Current Debates in Urban Theory from A Scale Perspective: Introducing A Scenes Approach

Current Debates in Urban Theory from A Scale Perspective: Introducing A Scenes Approach


Written by:

Daniel Silver, Cary Wu, Terry Clark and Rima Wilkes

First Published:

18 Oct 2018, 11:29 am


Current Debates in Urban Theory from A Scale Perspective: Introducing A Scenes Approach



“Current debates in urban theory from a scale perspective: Introducing a scenes approach” reviews the implications of various basic urban theories for conceptualizing scale, highlighting their (sometimes implicit) stance on a) what cities to study (especially in terms of size); b) the level at which to study cities (e.g. neighborhood, macro-economy); and c) how cities relate to various processes and groups (e.g. as conduits for circuits of capitalist production, crucibles for combining various forms of culture and consumption, sites for ongoing assemblages of political-economic relationships). Our main argument is that a “scenes approach” offers a potentially valuable contribution to these debates.    

This particular application of a scenes approach to questions of scale extends and builds upon a stream of research. Some main lines of these ideas are articulated in Scenescapes: how qualities of place shape social life (University of Chicago Press, 2016), but the effort is truly collaborative and international, much of which is summarized here. This work advances an expressive notion of place. According to this notion, places express different visions of how to live, and in turn provide opportunities for people to cultivate and encounter those visions — but also to sometimes reject them, fight against them, defend them, and more.  To identify a scene is to identify what holistic vision the constellation of people, activities, and organizations “say” or “express” about a place, much like an art critic might do in articulating what a scene depicted in a painting or poem reveals. 

As more arenas of life are marked by greater degrees of contingency, the salience of scenes increases. With more options available – even if they are not taken – questions of “does this place speak to me” become more sharply formulated, and responses to such questions become more deeply interwoven into the fabric of cities and communities: here is a place to be transgressive, or glamorous, or self-expressive, or traditional, or neighborly, or in touch with ethnic or local authenticity. 

This creates a number of theoretical and methodological challenges. One is to lay out a grammar for describing the character of scenes, which we have pursued in a “theory of scenes,” summarized in Chapter 2 of Scenescapes. This grammar includes multiple dimensions – such as transgression, glamour, and so on – as well as “transformation” rules for how they may combine into holistic complexes, such as Bohemia. Another challenge is to identify and compare scenes empirically. The “big data” revolution has opened up new possibilities for this, which we have often pursued through collecting and combining large datasets of local establishments (from tattoo parlors to religious organizations to yoga studios to karate clubs) that provide useful indicators of various scene dimensions.  Joined with local observation, surveys, media reports, and more, these various sources provide powerful ways to measure and compare a variety of scenes.

Scenes do not exist in isolation but interact with other crucial urban processes. For example, in Scenescapes, we show that scenes shape a) local economies, by influencing production and consumption processes; residential patterns, by providing motivation to move to, avoid, or remain in a neighborhood; local politics, as objects of contestation and resources for mobilization. Combining measures of scenes with the more traditional variables of urban studies of local economics, neighborhoods, and politics allows us to situate and evaluate our proposals in reference to and interaction with them.   

As with other theories, scenes theory has implications for how we think about scale, which Cary Wu has taken the lead in elaborating. Our intention is that by laying these implications out side-by-side, and organizing them in a systematic way in terms of size, level, and scale, this article provides further opportunities for theoretical dialogue and exchange. 


Read the Critical Commentary on Urban Studies – OnlineFirst here