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Before Theory: In Memory of Janet Abu-Lughod

[Janet Abu-Loghod. Image Courtesy of Deena Abu-Loghod.] [Janet Abu-Loghod. Image Courtesy of Deena Abu-Loghod.]

There is a lively debate in urban studies nowadays about the Eurocentricity of the field’s canonical theories. The efforts to trace new geographies of theory are heterodox and heterogeneous, but they have often relied on postcolonial thought and its critique of the universal histories and categories produced by liberal historiography. In urban studies, these efforts exist under various names, from Southern theory to comparative urbanism. What is striking to me is that the magisterial work of Janet Abu-Lughod precedes and anticipates such debates and interventions. It is in this sense that we are all her students, all working within an intellectual space opened up by her pioneering efforts. I wish to foreground one aspect of her far-reaching legacy that has profound meaning for me.

Well before I had ever met Janet in person, she provided a generous review and then endorsement of my first book manuscript, City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty.  She wrote: “…this volume breaks new ground. I hope that it will become a model for comparable studies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.” Her words surprised me, for this was never my ambition for the book. I had hoped to produce a meticulous ethnography of a city that defied the social and spatial categories of the Eurocentric urban theory in which I had been trained as an urbanist. But Janet was not going to have it any other way. The monograph of a single city was for her necessarily a model; urban ethnography was the basis of new theory.  This was only one instance of the innumerable ways in which Janet Abu-Lughod abolished a key dualism through which the field of urban studies is structured: theory/ethnography. 

All theory is provincial and parochial, and thus empirical. In turn, all empiricism contains within it organizing concepts and purposive norms. But the canon of urban theory constitutes itself by maintaining, and even policing, a divide between Theory and ethnography. Note my deliberate capitalization of Theory, as that which masquerades as a universal, as that which has global purchase, as that which can be capitalized. While Theory is assumed to have universal applicability, ethnography is seen to be homebound, idiosyncratic, lacking the reach of generalization. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty, we can think of Theory as History 1 and ethnography as History 2. In my previous work, I have joined other urbanists to note that too often the urban experience of the global South is misread as interesting empirical variation on a universal form. That universal form is itself derived from a handful of Euro-American cities: Los Angeles, New York, London. But these urban experiences are assumed to transcend their provincialism, thus becoming the analytical template, and historical precedent, for all cities.  Janet Abu-Lughod’s work, often deeply ethnographic and always sympathetic to the ethnographic method, is ineluctably concerned with the production and transformation of urban Theory. 

Let me suggest that this is the case because Janet transgressed the various boundaries through which disciplines are constituted and institutionalized. I know of no other urbanist who has written rigorous histories of cities in North Africa followed by passionate ethnographies of gentrification in North America alongside decisive analyses of cities and the world system, be it of contemporary global cities or the world order before European hegemony.  For me, what is at stake in this range of work is an urban political economy attentive to historical difference as a fundamental and constitutive force in the making of global urbanization. Janet did it, over and over again. We are still struggling to make sense of how to do any of it. 

I could frame this astounding contribution as her type of comparative urbanism. Indeed, she was a master of the comparative method and the transnational approach. But I think there is something more specific to Janet’s methodology than the broad remit of comparison. In a review of Loïc Wacquant’s Urban Outcasts, Janet reflects on her many decades of comparative study. In inimitable style, she launches an auto-critique that critics of her work would not be able to match in depth and thought. And she notes that the “most difficult of logical/scientific inquiries” is this: “comparative case studies that, in addition to tracing such macrolevel contexts, seek to illuminate the meaning, to the repressed, of the consequences of its exclusion.” (Abu-Lughod 2007: 400). 

What Janet Abu-Lughod has bequeathed to us all is not only the extraordinary substance of her work but also the enduring challenge presented in this statement. If we are to truly honor her memory, it would serve us well to take up this most difficult of inquiries. Urban studies, I believe, will be much enriched by such endeavors.

Abu-Lughod, Janet. “The Challenge of Comparative Case Studies,” City 11, no.3 (2007), 399-404.

[This article is part of a series commemorating Janet Abu Lughod. Click here to read the Introduction to the series and view a complete listing of articles included in the series].

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