John asked me to talk about my paper, "Urban Theory for Archaeologists." Let me start with some context. I am an anthropological archaeologist and I have worked on ancient states and empires for my whole career. In the past few years I have turned my attention increasingly to urbanism, particularly issues of urban form, planning, and life in cities. In my various urban-related activities (fieldwork at Aztec urban sites; teaching a course on early cities) I found little relevant theory within anthropology, and quite a bit of useful theory in other fields like geography, planning, architecture, environmental psychology, and sociology.I am a materialist with little use for high-level social theory. Philosophical discussions about agency or the production of space are fine, but they do not contribute much to the analysis of data on cities, or to the direct explanation of how cities work and how people live in and use cities.
I found Roy Ellen's 2010 paper on theory very congenial, particularly his idea that the purpose of theory is to explain data, not to understand the world in abstract terms. I was getting fed up with archaeologists who cited Giddens and Bourdieu left and right, but then carried out simplistic analyses of urban settlements. Meanwhile, I found that work by scholars like Amos Rapoport and Kevin Lynch were very relevant to ancient cities.
Another contextual factor relevant to my theory paper is my involvement with a transdisciplinary urban projectover the past few years, in which we are examining neighborhoods in cities from the past and present, with perspectives from sociology, geography, political science, and archaeology. This provide additional theoretical and thematic perspectives. I had spent my entire career thinking that ancient and modern cities were so completely different that it was impossible and pointless to compare them without being trivial. This project convinced me that there are indeed continuities and common factors, and that I can learn relevant facts and ideas about modern cities that will help in my work on ancient cities. Also, I was surprised and delighted to find that scholars in other fields were seriously interested in ancient cities and wanted to know about them. I was invited to present a paper at a Geogrpahy conference, and to cintribute an article to a planning journal. This was a great contrast to cultural anthropology, where I have found almost no interest at all in ancient cities or in my research (Setha Low is the only urban anthropologist to express any interest in my work). The reason is that urban anthropology has little interest in comparative and historical approaches, where as geography, planning, urban history, and other fields do have an active interest in these things.
Another key factor that led to me writing the theory paper was my re-discovery of Robert Merton's concept of middle-range theory, something I had heard about as an undergraduate but forgotten about for decades. But I will leave that for another post.
2010 Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:387-404.
Smith, Michael E.2011 Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of A...
Great opening. Perhaps for those of us who are likely not familiar with the literature you cite, you could say a bit more about Rapoport and Lynch. In my case, I know a bit about Lynch, nothing at all about Rapoport. Could you bring us up to speed?
Michael, Thanks for making your work available to us in this way. I agree that Merton's theories of the middle range is an interesting way to go, but my eye was drawn immediately to your article on Childe's concept of an urban revolution. This is a wonderful work of intellectual history and its interest for me is that I am currently writing a book called Africa's Urban Revolution which is not just concerened with the political economy of urbanization in Africa during the 20th century, but actually in the value of Childe's concept for understanding what has happened there.
We know what didn't happen in most of Africa during the twentieth century: development or what I call national capitalism, the dominant global economic form of which South Africa is the only regional example so far. What did happen was rapid population growth and urbanization (from around 2% to almost 50% in places over 100 years), but how are we to characterize its economic forms, especially if we wish to understand the potential for development in the coming half-century which will see Africans become a quarter of humanity?
I divide Africa into three regions: North, Middle (West, Central, East) and Southern whose historical trajectories were quite different a century ago, but may be converging as a result of Africa's urban revolution. One key issue is to place Africa within a periodization of world economy in the twentieth century and today, paying attention not only to the relatively stable phases, but also to the breaks. Following Jack Goody's contrast between Eurasia and Subsaharan Africa in terms of the traditional presence/absence of Childe's urban revolution, I argue that such an urban revolution (cities, states, new classes living off the surpluses of intensified agriculture) has become general in Africa during the twentieth century.
In The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (1982) I suggested that modern African states were being built on a foundation of small-scale agriculture with the inevitable result of political and economic collapse in many cases. I now wish to examine more closely the economic forms that have supported urban commerce, since Africa's future lies at least as much with its cities as with raw material extraction. This commerce has come to be subsumed under the rubric of an "informal economy" whose historical role in the analysis of development I have considered at length. The time has come to examine the evolving rural-urban division of labour in more positive terms, so that potentially progressive elements in African political economy may be identified.
I understand that cities existed in Subsharan Africa before the 20th century, but the speed and scale of urbanization there especially in the last half-century leaves me asking how Childe's approach might help us to come to grips with the accompanying social transformations, if only as a model of enquiry rather than as a checklist of traits. So it is a boon to be able to engage you on this question.
@Keith- Well, I am surprised and delighted that Gordon Childe's Urban Revolution concept is useful in your thinking about modern African urbanization. Over the past couple of years I have done a lot of thinking about the possible modern relevance of research on ancient cities (most explicitly in Smith 2010), but the notion that Childe's framework might be useful this way had not crossed my mind. I am still a bit fuzzy on this, since it seems that any application would be a a pretty high level of abstraction.
At one point, when I was being cranky about scholars of the modern world ignoring archaeology, I compiled some examples of the phrase "urban revolution" to mean things other than Childe's concept. Here it is, in case it is useful somehow:
2006 The Renewable City: Dawn of an Urban Revolution Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society 26:141-150.
Gilbert, Alan G.
2004 The Urban Revolution. In Latin American Transformed: Globalization and Modernity, edited by Robert N. Gwynne and Kay Cristobál, pp. 93-116. 2nd ed. Hodder Arnold, London.
1970 La Révolution Urbaine. Gallimard, Paris.
Smith, Michael E.
2010 Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.
I think I'll have to just refer people to my paper, where I talk about Rapoport and Lynch, and some literature about them. Right now I have a tall stack of grant proposals to review, and I am in great despair about students who seem to feel the need to talk about high-level social theory, and then describe a pedestrian research project in which the methods and data have absolutely nothing to do with the theory. THAT is a primary reason I am attracted to Merton's middle-level theory (something I'll try to post about before too long),
@Michael Not to distract you from your pressing duties or other participants from the paper you posted, but I will briefly explain the contempoirary relevance of Childe to urbanization in Africa. Morgan/Engels drew a contrast between societies organized by kinship and those organized by class division and the state. Childe provided a specific theory of the transition from one to the other in his concept of the urban revolution. Goody then argued with some force that Subsharan Africa's institutuons differed from those of the civilizations of Eurasia in that states and class divisions were weak there and kinship still significantly organized many of their societies. He attributed this difference to property forms which in turn reflected the technical capacity to extract surpluses from agriculture (the plough, irrigation). But he acknowledged Childe as his master. This account abstracts from modern history, but it has some force in explaining some of the distinctive features of traditional African societies.
It is reasonable to ask if the rapid urbanization of Africa during the twentieth century has altered this picture in any way. My answer is that, to a degree unparalleled in Subsaharan Africa before colonial empire, the last century has seen the wholesale installation of states formed around the interests of urban classes which live off the countryside. Agricultural production has been intensified not by the growth of capiitalist agriculture, but by the application of preindustrial techniques to commercial agriculture. It would not be far-fetched to suggest that this amounts to the rise of agrarian civilization in Africa South of the Mediterranean littoral and Egypt where it flourished at the same time as Bronze Age Eurasian civilization.
Now this may not match your current interest in middle-range theories that support more effective investigations of how cities function. But it does go to the heart of the relevance of archaeology to understanding our world. I would also add that the source of the basic evolutonary theory is not even the 19th century, but Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men (1754).