In the modern world, knowledge comes in two different forms. First, there is the formal knowledge created in universities and associated institutions. It is here that research work is done that cumulatively adds to stocks of knowledge we call called disciplines. In addition there is a teaching function in this formal knowledge production that reproduces the disciplines through socializing young adults to become future cohorts of knowledge creators. This knowledge has essentially an oligarchic structure of ‘disciplining’ by peer review (i.e. certifying the created knowledge). Second, informal knowledge is practical knowledge, the sort that is required to make a living outside universities. In this case the disciplining is by the market: informal knowledge has to be useful so that it can be deployed to make money. I realize these two knowledges overlap in many instances (e.g. in corporate research and development departments, in the professions, in defence department laboratories, etc.), but I will keep them separate for the purposes of this essay. Here I will tell a story about an intersection of these two knowledges with particular emphasis on their contrasting spatialities.
The spatial mobility of formal knowledge is facilitated by academic networks. This is concretely represented by researchers bringing new knowledge to seminars, workshops, and conferences, but the crucial network is the one that records the cumulative knowledge production: disciplinary journal articles, research monographs and academic books are the nodes where the spatial mobility of knowledge is represented by the citations. In contrast, informal knowledge has many more loci but one stands out as the exceptional place for knowledge production: cities. It is the hustle and bustle of cities – their inherent ‘busy-ness’ – that is the major testing ground for practical knowledge, which is why commercial knowledge constitutes ‘business’. If the knowledge works – you can make money from it – then the knowledge will be reproduced, modified and extended as necessary: vibrant cities are the best places for doing business. The spatial mobility of this informal knowledge flows within and between cities. This essay is about a specific case study of how the formal knowledge disciplines make sense of informal knowledge practices.
To explore this intersection I will focus on ‘origins’, on how cities came about in association with the beginnings of both agriculture and states. These social changes are the informal knowledge productions I consider. The formal knowledges then follow: archaeology is the discipline that specialises in the study of such origins; social science is about social change, and since these three origins constitute epochal changes they are of direct relevance to social science understanding. The hypothesis is that by shining the spotlight on these critical origins some basic contradictions on knowledge production in cities and disciplines will be revealed.
The argument proceeds in a rather distinctive way. There will be two introductions, one for each type of knowledge. And then there will be two indictments, for social science and for archaeology. In all of this I will be taking a very ‘city-centric’ position and this comes to the fore in the substantive section where I bring cities back in to understand both the creation of states and the development of agriculture. My conclusion is that understanding origins is a limiting case of Wallerstein’s (2004) uncertainty of knowledge thesis.
The Times and Spaces of Formal Social Knowledges
The formal knowledge we have today is ultimately derived from the nineteenth century reorganization of German-speaking universities to emphasis the research function and thereby privilege specialization. It is from the university chairs established to organise the new intensive research work that modern disciplines have evolved. Of the four original faculties - theology, law, medicine and philosophy – it was in the latter two that research specialization occurred, and especially in philosophy (the highest research degree is still a PhD) (Ben-David and Zloczower 1962). One key feature of this process was a bifurcation into ‘sciences’ and ‘arts’ that commonly resulted in division into two separate faculties housing very different disciplines (lower research degrees are still called MSc or MA). The differences existed in both research subject matter (non-human/human) and research practices (nomothetic/idiographic). It was the immense dominance of Germany in science formal knowledge in the second half of the nineteenth century (Taylor et al. 2008) that stimulated emulation in many other countries to create the modern university.
The social sciences began to emerge in the late nineteenth century as a sort of ‘in-between’ research category combining the research subject matter of the ‘arts’ with the research methods of the sciences. This process was largely consolidated in US universities in the first half of the twentieth century to create a tripartite division for studying social change, the new disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology (Wallerstein et al 1996). By about 1950, it was commonplace for there to be this disciplinary ‘trinity’ to be established as departments in most universities. This three-way knowledge split broadly followed the reform movements that dominated late nineteenth century politics: the goals of these movements were articulated as demands for economic reforms, political reforms, and social reforms. Thus there came about a general view of human behaviour being divided into economic, political and social activities taking place in the economy, the state, and (civil) society as separate institutional worlds. The new social disciplines reflected this view and set about devising separate research agendas along these lines.
There are three key points that arise from this construction of social science (Wallerstein et al 1996).
Note that geography does not feature in this formal knowledge development; straddling the science/arts boundary and initially eschewing specialization (favouring synthesis over analysis), it is an odd-ball survivor only adapting to social science as ‘human geography’ in the second half of the twentieth century with the victory of systematic geographies (specialist sub-disciplines) over regional geography (the art of synthesis). I make this point to reveal my personal intellectual positionality as a geographer: I am a social scientist outsider.
This neat formal knowledge arrangement began to change in the second half of the twentieth century (Wallerstein et al. 1996). Most importantly the world changed with decolonization and ‘development’ (a property of states) replaced ‘progress’ (a property of modern civilization only) so that the whole world was opened up to social science study with new research agendas on economic development, political development, and modernization. In addition disciplinary boundaries became increasingly porous resulting in new research areas, such as cultural studies, area studies, and feminist studies, refusing to be contained by the old disciplines. Even more important these ‘studies’ have undermined, or really sidestepped, the simple nomothetic/ideographic distinction so that, especially through cultural studies, the methodological wall between the trinity and the humanities (‘arts’) has crumbled. Thus in the early twenty first century the formal knowledge organization in the social sciences/humanities is quite complex. Old disciplines remain institutionally powerful within universities as departments (awarding PhDs) and with their traditional prestigious research journals; while at the same time there is a plethora of new interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary) journals with their own networks of researchers and conferences.
Informal Knowledges In, Through, and Out of Cities
Informal knowledge is constituted by the everyday constructs and information we use to live our lives. I focus on the informal knowledge that is necessary for making a living. Such knowledge depends on quality and quantity of contacts and intensity of communications with those contacts. In this situation one particular class of settlements, cities, has been found to be exceptionally important. We can go as far as to say that there is a qualitative difference between city life and life elsewhere in terms of the nature and salience of knowledge for work. This idea of cities as special knowledge-rich milieus is to be found in a wide range of studies.
Recent resurgences in urban economics and economic geography have focused on the advantages of cities for economic development. Two main processes have been postulated. First localization refers to the knowledge-related benefits of firms from the same industry clustered together. This relates to industry specific opportunities thus stimulating creativity and innovation. In particular tacit knowledge within an industry is said to require immersion in localised industrial culture. This is important in both product development and skilled labour availability. Classic historical examples are the New York advertising cluster in Madison Avenue and the London newspaper cluster in Fleet Street. In these cases cost cutting opportunities elsewhere eventually made the two clusters uneconomic but they had by then provided ‘untraded’ advantages to their cluster of firms for several generations. And after the cluster break up proximity remained important as clustering re-emerged in new locations.
Second, there are agglomeration effects of multiple firms from a wide range of industries co-locating in a city or region. There are collective advantages in terms of infrastructure and other common services. But a key advantage is to be near to clients. For instance, in Sassen’s (2001) classic work, the global city is simultaneously the main producer of advanced business services and the main market for such services. And in such work, close and regular contact with clients is found to be necessary, especially face-to-face meetings. Agglomeration also constitutes an ‘ecology of skills’ that facilitates project work involving producers from different specialities combining to create unique products for particular clients. This is specifically important for user-led innovation where observation and interaction in cities are indispensable. In an empirical test for the efficacy of clusters and agglomeration Glaeser et al. (1992) found the latter to be more associated with economic growth.
The above advantages are place or territorial (internal) assets and it is now widely recognised that they are complemented by network (external) assets. As Sassen (2001) recognises, cities are ‘strategic places’ within myriad flows of materials, people and information. Contemporary cities in globalization have been modelled as a world city network generated through knowledge-based work: professional, financial and creative servicing of global capital (Taylor 2004). Intensity of integration into this network (city connectivity) is a measure of a city’s global external assets through globalization. This has been conceptualised in several ways, such as global pipelines (Bathelt et al. 2004) and global communities of practice (Amin and Thrift 1992).
Outside this specifically economic consideration of contemporary cities and their networks, there are other studies that emphasize the generic importance of cities across history. For example, the world city network model has been interpreted generically as ‘central flow theory’, a general description of cities in networks. The key substantive examples are Hall (1998) with his description of leading cities as centres of creativity, Soja’s (2000, 2010) concepts of synekism and regionality of cityspace in urban revolutions, McNeill and McNeill (2003) with their references to cities in the ‘human web’ of world history, Algaze’s (2005a and b) work on internal and external relations in Sumerian cities, and LaBianca and Scham’s (2006) applications of Castells’ (1996) space of flows to ‘antiquity’. These are all discursive harnessings of evidence to support the critical importance of informal knowledge production in and through cities for historical social change.
All institutions are created at some point in time to satisfy a need. Subsequently needs change and relevance of an institution is naturally eroded. As noted previously today’s disciplines are about a century old and they still retain many vestiges of their creation. In fact by the twenty first century they appear not to have worn particularly well (Wallerstein 1991). Here I indict social science (in general) and archaeology.
Of Mainstream Social Science
As previously shown, contemporary social science consists of a mixture of old disciplines and various new ‘studies’. The latter can seem to be opportunist, perhaps transient, compared to the ‘deep knowledge’ of the disciplines. Thus researchers in the studies sector are commonly ‘certified’ by their PhD in one of disciplines and there is always a tendency to revert to trinity thinking as in politico-cultural studies, economic area studies and feminist sociology. In other words, social science is currently strewn with ambiguities. These are reflected in Wallerstein’s (2004, 169-70) prognosis. On the one hand he argues that
‘… the social construction of the disciplines as intellectual arenas that was made in the nineteenth century has outlived its usefulness and is today a major obstacle to serious intellectual work.’
But at the same time he suggests that
‘… there is richness in each of the disciplinary cultures that should be harvested, stripped of its chaff, and combined (or at least used) in a reconstruction of the social sciences.’
Of course, the debate will be about identifying the ‘chaff’! In his contribution to this reconstruction, world-systems analysis, he transcends states and I agree this to be an essential stripping.
Cities have not been well served by the trinity and not just because the nationalization of social knowledge downgraded them to, literally, a bit part in the overall scheme of things. With the focus on the scale of the state, the exceptional nature of cities in relation to enhanced knowledge potentials has been severely neglected. In Wallerstein’s stripping off the state-centric chaff he moves focus from national economies to world-economy; I will follow Jacobs (1969, 1984) and move from national economies to city economies. I highlighted profound economic contributions being made at this scale above but it is still the case that urban economics (or regional economics or spatial economics) remains a Cinderella area of study in the discipline of economics, where status remains wedded to national econometric models. Geography has been the other discipline contributing to the rediscovery of the importance of cities described previously. But the main legacy of research here has been in studying cities in hierarchies within countries modelled as national urban systems. In this approach the world consists of c. 200 (the number of countries varies with world political processes) national urban systems (i.e. one per country). This is mosaic social science at its very worse. Cities abhor boundaries: their raison d’être is being strategically connected within complex spaces of flows, which is antithetical to being neatly ordered within state territories.
The ridiculousness of this formal knowledge can be easily illustrated using the examples of London and New York, both interpreted as being top of the hierarchy in their respective national urban systems. At first glance this seems obvious but in fact it grossly under-estimates the importance of both cities. Both of these great cities have long been leading ports in the world-economy but this very tangible property could be kept from social science formal knowledge because trade through ‘trade theory’ was nationalized, it was a property of states not cities. Thus this major city function was largely ignored in national urban systems analyses, seemingly unaware that New York cannot be understood as just part of the USA, and London cannot be understood as just part of the UK. Perhaps because of such limitations, national urban systems research largely disappeared in the 1980s and was replaced by research on studies of cities in globalization, originally conceived hierarchically, following the mosaic habit, but latterly seen as world city network (Taylor 2004; 2009). It might have been thought that the coming of globalization would have advanced the importance of cities in social science. Certainly an impressive world/global city literature has emerged (Brenner and Keil 2005) that locates cities as critical to globalization processes. However, the study of cities sits uncomfortably in ‘Reader’ compilations from the globalization literature where cities are either largely neglected or conspicuous by their absence. This is because the trinity has survived the huge social changes wrought by globalization, as reflected by labels economic globalization, political globalization and social (or cultural) globalization. This is not surprising when the key text, Held et al ‘s (1999) Global Transformation, is actually about ‘state transformation’ in economic, political and social realms of activity (Taylor 2000).
Research on cities in social science has come to be labelled urban studies (which aspires to combine urban economics, urban political science, urban sociology plus urban geography and urban history); that is to say, it is one of the many ‘studies’ that have grown to facilitate subject matter that transcends trinity divisions as indicated earlier. There is an excellent ‘Reader’ representing this literature (LeGates and Stout 2000) but one part of its composition reveals the extant shallowness of this example of a ‘studies’. When it comes to including chapters on the origins of cities there is actually just one paper, a classic written in 1950 by Gordon Childe who appears in archaeological textbooks as a ‘founding father’, one of Renfrew and Bahn’s (2008, 36) early ‘searchers’. Presumably this means that the compilers of the urban studies reader cannot find a later, social science, contribution to question of city origins. What an indictment of social science as ‘neglector of cities’. But using such an old archaeology paper is also strange, does this reflect the editors’ lack of knowledge of more recent archaeology or are cities similarly neglected in this discipline?
Of Mainstream Archaeology
Archaeology is the discipline we might expect to go to for research on the origins of cities. Childe’s (1950; Smith 2009) classic paper located the first cities in fourth millennium BC Mesopotamia and this remains the consensus within the discipline. There have been other suggestions, as I will relate later in this essay, but these have been largely dismissed as not providing credible evidence for the existence of earlier cities. But, more importantly, this question has been of peripheral concern in archaeological research. For instance, in the latest edition of the best-selling introductory textbook on archaeology (Renfrew and Bahn 2008) there is no discussion at all about city origins. Why might this be?
In my introductory discussion of social science above there was no mention of archaeology. The discipline’s obvious locale would be as a ‘time discipline’ alongside history with ‘ancient history’. However its formal location in universities it is mostly with anthropology. This makes some sense to the degree that anthropology treats hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies and such societies dominate the prehistory that archaeology investigates. This is to locate archaeology in the outer reaches of comparative anthropology with an inevitable neglect of concern for cities. Thus in their text of over 600 pages, Renfrew and Bahn’s (2008) index includes no reference for ‘city’ or ‘cities’.
Whereas national spatiality has dominated social science scholarship, in archaeology it is evolutionary temporality that features strongly in this scholarship. Evolution theory, deriving from nineteenth century obsession with progress, survives more in archaeology that elsewhere in social science: Darwin has his own ‘Box Feature’ in Refrew and Bahn (2008, 27) entitled “Evolution: Darwin’s Great Idea”. Basically, evolution has been used to understand increasing complexity of society but without any recognition of the exceptional complexity of cities.
Recently, some archaeologists have provided very strong critiques of traditional
‘What neo-evolutionalism never was was a theory of social change. Rather, it was a theory of classification, of identification of ideal types in the material record. … In a vague sort of way, mainly by talking about different adaptations as if they were somehow like genetic differences, neo-evolutionists drew on the prestige of Darwin’s theory and often proclaimed they had created a new science of social evolution. However, neo-evolutionists could not explain change other than in holistic terms and were content to identify as evolutionary mechanisms … climatic change or/and population growth.’(pp. 31-2)
For Gamble (2007, 23) ‘change takes the form of future-creep’ so that
‘differences are expected to happen eventually and can be explained simply by the passage of enough time, a commodity with which human prehistory is abundantly blessed.’
For both scholars there is not enough emphasis on process: who are the agents and why do their activities generate social change? Such questions lead to social science.
It is very relevant that the archaeologists I have drawn to critique city-state and evolution – Gamble, Smith and Yoffee – are familiar with social science literature (including rediscovery of cities) and bring these disciplines into their own work. But they are not necessarily very typical. Renfrew and Bahn (2008, 12-3) introduce archaeology by relating it to other disciplines: they identify only three: anthropology, history, and science (for techniques). There is no specified relation to social science and this is reflected in subsequent substantive chapters: chapter 5 “How were societies organized: social archaeology” makes no reference to sociology literature, and chapter 9 “What contact did they have: trade and exchange” makes no reference to economics literature. Thus the neglect of cities is part of a broader distain for social science; but it is particularly problematic for understanding cities. Unfortunately the archaeologists I have identified above as knowing recent cities literature do not contribute to the question of city origins. Strangely, Renfrew and Bahn (2008, 46-7) do have a two-page ‘Box Feature’ on Çatalhöyük, the key settlement in the city origins debate, but they use it to illustrate changing approaches to archaeology, with no mention of the controversies over interpreting the urban nature of the settlement. There can be no clearer example of denial of the city origins question in contemporary archaeology.
Debates generated by bringing cities back in
Although both social science and archaeology have early classic studies of cities, my two indictments show that both have developed traditional structures of knowledge which have under-estimated the importance of cities for understanding social change. But I have also shown that cities will out; there is development of a city-centric social science and this is being introduced into archaeology and interpretation of ancient history: the most explicit example is the work of Algaze (2005a and 2005b). In this substantive section I deploy the city-centric social science to challenge existing ideas on first, the relation between cities and states and second, the relation between cities and agriculture. In both cases I will argue that cities came first.
Unlike studies of contemporary cities, for historical cities it is not possible, of course, to directly study the processes that make cities so exceptional. With very early cities, agency in particular is a problem: we do not know the agents - merchants, priests, soldiers, textile producers, scribes – we only know of their presence from the artefacts they have left for us to discover. Thus we have to research the potency of a city through its knowledge-rich internal and external assets in an indirect way. Fortunately there is a relevant variable, population size, for which there are general estimates that will serve as a surrogate for cities as potential creative centres. I call this the communication model of city-ness because population size is a measure of potential communication capacity (Taylor 2010). This is a network measure derived for internal links first and then doubled to account for equally important external links. From such analyses we find that Çatalhöyük, a possible early city, has a potential communication capacity much more than a thousand times that of a hunter-gatherer band, whereas First Dynasty Uruk, the first ‘great city’, had a capacity of more than half a million times said band. These quantitative results indicate the huge qualitative social difference that cities create and constitute the prime reason for city-centric study in archaeology. This generates two related debates.
Cities and the Creation of States
The first debate is about two processes being conflated into one. I reported above to there being no index references for cities in Renfrew and Bahn’s (2008) textbook; however, there are nine references to ‘city states’. It would seem understanding early cities is subsumed into the study of early states (Charlton and Nichols 1997). But city-making and state-making are two different processes each requiring their own process analysis. This position is held by some social scientists (e.g. Soja (2010, 364) and by a few archaeologists familiar with social science writings on cities. Monica Smith (2003) is a good example of the latter group: she is explicit on the importance of recognizing that ‘cities do not require a state level of authority to exist and thrive’ (p. 12). Therefore:
‘it is.. time for the understanding of cities to be uncoupled from the necessary presence of states. By breaking this pairing of cities and states, we allow cities to be understood on their own terms as centers of political, economic, and social organization that may be considerably more complex than the territories and regions in which they are located.’ p. 13)
She traces this conflation back to Childe (1950, 12) who created a framework in which ‘theorizing about urbanism has often really been about states rather than cities’. This key point had been made much earlier by Price (1978, 175):
‘The relation between urbanism and the state, however, has been the cause of profound confusion for a variety of reasons, both scholarly and ideological. Childe’s Mesopotamian data combined urbanism and the state in a single sequence and permitted the uncritical evaluation of this particular association’
Smith (2003) indicts Robert McAdams, the great chronicler of Mesopotamian urbanism; she points out that, paradoxically, in his classic The Evolution of Urban Society (Adams 1966) he states that, despite the book’s title, his ‘central concern is the growth of the state’ (p. 90; quoted in Smith (2003, 12)). Conversely Smith argues that ‘cities in the premodern world did not require a state level of organization’ (p. 15). But this important point seems not to have (yet?) percolated into the archaeological mainstream as represented by Renfrew and Bahn (2008).
Traditionally, states have been interpreted as the outcome of increasingly complex governance processes, consequent upon class formation and widening material inequalities. This model is stripped bare to its essentials in Figure 1(a) as a sequence of governance ‘types’ representing evolutionary stages as criticized by Yoffee (2005 – see above). Enhanced complexity is represented spatially by central place hierarchies with 3 settlement tiers indicating the key ‘complex chiefdoms’ that generate states in civilizations (in which the number of tiers increases to 4). An alternative model is shown in Table 1(b) based upon Jacobs (1969) and Soja (2000). The starting point is settlements in a trading network that morphs into a city network via the Jacobs process of import replacement. The more successful this network becomes, the more cosmopolitan are the cities. It is this unprecedented social complexity with consequent inter-group conflicts that generates a demand for new stronger governance structures. This is best illustrated in Childe’s original case study: his ‘urban revolution’ in early Mesopotamia. Here we find two important sequences. First, accountancy – the language of commerce – is invented before writing – the language of state bureaucracy (Nissen et al. 1993). Second, in the new literature, there are myths –collective stories – that describe times before the era of epics, heroic tales of individuals who become ‘kings’ (i.e. they centralize governance into states). This relates to a change from transient governance in the form of a league of cities towards a region of city-states in military competition (Jacobsen 1970). The change is marked by huge labour investments in city walls. Thus are city networks converted into competitive city-states. In Mesopotamia this transition took about 700 years.
Figure 1: Alternative Origins of States
The vast majority of archaeologists continue to support narratives related to Figure 1 (a), whereas the alternative narrative based upon Figure 1 (b) is much more pleasing to social scientists (including archaeologists who identify as social scientists). It all comes down to whether you think chiefdoms can become complex enough to invent states; I think not. Social complexity in and through cities occurs at a whole new level; surely this is what is needed to generate such an important invention as states.
Cities and the Development of Agriculture
The second debate is about one process being divided into two. These are Childe’s (1944) ancient historical framework of ‘two revolutions’ seemingly several millennia apart. First there is the ‘agricultural revolution’ that ushers in the Neolithic followed, second, by the ‘urban revolution’ ushering in the Bronze Age. Since this temporarity was created, new evidence for origins of agriculture has pushed back the first revolution by several millennia while the second revolution has proven to be much more temporally stable in mainstream thinking; hence the widening gap between them. Despite this divergence there is a social science intervention here that subsumes the development of agriculture into the process of city invention.
Here I develop the controversial idea of Jacobs (1969) on agriculture being invented in cities. I know of no archaeologist who supports her thesis. Her argument involves pushing back the timing of when cities were invented. She focuses upon Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia where a settlement of between 4,000 and 10,000 people has been excavated to show a complex division of labour. The problem for archaeologists is that it appears about 4000 years before the rise of cities in Mesopotamia. Their reaction has been to dismiss it as a city, their preferred label is ‘large village’ to emphasize its rurality. But Çatalhöyük is not alone as a relatively large settlement existing before Mesopotamian cities. Soja (2000) has augmented Jacobs’ interpretation by showing a large network of such settlements at this time within the Fertile Crescent, birthplace of agriculture.
Figure 2(a) shows the traditional interpretation of the rise of cities: a simple sequencing of settlements by size culminating in cities. In this argument the latter first occur in Mesopotamia because improvements in agriculture (irrigation) increased production thereby generating a food surplus, large enough to feed cities. But this is a naive supply model; why should farmers work harder to generate large surpluses and create cities? Surely increased production potential is an opportunity for more leisure time? The alternative model is shown in Figure 2(b) in which it is existing cities that provide a demand for more food. For Jacobs (1969) this is a classic case of import replacement. Hunter/gatherer/traders were exchanging food products within new trade networks but found it hard to keep up supply as city networks emerged. In this situation people in cities invented agriculture to replace and enhance the hunter/gatherer/trader food supply. Thus hinterlands were created around cities in which to produce food. As cities grew larger more food technologies were invented including irrigation in Mesopotamia, which fed new large cities such as Uruk.
Figure 2: Two Settlement Development Sequencies
This is more like a stand-off than a debate with the minority position again based upon the qualitative social difference that cities make.
Conclusion: the limiting case of uncertainty of knowledge
Wallerstein (2004) has argued that there is an inherent uncertainty of knowledge due to the positionality of researchers/practitioners interacting with ever-changing subject-matters. Archaeological knowledge, especially on origins ‘lost in the mist of time’, is a limiting case of this uncertainty because empirical evidence derives from serendipity, immensely low probabilities of survival and discovery. Strong opinions are therefore based upon either entrenched paradigmatic thinking (my take on archaeology’s reluctance to shake off nineteenth century thinking) or plausible process theory that makes sense of what little evidence we have. It is on this basis that I think hunter/gatherer/traders created city networks and thereby released knowledge potentials for the invention of such epoch making institutions as agriculture and states.
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