Book Review - New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times

Authored by AM Simone & E Pieterse and reviewed by William Monteith

1 Aug 2018, 11:32 a.m.
William Monteith

Creative Destruction book cover

New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times 

Authored by AM Simone & E Pieterse and reviewed by William Monteith. 

Cambridge: Polity, 2017; 247 pp.: 978-0-745-69156-5, £16.99/US$24.95 (pbk)


Every now and again, the emperor must be disrobed. Disciplinary debates – shaped by the clothes of a thousand emperors past – become stale, and detached from the empirical realities they purport to describe. Over the past two decades, AbdouMaliq Simone, among a number of poststructural scholars, has dutifully disrobed the field of urban studies, preparing the ground for a new vocabulary of urbanism that is better able to convey the dissonant realities of emerging city life in the Global South. Gone are the confident and well-worn concepts of ‘gentrification’, ‘entrepreneurship’, and ‘public space’. In their place stand an array of challenging and often indeterminate notions, including those of ‘secretion’, ‘resonance’ and ‘re-description’, which reflect the unfolding paradoxes of urban life in the majority world.

In New Urban Worlds, Simone is reunited with Edgar Pieterse, a long-term collaborator in the project to shift the epistemological horizons of urban studies to the South. Pieterse’s work is situated more deliberately in applied and activist research, drawing upon two decades of engagement with municipal governments, NGOs and community groups across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. As director of the African Centre for Cities, he has played a significant role in raising the profile of African scholarship within urban studies, while exerting an influence over global policy debates. What is remarkable about the careers of both authors is that they have remained almost continually in the ‘field’ in one capacity or another. Their work contributes to a growing body of relational literature on cities (Amin and Thrift, 2016Robinson, 2006Roy and Ong, 2011) that rejects the existence of any single ‘overarching theoretical story’ about urbanisation (p. 185). This literature identifies a disconnect between the convictions of the urban studies scholarship, and the uncertainties of urban life across much of the world. In a field that has long been drawn to what is fixed, dominant and continuous, these authors are instead drawn to phenomena that ‘leak from the frame’ (p. 94). What aspects of urban life go uncaptured by dominant theories; for example, of governance and capital? What is the ‘surplus’ that remains after conventional (northern) frameworks have been applied? And how might this surplus form the basis of alternative, generative theories of urban life that are understandable to a diverse range of actors? These are important and timely questions.

Simone and Pieterse suggest two points of departure: (i) to abandon the ‘disciplinary and thematic stories that weigh urban studies down’ (p. 197), and (ii) to restore experimentation ‘as a normative aspect of living in and running cities’ (p. x). This approach requires a willingness to work with the details of how urban inhabitants, institutions and technologies operate ‘without necessarily rushing to envelop the details in ready-made ideological or interpretive frameworks’ (p. xviii). The authors illustrate this approach by distilling their long-term engagements with cities in sub-Saharan Africa and South-east Asia into a number of ‘conceptual interventions’ that foreground the agentive struggles of urban inhabitants (p. 10). These include the notions of ‘resonance’, which emphasises the connectivity of different people and places, ‘secretion’, which invokes the porosity of predominant forms of power; and ‘re-description’, which foregrounds the capacity of observers to imagine alternative visions of urban life.

The conceptual work done by terms such as ‘resonance’ and ‘secretion’ will be familiar to scholars conversant with theories of assemblage (McFarlane, 2011) and everyday resistance (Scott, 1985). Nevertheless, they are invoked here in ways that breathe new life into urban studies, by centring the insurgent, the makeshift and the provisional, chipping away at teleological theories of urbanisation.

Re-description is what the book does best. Familiar objects of study are often re-described in ways that sidestep old debates and open up new lines of enquiry. For example, rather than objects of governance or capital, urban markets are depicted as ‘story-making machines’ (p. 185) that are understood as dangerous places insofar as they unsettle the dominance of any single story (p. 92). Markets therefore provide important contexts for ‘witnessing how economic and social realities get “done”’ amid a backdrop of simplifying and often deceptive narratives (p. 89). There is an important methodological implication here. Given the limited infiltration of standardised models of governance and economy in many cities in the Global South, a methodological reliance on associated instruments – such as elite interviews and micro-economic surveys – is likely to result in a simplistic and misleading representation of urban life. If you want to understand how a city works, spend some time in the market.

The vision of urban life that emerges here is messy, pluralistic, paradoxical and – perhaps above all – serendipitous. Simone and Pieterse call on researchers to be as experimental and eclectic in our scholarship as urban inhabitants are in their everyday lives; borrowing ideas and resources from different domains, and re-assembling them in ways that shed new light on pressing issues. I am in full support of this project. Nevertheless, there is a need to be more explicit about its means and limitations in order for it to add up to more than the sum of its parts; in other words, for it to provide a solid epistemological grounding on which other researchers are able to contribute. In this spirit, I identify three areas that could be further elaborated by the authors, or taken up as points of departure by other scholars.

First, the book has little to say about methodology, beyond the observation that methods should be ‘inventive’ and ‘experimental’ (p. 10). There is an implied ethnographic instruction; for example, in the authors’ admission that research ‘is full of many tricks, particularly the ethnographic variety’ (p. xiv). Yet the nature of these ‘tricks’ – and their potential contribution to an experimental urban methodology – requires further discussion. Who are the researchers of ‘new urban worlds’? What qualifies them as such? And through what types of activities and relations might they generate data or stories? To be clear, the authors need not justify their choices in relation to the epistemological frameworks of others – particularly given the inability of many of these frameworks to describe the contexts at hand. Nevertheless, there is a need to outline a set of methodological parameters, or principles, if the arguments presented here are to develop into a fully-fledged research agenda.

Second and relatedly, for a book committed to working with the ‘details’ of urban life, there is a notable lack of geographical specificity. Analyses often take place at the level of ‘urban Africa’ and ‘Asia’, with occasional departures to Jakarta, Kinshasa and Cape Town. As a result, the cities of these two giant regions of the world tend to fold into one another, unchallenged by differences of culture, politics or economy. To a certain extent, this lack of specificity is an inevitable consequence of the book’s ambitious breadth. However, it also undermines the argument at times; for example, in the absence of an engagement with the situated experiences of particular urban inhabitants, the book arguably reproduces rather than challenges ‘a politics of urban knowledge [in which] the “majority” has been ordered to “shut up”’ (p. xiii).

Third and finally, while the authors are rightly suspicious of the dominance of ‘stories’ in urban studies that derive from the historical experiences of (post-)industrial cities in the Global North, they need not do away with all structural analysis. Although urban life in much of the Global South involves a great deal of experimentation, this experimentation takes place within an institutional context that places limits on what can be negotiated with who. For example, James Ferguson (2015) has recently argued that the livelihood activities of young men and women in Southern Africa adhere to gendered logics of (re)distribution and reciprocal obligation that have a long history in the region. It is possible to observe the influence of such structures without enveloping them in ‘ready-made’ ideological frameworks, or labelling them as paradigmatic of a ‘Southern’ urbanism. Furthermore, in the absence of cultural and historical analysis, there is a danger of representing the inhabitants of ‘new urban worlds’ as one and the same; as ‘experimenters’ without borders or institutional constraints.

Scholars of a structural persuasion are likely to be frustrated by the absence of a clear set of guidelines for making sense of the unfolding paradoxes of urban life. However, in its place, Simone and Pieterse invite urban scholars to chart plural methodological and theoretical pathways forward, and to connect local experiments to global struggles. By purposefully ‘disrobing’ the field of urban studies, the authors contribute to its survival as a responsive and a pluralistic intellectual space.


My thanks to Tatiana Thieme and the participants of the QMUL Geography reading group for their comments and reflections. All shortcomings remain my own.


  Amin, A, Thrift, N (2016) Seeing Like a City. Cambridge: Polity Press. Google Scholar
  Ferguson, J (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press. Google Scholar
  McFarlane, C (2011) Assemblage and critical urbanism. City 15(2): 204–224. Google Scholar
  Robinson, J (2006) Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development. London: Routledge. Google Scholar
  Roy, A, Ong, A (2011) Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. London: Wiley-Blackwell. Google Scholar
  Scott, J (1985) Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. London: Yale University Press. Google Scholar


This book review appears in the August 2018 issue (Volume 55 Issue 11) of Urban Studies alongside a book review of City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy.


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