Critical Thinking

Comparative generalization, which in turn help in theorizing

Comparative studies share a commitment to
describing, explaining and developing theories about sociocultural phenomena as
they occur in and across social units (cities, groups, regions, nations,
societies, tribes). (Ward, 2010) This approach to urban studies is in some
sense highly problematic to uncover the nuances within the complexities of urban
land issues. Across disciplines, comparison is taken for granted as the one of
the ‘ideal’ process of unpacking the grey areas within any research. The
problem becomes when the comparative research forms the base for
generalization, which in turn help in theorizing about contexts starkly
different from one another.

One such issue, which seems to manifest due
to such research, is the lack of attention on the relational nature of urban
land. In the words of Hart (2002) instead of taking as given pre-existing
objects, events, places and identities, start with the question of how they are
formed in relation to one another and to a larger whole. Looking at the urban
land through such a frame, suggests that the land is not just a geographical
bound legally titled space. Rather it is geographically located but also tied
into the various socio-economic, cultural, religious relations, which are
constantly interacting. A comparative study would at given time probably
provide a cross-sectional view of these relations. Thus extrapolating such
methods, as Grimshaw (1973: 3) said, the task of comparative studies is ‘to
distinguish between those regularities in social behavior that are
system-specific and those are that are universal’ is an issue. The comparison
tends to create an interface (Watson,2008) which could become one of generalization
of the deep difference and thus tend to reach consensus.

Another point of concern while using
this method is the possibility of misinterpretation of the urban scale.
According to Ward, (2010) scale has to be understood as a dynamically evolving,
as ‘a container, arena, scaffolding and hierarchy of socio-spatial practices’
(Brenner, 2001: 529). Geographical scales are socially constructed  (Smith, 1993; Jonas, 1994; Swyngedouw, 1997;
Collinge, 1999; Peck, 2002). ‘Scales’ are the product of social relations,
actions and institutions. Thereby a parcel of urban land would be located on
map of a city but it is constantly negotiating its place within the wider
global networks. The scale of that parcel is not just its bounded territory but
also the flows of interactions that the land undergoes. Comparative urban
studies seem to pose an issue to understand the geographies of the space and
territory. An example to elucidate this problem would be a land which is an
urban common, its spatiality and thus planning of it seems to with local scale
but on the other hand, the negative externalities might make the land contest
with regional and sometimes global scales. In a context of shrinking formal economies,
competition between people and households becomes intensified, promoting both
the need to draw on a wide range of networks (familial, religious, ethnic,
etc.) and continually to maneuver, negotiate and protect the spaces of
opportunity which have been created (Watson, (2008)Simone, 2000, 2004).

As Castells (1996), and before him Jane Jacobs
(1969), have made explicit, cities are best understood as processes (Derudder,
et al, 2012). Through these processes, there has been little evidence of work
that approaches the city as ‘both a place (a site or territory) and as a series
of unbounded, relatively disconnected and dispersed, perhaps sprawling activities,
made in and through many different kinds of networks stretching far beyond the
physical extent of the city’ (Robinson, 2005: 763). The ‘city’ that Robinsons
mentions could be synonymous with urban land, which when studied using comparative
methods without the context specificity of theories, questions the degree to
which they can be universalized (McFarlane, 2008a; 2008b). Robinson (2002;
2006) has maintained that there is a need to take forward postcolonial
critiques of urban theories, rather than a research that uses ‘a prefabricated set
of theoretical and methodological tools’ (Walton, 1975: 4).