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Department of Sociology, Humboldt State University

URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE


Author(s): Kevin Fox Gotham
Source: Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (2001), pp. 57-79
Published by: Department of Sociology, Humboldt State University
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URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND
THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

Kevin Fox Gotham

ABSTRACT

The postmodern challenge to urban sociology involves


issues of theory and method, culture and politics, and his
torical periodization. In this paper, I identify the main con
tours of the postmodern critique of sociology, elucidate the
challenges that postmodernism poses for urban sociology
specifically, and point to the limitations of postmodern analy
sis of urban and metropolitan phenomena. While scholars
use the term "postmodern"and its most common derivatives
"postmodernism" and "postmodernity" in a confusing range
of ways, these terms can sensitize us to a series of cultural
and economic changes that suggest a more fundamental set
of transformations of cities, metropolitan space, and social
structures. Yet a lacuna of postmodern urban analysis has
been the inability to formulate a critical theory that illumi
nates the mechanisms of domination in society, the
interconnectedness of agency and structure, and the com
plex mediations among new forms of urban and metropoli
tan organization, economy, and culture. As urban sociology
responds to the postmodern challenge, I argue that urban
scholarship is best served by a"return to the classics" to gain
methodological insight, theoretical illumination, and politi
cal inspiration to carry on the tasks of critical urban theory
in the present conjuncture.
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58 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

Introduction

According to many urban scholars, we are now living in a time of th


"posts" - postsuburbs, postmetropolis, postindustrialism, postfordism, an
postmodernism (Soja 2000; Knox 1993; Swanstrom 1993; Zukin 1992). T
term "post" is a periodizing term that signifies the passing of the old and
advent of the new. Indeed, a number of scholars have written books describ
the end of the metropolitan era and the coming of a new postmetropolis era
blurs and makes incomprehensible the boundaries between cities and subu
celebrates the demise of class based politics and stresses the centrality of "n
social movements" (for a recent overview, see Antonio 1998). Yet the postmo
is a "notoriously labyrinthine concept" (Filion 1999, p. 422) that can refer
culture, identity, politics, style, method, theory, as well as epoch. Some ur
scholars, including Beauregard (1993) and Liggett (1994), champion n
postmodern methods such as textual deconstruction and discursive analysi
problematize the "city" as an empirical referent, and employ "texts" and
ries" as units of analysis (for recent overviews, see Hastings 1999; Crang 19
More critical are those who decry a "crisis of representation," ponounce t
end of grand narratives and of modern theory, and call for new postmod
theories and politics to deal with the striking novelties of the present (King 19
Knox 1993). The variety of postmodern readings of the city emphasize dif
ence, plurality, fragmentation, and complexity; abandon representational
temology and unmediated objectivity; and embrace perspectivism, a
foundationalism, hermeneutics, intertextuality, and simulation (Agger 1991;
and Kellner 1997; Dickins and Fontana 1994).

In this essay, I focus on three discrete meanings of the postmodern - t


shift to a so-called new era of "postmodernity," the impact of "postmoderni
as a cultural form in the contemporary city, and merits and limitations o
postmodern urban theory and method. Best and Kellner (1997; 1991, p
make a distinction between postmodernity as social and political epoch th
generally seen as following the modern era in a historical sense (Kumar 19
Filion 1999; Clarke 1997); postmodernism as a form of politics, identity an
set of cultural products (in art, movies, architecture, and so on) that are see
different from modern politics, identities, and culture (Jameson 1991; Lin 1
Sorkin 1992; Filion 1999); and, finally, postmodern social theory refers to
new kind of theory and mode of theorizing that is distinct from modern so
theory (Dickens and Fontana 1994). As Ritzer 1997, p. 6) puts it, "the idea

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 59

the postmodern encompasses a new historical epoch, new cultural products,


and a new type of theorizing about the world' (emphasis in original). My
goal is to clarify some key themes, arguments, and issues of debate and conten
tion among proponents of modern theory and proponents of postmodern theory
in urban sociology. I agree with Best and Kellner (1997) that postmodern theory
should not be dismissed out of hand as passing fad nor should it be seen as a
homogeneous theory that contains a unified set of assumptions. Indeed the term
"postmodern," has a rich history and has been discussed in the writings of his
torian Bernard Rosenberg, architectural scholar Christopher Jencks, and soci
ologists C. Wright Mills, Amitai Etzioni, and Daniel Bell. Today, the postmodern
is contested terrain (Best and Kellner 1997) and contains a variety of contrast
ing positions that cut across sociology, cultural studies, aesthe- tics literature,
philosophy, political science, and psychology, among many other fields.

The contemporary world is undergoing major transformations and the


discourse of the postmodern serves to call attention to the changes and novelties
of the present moment. The present conjuncture is highly ambiguous, position
ing cities in the overdeveloped Western and Northern areas between the era of
modernity and a new epoch of postmodernity. On the other hand, cities in other
parts of the world are still living in premodern social and cultural forms, and on
the whole cities in the developing world exist in a precarious and contradictory
matrix of premodern, modern, and postmodern forms. While there are different
variants of postmodern theory, cultural analysis, and critical inquiry that pur
port to explain these present conditions, there are four common concepts that
unite the postmodern: (1) a rejection of unifying, totalizing, and universal schemes
in favor of an emphasis on plurality, difference, and complexity; (2) an aban
donment of closed structures and fixed meanings and an adoption of uncer
tainty, contingency, ambiguity, and irony; (3) a replacement with objectivity and
truth seeking with perspectivism, hermeneutics, and cultural and theoretical
relativism; and (4) an emphasis on removing boundaries within and between
academic and cultural disciplines. The claim of a new social form, a new his
torical epoch, and a new mode of social and individual experience lies at the
heart of the postmodern contention that we have entered an era of chaos, frag
mentation, discontinuity and ephemerality (Seidman and Wagner 1992; Dickens
and Fontana 1994; Best and Kellner 1997).

As I show, while postmodernists are correct in describing the broad soci


etal and historical changes that we face, their "war against totality" and dis

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60 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

missal of "grand narratives" offers little for sociological theorizing. Moreove


postmodernism does not offer an epistemological and normative basis of cr
tique nor does it offer a convincing alterative to "sociological" theories and
methods. Echoing the critiques of O'Neill (1995) and Dickins and Fontan
(1994), Pescosolido and Rubin (2000, p. 60) note that "Postmodernism fails t
provide the kinds of compelling interpretations of what follows the postmode
transition in terms of new social structures, with their attending opportunit
and limitations." In short, postmodernism does not come up with novel or co
vincing explanations of what the new social arrangements are, how they hav
come to be, and what are (and should be) the appropriate theories and meth
ods to interpret the cause and consequences of the broad changes that we fac
Despite these harsh criticisms, I show that while scholars use the ter
"postmodern" and its most common derivatives "postmodernism" and
"postmodernity" in a confusing range of ways, these terms can sensitize us to
series of cultural and economic changes that suggest a more fundamental set
transformations of cities, metropolitan space, and social structures. Ye
postmodernism offers little in its prescriptions for social science much less fo
cultivating a "sociological imagination" for understanding, as C. Wright Mil
(1959) put it, the connections between public issues and private troubles. Even
as we heed the critique of postmodernists to avoid grand theorizing and total
ing explanations, critical theoretical inquiry and the empirical study of the s
cial foundations of the new societal arrangements of cities and metropolita
areas remain important aspects of understanding social life.

Postmodernity and the City


One debate that has significant implications for the transformation of ci
ies and which appears to be increasingly high on urban scholars' agenda overa
is whether we have entered a radically new postmodern era or whether the
current situation grows out of and is continuous with modernity. Recent d
cades have seen dramatic socio-economic, cultural, and economic transforma
tions in cities around the world including deindustrialization in northern an
midwestern cities in the United States, reindustrialization of Pacific Rim citie
and overdevelopment and proletarianization of peasants in less developed coun
tries, among other changes. For Henri Lefebvre (1991), the tension between t
globalizing processes of capitalism and processes of spatial differentiation an
control by the modern nation-state has led to "an explosion of spaces" in whi
relations among groups, nations, and other geographical areas are being rear

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 61

ranged and reordered, producing new identities and new bases of social con
flict and organizing. Accompanying widespread economic and political changes
have been increases in immigration flows, globalized markets and culture, and
a proliferation of new social movements." Edward Soja (2000, p. 152), for ex
ample, argues that there has been a "restructuring of territorial identity and
rootedness amidst a sea of shifting relations between space, knowledge, and
power that has given rise to a new cultural politics in the postmetropolis, sig
nificantly different from the politics of the economy that dominated modernist
urbanism (emphasis in original). As suggested by the terms local-global inter
play, local-global nexus, globalization (Swyngedouw 1997), and think globally,
act locally, urban researchers have begun to develop new conceptual tools to
capture the complex relationship between global level changes and their diverse
effects and consequences on locally lived realities. Many scholars refer to these
socioeconomic processes and patterns of change but disagree over their form,
impact, and periodization (Castells 1996; 1997; 1998; for overviews, see Brenner
2000; Moulaert and Harloe 1996).

One popular research agenda stresses the macro dimensions of urban


change and the impact of "globalization" as symptomatic of a broad shift to
postmodernity. Citing the growth of transnational corporations and the enhanced
mobility of goods, services, and money, proponents of the globalization thesis
argue that the transition to a globalized economy has created new forms of power
and influence that are beyond the reach of federal regulatory agencies, national
labor unions, and other forms of democratic decision making and citizen ac
tion. Defined in this manner globalization has undermined the scope and role of
the welfare state, depressed wages and living standards, and intensified the sa
lience of place-bound identities (Cox 1997; Wilson 1997; Lin 1998; Amin 1994,
Sassen 1991; 1998; Featherstone 1991; for an overview see Riain 2000). The
problem here, as many scholars have noted, is that the study of globalization
suffers from conceptual ambiguity and lack of specificity. Urban scholars have
criticized proponents of globalization on several grounds including (1) portray
ing the transition to a global capitalism ("globalization") as a monolithic and
inexorable process following its own internal logic; (2) for downplaying the
significance of political variables; and (3) for de-emphasizing the impact of
national state arrangements in mediating local impacts of economic change (Lo
gan 1993; 1991; Logan and Swanstrom 1990; Molotch 1999, pp. 260-2). Oth
ers have argued that the term globalization is a buzzword and a cliche that ig
nores history and hides the enduring features of capitalism (Cox 1997; Gottdiener,

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62 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

Collins, and Dickens 1999, p. 7; Silver 1993). Referring to globalization a


trend that Karl Marx pointed to in the Communist Manifesto, Giddens (199
p. 61; 1990) and Harvey (1989; 1993) claim that globalization is a multi-c
turv long development and that concepts such as "high modernity" or "radicalize
modernity" are more valid heuristics for identifying continuities with the pa
and pointing to present novelties.

A further theme that connects with the globalization thesis is the idea that
"consumption" is taking precedence over "production" such that the expansio
and deepening of commodity markets has transferred the logic and rationali
of "production" to the sphere of "consumption." Diverse scholars describe a
broad shift from production-centered capitalism, rooted in work and coercio
to consumer capitalism, based on leisure, market "seduction," and spectacle
(Bauman 1992; Ritzer 1999). While Marx and traditional Marxists focused on
the "means of production," others have developed the idea of "means of con
sumption" and have moved toward a more cultural analysis of the consumer
society (Baudrillard 1970/1988; Ritzer 1999; Slater 1997). One strand o
postmodern critique rejects political economy explanations rooted in capital
ism and commodification and maintains that consumer society is dominated b
more general signs, models, and cultural codes (Baudrillard 1975). Diver
scholars argue that "spaces of consumption" - shopping malls, themed resta
rants, bars and theme parks, casino gambling, and mega-complex for profe
sional sports - have emerged from widespread cultural and aesthetic change
including the emergence of style as identity, the proliferation of visual imag
and electronic media, and development of sophisticated marketing schemes.
Scholars have identified several strategies of consumption-oriented urban rev
talization, including the development of convention centers, art shows and g
leries, opera halls, museums, festivals, symphony halls, professional sports st
diums, casino gambling, and so on. Other analysis focus on how cities are em
phasizing the aesthetic or historic value of their architecture, redeveloping the
river and canal waterfronts, designating areas of the city as artistic quarters, an
preserving or reconverting old buildings and archaic technology (Bassett 1993
Boyer 1992; Reichl 1997; 1999; Strom 1999; Kearns and Philo 1993; Shor
1999; Gladstone and Fainstein 2001; Boyd 2000; for an overview, see Gotham
2001a).

Hannigan's (1998) recent study of the rise of "Fantasy City" exemplifies an


extreme postmodern version. His analysis describes six features of the so-called

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 63

"postmodern metropolis" of pleasure and consumption: (1) theme-o-centric,


in which "everything from individual entertainment venues to the image of the
city itself conforms to a scripted theme, normally drawn from sports, history or
popular entertainment" (p. 3); (2) aggressive branding or name-orientation,
where those who finance and market entertainment spaces attempt to make
huge profits on "selling licensed merchandise on site" (p. 3); (3) fantasy city
operates day and night; (4) the use of modular constructions that blend themed
restaurants, a megaplex cinema, an IMAX theater, and other megastores; (5) a
solipsistic environment where entertainment spaces are "isolated from surround
ing neighborhoods physically, economically and culturally" (p. 4); and (6) fan
tasy city is postmodern "insomuch as it is constructed around technologies of
simulation, virtual reality and the thrill of the spectacle" (p. 4). Yet Hannigan's
study is more descriptive than explanatory. His analysis lacks a critical theory of
capitalism and scholars have assailed his work for imposing a pseudo history (a
la Calhoun 1993) on the contemporary city, overemphasizing the production of
consumption spaces as an abrupt break with the past, and failing to see the new
round of consumption spaces as rooted in the dynamics of capitalist urban plan
ning and economic development (see, for example, Wright 2000, p. 25; Grazian
2000; Hutchison 2001).

Other critical urban scholars explain the historical development of con


sumer society and its urban manifestations as an organized extension of pro
duction relations with the "new means of consumption" as a crucial productive
force of capital itself (for an overview, see Gottdiener 2000). Closely related to
this political economy version is the work of prominent urban scholars such as
Castells (1996), Clarke (1997), Harvey (1989), Soja (2000), and Gottdiener
(1997) who stress that recent global level changes in capitalism have produced
"spaces of consumption" in nations such as the United States that are more
important to the national economy than are "spaces of production" which are
increasingly located overseas. Influenced by new mechanisms of advertising and
marketing, populations in more affluent countries consume at a high level and
are attracted to the consumption experience through ever changing forms of
glitz, hype, and theming. In turn, multinational corporations manufacture goods
and fashion by exploiting workers in low-wage nations. In particular, Harvey
(1989; 1993) argues that capitalism's approximately 25-year shift from nation
ally-based, state-guided capitalism to globalized, free-market capitalism gener
ated a global wave of restructuring of firms, high finance, and urban space.

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64 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

Consequent modes of communication, advertising, and commodified pleasur


and proliferation entertainment spaces, in his view, manifest postmodern sen
bilities and cultural styles.

Postmodernism and the City

Another major theme maintains that commodification has reached a stage


where images have become commodities themselves and operate according t
their own autonomous logic within a chain of free-floating signifiers. The le
ing proponent of this view, Jean Baudrillard, contends that capitalism has moved
from the society of the spectacle (Debord 1973) to the realm of simulation
where the production of signs, images, and sign systems rather than commo
ties per se dominate the world. In Baurillard's work, the commodity radiat
with sign value in which the value of images, objects, and practices is organize
into a hierarchy of prestige, coded differences, and associative chains and sy
bols that "bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pu
simulacrum" (1983, p. 11). Sign value involves the automization of the signifi
in which common meanings and external referents break apart. Semiotic dom
nation overrides materiality, and signifiers circulate in a purely contingent m
ner unconstrained by "structural" factors. Despite their otherwise diverse wor
Marx, Lukacs, and Simmel recognized that the movement and generalization o
money and the commodity form was simultaneously the fetishization a
reification and, ultimately, the mystification, massification, and quantification o
social reality. But, however abstract and inverted the process of commodification
fetishism, and reification may be, these modern theorists understood that
emerged from historically specific social conditions in the production and
production of life under capitalism. For Baudrillard, Marx's analysis of com
modity production is antiquated and outmoded in a postmodern era where the
is the total abstraction of sign-value, the death of the social, and the liquidati
of reality.

Reflecting the increasing interest in sign-value, many postmodern urban


scholars argue that what diverse tourist spaces such as Disneyland, Las Vegas,
Times Square in New York City, heritage sites, downtown "festival" marketplaces,
and "theme parks" share is a decontextualization/recontextualization of place
that blurs the distinction between signifier and signified, copy and original, and
past and present (Gladstone 1998; Knox 1993, pp. 19-20; see, for example,
Zukin, et al. 1998; 1995; Zukin 1997; King 1996). Zukin (1997) and Wright

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 65

(2000), among others, have pointed out that local histories and traditions of
various racial and ethnic groups have become marketable commodities - re
sources and strategies to advance the interests of redevelopers and their allies.
Smith's (1996) work on the Lower East Side and Hoffman's (2000) case study
of the redevelopment of Harlem show how redevelopers are increasingly pack
aging ethnicity and race as culture and art, using frontier motifs and imagery to
"tame" a neighborhood, touting images of exotic and benign danger to pull in
consumers. This urban economic development strategy reflects the latest at
tempts by economic elites to provide a package of shopping, dining, and enter
tainment within a themed and controlled environment - a development that schol
ars have called the "Disneyification" of urban space (Eeckhout 2001; Sorkin
1992). In the process, advertising agencies thematize local traditions, famous
buildings and landmarks, and other heritage sights to the point that they be
come "hyper real," by which people lose the ability to distinguish between the
"real" and "illusion." Hyper reality signifies the dominance of artificial codes
and simulated models that devour the real and leave behind nothing but com
mutating signs and self-referring simulacra. Once Hyper reality takes over, cul
ture becomes autoreferential (Antonio 2000, p. 50) and operates according its
own autonomous logic free from the material referents or the constraints of
social structure.

While proponents of political economy and postmodern urbanists agree


on the characteristics of the new forms of urban consumption and novel forms
of spatial organization, they disagree on the causes and consequences, which
modes of explanation are appropriate, and which theories and methods more
valid than others in explaining the social foundations of the new urban matrix.
Variants of postmodernism argue that cultural imagery, symbols, and motifs have
become the fundamental organizing principles of society rather than class or
capitalism (Smith 1992; for overviews, see King 1996; Watson and Gibson 1995).
Opponents have assailed the radical culturalisrn of urban postmodernists and
reject arguments about the total autonomy of culture and the cultural basis of
new forms of consumption. Critics charge that those who emphasize the pri
macy of cultural over the economic eschew dialectical criticism, have failed to
define "culture" systematically, and have left unclear the "causal" connections
between culture and political economy. Influenced by Lefebre, David Harvey
(1989; 1993) locates the emergence of sophisticated place marketing in a new
phase of "time-space compression" within capitalism (see also Kearns and Philo
1993). Fredric Jameson (1984; 1991) links the commodification of culture to a

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66 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

new stage of multinational capitalism including the dominance of transnation


business, a new international division of labor, dizzying growth in internation
banking and stock market speculation, and new synergies among the media
computerization, and automation. Neil Smith's (1996) work on the revanchis
city draws attention to the "structural" linkages between the various institution
actors - corporate actors, entertainment companies, real estate developers,
tail operators, and public agencies - and gentrification. Despite their differen
anlayses and conclusions, their work remains rooted in Marxian theory, hig
lighting the centrality of economic and material processes in cultural analysi

Normative affirmations of "difference," stressed in the recent cultural o


identity politics of race, gender, sexual preference, and ethnicity (Gutmann 1994
Calhoun 1994) are prominent themes in celebratory versions of postmodern
urban culture. The epistemological view that diverse values from divergent c
tural locations give rise to richer "knowledge" is entwined with a "normalis
perspectivist" embrace of cultural diversity per se and suspicion about broade
value consensus. These views are posed against the supposedly homogenizing
force of modern theory and, especially, Marxian concepts of class-consciou
ness, class politics, and political economy. Yet there is a darker, more sinist
side to "culture" that postmodernists have ignored. Today, in many cities, lo
officials publicly proclaim the importance of promoting the "diversity" and
tality of urban spaces but behind the facade of cultural celebration and eco
nomic regeneration is an increasing "militarization of space" linked to the pr
liferation of new forms of segregative planning, security, and control to keep o
the urban underclass from the gentrified spaces of the affluent (see, for e
ample, Davis 1992; Christopherson 1994; Judd 1995). Aguirre and Brook
(2001) observe in their case study of criminalization of homeless in Riverside
California, that the increasing use of war rhetoric accompanies the stigmatiz
tion of the homeless by urban officials as they decry the encroachment of t
very poor upon the public spaces of the city. Aguirre and Brooks follow a lon
line of critical urban scholars who connect the rhetoric of crime and the r

claiming of public space with the privatization of public space and enhanced
police control of "deviant" populations. As advocates of the homeless and po
decry the "end of public space," commercial imperatives increasingly defin
what is "normal" behavior and attempt to impose their own image of a "good
city on the built environment. Not surprisingly, scholars have assailed the fo
tress mentality of contemporary urban planning as affront to public life th
sharpens the vast material and cultural gaps between strata.

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 67

Postmodern Theory/Method and the City


Within the mode of theory, the postmodern turn involves a shift toward
more multiperspectival theorizing that respects a variety of sometimes conflict
ing perspectives, celebrates differences and diversity, rails against grand narra
tives and totalizing theories, and champions the idea of local narratives as an
expedient to novel forms of theorizing (Zukin 1992). Postmodern social theo
ries and methods are an ambiguous and controversial set of ideas and assump
tions that taken together challenge the basic tenets of modern social theory and
method. Postmodernists question the viability of objectivity and causal analysis
in the social sciences and argue that the pursuit of rational truth masks a strat
egy of domination (Rosenau 1992, p. ix). Classical theory in the tradition of
Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, among others is suspect, if not totally
useless (Antonio and Kellner 1994). Postmodernists accuse modern theory of
relying upon totalizing explanations that ignore local voices, and for embracing
"monocausal explanations that 'privilege' one type of explanation - social facts,
verstehen, class, or structure and function" (Pescosolido and Rubin 2000, p.
58). In addition, modern theory is taken to task for its scientism that views
knowledge as cumulative, coherent, and rational; its foundationalism that aims
to find a vocabulary that mirrors the object world and articulates a universal
condition; its essentialism that supposedly fails to account for social differences
based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation; and its tendency to
focus on abstract and insular issues that have little or nothing to do with every
day life (for overviews, see Antonio and Kellner 1994; Best and Kellner 1997;
Seidman and Wagner 1992). In contrast, postmodern theory emphasizes
microtheory, affirms diversity and multiculturalism, rejects positivist epistemol
ogy, and is an antidote to frequently uncritical quantitative approaches within
mainstream urban studies and public policy research (Agger 1991; Lemert 1992).

One prominent theme in urban sociology stresses textual deconstruction


and semiotic analysis over political economy critiques of capitalism.
Problematizing the relationship between the "objective" and the "discursive,"
proponents of textualism, deconstruction, and semiotics proclaim an end to
"grand narratives" and "totalizations" that attempt to explain the world in terms
of patterned relationships. Leontidou's (1996) analysis of differences between
northern and southern cities urges us to "forget about modernism" because
postmodern cities are "colorful mosaics" that contain a mixture of cultures while
modern cities are rigid and homogeneous. Proclaiming the need to move from

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68 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

a "cultural turn" to a "linguistic turn," Leontidiou argues that language is asc


dant and modern urban theory ignores the centrality of local narratives in co
stituting urban life and spatial organization. Another emerging line of researc
rejects traditional qualitative and quantitative methods and explores how spat
phenomena are represented in literature, using novels and poems as sources o
data (for an overview see Van Dijk 1997). In a special issue of Urban Studies on
"Discourse and Urban Change" (Vol. 36, No 1), Hastings (1999) draws att
tion to several research agendas including a focus on semiology and symbol
systems other than language within cities, the connections between languag
use and the theorization of urban change, the role of language in constitutin
urban meaning. In much of this work, cities and their spatial organization ar
viewed as a "system of signification or as a series of texts implicated in socia
and political practices and relations" (Hastings 1999, P- 8). Influenced by Fo
cault and poststructuralism, diverse scholars proclaim that "language consti
tutes or produces the concepts and categories we use to make sense of t
world" (p. 10). According to proponents, discourse analysis provides a robus
framework and practical method for conducting research on urban policy,
terrogating power relations, and challenging social inequality.

These concerns are highlighted in the urban scholarship of Mele (2000)


Liggett (1994), Beauregard (1993), King (1996), Zukin and colleagues (199
and others who emphasize "texts," "images," and "stories" as units of analys
(for an overview, see Collins 2000). Eschewing Marxian and Frankfurt Schoo
critiques, scholars reject political economy analysis as "logocentric" and "re
ductionistic" accounts that repress important differences between cities (se
Swanstrom 1993; Zukin et al. 1998; King 1996). Extreme accounts reject refe
ences to "realities" to the discursive text, and dismiss "objective" inquiry abo
the "validity" of theories or how well they represent reality. In the introducti
to his edited volume, Re-Presenting the City, King (1996) argues that there h
been an "intertextual implosion of representations..." such that the "boundary
between social reality and representations of that reality has collapsed" (p.
For King and his contributors, "the distinction between a 'real city' and a 'd
cursive city' is misleading: the one does not exist without the other" (p. 4).
this view, claims that theory can grasp obdurate external realities are totalizin
distortions that obscure the "undecidable" nature of social reality. More mode
ate accounts attempt to join political economy and cultural analysis but fail t
clarify concepts, interrogate evidence systematically, and address disconfirmi
evidence forthrightly. Collins' (2000) case study of local opposition to the c

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 69

sure of shipyards in Scotland in 1971 represents the most significant recent


attempt to link political economy with various insights of the discourse analysis.
Yet the difference between extreme and moderate positions may be less than
urban scholars wish to admit. Those who adhere to moderate views while em

bracing textualism and discursive analysis have little normative or empirical


basis to argue that their statements and conclusions are any better or worse than
any other. Not surprisingly, critics have assailed proponents of textual
deconstruction and discursive analysis for falling prey to cultural determinism,
semiological idealism, and lame storytelling that gives license to undisciplined,
whimsical, and partisan points of view (Antonio 1991; Kellner 1993; for an over
view, see Dickens and Fontana 1994).

Other skeptics argue that the focus on language diverts attention away
from the centrality of capital and class in constituting power relations and the
struggles waged by ordinary people against exploitation and oppression. Sayer
(1994), Badcock (1996) and Imrie, et al (1996) have argued for a "reactiva
tion" within urban studies of Marxist inspired accounts of pohtical economy to
counter the morass of linguistics and language, and direct research to pohtical
economy critiques of capitalism and the state. According to these critics of the
cultural and linguistic turns, explanations that focus on the symbolic realm are
limited not because of the focus on culture, language, or "readings" of texts.
They are limited because of the refusal (or inability) critically to probe the so
cial relations underlying the production of the text, identify the key actors and
organized interests involved in manufacturing cultural signifiers, and interro
gate and explain the consequences of the actions of powerful groups. Outside
every "text" there continues to be an objective yet contested world of exploit
ative production relations, however remote geographically. Specific socio-his
torical arrangements of production, technological abilities, relations of labor,
property ownership, and distribution shape the production, consumption, and
distribution of goods and services that affect everyday life in the metropolis.
Critics of postmodern theory argue for a renewed focus on the powerful eco
nomic elites that market, advertise, and sell commodities for profit thereby cre
ating commodity chains that weave through and across global, national, regional,
and local spaces, and race, gender, and class relations. Indeed, the central con
flicts that arise from the capitalist organization of society concern the
commodification of everyday life, the extent to profit motivated agents and sys
tems structure everyday life and social organization, and the inequalities of mar
keted-based distribution of wealth (Gotham 2001b).

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70 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

Conclusion

Our contemporary world is undergoing major transformations an


term "postmodern" serves to call attention to the challenges and noveltie
moment. Despite the proclamations of an epochal rupture and the rumin
of postmodernists that we live in a radically novel era, many of the s
rangements that defined modernity are still with us. Patriarchy, labor e
tion, state oppression, class struggle, and capitalist economic and cultur
mony have not disappeared in the postmodern world (Best and Kellner
Indeed, what we are witnessing today is an (uneven) intensification of ca
dynamics and state power that is reorganizing cities and metropolitan
throughout the world. A proliferation of powerful transnational corpor
growing levels of economic misery, new technologies for surveillance an
trol, the revival of child labor and sweatshops, and the privatization o
functions are leading to an explosion of new forms of social organizat
tially-based identities, and conflicts over the use and control of space in
corner of the world. Capitalism, it seems, as Marx and Engels noted mor
century ago, is proliferating difference and heterogeneity as people rebel
its exploitative dynamics, at the same time it produces resemblance and
geneity based on the commodity form.

Yet we have to wonder what kinds of theoretical and methodological


analytic techniques, and conceptual formations postmodernism offers u
than a description and critique of the present. As Pescosolido and Rubin
p. 60) note, "postmodern contributions pale in comparison to their mo
predecessors such as Marx, Comte, Weber, and Durkheim, who tried to c
not the chaos of the transition to agrarian to industrial society, but the co
of the social change they experienced." By ignoring the diversity of app
and assumptions within modern theory, postmodernists construct super
stereotyped, totalizing, and strawman models of modern theory that el
critical theorizing and detracts us from explaining the pressing problem
present. Modern theory remains of intense interest for the present and p
crucial resources in the current era because, as in the 18th and 19"1 cen
our society is undergoing vast transformations, some of which are prom
and some of which are threatening. As urban sociology responds
postmodern challenge, it seems fruitful to reflect on the struggles of Ma
ber, Durkehim, and Simmel to describe the new systematic and overar
patterns of spatial organization, urbanization, and urbanism that mark

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KEVIN FOX GOTHAM 71

rise of modernity. As Keliner (1993, p. 47) maintains, going back to the classics
is "not a matter of mere antiquarian pleasure, but of gaining methodological
insight, theoretical illumination, and political inspiration to carry on the tasks of
critical social theory in the present conjuncture." By reconstructing (not reject
ing) the categories of commodification and reification (Marx), bureaucracy and
rationalization (Weber), and social solidarity and anomie (Durkheim), we can
understand and analyze present dynamics and give these categories new social
content. Theorizing the configurations of the global and the local also requires
developing new multidimensional strategies ranging from the macro to the mi
cro, the national to the local, in order to intervene in a wide range of contempo
rary and emerging problems and struggles.

Finally, we should note that the tendency toward relativism, radical


indeterminancy, and lack of normative grounding in postmodernism provides
little for urban sociology and leads to apolitical nihilism and politically conser
vative theorizing. In particular, Feagin (1998, p. 6) has recently noted that "a
postmodern analysis that privileges cultural complexity and diffuseness in cities
runs the danger of ignoring or playing down the still central structure-process
factors of class, race, and gender." As Austin (1992) astutely notes, dismissing
so-called "grand narratives" like racism or sexism does not eliminate their im
pact on women or people of color. As Ellin (1996) and Best and Keliner (1997)
note, too much emphasis on the autonomy of urban subcultures and identities
can help hide unequal power relations, downplay race/class/gender antagonisms,
and legitimate profound inegalitarian social hierarchies that still shape cities
and metropolitan areas. Indeed a lacuna of postmodern urban analysis has been
the inability to formulate a critical theory that illuminates the mechanisms of
domination in society, the interconnectedness of agency and structure, and the
complex mediations among new forms of urban and metropolitan organization,
economy, and culture. Sociological theories are not just a description of the past
and present, nor an explanation of how and why various institutions, groups,
and actors are interconnected. Theories also provide a prescription for social
action and change, as Marxism and variants of feminism have done. While
postmodernists have leveled strong complaints about sociological theories and
methods, they have failed to add a postmodern alternative that reflects Mills's
(1959) challenge to provide "lucid summations" of the intersection of indi
vidual biography, social structure, and human history. Postmodernism does not
offer that analysis and provides little in the way of theoretical and political re
sources and public policy intervention.

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72 URBAN SOCIOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE

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