The Promise of the City: Space, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary Social Thought. (Book Reviews/Comptes Rendus)

By Hannigan, John | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Promise of the City: Space, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary Social Thought. (Book Reviews/Comptes Rendus)


Hannigan, John, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Kian Tajbakhsh, The Promise of the City: Space, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary Social Thought. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001, 229 pp.

I must confess that I didn't initially approach The Promise of the City with much enthusiasm. With chapter titles like "Marxian Class Analysis, Essentialism, and the Problem of Urban Identity" and "Beyond the Functionalist Bias in Urban Theory," I imagined the book to be a throwback to the early 1980s when it was still trendy to engage in long debates over the influence of neo-Marxist writing on urban and regional research. As it turns out, Kian Tajbakhsh, who teaches Urban Policy and Politics at the New School for Social Research, has written a thoughtful and challenging overview of contemporary themes and controversies in critical urban theory.

Most of The Promise of the City is taken up with what the author calls the "urbanistic challenge to Marxian theory." In particular, he targets three fundamental notions: that urban identity is interchangeable with class identity; that the spaces of power and identity are physical and locally bounded; and that the capitalist economy, operating independently from the discursive practices of the everyday, is the primary framer of urban meaning and action. As a device for examining the class/urban relation, he devotes a chapter each to appraising the work of three critical urban theorists: Manuel Castells, David Harvey and Ira Katznelson.

Castells, he argues, has veered from the rigid reductionism of Marxist theory whereby community-based identities are fully marginalized relative to class, to a kind of rudderless empiricism which catalogues urban movements based on class, neighbourhood and race without linking them in terms of their genesis, dynamics or interrelations. Harvey's holistic analysis of the global circuits of capital accumulation as they impact cities denies the agency of community actors, subsuming their "lifeworld" within that of the "system." In his most recent work, however, Harvey has finally acknowledged that state power and the market economy can act as sources of alienation and domination, independent from that of economic class exploitation. Of the trio, Tajbakhsh seems most in sympathy with Katznelson's approach, although he nonetheless faults him for his reluctance to drop the Marxian class scheme in favour of a theoretical model of identity and agency which would both "allow for a more complex notion of space, and more over incorporate gender as a constitutive, rather than supplementary, element" (p. 154).

Having largely discounted Marxian urban theory, what then does Tajbakhsh himself propose as an alternative?

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