Book review: Making Urban Theory: Learning and Unlearning Through Southern Cities

by Mary Lawhon, Lené Le Roux, Anesu Makina & Yaffa Truelove and reviewed by Julie Ren

4 Sep 2020, 2:40 p.m.
Julie Ren

Making Urban Theory book cover

Book review: Making Urban Theory: Learning and Unlearning Through Southern Cities

by Mary Lawhon, Lené Le Roux, Anesu Makina & Yaffa Truelove and reviewed by Julie Ren

Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2020; 124 pp.: ISBN: 9780367344 924, £96.00 (hbk)


In many ways a deeply personal volume, Mary Lawhon’s Making Urban Theory: Learning and Unlearning Through Southern Cities explores the process of theory-making as informed through her research in South Africa. The volume includes chapters co-written with Lené Le Roux, Anesu Makina and Yaffa Truelove, several previously published as journal articles. Though a slim volume, the book is an ambitious undertaking, including thematic excursions to the urban question, the right to the city, teaching geography and the nature of theory itself, all discussed within the framework of the ‘southern urban critique’.

In a concise outline of their article published in Urban Studies (Lawhon and Truelove, 2020), Lawhon and Truelove’s ‘disambiguation of the southern urban critique’ is analytically the most satisfying chapter, offering an account of some of the different lines of argument at the heart of this critique. These four propositions, that (1) the south is empirically different, (2) the south has had different intellectual traditions, (3) researchers need to deconstruct their assumptions with regard to southern (and all) cities, as well as what is dismissed as a ‘null proposition’ that (4) ‘speaking from the south is an argument against (all/northern/theory and in favour of particularism and empiricism’ (p. 26), are neatly summarised. Their null proposition begins bluntly, for instance with the insistence that ‘we find no evidence of urban scholars articulating this position’ (p. 26) and that scholars like Roy and Ghertner have endured misreadings or rather reductive framings of their work. For the purposes of teaching that require a brief introduction to debates on urban theory or postcolonial urbanism, this chapter provides an overview of some of the positions that fall under the umbrella of a ‘southern urban critique’.

The analysis could be more specific in its treatment of the literature cited. For example, Lawhon rightly argues that the critique is not about a rejection of northern scholars, but is a ‘more careful consideration of how theory travels’ (p. 27). Though Said (1983) and Clifford (1989) are cited here, there is no further exposition on their positions on travel, text or translation, and how this relates to urban theory or theory-making today. In particular, discussions of marginality, and contentions about the instability of theoretical place, might have contributed to the analysis of where ‘northern theory’ is situated or what exactly it constitutes. Similarly, there is a lost opportunity by grouping together the works of Chakrabarty (2000)Comaroff and Comaroff (2012) and Connell (2007) rather than further disambiguating the legacy of studying the ‘rural’ or the notion of ‘tradition’ as it pertains to different forms of vernacular knowledge. While some examples are cited as representing ‘diverse theoretical lineages and vernacular models of knowledge-building’, engaging with the anthropologists could have benefitted a more nuanced understanding of what counts as vernacular, local, different or new (pp. 30–31).

There are many stated goals throughout the book, and it might have been warranted to examine whether the aim to better understand southern cities and the aim to apply the ‘southern urban critique’ as an intervention to the very nature of urban theorisation and our understanding of cities in general might actually stand in conflict. The potential tensions of these two aims are best considered in Chapter 6, the second part of Lawhon and Truelove (2020), which presents some possible routes in connection to their analysis of the ‘southern urban critique’. The pathway that southern cities should be studied as a distinct phenomenon seems to be posited here as a precursor to the ‘long-term ambitions’ to decentre urban theory, but it is unclear how these isolating gestures would contribute to the broader theoretical engagement (pp. 72–74). In fact, Lawhon’s research on environmental justice and infrastructure (discussed in Chapters 8 and 9) illustrates how studying southern cities as distinct is untenable given the mobility of theory, values and norms entrenched in the practices of NGOs and academics alike. While heterogeneity and exploration are indeed welcome, the many propositions and pathways presented in list form could have used a bit more analytical structure.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book is the methodological approach that Lawhon takes, ‘working between auto-ethnography and a more results-oriented research’ (p. 5). This allows her to address the pressing question of solipsism in the social sciences, and the entangled issues related to authority, representation and voice. Often, she seems to write for the white American geographer when she speaks about what ‘we’ are expected to do. When discussing ‘our gaze’ or distinctions drawn from ‘most people in the world’, Lawhon provides clarity about her own position (p. 8), but also writes in a way that underestimates the potential audience for her work.

Still, the candidness of this approach is refreshing, allowing a degree of transparency that is rare in academic work, and insightful. From sharing how her salary tripled upon moving back to the US from South Africa, or the worries of locking her door in South Africa (presumably absent in Oklahoma), there is a frankness in explaining the conditions under which she lived and worked in terms of resources, care obligations and health. The personal voice used to explain learning and unlearning and the struggle this entails is institutionally and contextually specific, but also intimate in an important way; the personal narrative reveals the often-unacknowledged constrictions of academic work:

While everyday stresses in South Africa for me were manageable – even productive – as an individual, their impacts multiplied when I became responsible for more than just myself and, sleep-deprived, struggled to remember let alone think and write anything. (p. 10)

These uncomfortable moments divulge a great deal about the nature of research life, the work of making theory and the privileged position of speaking theoretically (Zeiderman, 2018). Indeed, Lawhon contends that the ideas in this book are meant to serve as ‘a record of struggle’ rather than a revelation that one ‘shouts with confidence from rooftops’ (p. 100).

Given the ‘southern urban critique’ and the general consensus that there is a problem of Eurocentrism in terms of theoretical overreach and the shortcomings of urban theory with regards to the ‘Global South’ (cf. Roy, 2016Storper and Scott, 2016), there is a need for guidance on ‘making urban theory’ and a timeliness for this book. If the challenge is beyond corrective inclusion or the tokenistic citation of southern scholarship, then the question of how to engage southern cities demands new starting points. Despite any shortcomings in terms of conceptual clarity or prescriptive pathways forward (an admittedly daunting task), Lawhon makes clear the centrality of ‘unease’ as a way to understand her work, and this work. Without claiming it as such, the liminal space that she occupies is one that many researchers inhabit – between institutions, between places of work and sites of research, between insider and outsider and, in disciplines like human geography, very often between presumed geographies of ‘north’ and ‘south’.

Rather than trying to make it ‘easier for us to imagine cultivating postcolonial sensibility across urban studies’ (p. 8), perhaps this book can serve as a reminder that the ‘southern urban critique’ is not about being easy. Whether it is learning through a greater variety of empirical sites or unlearning canon, making urban theory clearly demands a great deal of effort.



Chakrabarty, D (2000) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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Clifford, J (1989) Notes on travel and theory. Inscriptions 5: 11.
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Comaroff, J, Comaroff, JL (2012) Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa. London: Routledge.
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Connell, R (2007) Southern Theory: Social Science and the Global Dynamics of Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity.
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Lawhon, M, Truelove, Y (2020) Disambiguating the southern urban critique: Propositions, pathways and possibilities for a more global urban studies. Urban Studies 57(1): 3–20.
Google Scholar | SAGE Journals | ISI

Roy, A (2016) Who’s afraid of postcolonial theory? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40(1): 200–209.
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Said, EW (1983) The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Storper, M, Scott, AJ (2016) Current debates in urban theory: A critical assessment. Urban Studies 53(6): 1114–1136.
Google Scholar | SAGE Journals | ISI

Zeiderman, A (2018) Beyond the enclave of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 42(6): 1114–1126.
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Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Disambiguating the southern urban critique: Propositions, pathways and possibilities for a more global urban studies

Mary Lawhon, Yaffa Truelove

Scholarship engaging with (northern) urban theory from the south has troubled the core of urban studies. Lawhon and Truelove argue for clarifying core propositions and exploring points of convergence and dissonance amongst advocates of the southern urban critique.

Special Issue: Transcending (in)formal urbanism

Guest edited by Michele Acuto, Cecilia Dinardi, Colin Marx

Acuto, Dinardi and Marx outline the important place that informal urbanism has acquired in urban theorising, and an agenda to further this standing towards an even more explicit role in defining how we research cities.

Towards a multi-scalar reading of informality in Delft, South Africa: Weaving the ‘everyday’ with wider structural tracings

Liza Rose Cirolia, Suraya Scheba

Cirolia and Scheba on the production of informality in southern cities.

To extend: Temporariness in a world of itineraries

AbdouMaliq Simone

How does the temporariness of everyday life inhabit the urban? Urban Studies 2019 Annual Lecture by Simone.

Thinking through heterogeneous infrastructure configurations

Mary Lawhon, David Nilsson, Jonathan Silver, Henrik Ernstson, Shuaib Lwasa

Lawhon et al use examples from ongoing research on sanitation and waste in Kampala, Ugandato demonstrate the kinds of research questions that emerge when thinking through the notion of HICs.

Worlding infrastructure in the global South: Philippine experiments and the art of being ‘smart’

Morgan Mouton

Special Issue article from Morgan Mouton argues that smart cities can usefully be analysed in light of the development agenda of postcolonial cities.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.




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