewing mayors with Bill Kornblum and Peter Jambrek in Slovenia, or making local into global in the FAUI project with Elinor Ostrom and Susan Clarke, Clemente Navarro and so many others.

Community teams can spark ideas and become friends for life. I thank my many collaborators for helping us all see further.



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