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Response to Review of What is Urban History?

I am very grateful to Bill Luckin for his positive review of my book. I am particularly pleased that he thinks the book provides ‘the best overview of the subject that has yet been published.’ Polity’s What is History? series contains some excellent titles written by highly regarded authors; several have been well-thumbed by this author over the years and it is exciting to think that this book could encourage future generations of historians to pay closer attention to ‘the urban’ variable in their research. That really is the purpose of the book: to encourage others to write their own urban histories by adding to the rich historiography that has appeared over the past century or so.

When I was researching the book, I struggled to find similar books that provided either a global or a historical synthesis of the field, certainly any that had been published since the early 1980s (it is, then, pleasing to see Luckin’s accompanying review of Greg Clark’s short history of global cities, which I must now read myself). I soon found out why this was the case, of course, and inevitably had to make difficult choices about the nature and scope of my book, which I explain in my introduction.

The next challenge was to write a synthesis of the vast scholarship that has been published over the past century. The book reflects what I think have been the main developments in the field, as well as the major waves (or ‘turns’) that have shaped the thematic approach taken by historians. They have shaped me as an urban historian. This inevitably took me to the main periodicals in the field: Urban History (published since 1974), the Journal of Urban History (since 1974), and the Urban History Review/Revue d'histoire urbaine (since 1972). I found the Bibliography of Urban History, published annually in Urban History, of particular use in compiling my own reading lists.

Aside from a passing comment criticising my over-use of the phrase ‘turn’ in the book (I have just found 36 uses of the word in the manuscript, with four specific methodological ‘turns’ in the sense that I think Luckin refers to in his review, so he may well be right), Luckin only raises one significant query about the book. He poses the question, ‘Do the chapter headings implicitly exaggerate the extent to which a majority of mainstream urban historians drew on each or any of the historiographical innovations to which he refers? My own view would be that the dominant mode of analysis was and remains “eclectic empiricism”.’

I’m not entirely clear who or what constitutes a ‘mainstream’ urban historian, but I don’t think that the headings exaggerate what we do; if anything, they simplify it. The question does, however, raise two broadly overlapping and interesting areas of concern: first, how we do history, and, second, how we organise our historical writings.

Firstly, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I agree with Luckin’s final statement: the vast majority of practising urban historians today, in Britain and further afield, are fundamentally empiricist in their approach. I certainly self-identify with the phrase ‘eclectic empiricism’ and may use it myself in future conversations with students (I have generally referred to myself as a ‘new empiricist’ after years of teaching historical theory modules). In my own research, I have drawn upon a great number and variety of eclectic sources, ranging from more conventional sources (council minute books, maps and trade directories) to less traditional sources such as advertisements, photographs and material objects, including the built environment (indeed, I, like so many budding urbanists, was taught to walk the streets looking up at the surrounding buildings, as well as down at the pavement). They present a multiplicity of eclectic voices about the urban experience – those of the conventional urban ‘elite’ (this too is an increasingly over-used word), the professional expert, and the worker all feature strongly in in my published work.

Having said that, urban historians continue to be influenced by ideas, concepts and theories in their research, and I set out to give a flavour of these in the book. Theories and concepts do provide a way that we can organise our method of enquiry; they generate coherent links between our city case studies. As I write in my introduction, urban history has enjoyed an elasticity in its treatment of discipline, methodology and theory, which we wear lightly on our sleeves. Luckin is, however, right that we should not be stymied by theory, hence the book is rooted in concrete examples and case studies.

Secondly, onto the organisation of the book. The chapter headings – including the sub-headings – are there to organise, condense, simplify and make sense of the huge volume of urban histories published over the past century or more. The toughest aspect of writing this book was choosing which authors and texts to read. Had I not taken a thematic approach I would probably still be researching the book!

In this aspect, I was led by my own training in urban history. And, yes, I too am a graduate of ‘Leicester’ and its Centre for Urban History. Luckin’s right: ‘Leicester’ really is ‘a kind of academic and psychological lode-star’ as I and others can testify. As a student on its MA in Urban History (1999–2000), we studied, amongst other things, the early modern town and the Victorian city, through reference to appropriate theory as well as historiography. In so doing, we generally took a thematic approach to weekly classes: power, politics, identity, economy, culture, planning and so on. The common variable was always ‘the urban’, whether we were discussing the Reformation town or the garden city.

I take the chapter headings as signposts for the reader – here is a chapter predominantly about politics and government, there a chapter on culture, and so on. They reflect some of the key areas that urban historians have been working on in recent years: scrolling through the past issues of the periodicals reveals these as well-established or emerging (in the case of transnational and environmental approaches) subjects of inquiry. The sub-headings further organise the text around specific groups (the middle classes and the urban poor in the case of chapter two) or waves of scholarship (chapter three, with its shifting emphasis from the composition of urban councils (‘government’) to the practices of government (‘governmentality’) does this reasonably well I think). Each chapter contains a short section outlining the significance of the theme before moving on to discuss the different ways that historians have used it to frame their research. The book, whilst only 50,000 words long, is not intended to be read in a single sitting (the internet generation can only digest small chunks of text in bursts of activity, after all).

I am glad that the book has already generated debate in the reviews that have appeared. This can only be positive for the future direction (or turns!) that the field takes.