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Assembling the multitude: questions about agency in the urban environment

Brantz, Dorothee

In recent years, urban history has witnessed an expansion of actors. Historians have substantially and continuously extended their perspectives when it comes to examining the forces that drive urban developments. This expansion to an ever-broader range of human and increasingly also non-human actors (e.g. animals, technological systems and resources such as water) has opened up many new venues for investigations. It has also raised new questions about the role of cities in the history of social change. One of the most provocative ideas involves the claim that cities themselves should be considered agents and proprietors of change. Such notions of urban agency are premised on the assumption that, on the whole, cities are more than the sum of their parts. In this context, urbanization is not just viewed as the outcome of other determining societal forces, most notably capitalism. Instead, cities themselves are understood as determining entities and powerful enablers or preventers of material transformations. The investigative potential of such a perspective is tremendous, but the possible pitfalls should also not be underestimated. Exploring the explanatory prospects of urban agency requires, first of all, a critical engagement with both of the terms ‘agency’ and ‘the urban’. In my brief contribution to this roundtable, I would like to offer two points to the discussion: the first centres on the relationship between agency and intentionality/responsibilities, which is ultimately a political concern; the second aims to differentiate between the city as an entity and the urban as a process. Such a distinction, in turn, poses conceptual as well as methodological questions regarding the efficacy of agency as an urban concept.
Published in: Urban History, 10.1017/S0963926816000304, Cambridge University Press
  • Dieser Beitrag ist mit Zustimmung des Rechteinhabers aufgrund einer (DFG geförderten) Allianz- bzw. Nationallizenz frei zugänglich.
  • This publication is with permission of the rights owner freely accessible due to an Alliance licence and a national licence (funded by the DFG, German Research Foundation) respectively.