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date: 23 January 2020

Studying Politics in an Urban World: Research Traditions and New Directions

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article discusses the objective of this volume, which is to present a critical assessment of the state of theory and research on urban politics, including methods, debates, and questions for future research. This volume demonstrates the many ways in which the policy-oriented and contextually grounded research typical of urban politics strengthens and extends our understanding of contemporary political and social dynamics. The first section introduces urban theory and research related to power and participation; the second addresses institutions and democratic practices within cities; the third explores politics and the changing social organization of cities; the fourth deals with the particular processes and politics of urban policy; and the concluding section discusses recent trends in urban politics, and new issues that are likely to influence research and theory in the future.

Keywords: urban politics, political dynamics, social dynamics, urban theory, democratic practices, urban policy

Why study urban politics? One reason is that the study of urban politics captures the rich experience of the urbanized areas in which the majority of the world's population now lives (United Nations 2010). So studying urban decision-making covers the subject matter of much of political science. Yet, this begs the larger question of what knowledge can be gained from examining urban politics rather than politics in general? After all, it might make sense to study public policy as it is implemented in urban areas, such as education, housing, urban renewal, and culture; or to analyze political participation more generally, as most votes are cast in cities, and protest and even revolutions start in urban centers—witness Egypt in 2011. Why should we study urban politics across countries, as we advocate here, when cities are embedded in different national political systems? Surely, the main variations that interest political scientists occur across states rather than within them?

In contrast to these arguments, we view urban political research as making an essential contribution to understanding political phenomena more generally, as well as to the specific context of local politics and urban environments. That is, we need (p. 4) to conceptualize and understand local/urban political processes, public problems, and forms of decision-making in relationship to a particular space or location, rather than just analyze the subareas of voting, policymaking, and social movements. Urban political scholars examine the politics of local areas as a set of linked processes, which vary considerably within the nation-state. These variations are tied to the specific constraints and traditions of particular places, which provide cases of political representation and policymaking. In this way, national politics is built from and is constituted by varied and complex subsystems in urban areas. Urban politics is both a field in its own right, with particular dynamics and constraints that vary from place to place; and an area of research that tells political scientists and other scholars much about politics more generally, whether at the local, national, or supranational level. Moreover, the existence of subnational areas across countries provides a unique research opportunity to extend the range of generalization, as scholars can observe variations both across and within countries. Today, the politics of urbanized areas reflect the ways in which societies deal with issues such as social and economic change, and how they attempt to realize their visions of democracy, inclusion, and justice. The study of urban politics offers a view of globalization and the diffusion of policy ideas in an age when urban areas and societies are ever more connected through an international economy, a shared environment, increased immigration, and more advanced information technology networks. Thus, it is no surprise to find urban scholars pursuing comparative research.1

With these opportunities in mind, the Oxford Handbook of Urban Politics has several goals: to present the diverse approaches to urban politics that populate the field today; to showcase new directions and emerging agendas; and to advocate a comparative perspective for urban analyses. The unique contribution of this volume is to provide a cross-national outlook on issues and research approaches across many different topics in urban politics.

Dialogue across countries necessitates a common conceptual language. While there are different traditions, with most European researchers referring to local politics, and North American scholars using the urban nomenclature, the various chapters show there is a basis for common agreement. At its most straightforward, urban politics is about authoritative decision-making at a smaller scale than national units—the politics of the subnational level, which is something that scholars from Europe, North America, and the rest of the world can agree about. Additionally, understanding the breadth of urban politics in the twenty-first century increasingly draws on a metropolitan perspective, including those who live in urbanized areas as well as the central cities (see Stoker 1998, 120 in Britain; and the Brookings Institution 2010 in the U.S.). Similarly, we construe the concept of urban politics broadly, as related to local governance as well as local government in urbanized areas.

(p. 5) While we have encouraged authors to connect their work to main currents in political science when possible, we have also urged them to discuss what is distinctively urban or local, and the contribution that an urban viewpoint makes. For example, the local character of urban politics also carries special significance in democratic societies. John Stuart Mill wrote that local governments are “schools of democracy” that afford greater participatory opportunities than other levels of government. Reality may sometimes be far from this ideal, as the Clark and Krebs chapter on local elections points out. Yet, urban politics has always the potential to be more participatory because local issues are also immediate, affecting the quality of life for residents in ways that are often readily apparent. At the same time that some forms of participation, such as voting, are declining on the local level, urban politics may yield new models for civic participation, that take advantage of the smaller scale and potential for greater interaction. Grassroots participation and representation are central concerns in urban politics, as discussed in the chapter on neighborhoods by Blokland and Horak and on social movements by Mayer and Boudreau. The concept of social capital has permeated nearly every area of social science, but it has special resonance in local politics, as Hero and Orr show in their chapter. Certainly, the study of urban politics provides a window into important questions and problems in democracy at the level closest to the citizen.

1. Comparative Thinking and a Bold Experiment

The contributions in this Handbook present a critical assessment of the state of theory and research on each topic, including methods, debates, and questions for future research. For this volume, however, we challenged authors to go a step further, and to bring a comparative perspective to their observations. The aims of this volume are comparative, but in the sense that we asked authors to assess research from multiple scholarly communities rather than to conduct cross-national research. In doing so, we hoped to move beyond a U.S.-centric volume and encompass the work of urban scholars in the UK, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. Taking a comparative perspective allows us to compare empirical findings across studies in different countries, such as whether structural differences in local elections affect policy responsiveness. Theoretically, we can ask whether concepts such as “the just city” have different meanings across borders; or whether we can usefully compare local cultural conflicts in Europe and the U.S. Cross-national research on issues can also illuminate trends. Local government reforms have swept across countries, but does this represent convergence? A comparative approach allows us to consider evidence on interdependence, convergence, or persistent differences in urban political phenomena, as well as the implications of these trends for policy, politics, and scholarship.

(p. 6) To do this most effectively, we tried to stimulate a cross-national dialogue even where little had existed. Many contributions are written by paired authors from different sides of the Atlantic, chosen by the coeditors. Some had worked together before, but most had not. We matched junior scholars with senior colleagues when possible, and included authors from geography, sociology, and other social sciences. While the development of similar literatures or explicitly cross-national research differs across topics, we found many scholars doing related research across countries.

The comparative lens in this volume mainly reflects a North American and European focus. Restricting the scope primarily to these societies is intended to avoid comparing too broadly across widely varied contexts, where concept-stretching and theory become problematic (Sartori 1991, Collier and Levitsky 1997). Still, several chapters do acknowledge the growth of research on urban politics in developing countries. Goldsmith's chapter on intergovernmental relations examines trends in developing nations, and the Mayer and Boudreau chapter includes social movements in the global south. In the emerging agendas section, Stren considers critical issues for current and future research in these increasingly urban societies.

2. Innovation and Diversity in Urban Politics

In the following pages, we showcase “agenda-setting” work that is shaping the field. Readers will recognize familiar core themes of urban politics such as community power, growth and decline, poverty, and race. But, many chapters offer new insights based on contemporary trends. For example, Marschall and Shah indicate a need to study the politics of race and ethnicity in smaller cities in the U.S. because of the demographic change that has occurred in such communities. The chapter on local agendas is coauthored by scholars who have challenged urban political scientists to pay more attention to general theories of politics such as punctuated equilibria (Sapotichne, Jones, and Wolf 2007). Other chapters reflect the evolution of urban research in the last decades, addressing topics such as wired cities, sustainable cities, and the just city.

The first section of the volume introduces urban theory and research related to power and participation. The authors in this section demonstrate the diversity of theoretical approaches employed in studying urban politics, including institutionalism, rational choice, governance, and electoral behavior. While these theoretical frameworks are applied outside the urban context as well, the local vantage point yields important advantages, such as the ability to study interactions within systems of multilevel governance.

The second section addresses institutions and democratic practices within cities. The contributions range from research on the informal practices in neighborhoods (p. 7) and social movements to the changing formal structures and bureaucratic reforms that have characterized local government and intergovernmental relations in many countries.

The third section explores “Politics and the Changing Social Organization of Cities,” including issues such as social capital, cultural conflicts, polarization and enclaves, race, ethnicity, immigration, and poverty. The diversity of cities makes them the ideal place to study these important issues and their implications for politics.

The fourth section on urban policy emphasizes the particular processes and politics of urban policy. Authors discuss what cities do across countries (the policy role that they play), and agenda-setting at the local level. Rather than trying to cover the many different substantive domains that are important for urban policy, chapters focus on selected areas of policy. These are issues that have animated the urban literature in recent decades (such as growth and decline, and economic competition) or that currently have special significance in the urban setting (such as security and environmental sustainability).

The concluding section, “Emerging Research Agendas,” represents recent trends in urban politics and new issues that are likely to influence research and theory in the future. These include a recognition of the changing context of “the urban,” in the suburbs and metropolitan regions of more developed countries, and the rapidly urbanizing centers of the developing world. Chapters examine the impact of technology on democracy and governance, and normative questions about social justice and urban politics. In the conclusion, Clarke provides an overview of themes that appear throughout the volume. Overall, the contributions in this Handbook demonstrate the many ways in which the policy-oriented and contextually grounded research typical of urban politics strengthens and extends our understanding of contemporary political and social dynamics.


Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. 2010. State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation. Available at Accessed March 20, 2011.

Collier, David, and Steven Levitsky. 1997. Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research. World Politics 49(3): 430–51.Find this resource:

Denters, Bas, and Karen Mossberger. 2006. Building Blocks for a Methodology for Comparative Political Research. Urban Affairs Review 41(4): 550–71.Find this resource:

Denters, Bas, and Lawrence E. Rose, eds. 2005. Comparing Local Governance: Trends and Developments. Houndmills, Basingtoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

DiGaetano, Alan, and Elizabeth Strom. 2003. Comparative Urban Governance: An Integrated Aproach. Urban Affairs Review 38(3): 356–95.Find this resource:

John, Peter. 2001. Local Governance in Western Europe. London: Sage Publications.Find this resource:

(p. 8) Kantor, Paul, and H. V. Savitch. 2002. Cities in the International Marketplace: The Political Economy of Urban Development in North America and Western Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Pierre, Jon. 2005. Comparative Urban Governance: Uncovering Complex Causalities. Urban Affairs Review 40(4): 446–62.Find this resource:

Sapotichne, Joshua, Bryan D. Jones, and Michelle Wolf. 2007. Is Urban Politics a Black Hole? Analyzing the Boundary between Political Science and Urban Politics. Urban Affairs Review 43(1): 76–106.Find this resource:

Sartori, Giovanni. 1991. Comparing and Miscomparing. Journal of Theoretical Politics 3(3): 243–57.Find this resource:

Sellers, Jefferey M. 2002. Governing from Below: Urban Regions and the Global Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Stoker, Gerry. 1998. Theory and Urban Politics. International Political Science Review 19(2): 119–29.Find this resource:

United Nations. 2010. 2009 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects. Available at Accessed March 20, 2011.


(1.) Examples of attention to comparative research in urban politics in recent years include Sellers (2002), Kantor and Savitch (2002), Pierre (2005), Denters and Mossberger (2006), John (2001), DiGaetano and Strom (2003), Denters and Rose (2005) to name just a few.