UPD Seminar: Summary of ‘Urban Comparison Across Time and Space: Beijing, Berlin, Chicago and Beyond’

Event Description:
UPD Seminar by Dr Julie Ren, ‘Urban Comparison Across Time and Space: Beijing, Berlin, Chicago and Beyond’, 15 November 2016
Contributed by Carwyn Morris and Carl Truedsson


UPD’s very own Dr Julie Ren (Fellow in Human Geography) delivered her inaugural departmental seminar about her ongoing research seeking to contribute to both building comparative methodologies and the possibility for theory-building within Comparative Urbanism. Broadly, her research employs ethnographic methods to explore how art-practices in different cities (for instance in Berlin and Beijing) can lend themselves to comparison, and in turn, theory-building. These practices, Dr Ren asserts, are particularly interesting for comparative research because they are often not tightly bound to the specific cities; being part of larger – global – networks of arts funding.

One core theme of Dr Ren’s talk was on understanding knowledge production in the field of comparative urbanism. To interrogate this, she uses comparisons with the nation (but not focusing on the nation) where a lot of her fieldwork occurs, China. What Dr. Ren is asking us to consider is why there should be a Chicago or LA School and why not a Shenzhen School for understanding urbanism? In this way it links deeply into who holds the power in knowledge-production. But she goes deeper here into pointing out that a researcher on ethnic enclaves in New York would often be considered a researcher on ethnic enclaves, but a researcher doing work on ethnic enclaves in Beijing is a China specialist, or an urban China researcher. Later on, she asks why and how can a single city, for instance Shanghai, be used to understand or signify China in general, as the PISA research on educational attainment does by China only counting the results in Shanghai? This is bringing out existing arguments on methodological nationalism, where she referenced the work of Professor Nina Glick-Schiller, but from the position of China.

For Dr Ren though, this problem of methodological nationalism in comparative urbanism is two-fold in China. Not only does this methodological nationalism reduce China to a single city, but the political exceptionalism of China then reduces China to a ‘unique case’ where nothing is comparable to anything else. It is in this context that Dr Ren goes on to examine Beijing in relation to Berlin, Taipei to Dakar and Chicago to Shenzhen. Her work begins then to show that this methodological nationalism and political exceptionalism that reduces knowledge-production outside of the global north to ‘unique cases’ that are incomparable to elsewhere is wrong. She uses a ‘cluster’ method rather than a ‘site method’ in her research to understand the locations where she does fieldwork. Instead of a ‘Beijing case’ and a ‘Berlin case’ she clusters comparable points in both cities together and finds similarities and differences that show how China is not a politically exceptional case where one city stands for the entire nation, just as Berlin does not stand for Germany.

This very interesting, well-presented and well-attended talk was followed by an engaged Q & A session with the audience.

Carwyn Morris and Carl Truedsson are research students in the Department of Geography and Environment

Photo by Carl Truedsson

Photo by Carl Truedsson