“Global Urban History”, Freie Universität Berlin, a discussion with Michael Goebel

“…we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history.”

For the latest in my series on urban historians at work today, I was very lucky to be able to catch up with Michael Goebel, of Freie Universität Berlin; the  who edits and writes for the Global Urban History blog.

What is your background?

I grew up in Munich, Germany, and went to a secondary school right next to the city’s central station. So, although Munich is not huge, I come from a pretty urban environment and have never been much of a country person. But I’m not an urban historian by training. I did my PhD in history at University College London, with a thesis on the intellectual history of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina, so modern Latin America was my broader region of specialization. There were two distinct paths of how this has stirred my interest in urban history. First, whoever studies nationalism in Argentina cannot do without considering two factors: the importance of the country’s capital city (economically, culturally, politically, but also for the national imagination) and the history of European immigration, for which Buenos Aires again has always been the chief point of entry. Second, modern intellectual historians are almost always urban historians in one way or another, though usually without knowing or admitting it. And my interest in the intellectual history of Latin America eventually took me to study early twentieth-century Paris as a sort of cultural capital of Latin America. 

These two paths flowed together in my book Anti-Imperial Metropolis, which came out last year. The book eventually concentrated much more on immigrants to Paris from French colonies such as Algeria than on Latin Americans, but it brings together the social history of migration with an intellectual history of the roots of nationalism in Africa and Asia. These concerns also led me to look in more detail at the Parisian cityscape, the everyday social fabric of non-Europeans there, and their settlement patterns. In the course of this research I have grown more interested in the history of ethnic segregation in cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in particular in world regions outside the North Atlantic, for which there has been much less research so far. So in hindsight there were a few unforeseeable twists that took me where I am now.

What led you to decide to set up Global Urban History?

“…we noticed that urban history… has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus… on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing.”

Again, this comes out of a confluence of several factors. My first idea stemmed from this interest in the global history of ethnic segregation on which I had also taught a course in our MA in Global History here at the Freie Universität Berlin. Given the changes that digitisation has wrought on our discipline in recent years a topic such as ethnic segregation in cities seemed especially apt for the blog format, which is much more flexible, visual, and digital than our traditional ways of presenting our research. It’s also a topic of great concern for the public in Germany, Britain, the USA, and other countries at the moment. But it’s too narrow a concern for a blog with a hopefully wider readership. So I teamed up with a few great colleagues in urban history such as Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone, who I was lucky enough to find in my immediate surroundings here in Berlin. With them involved the blog quickly expanded topically.

Since we all work in the area of global history, we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history. At the same time, we noticed that urban history as an established field has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus more frequently on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing. This realization mutated into a sort of embryonic mission statement encouraging our readers to think more explicitly about how global history and urban history have related to one another in the past and should communicate in the future.

What do you hope that readers get from the blog?

“…we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.”

Ours is a pretty academic, i.e. not so journalistic or personal, blog. We first took other blogs, such as the Imperial & Global Forum based at the University of Exeter and the one of the Journal of the History of Ideas, as models to emulate. Accordingly, I suspect that our readership consists largely of academics, in particular historians, mostly based in Germany, the UK, and the United States. Yet some successful posts, such as one on colonial Mexico City, also attracted readers beyond academics in these countries. It’s not easy to strike a balance here between general accessibility, interest, and scholarly specialization.

In accordance with our initial ideas we hoped to attract a great deal of sophisticated theoretical and programmatic reasoning about what we saw as the missing link between urban and global history, presented in accessible language and adorned with fancy pictures. Then the nitty-gritty of everyday management kicked in. If you have a blog with no or very few followers, yet hope to get brilliant and famous people on a terribly busy schedule writing for you, there is a mismatch in what you are asking and what you can offer. So in the first place you have to position your blog as a platform for the dissemination of the research of your contributors. Then, if you call yourself global, you want to cover different world regions once in a while, but you also want both male and female authors, senior academics and PhD students. If you take into account all of these factors, you run the risk of becoming what from the outside looks like a random cabinet of curiosities about aspects of the history of particular cities spread over the globe; a little bit like The Guardian’s series on the “Story of Cities,” which of course generates much more traffic than our little site.

At its best, this sensitizes our readers to the huge global variations in the urban experience. And we do hope that our readers get this from our blog. But this doesn’t amount to generating a programmatic discussion about where and how global and urban history should intersect. So we decided to flank this format of presenting contributors’ empirical research with a few other formats, such as book reviews and, soon to come, a conversation between leading urban historians about their relationship with global history. In the medium term, we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.

What would you say are the key scholarly benefits of taking a global approach to studying urban history?

“the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization… in the decades before and after 1900… the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.”

This question can be approached from the angle of urban history and from the angle of global history. Beginning with the first, one reason of why urban history is important is that an ever growing proportion of the world population lives in cities. Historically, people saw Europe and North America as the most urbanized regions of the world, where the great cities were located. Think of London and New York. In truth the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization mainly in the decades before and after 1900. Yet this was also the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.

Fast forward a century and most of today’s megacities are located in the Global South, a trend that will no doubt continue. This realization should really push urban historians to rethink how useful their conceptual tools are for studying the histories of, say, Manila or Lagos, which are different from that of Paris. I don’t think this discussion is as prominent in urban history as it should be. The same is true if you turn the tables: Many good urban historians of course, have always been aware that London and Liverpool would be unthinkable without the British Empire, but I don’t think this realization has had the effect of explicit and systematic reasoning about the role of the global in urban history that it should have.

Now if you approach the question from the opposite side, I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities. As Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, stresses, the history of global connections never proceeded evenly through geographic space, but was “lumpy.” That means some places on earth have much denser long-distance connections than others—port cities being the obvious case, to which a project at the University of Portsmouth is devoted. Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.

Finally, global history has a bit of a bias against social history in my opinion. This has to do with the biography of global history, which was midwifed by a generation of historians who reacted against the generation of social historians of the 1960s and their characteristic belief in large sets of serial data and “modernization. To an extent, urban history is a child of this social history of the 1960s, in which urbanization was considered a key ingredient of “modernization.” I think the fact that urban history and global history developed out of synch has generated a certain mutual mistrust that we should work to overcome.

“I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities.”

What would you say are the current key trends in the study of global urban history?

Global history per se has been the fastest expanding subfield of history during the last two decades, I think. Whereas fourteen years ago, when I began my PhD, I was under pressure to justify my decision to study Argentina as a German in the UK, today the onus is on those studying their own country’s past to uphold what they are doing—to a silly extent at times, I believe, when I see quite how apologetic today’s historians are if they don’t have “global” or “transnational” in their working titles. But for better or worse, urban historians have not remained unaffected by this trend, even if this is one of the more Eurocentric (or North Atlantic-centered) part of historical writing.

From what I can see, these broader trends have so far taken mostly the form of an expansion of research on cities in what today is called the Global South. I think of the work of Tim Harper, Su Lin Lewis, Carole Woodall, Emer O’Dwyer, and many others I can’t mention here. These are also the kind of people we admire and seek to approach for our blog.

Tellingly, however, in my impression most such historians do not present themselves as “urban historians in the first place. Instead they first recur to other labels to describe their work, geographic ones in particular, such as global history, Southeast Asian history, colonial history, or whatever their specialization may be precisely. There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure. Leicester University’s Centre for Urban History now produces more and more research on the history of cities in the Global South, while avowedly maintaining the label “urban history.” Carl Nightingale’s book on the global history of urban segregation would be another example. So there are exciting developments if you look for them, but on the whole I would argue that they are still too exceptional.

Is there any advice that you have for historians looking to work collaboratively across countries?

To have time at their hands and never underestimate the importance of language. For our blog—and many other projects we are involved in—it is nowadays commonplace to work with people in other countries. In my particular case, my academic upbringing was mostly outside of Germany anyway, having done a PhD about Argentina in the U.K. before going to Italy and spending a year in the US. But it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this. In choosing to produce an English-language blog in Germany, we also chose to lose potential German readers outside of academia. We will never attract many readers in Latin America. If I look at our followers on Twitter, the overwhelming majority are based in Britain and the US.

“…it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this.”

Conversely, it is difficult to find contributors outside of Anglophone academia. History is a literary discipline and a blog is the kind of format where you want to upload something that also sounds nice, so the level of English of potential contributors is something we constantly discuss among the editors, especially bearing in mind our own time constraints in proofreading. In history, national—or linguistically specific—markets also continue to shape the conceptual concerns and interests that scholars bring along, making it much harder to convey our approach and goals outside the core areas of our readership. On the other hand, if all your contributors and readers are in Germany, the UK, and the USA we really shouldn’t call this “global.” So we really try hard to keep an open mind for influences from beyond the English-speaking world, which is something global history should heed more generally given its tendency towards increasing monolingualism.

Is there any advice that you have for academics looking to create a blog like Global Urban History?

In my impression there are lots of people with great ideas, but the main danger for creating a new blog is that it becomes a flash in the pan. We were all enthusiastic in the beginning—and still are—but the everyday maintenance of the whole structure is arduous. On top of that we all have teaching and admin duties and we pursue our actual research, which means going to archives, reading other historians, and writing journal articles and books. So if you want to create a blog that lasts for a year or so and is meant to be read by a few more people than your closest friends, ask yourself how many hours per week you are able and willing to invest in the coming twelve months.

Horacio Coppola - Buenos Aires 1936 - Corrientes desde el edificio COMEGA nocturna.jpg

Horacio CoppolaCÓPPOLA, H., PREBISCH, A. y ANZOÁTEGUI, I.: Buenos Aires 1936: visión fotográfica por Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires, Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1936 (editado en ocasión del cuarto centenario de la fundación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1536-1936)

You can find out more about Michael Goebel, of Global Urban History; and his work from his page on the Freie Universität Berlin website. He is on Twitter as are his co-editors Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone . If you’d like to read more urban history profiles, please follow the link here. 

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