The City as Action: Retheorizing Urban Studies

The City as Action: Retheorizing Urban Studies

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Reviewed by Aleem Mahabir

First Published:

07 Dec 2022, 1:24 am

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The City as Action: Retheorizing Urban Studies

Pani Narendar, The City as Action: Retheorizing Urban Studies, Abingdon: Routledge, 2022; 164 pp.: ISBN: 9781032052670, £96.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9781003196792, £29.59 (ebk)

 

In much of his writing, Gandhi was vehemently outspoken in his condemnation of cities and their rapid growth in India under British colonial rule. In a harrowing statement made in his self-published newspaper Harijan in 1937, Gandhi remarked: ‘Today our villages have become a mere appendage to the cities. They exist, as it were, to be exploited by the latter and depend on the latter’s sufferance’ (Gandhi, 1937: 293). Gandhi doubled down on his criticism in another article written in Harijan years later, making cities out to be an existential threat to rural areas and rural life, saying, ‘Today the cities dominate and drain the villages so that they are crumbling to ruin’ (Gandhi, 1940: 423).

It is therefore interesting that Narendar Pani’s 2022 monograph, The City as Action: Retheorizing Urban Studies, manages to draw from and embrace many Gandhian thoughts and philosophies around cities, their growth and societal impacts, but ultimately interprets the overall treatment of these issues in drastically different ways. Although both Gandhi and Pani point out the negative outcomes of city growth, Pani is still able to recognise the benefits it can have on both urban and rural areas, pushing back against the unilaterally exploitative nature that Gandhi typically ascribed to cities. Gandhi famously believed that the future of India lies in its villages, but Pani makes it clear that the future of India lies just as much in its cities, as the continued existence of both are, and will very likely remain, inextricably linked.

Such nuanced determinations were certainly made possible by the new methodological approach to urban studies proposed by Pani as the work’s foundational thesis. Throughout the book, Pani makes a compelling case for the city being seen as an ever-evolving process constructed of an interconnected set of related actions, and strongly advocates investigating urban phenomena using this lens of action. He argues that by focusing on actions, rather than outcomes, one can better capture the truly dynamic nature of urban agglomerations, avoiding the problem of comparatively static frameworks that are unable to fully account for changing urban contexts across different geographic locations and across different periods of time.

The dynamic nature of Pani’s theory of action ensures its relevance even as dominant paradigms of urban knowledge systems change. This is acknowledged by Pani, who points out that:

a method that is not only interdisciplinary but also open to multiple perspectives … allows the book to relate to theories of the urban developed in the global North as well as the discourse around urbanization in the global South. (p. xii)

Acknowledging the unique circumstances within a city while recognising the existence of similarities and parallels across different urban agglomerations and timescales helps in ‘understanding the diversity, and occasional commonalities, in the interactions between persons and places in cities’ (p. 138). This is certainly evident in Pani’s use of the theory of action to relate to postcolonial and other perspectives like critical social theory. In doing so, he bridges the gap between global North and global South scholarship, avoiding the metropolitan thinking and western hegemonic dominance of past urban research.

His unique approach therefore avoids succumbing to the common trope of denying or downplaying other explanations that do not fit within the paradigm being proposed. Pani instead draws from a rich cornucopia of theorists and their ideas in developing his theory of action, including Sen’s capabilities framework, Sassen’s global city model, Brenner’s concept of planetary urbanisation and Robinson’s concept of ordinary cities, just to name a few. The theory of action therefore avoids the problem of having to rely on any one theory and their limited explanatory power by chaining convergent, though sometimes conflicting, ideas together. This eclectic mix of interdisciplinary perspectives permits ‘moving from the particular to the general and back’ (p. xii), allowing one to draw on the strengths of resonant ideas while still acknowledging their limitations. This was shown to facilitate the inclusion of a wide range of viewpoints as well as existing and changing theory, providing more objective depictions of urban realities that ultimately allowed for ‘more complete explanations of specific situations that emerge in the course a city takes’ (p. 138).

This innovative way of conceptualising the city, its constituent processes and issues therefore offers great utility. Its high degree of epistemic adaptability allows one to shed light on urban issues that affect individuals, up to entire communities, cities and networks of cities. Pani’s theory therefore avoids the territorial trap as it enables the exploration of any given issue along an expansive range of scope and scale. It can be democratically and universally applied to fit the degree of analysis needed at these various scales, whether at the level of a single individual deciding how to best navigate the crossing of a street, or at the level of the city or nation-state deciding how to best navigate the making of international trade agreements.

Despite the massive scope in analytic range that the theory of action affords, whether at the level of a single individual or the entire planet, the monograph still manages to organise its ideas concretely and express them clearly to readers using its chapter structure, with each focusing on a particular idea that fleshes out Pani’s argument. Apart from being well-written overall, the narrative presented in the book is undoubtedly bolstered by the powerful illustrative metaphor of Wimoa that is regularly employed throughout. An abbreviation for ‘Woman in the Midst of Agglomeration’, Wimoa is aptly used as a vehicle for understanding how the actions in a city, especially among its most vulnerable inhabitants, might typically play out. Skirting the line between anecdote and analogy, and realistically grounded by being written from the perspective of a female immigrant from a rural village in India to one of its booming megacities, she is accurately described by Pani as the book’s lodestar. Tying all his ideas together by personifying the impacts of various urban processes, Pani manages to capture the minutiae of everyday life in cities that other works might have otherwise ignored.

Regardless of the book’s strengths, a few points of criticism might still be levelled against it. Although Pani takes great care to ensure his portrayal of Wimoa authentically captures lived experience and comes across as genuinely realistic, one may still see it as perpetuating the very exclusion he seeks to avoid by denying the input of actual women from Wimoa’s depicted social class. Pani’s decades spent conducting research among India’s most vulnerable populations is evident in the sheer resonance of the detailed narratives he crafts of Wimoa. But no matter how good of a construct of the female urban underclass he manages to create, he is the one ultimately speaking for them. It is important to mention that he does acknowledge these limitations, noting that, despite the lack of direct input from the excluded, Wimoa’s story was still valued for managing to ‘bring gender, as well as economic and social discrimination, closer to the core of urban theory’ (p. 4).

Pani’s theory of action may also be criticised by some as being inherently non-prescriptive in its conceptualisation. This degree of flexibility serves as an advantage in most cases, being able to attend to unique issues with equally unique solutions. However, the theory’s innate openness also makes it vulnerable to being co-opted by biased or ill-intended urban actors, stakeholders and even researchers who may attempt to advocate for perverse versions of what they think the city should be. Therefore, some may see the theory of action as leaving too much room for interpretation, with it possibly being used to deny pathways towards more radical solutions that might be needed in the face of systemic urban injustice and other structural problems.

Despite this critique, the book is still to be recommended to academics in urban studies and its related fields, urban practitioners and anyone else interested in understanding more about the urban experience, especially when it comes to the unique circumstances and context of everyday lived realities in cities of the global South. The elucidation of Pani’s theory of action and related concepts is highly applicable and can be adapted to the exploration of any given urban phenomenon across diverse geographic locales and timescales, giving researchers new and exciting tools for conceptualising the urban, the city and their dynamic issues. While not providing prescriptive solutions, the accessibility and openness of the concepts explored offer inherent and untold value in their ability to be used by urban theorists, practitioners, scholars and everyday citizens to reach more comprehensive understandings of the city, their place in it and the actions needed to make it better.

References

Gandhi MK (1937) Primary education in Bombay. Harijan, 9 October, pp. 292–293. Google Scholar

Gandhi MK (1940) Notes. Harijan, 20 January, p. 423. Google Scholar

 

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