GaWC Research Bulletin 49

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Urban Affairs Review, 37 (1), (2001), 124-147.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


World City Theory, Globalization and the Comparative-Historical Method: Reflections on Janet Abu-Lughod's Interpretation of Contemporary Urban Restructuring

N. Brenner*


Janet Abu-Lughod's most recent book, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America's Global Cities (1999) represents an impressive accomplishment. Framed with reference to contemporary debates on globalization and world cities, the book articulates a powerful appeal for a more historically nuanced perspective on contemporary forms of urban restructuring. Whereas scholars such as Anthony King (1991a, 1991b) have articulated analogous criticisms of the 'presentism' which continues to pervade contemporary urban studies, Abu-Lughod is among the first urbanists to attempt systematically to explore the full methodological and empirical ramifications of a genuinely historical perspective for the interpretation of urban change in the present period. In a phrase, Abu-Lughod argues insistently throughout the book that 'history matters'. Her analysis is framed around the contention that contemporary discussions of world cities, postfordism and globalization have radically exaggerated the historical uniqueness of contemporary urban transformations, which can be understood more adequately, she argues, in the context of many centuries of interaction between world-scale economic processes and changing localized economic, social and political conditions. Thus, as Abu-Lughod persuasively demonstrates in this book, it is only through a sustained account of the longue durée historical legacy of global forces within major metropolitan regions that we can begin adequately to decipher the complex, contested transformations which have unfolded in cities in the US and beyond during the last three decades.

Abu-Lughod pursues these goals through a detailed investigation of the evolutionary trajectories of specific urban places during a very long time-span. Abu-Lughod's massive study synthesizes an immense amount of historical material on New York, Chicago and Los Angeles-including archival materials, historical maps, diverse secondary sources and scholarly analyses-into a tightly argued, lucidly written and richly descriptive account of the five distinct 'cycles' of urban development that have underpinned the history of urban development in the USA. Abu-Lughod's historical lens is extraordinarily broad, but her text is impressively coherent, eloquent and reader-friendly. The analysis is configured along three broad axes:

  1. Time-scale. Five general 'cycles' of urban development are delineated, each of which is said to reflect world-scale economic processes, the evolution of the US national urban system as well as localized shifts within the built environment of each city. The five cycles are: (i) the era of mercantile capitalism from the colonial founding in 1607 until around 1820; (ii) the era of early industrialization and canal building from the 1820s until the depressed decade of the 1870s; (iii) the era of high industrialization, large-scale corporations and a second wave of mass international migration from the 1870s until the mid-1920s; (iv) the era of Fordist growth and expanded military spending from the stock market crash of 1929 until the early 1970s; and (v) the current period of global-local restructuring which began following the global recession of the 1970s and continues through the present day. As Abu-Lughod indicates, world-scale Kondratieff cycles have generated powerful reverberations not only upon the US national economy but also upon patterns of urban development within each of the major metropolitan regions under investigation in her study. Her analysis also indicates how each city acquired the preconditions for 'world city status' at different historical moments-New York during the second cycle; Chicago during the third cycle; and Los Angeles during the fourth cycle.
  2. Spatial scale. Although the analysis of each of these phases is focused, most essentially, upon transformations at the local scale (which itself quickly expanded onto the regional or metropolitan scale as each city's population grew), Abu-Lughod expertly weaves accounts of shifts at other scales-especially the national and the global-into her historical analysis of each city. Thus the national context figures into her story both as a broader field of inter-urban relations and evolving transportation infrastructures, and as a supralocal political context which frequently imposes significant constraints upon local institutional trajectories. Analogously, as already indicated, the global context frames the entire discussion insofar as each city is positioned not only in the evolving US urban system but also in relation to changing formations of the capitalist world system, from the period of colonial mercantilism through the global depressions of the 1870s and 1929 up through the most recent round of crisis-induced restructuring of the 1970s. One of the key methodological accomplishments of the book is this analytical 'layering' of urban and supraurban processes within a single historical-analytical frame.
  3. Substantive social processes. Finally, within these overarching spatio-temporal parameters, Abu-Lughod's study elaborates a systematic comparative historical analysis of urban developmental trajectories in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Abu-Lughod is well-known for her pioneering comparative-historical work on North African and Middle Eastern cities; her analysis of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles deploys a closely analogous methodology in order to explore the very different economic, social and geographical trajectories of each of these cities during the history of US capitalism. In particular, Abu-Lughod focuses her study upon eight forms of variation among the three cities: (i) their changing structural positions in the world economy; (ii) the perpetual transformation of their physical sites through human activities; (iii) the impact of their original economic functions, political sponsorships and cultural patterns; (iv) the 'cohort moment' at which each city experienced its most dramatic physical expansion; (v) the transport technologies that molded each city's built environment during its 'cohort moment'; (vi) the rates, sources and composition of demographic change over time; (vii) the changing social and technological organization of production and communication within each city; and (viii) the evolution of class relations, political institutions and political cultures within each city. As reference to these multifaceted issues reveals, Abu-Lughod's study of urban development in each city is ambitiously synthetic and wide-ranging. Her analysis of each phase of development within the three cities explores a remarkably broad constellation of technological, infrastructural, social, political, economic and geographical transformations, from the initial socio-geographical conditions within which each city was first established to its subsequent evolution, expansion and continual transformation through diverse economic, demographic and political influences. As Abu-Lughod's narrative unfolds, she continually contextualizes her analysis of each city through comparative references to the shifts which were unfolding during the same period within the other two cities.

By framing her study within these overarching parameters and exploring each city's evolving historical geographies in painstaking detail, Abu-Lughod provides an expert demonstration of what a rigorously executed comparative-historical urban analysis can accomplish. While recognizing the degree to which New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have long been embedded within a common global and national political-economic context, Abu-Lughod's primary concern is to unearth the specific conditions, processes and forces that have underpinned their very different developmental trajectories during the last two centuries.

Abu-Lughod's New York, Chicago and Los Angeles is not only an example of methodologically sophisticated historical analysis; it is also a powerful work of political criticism. In unfolding her epic tale of urban growth, decline and continual sociospatial restructuring, Abu-Lughod combines the relatively detached methods of social-scientific and historical analysis with the impassioned commitment of a political critic concerned to unveil the underlying power relations, the persistent inequalities and the diverse forms of sociopolitical conflict and everyday violence that have long permeated the capitalist urban fabric. Accordingly, even while attending carefully to the broader methodological and comparative issues around which her study is framed, Abu-Lughod's book is also animated by a persistent effort to decipher the manifold social struggles and conflicts that have underpinned the long-run historical geographies of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The book thus provides an extraordinarily useful resource for researchers interested in nearly any aspect of historical or contemporary urban development within the three cities under investigation and, more generally, in the US urban system as a whole. It is this layering together of multiple arguments and narratives that speak simultaneously to divergent readerships which makes Abu-Lughod's most recent book such a remarkable achievement.

In the space available for this commentary, I cannot to attempt to summarize, much less to evaluate critically, the intricate details of Abu-Lughod's nuanced analysis of each city. Instead, my goal here is to reflect upon some of the implications of Abu-Lughod's longue durée comparative-historical methodology for her interpretation of urban restructuring in the current period. Although, as already indicated above, many overlapping methodological and explanatory agendas underpin Abu-Lughod's wide-ranging analysis, she states explicitly at the end of the introductory chapter that "explaining the developments during this most recent cycle of urban development constitutes the ultimate goal of this book" (16). Hence, even though her discussion of the present period occupies only about one third of the full text, it seems justified to devote particularly close attention to Abu-Lughod's interpretation of the 'fifth cycle' of urban development in each city. It is here, one would expect, that the analytical and empirical 'payoffs' of her longue durée methodological strategy should be most evident.

As I shall indicate below, while Abu-Lughod's mobilization of a comparative-historical methodological strategy generates a number of significant new insights about contemporary urban change, it also contains a number of theoretical ambiguities and tensions that deserve closer critical scrutiny. To this end, I shall critically evaluate Abu-Lughod's methodological approach in two interlinked steps-first, by examining the ways in which her historical perspective influences her interpretation of contemporary urban change; and second, by examining the ways in which her comparative approach influences this interpretation.


According to Abu-Lughod, an historical perspective is required in order to decipher contemporary urban dynamics. However, a careful reading of Abu-Lughod's longue durée historical analysis reveals a number of quite distinct interpretive claims regarding the putative impacts of global forces upon contemporary world cities. On my reading, three divergent and only partially compatible arguments regarding globalization and contemporary urban restructuring emerge during the course of her study.

1) The long 1970s as an interpretive parameter for global city formation. First, as noted, Abu-Lughod mobilizes an historical perspective in order to critique 'presentist' analyses of world city formation which suggest that national rather than global forces have until recently played the predominant role in molding urban development. Against such views, Abu-Lughod attempts to demonstrate the fundamental ways in which world-systemic trends have shaped the longue durée history of US urban development; hence claims that world cities represent a radically new formation of urban development do not stand up to the historical record. This argument is foregrounded throughout Abu-Lughod's introductory chapter; it is also reiterated consistently in her examination of urban development in each of the cities under investigation up through the late 1960s. In each case, Abu-Lughod weaves a discussion of changing world-scale economic trends (particularly of economic upswings and 'crashes') into her analysis of events 'on the ground'. Notably, this aspect of Abu-Lughod's book is directly analogous in methodology and intent to another major recent contribution to historical geopolitical economy, Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century (1996). Just as Arrighi's book attempts to contextualize the most recent, post-1980s round of world-scale financial expansion through a detailed excavation of over six centuries of capitalist development, so too does Abu-Lughod propose to decipher contemporary urban transformations by situating them within a broad, longue durée historical-geographical context. In Arrighi's work, the notion of the 'long 20th century' is intended less to describe a concrete historical period than to elucidate the geohistorical interpretive frame in terms of which late 20th century trends must be ultimately be grasped. Abu-Lughod appears to adopt an identical methodological strategy throughout much of her book. Indeed, her own excavation of the longue durée history of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles entails a systematic effort to unpack the meaning of what might be termed the 'long 1970s' in each city. In this context, Abu-Lughod's goal is to resituate standard interpretations of contemporary urban restructuring in the broad geohistorical context of earlier rounds of globally induced transformations within each city. Accordingly, the long 1970s-i.e. the long-run historical geography of capitalist urbanization in the USA-represents an essential interpretive backdrop to Abu-Lughod's analysis of urban restructuring during the post-1970s period.

2) The path-dependency of global city functions. Second, Abu-Lughod mobilizes this historical perspective in order to illuminate the locationally specific factors, processes and developments which caused each of the cities under investigation to acquire a distinct 'portfolio' of world city functions in the current era. This analytical strategy has a number of significant ramifications. On the one hand, it enables Abu-Lughod to show that many of the trends which are generally assumed to be unique to the contemporary global city-such as internationalized commercial transactions, major changes in the technologies of transportation and communication, the geographical decentralization of the manufacturing sector, the expansion of business services, class bifurcation and sociospatial polarization-have in fact played important roles since the mid-19th century in New York, since the early 20th century in Chicago and since the mid-20th century in Los Angeles. On the other hand, and somewhat more implicitly, Abu-Lughod explicates the contextually specific ways in which, following their initial consolidation, each city's global city functions were entrenched and reinforced, even during major historical transitions, due to the combined impacts of technological changes, demographic shifts, business strategies, institutional decisions, political conflicts and other local events. While this entrenchment of world city functions occurred at different times, in different patterns and via different pathways within each city, Abu-Lughod's study demonstrates how the specific roles which New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have acquired in the contemporary world economy are derived from a complex historical lineage. Consequently, even though Abu-Lughod does not explicitly deploy the term, her analysis provides a robust illustration of what many social scientists have described as a situation of 'path-dependency' (see Pierson 2000; Mahoney 2000; Goldstone 1998; North 1991) in which events occurring at an early point in historical time generate decisive causal consequences for developments occurring at subsequent moments within a long-term historical sequence. In this sense, Abu-Lughod's historical methodology serves to underscore the degree to which world city formation in contemporary US cities represents not only an outcome of the most recent round of crisis-induced capitalist restructuring but an historically mediated process whose causal preconditions are embedded within a much lengthier temporal sequence. Because the issue of path-dependency has major implications for conceptualizing the contextually specific social and spatial patterns in which world city formation is unfolding in the contemporary era, it also figures crucially, if mainly implicitly, in Abu-Lughod's comparative analysis of the three cities. I shall return to this issue more directly below.

3) The limits to contemporary globalization. Whereas the aforementioned interpretive strands predominate the first two thirds of Abu-Lughod's book, a third constellation of interpretive claims regarding the contemporary round of urban restructuring emerges during the final chapters, which are devoted to an analysis of this most recent period. As the preceding discussion indicates, the major rhetorical and analytical thrust of Abu-Lughod's account of the 'long 1970s' and the path-dependency of global city functions is to extend the causal importance of global economic forces well beyond the empirical parameters which have generally been presupposed within contemporary urban political economy. In contrast to such claims, however, the analysis elaborated in the final empirical chapters conveys a rather opposed interpretation of contemporary urban trends in which global forces are represented primarily as macrostructural background conditions rather than, as most world city theorists would argue, as substantively important causal parameters for local outcomes. Thus, even though Abu-Lughod frames her discussion with reference to diverse geoeconomic trends (for instance, the information revolution, the introduction of new transport technologies, deindustrialization and the recomposition of immigration flows), her account of post-1970s shifts in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles implies that the empirically demonstrable urban impacts of contemporary geoeconomic trends have been significantly exaggerated in the world cities literature. This argument is not stated explicitly in Abu-Lughod's introductory chapter, but it is conveyed in a number of intertwined ways during the course of her empirical analysis of contemporary urban change.

  • The process of globalization is mentioned only peripherally throughout most of Abu-Lughod's discussion of the 5th and most recent cycle of urban change in each city. The analysis is organized with reference to a multiplicity of social processes-such as the reconfiguration of urban form, demographic change, industrial reorganization, investment patterns, local state restructuring, political struggles and sociospatial polarization-which are portrayed as being relatively bounded within, and hence specific to, each metropolitan region. This type of detailed, context-sensitive excavation of what Castells (1996, 1989) has termed the 'space of places' is, of course, absolutely essential to any adequate understanding of historical and contemporary urbanism. However, until the book's concluding chapter, the bulk of Abu-Lughod's empirical discussion tends to bracket the globalized 'space of flows' in which each city is embedded, and thus to treat urban places as if they were locally bounded islands of social interaction. Consequently-even though she frames her analysis with reference to geoeconomic trends that suggest otherwise-Abu-Lughod's discussion of urban restructuring in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles frequently conveys the impression that global forces represent merely external background conditions to local developments and trends.
  • Throughout her analysis of the 5th cycle of urbanization, Abu-Lughod's references to the problematic of globalization consist mainly in repeated cautionary remarks warning against reductionist explanations of specific local developments-for instance, deindustrialization, class bifurcation or intensified sociospatial polarization-as direct causal outcomes of overarching global trends (293, 301, 320, 321-322, 325, 420-426). The implication here is that only some aspects of urban restructuring can be traced back to global forces, and that doing so entails confronting the daunting methodological challenge of disaggregating globally induced local outcomes from changes conditioned by other types of social forces (284, 406, 417).
  • Abu-Lughod suggests that world city functions have only relatively minimal spillover effects upon urban social, political and spatial outcomes. Abu-Lughod advances this contention most explicitly during her discussion of contemporary Chicago, whose inclusion into the ranks of the world cities is justified primarily with reference to its role in hosting the Mercantile Exchange of Chicago (MERC). As Abu-Lughod notes in that context, despite the centrality of the MERC to world-scale circuits of trade and finance, its operations exist mainly in the realm of 'cyberspace' and thus depend upon only a relatively tiny portion of the local labor force (327-328). Whereas this level of "disengagement" between concentrated world city functions and localized, place-specific economic conditions is not as extreme in New York and Los Angeles, Abu-Lughod suggests that an analogous situation may exist in those cities as well. In her conception, then, many of the effects of the contemporary round of globalization "flow through the increasingly disembodied cyberspace of information and high finance" rather than landing "directly on the physical ground that lies beneath their electronically flashing nodes and circuits" (406). Even if, as world cities researchers have emphasized, cities do provide an important spatial infrastructure for global economic transactions, Abu-Lughod suggests that this role may have relatively minimal ramifications for local socioeconomic developments and sociospatial transformations. In other words, whereas Abu-Lughod appears to agree with writers such as Castells, Sassen and Friedmann that cities play essential roles within the contemporary geographies of global capitalism, her analysis suggests, contra those authors, that global capitalism may not be a particularly helpful reference point for explaining developments 'on the ground' within contemporary cities.
  • Abu-Lughod turns to the 'space of flows' in the concluding chapter of her study. Here she usefully surveys various ways in which each of the cities under investigation is embedded within various sorts of global flows-for instance, in shipping and transportation networks, circuits of foreign direct investment, real estate markets, producer and financial services and other international markets, and immigration flows. In this context, Abu-Lughod's key goal is to emphasize that the local consequences of these global flows have been extraordinarily variegated within each of the cities under study. She thus invokes the differentiation of local responses and conditions as evidence against the view that "everything or even most things that take place within these urbanized regions are attributable, either directly or indirectly, to the current processes of world system restructuring" (417). 

As this very general overview of Abu-Lughod's multifaceted argument reveals, her critique of world city theory evolves considerably during the course of her analysis. Whereas the bulk of the book is intended to correct the methodological 'presentism' that has blinded many world city researchers to the longue durée historical lineages of contemporary urban transformations, the latter third of the text articulates a different line of critique by questioning the degree to which contemporary local restructuring tendencies can be traced, through any meaningful line of causation, to global forces and processes. In this manner, Abu-Lughod's world-systemic arguments of the initial two thirds of the book are subtly but noticeably displaced by a number of implicit and explicit claims that more closely resemble those of the 'limits to globalization' school of contemporary political economy (see, for example, Gordon 1988; Hirst & Thompson 1995; Wade 1996) which views the contemporary 'hype' about globalization with considerable skepticism. Abu-Lughod's analysis in the final chapters of the book thus combines important elements of a 'globalization skepticism', which questions the causal scope of global forces in the current period, with an emphasis upon the methodological difficulty of 'disaggregating' the distinctive effects of such forces upon local outcomes. While accepting the basic claim of world cities researchers that cities provide a key spatial infrastructure for global economic transactions in the current period, Abu-Lughod is considerably more skeptical regarding the efforts of urban scholars to explain concrete local outcomes with reference to such geoeconomic trends.

How, then, to understand this apparent oscillation of Abu-Lughod's analysis between a world-systems perspective, an emphasis on the path-dependency of historical urban change, and a 'limits to globalization' argument? As indicated previously, I consider Abu-Lughod's historical conceptualization of the 'long 1970s' and her analysis of path-dependency to be quite seminal contributions to our understanding of urban restructuring in the contemporary period. Abu-Lughod's empirical description of the 5th cycle of urban restructuring in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles likewise represents an important accomplishment insofar as it expertly synthesizes a massive literature on each of these cities into a concise narrative and analysis. I would argue, however, that certain methodological limitations underpin Abu-Lughod's theoretical interpretation of the post-1970s period.

A first issue concerns Abu-Lughod's representation of contemporary research on world cities. In a book which is otherwise very generous in underscoring the accomplishments of world cities researchers, Abu-Lughod's criticisms of world city theory in her analysis of the post-1970s period generally rest upon rather simplistic, generic characterizations, and occasionally even upon caricatures, rather than upon a detailed critical engagement with the arguments of specific researchers. For instance, Abu-Lughod is surely correct to criticize (a) the assertion that globalization explains all or most aspects of urban restructuring in contemporary world cities (417) and (b) the claim that an identical pattern of class bifurcation and sociospatial polarization will underpin all or most world cities (293, 420-6). It is questionable, however, whether any of the major world cities researchers mentioned in Abu-Lughod's discussion-such as Sassen (1991) and Friedmann and Wolff (1982)-ever endorsed such totalizing, reductionist claims. To be sure, Abu-Lughod's juxtaposition of her own careful, empirically nuanced analysis of post-1970s urban restructuring against such arguments does serve to alert readers to the methodological dangers of engaging in a kind of 'global babble' in which global forces are invoked as catch-all explanations for anything and everything (see also Abu-Lughod 1991). Beyond this, however, it is not clear how the construction and critique of a 'straw person' version of world city theory helps to advance Abu-Lughod's own interpretation of contemporary developments. It is with considerable justification that Abu-Lughod presents her own analysis of urban restructuring in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as a contextually sensitive, historically grounded alternative to the more totalizing discourses on globalization which have been promulgated in recent years. Yet, once the most simplistic, reductionist and totalizing positions in the globalization debate have been set aside, the question of how to interpret and conceptualize the current round of capitalist globalization still remains highly contentious.

A particularly crucial issue, in this context, is the theoretical conceptualization of what urban researchers have described as the 'global-local connection' (Beauregard 1995) the 'global-local interplay' (Dunford & Kafkalas 1992) and the 'global-local nexus' (Tickell & Peck 1995). Despite her sustained efforts to explore the 'limits to globalization' in the concluding chapters of the book, Abu-Lughod's approach to the global/local relationship is arguably grounded upon at least two quite contentious theoretical assumptions. First, even while acknowledging the importance of new information and transportation technologies as well as other national political-economic changes during the post-1970s period (271-284), Abu-Lughod's categories of the global and the local are held relatively constant in her discussion of the current phase: diverse processes are said to occur within each of these scalar receptacles, but the receptacles themselves are assumed to remain relatively fixed and unchanging. Second, Abu-Lughod tends to equate the global and the local scales with certain essential sociological properties, such as generality/uniqueness, universality/particularity, abstraction/concreteness, structure/agency and disembeddedness/embeddedness (271, 399-400, 406, 417-426). In this manner, the scalar terms 'global' and 'local' in Abu-Lughod's analysis come to serve as a shorthand through which economic globalization and local development are implicitly characterized in very specific ways, as follows (see also Sayer 1991):

Global = general, universal, abstract, structural, disembedded.

Local = unique, particular, concrete, agentic/contested, embedded.

Taken together, the two aforementioned assumptions translate into an understanding of the global economy as an arena of general, universal, abstract, structural and disembedded processes, existing in a realm located above and beyond national territories, whose effects are said to 'filter down' to the local level through complex national and local mediations, leading in turn to various unique, particular, concrete, contested and contextually embedded outcomes. Although this conception of the global-local interplay is implicit throughout much of Abu-Lughod's book, it is articulated most explicitly in a section of the concluding chapter entitled "Consequences of Globalization":

My argument throughout [this book] has been that common forces originating at the level of the global economy operate always through local political structures and interact with inherited spatial forms. They are therefore always manifested in particular ways that differentiate cities from one another and that militate against the facile generalizations that have hitherto been made about a class of cities called global (417).

Faced with this interplay of globalization/universalization and localization/particularization, the task of the comparative urban researcher, in Abu-Lughod's framework, is to attempt to disaggregate globally induced local developments from local outcomes that are rooted in other sorts of (presumably non-global) processes and struggles (3, 16, 271, 284).

Given the longue durée focus of Abu-Lughod's study, this conceptualization of global/local dynamics has certain pragmatic advantages: it provides an elegantly simple conceptual framework through which to organize an immensely complex, multifaceted historical analysis. It is by holding relatively constant her understanding of the global, the national and the local that Abu-Lughod attempts to disaggregate globally induced local outcomes from other local developments, and thus to grasp the divergent developmental trajectories of each of the cities under investigation. As we have seen, it is also on this basis that Abu-Lughod criticizes world cities researchers for exaggerating the role of global forces in structuring contemporary urban development.

Yet, such dualistic models of spatial scale also contain significant limitations as tools for the analysis of sociospatial transformations, particularly in the contemporary period (see, for instance, Amin & Thrift 1995; Beauregard 1995; Cox 1997; Sayer 1991; Smith 1996). In particular, this relatively static, zero-sum conceptualization of spatial scale leads to a bracketing of what is arguably among the most fundamental geographical dimensions of contemporary globalization-namely, the thoroughgoing reconfiguration of the relations between the global, the supranational/continental, the national, the regional and the local scales during the last three decades (Swyngedouw 1997, 1992). On the one hand, there has been a dramatic upscaling of territorial organization as supranational institutional forms-such as NAFTA, the EU, GATT and the WTO-have acquired unprecedented new roles in the governance of global capitalism. On the other hand, in close conjunction with these trends, there has been an equally remarkable downscaling of political-economic space as urban regions, industrial districts and global cities have become major localized basing points for worldwide economic transactions and key arenas for a variety of politico-regulatory experiments (Scott 2001, 1998). These upscaling and downscaling processes have also been intertwined with the proliferation of new types of interscalar linkages through which diverse actors and organizations have attempted to coordinate their activities horizontally, within dispersed geographical networks, rather than vertically, within traditional organizational hierarchies (Jessop 1994). Faced with these ongoing rescaling processes, numerous researchers have questioned prevalent understandings of globalization as a homogenizing, universalizing or deterritorializing process which 'filters down' from the global to the local, proposing instead a more dynamic conceptualization of contemporary sociospatial change as a multiscalar rearticulation and reterritorialization of social space in which the interconnections between all spatial scales are being reworked in highly uneven, contested and unpredictable ways (Massey 1996; Swyngedouw 1997, 1992; Smith 1997, 1995, 1993; Brenner 1999; MacLeod 2001). Since the global economic crises of the early 1970s, this ongoing 'relativization of scales' has systematically decentered the entrenched primacy of the national scale as a locus of worldwide political-economic organization, creating in turn a new mosaic of interscalar relations in which no single spatial scale or territorial arena predominates (Jessop 2000, 1999). These rescaling and reterritorialization processes arguably represent a major historical break from the Westphalian, nation state-centric configuration of global political-economic space which undergirded much of the history of capitalism, including the full history of US urban development traced in Abu-Lughod's study. The formation of world cities that are increasingly delinked from the national-territorial economies of their host states represents an important medium and outcome of these major scalar transformations (Taylor 1995). Indeed, world city theory can itself be viewed as one among many emergent research paradigms through which social scientists are attempting to map the rescaled geographies of capitalist production, state regulation, urban development and sociopolitical conflict that have been emerging during the post-1970s period (Brenner 2000, 1998).

Crucially, it is Abu-Lughod's specific conceptualization of the global/local interplay, rather than her longue durée historical approach as such, which underpins her abiding concern throughout the book to 'disaggregate' the specific impacts of globalization upon urban development from other sorts of presumably non-global causal forces and processes. The viability of this methodological strategy can be called into question, however, once it is recognized (a) that the global and the local (as well as the national) are mutually constitutive rather than distinct scales of social activity, and (b) that the relations between the global and the local (mediated through the national) are themselves undergoing a fundamental transformation in the current period. The issue, from this perspective, is less to attempt to demarcate genuinely 'global' causes of distinct 'local' outcomes than to reconceptualize the changing dynamics of both terms within this scalar dualism during successive historical phases of worldwide capitalist development. While Abu-Lughod's empirical discussion contains numerous references to various aspects of contemporary rescaling processes, her underlying theoretical conceptualization of the global/local interplay seems to block a more systematic exploration of their full ramifications for the interpretation of urban restructuring in the current period.

I am suggesting, then, that Abu-Lughod's analysis underemphasizes the degree to which the post-1970s period of urban development has entailed a radical rupture from earlier historical phases of US urbanization. Whereas previous rounds of urbanization were tightly embedded within nationalizing strategies of political regulation and economic development, urban development during the post-1970s period is occurring within a rescaled political-economic context characterized by a thorough shaking-up of national economic space in conjunction with an intensification of geoeconomic integration, political decentralization, inter-urban competition and uneven development at various geographical scales (Jonas & Florida 1991; Gottdiener 1989; Lake 1997; Kodras 1997). However, because Abu-Lughod's conceptualization of globalization treats the space-annihilating, deterritorializing effects of new information and transportation technologies, the restructuring/rescaling of the US welfare state and the reorganization of urban sociopolitical life as if they were unfolding in essentially distinct realms of sociospatial interaction, her analysis cannot systematically explore their conflictual mutual imbrication within this dramatically transformed, rescaled configuration of worldwide political-economic space.

In emphasizing the role of these rescaling processes in contemporary capitalism, however, my point is in no way to suggest that the attempt to measure empirically the urban or local impacts of global economic integration is necessarily doomed to failure. This question was, in fact, at the heart of John Friedmann's (1986: 70) own concerns in developing world city theory and it certainly remains a key focal point for current world cities research. The preceding remarks are intended, rather, to underscore some of the methodological dangers of the dualistic conceptualization of global/local relations which underpins many approaches to contemporary urban studies, including Abu-Lughod's own otherwise magisterial study. As I have suggested, such dualistic conceptions are not particularly helpful tools for grasping the types of qualitative sociospatial and scalar transformations which are currently unfolding within and among contemporary cities, and they systematically obscure the ways in which social processes configured at different scales at once influence and interpenetrate one another. As conceived here, therefore, the urban ramifications of global economic integration may be understood most fruitfully by situating cities, and developments within cities, in the radically transformed geopolitical and geoeconomic landscapes of the post-1970s period, in which historically entrenched territorial and scalar formations are being systematically reconfigured. Whereas this strategy of sociospatial contextualization is unlikely, in itself, to resolve the vexing question of how to measure the urban impacts of geoeconomic restructuring, I believe that it provides a potentially fruitful methodological starting point through which this task might be confronted. Against the background of these concerns, it is now possible to examine a second, closely related, aspect of Abu-Lughod's research agenda-the question of comparative urban analysis.


At the outset of her study, Abu-Lughod mentions two key methodological difficulties that accompany comparative studies of world city formation. First, there is the problem of deciphering the impact of nationally specific institutional forms upon the dynamics of world city formation; and second, there is the issue of understanding the divergent historical forces which have molded the built environments of older global cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam or Tokyo (3). Abu-Lughod presents her own intra-national comparison of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as a methodological strategy for grappling with both of these difficulties within a more "controlled" setting: in this framing, the national institutional context can be held relatively constant; meanwhile, because each city developed within what was essentially a "tabula rasa of terrain," the issue of precapitalist influences upon the built environment is of only minimal importance (3). Having thus controlled for these factors, Abu-Lughod's stated goal is to engage in a systematic study of variations among these cities in order "to differentiate between global and local causes" and to understand "both the common and special qualities of global cities" (4). While Abu-Lughod's comparative analysis of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles traces a broad range of social processes within each city during the full history of US urbanization, her ultimate goal is to delineate and interpret the differences among these cities in the current phase of worldwide urban restructuring (4, 16).

Before considering the details of Abu-Lughod's argument, it is useful to situate her strategy of comparative urban analysis in relation to other major comparative forays within the world city research paradigm. Charles Tilly's (1984: 82-83) classification of comparative-historical methods provides a helpful theoretical basis for interpreting the diverse approaches to comparison that have been deployed within the world cities literature. Tilly (1984: 82-83) distinguishes four distinct strategies of comparison within historical sociology, and suggests that each corresponds to a particular relationship between observation and theory:

  • In individualizing comparisons, "the point is to contrast specific instances of a given phenomenon as a means of grasping the peculiarities of each case".
  • In universalizing comparisons, the aim is "to establish that every instance of a phenomenon follows essentially the same rule".
  • In encompassing comparisons, the goal is to place "different instances at various locations within the same system, on the way to explaining their characteristics as a function of their varying relations to the system as a whole".
  • In variation-finding comparisons, the goal is "to establish a principle of variation in the character and intensity of a phenomenon by examining systematic differences among instances."

As Tilly's (1984: 145) analysis indicates, none of the four strategies of comparison is intrinsically superior to any of the others; "their relative value depends on the intellectual task at hand." The issue, in each case, is how effectively the strategy chosen links observed empirical-historical outcomes to the specific explanatory questions posed by the researcher.

Each of the aforementioned methodological strategies has been presupposed, albeit usually implicitly, within contemporary comparative urban studies (Walton 1990). In particular, most of the comparative work that has been conducted within the world cities paradigm during the last two decades may be classified quite effectively within this framework. Whereas many major contributions to this literature rely simultaneously upon more than one of these comparative strategies, most can be categorized, in general terms, with reference to one predominant strategy (see Figure 1).

First, the most prominent contributions to world city theory-such as Friedmann's (1986) synthetic discussion of 'the world city hypothesis', Sassen's (1991) pioneering study of New York, London and Tokyo, and King's (1991a) study of colonial urban systems-have been grounded upon encompassing comparisons. Insofar as the latter works emphasize both the specificity of places and the apparent tendency towards convergence within certain socioeconomic and institutional arenas, they generally incorporate elements of individualizing and universalizing comparative strategies as well. However, the methodological essence of encompassing approaches to world city comparison lies in their concern to explain these local tendencies-whether of convergence or of divergence-with reference to the cities' changing structural positions within worldwide spatial divisions of labor (and, in King's work, within multiterritorial colonial administrative systems). At the heart of world city theory is a world-systemic understanding of capitalism as an integrated "space of global accumulation" in which cities are arranged "into a hierarchy of spatial articulations, roughly in accord with the economic power they command " (Friedmann 1995: 22, italics in original; see also Friedmann 1986; Friedmann & Wolff 1982). In this sense, even though individualizing and universalizing strategies may extend and concretize world city theory in important ways, encompassing strategies of comparison arguably represent its most basic methodological foundation. Encompassing approaches to world city comparison are unusually complex because their internal coherence hinges upon the specification of causal mechanisms through which particular local outcomes-class bifurcation or sociospatial polarization, for instance-may be derived from world-systemic developments. Thus much of the academic debate provoked by Sassen's (1991) controversial comparison of New York, London and Tokyo has focused on the question of whether her analysis succeeds in coherently relating changes in the internal social order of these cities to the new geoeconomic functions they have acquired since the 1980s. King's (1991a) work on the diffusion of urban planning techniques and architectural forms in cities throughout the British colonial empire provides another important illustration of this encompassing strategy of comparison within the parameters of world city theory.

Second, many researchers have examined specific cases of world city formation by means of individualizing comparisons which underscore the peculiarities of particular places and institutional contexts in relation to broader geoeconomic trends (see, for example, Keil 1999; Keil & Lieser 1992; Mollenkopf & Castells 1992; Soja 1989; Todd 1995; Grosfoguel 1995; King 1991b). Insofar as such contributions interpret local outcomes with reference to a city's evolving structural position in the world economy, they still rely implicitly upon encompassing strategies of comparison; however, their overarching methodological concern is to explore the specific ways in which economic globalization has impacted particular cities and city-regions, and thus to emphasize the context-specificity and/or uniqueness of the local outcomes in question. In such studies, therefore, world city theory generally serves as a broad framing device through which to contextualize local trends rather than as the source of specific causal hypotheses through which to interpret or explain the latter.

Third, a number of scholars have also mobilized universalizing comparisons in order to demonstrate the analogous patterns of economic, political and spatial restructuring that have emerged within many major global cities (see, for instance, Fainstein 1994; Soja 1992). Here, too, encompassing strategies of comparison are implicitly presupposed insofar as local outcomes are understood as expressions of world-systemic trends and developments. In this approach, however, the overarching analytical goal is to underscore the degree to which otherwise quite different world cities have acquired certain common features-whether in terms of economic structure, political institutions, levels of class bifurcation or forms of sociospatial organization. Thus, in Fainstein's (1994) study of the market-based politics of property redevelopment in New York and London and in Soja's (1992) comparison of urban restructuring in Amsterdam/Randstad and Los Angeles, the explanatory emphasis is on the tendential convergence of specific local outcomes rather than upon the persistence of local particularities. In studies such as these, world city theory is generally invoked somewhat more eclectically, as one among many theoretical frameworks through which the specific forms of local convergence under discussion can be explained.

As the preceding considerations indicate, world cities researchers have justified their choice of specific strategies of comparison with reference to certain implicit or explicit theoretical assumptions about globalization and its putative impact upon cities. Depending upon the comparative strategy which is prioritized, globalization may be shown (a) to embed localities within a broader spatial division of labor which systematically conditions local outcomes (encompassing comparison), (b) to enhance local particularities (individualizing comparison), or (c) to underpin a trans-local convergence among specific outcomes (universalizing comparison). Whereas all forms of world city theory by definition hinge upon some version of an encompassing comparative methodology, many world cities researchers have also successfully mobilized both individualizing and universalizing comparative strategies in order to fine-tune their analyses.

Against this background it is possible to appreciate the hugely complex methodological and empirical task to which Abu-Lughod devotes herself in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. In contrast to the three comparative strategies reviewed above, Abu-Lughod frames her study as an attempt to explain "variations between and within specific urban places" (400), induced not only by global forces but also by national, regional and local dynamics. Abu-Lughod contends, correctly in my view, that extant theories of world city formation have not provided a particularly helpful guide for the investigation of this type of variance (400). One of the major agendas of Abu-Lughod's book, therefore, is to suggest that this fourth, variation-finding strategy represents an essential methodological tool for research on contemporary world cities.

The central question to be examined here is how Abu-Lughod mobilizes this variation-finding strategy of comparison in order to interpret the impacts of geoeconomic restructuring upon the three cities investigated in her study. On my reading, two diametrically opposed approaches to this task co-exist uneasily within Abu-Lughod's analysis-first, an approach which attempts to integrate a variation-finding comparative strategy within the world-systemic or encompassing comparative framework of world city theory; and second, an approach which presents a variation-finding methodology at once as a replacement for encompassing comparisons and as a means to suggest that global forces have had only minimal causal impacts upon local outcomes in each city.

On the one hand, throughout much of her analysis of the contemporary period, Abu-Lughod proceeds as if she aims to integrate her variation-finding approach within the broader, encompassing strategies of comparison upon which most major contributions to world city theory have heretofore been grounded. Thus, as we have seen, Abu-Lughod frames her investigation of each of the five cycles of urban development by discussing the ways in which New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have been embedded within a common global and national economic system; and her analysis of each of these phases is highly sensitive to the ways in which each city's evolving structural position within these larger urban systems conditioned key local outcomes. This aspect of Abu-Lughod's interpretation of the contemporary period suggests that, while encompassing strategies of comparison represent an important ingredient within any investigation of world city dynamics, they do not in themselves fully explain all important dimensions of variation among global cities. Abu-Lughod's concern, in other words, is to demonstrate the degree to which sociologically significant, systemic forms of variation exist among world cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles which are not derived from their respective positions in the global division of labor. On a number of occasions, Abu-Lughod refers to this type of variation as an expression of the "degrees of freedom" which cities can exercise in response to the current round of geoeconomic restructuring (5, 418). Abu-Lughod's use of this term implies an endorsement of the notion-which is at the heart of Friedmann's and Sassen's approaches to world city theory-that world-systemic structures, trends and forces do indeed constrain the developmental pathways which are open to global cities. At the same time, the notion of 'degrees of freedom' also underscores Abu-Lughod's equally important contention that world-systemic factors represent only one among many levels of analysis that are relevant to the comparative study of urban restructuring. On this basis, Abu-Lughod implies that encompassing comparative strategies must be complemented by variation-finding comparative strategies which are attuned to the many complex chains of causation through which cities are being reshaped in the current era (3, 400, 401, 406, 417, 418, 421, 422).

On the other hand, parts of Abu-Lughod's concluding chapter mobilize a variation-finding approach to comparative urban analysis less to refine the arguments of world city theory than, apparently, to replace them. In these segments of the analysis, a variation-finding comparative strategy is presented as a methodological basis for questioning the degree to which processes of 'globalization' provide a substantively useful causal reference point for explaining local outcomes. Abu-Lughod's focus thereby shifts from an emphasis on the extraordinarily diverse social, institutional and spatial forms in which global city formation may occur to the purportedly limited causal role of global forces in generating that diversity (400, 406, 417). In this manner, Abu-Lughod appears to question quite fundamentally the value of encompassing comparisons-and, by implication, the usefulness of world city theory itself-for understanding the contemporary phase of urban restructuring. The implication here is that a variation-finding methodology represents an alternative, and not merely a supplement, to the encompassing comparative strategies upon which world city theory is grounded. In one revealing formulation, Abu-Lughod states explicitly her assumption that the persistence of major differences among the three cities-as explicated through her variation-finding methodology-in itself provides evidence against the proposition that processes of globalization have exercised a powerful causal impact upon recent developments within those cities:

If international forces were so overwhelmingly powerful, one would anticipate that their effects in the three cities would differ only in degree. That is patently untrue, as I have tried to illustrate through the comparisons presented here (417).

In formulations such as these, then, Abu-Lughod's variation-finding methodology is transformed from a means to differentiate and further refine the encompassing comparisons of world city theory into a basis for reinforcing the arguments regarding the putative 'limits to globalization' that were discussed in the preceding section.

There are, I would suggest, at least two underlying sources of this methodological tension within Abu-Lughod's concluding discussion.

1) Globalization as convergence. First, it is Abu-Lughod's conceptualization of the global/local interplay, as outlined above, which most directly underpins her tendency in the concluding chapter of the book to view the empirical diversity of local outcomes as evidence for the weak causal impact of global forces upon those cities. For it is only on the basis of an understanding of globalization as a universalizing, homogenizing and abstract process that Abu-Lughod can assume that convergence would be its necessary local expression. As suggested previously, however, this understanding of globalization is problematic insofar as it brackets the degree to which the current round of worldwide restructuring has also been intertwined with processes of reterritorialization and rescaling that have entailed a massive redifferentiation of social, political and economic space at diverse geographical scales. From this perspective, the continued diversity, and further differentiation, of local spaces is not only compatible with the process of globalization but, arguably, one of its most essential expressions and consequences (Lefebvre 1991; Cox 1997; Swyngedouw 1992). Moreover, the expectation that globalization leads to convergence is also very much at odds with the core theoretical claims of world city theory, in which, as we have seen above, encompassing comparisons have been mobilized to underscore not only the similarities among cities but also their differences according to their specific positions within the global division of labor. In this sense, I would argue, Abu-Lughod's underlying conceptualization of globalization significantly constrains her efforts to disaggregate globally induced local outcomes from other types of causal factors. By attempting to derive the causal weight and theoretical significance of global forces from the empirical observation of local diversity, Abu-Lughod neglects to consider the possibility that such diversity may itself represent an expression and outcome of ongoing processes of global sociospatial restructuring.

2) Variation as local diversity. Second, and relatedly, Abu-Lughod's theorization of local variation remains underspecified. On the one hand, she productively emphasizes the degree to which the variety of local economic, social, institutional and spatial forms represents a path-dependent outcome of earlier historical rounds of urban development. On the other hand, however, Abu-Lughod's book does not provide an explicit theorization of how and why the key variations among world cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are produced. Instead, her concluding chapters outline descriptively some of the major forms of variation that have emerged in the current period among the three cities under investigation, focusing in particular on the issues of political boundaries, class bifurcation and sociospatial polarization. As noted, the main theoretical argument with reference to which these descriptions are framed is her critique of the contention-which I think is somewhat unfairly attributed to world city theory-that such local diversity can be explained completely as outcome an globalization. Yet, in the absence of an explicit causal argument through which the variation in question can be meaningfully understood, the range of local outcomes outlined in Abu-Lughod's study reveals little more than the empirical diversity of local conditions (see, relatedly, Sassen's [1990] trenchant critique of Logan & Swanstrom 1990). In other words, even if variations among the cities in their politico-geographical organization, their class structure and in levels of sociospatial polarization are not explicable with reference to factors such as globalization or a city's world-systemic position, there is still a need for a theoretically informed discussion of how such variations were produced and why they are sociologically significant. In the absence of such a discussion, it is difficult to interpret the forms of variation in question as representing anything more than the empirical differences between the places under investigation. In this sense, I would argue, a residually empiricist understanding of local diversity constrains Abu-Lughod's ability to explore the full theoretical potential of a variation-finding strategy of comparison, the ultimate goal of which, as Tilly (1984: 146) explains, is to "help us make sense of social structures and process that never recur in the same form, yet express common principles of causality."

In sum, it remains somewhat unclear how Abu-Lughod proposes to link encompassing and variation-finding strategies of comparison in order to understand the dynamics of contemporary urban change. While both of these strategies play a key role throughout her book, they are integrated in rather divergent ways at different junctures of the argument. Whereas an encompassing comparative strategy plays a key role in enabling Abu-Lughod to situate each chapter in macrohistorical and macrogeographical context, a variation-finding strategy becomes increasingly prominent in the concluding chapter, particularly in the context of her reflections on the causal impact of globalization. When coupled to the problematic conceptualization of the global/local interplay discussed in the previous section, rather than to the encompassing comparative strategies associated with world city theory, Abu-Lughod's use of a variation-finding methodology to analyze the post-1970s period leaves ambiguous one of the core questions of her study, namely, "why are the effects [of global restructuring] on the cities so different-not only in economic but in social and spatial terms?" (417). Throughout much of the book, Abu-Lughod's analysis points towards an answer to this question which is grounded upon a highly original synthesis of encompassing and variation-finding methods of comparison and an expertly crafted examination both of historical and contemporary urban dynamics. On other occasions, however, Abu-Lughod appears to embrace a less convincing response to this question which consists primarily in an atheoretical description of the differences among the cities within various sociospatial spheres. I would argue, therefore, that a more consistent methodological framework would be required in order to develop a theoretically informed explanation of the many differences between the three cities that are highlighted during the course of Abu-Lughod's investigation. While all of the differences will be empirically interesting to any student of contemporary urban change, only some may help illuminate theoretically the changing nature of U.S. global cities in contemporary capitalism.


By way of conclusion, I would like to underscore that the methodological tensions and dilemmas outlined above do not undermine the many important theoretical and empirical accomplishments of Abu-Lughod's New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. The theoretical ambiguities that are implicit within Abu-Lughod's project are probably unavoidable given the massive scope and ambition of her study. Such ambiguities also serve usefully to alert future researchers to the many daunting theoretical and methodological challenges which are necessarily involved in any attempt to integrate a longue durée historical analysis and variation-finding strategies of comparison into contemporary studies of world city formation. I would argue, therefore, that Abu-Lughod's study effectively opens up an important new theoretical perspective from which world city theory-and, more generally, our understanding of globalization and urban development-may be significantly refined and advanced in future research.

The criticisms outlined here are thus intended to point towards various ways in which Abu-Lughod's methodological strategy might be clarified, fine-tuned and strengthened in future historical-comparative research on urban restructuring. For, despite the methodological tensions it contains, I believe that Abu-Lughod's book provides a highly important, if exploratory, 'first cut' towards a new style of world city comparison which is causally messier, more sociologically complex and more contextually embedded than most existing studies of world city formation, particularly those which rely exclusively or primarily upon an encompassing strategy of comparison and purely economic indicators (see also Marcuse & van Kempen 2000). There is, I believe, an urgent need for this type of methodologically eclectic, historical and comparative work in contemporary urban studies, and Abu-Lughod's efforts to integrate a variation-finding methodology into the conceptual toolkit of world city theory surely represent an important, original and lasting contribution towards that end.


My thanks to Roger Keil and Kris Olds for organizing the Author Meets Critics session from which this essay is derived. My work on this essay was made possible through a James Bryant Conant Fellowship at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, during the 2000-2001 academic year. I am extremely grateful to the Center for its support of my work. Finally, I would like to thank Janet Abu-Lughod for her critical engagement with the arguments presented here. Her remarkable ability to combine serious intellectual work with down-to-earth humor helped make the AAG conference panel devoted to her book a particularly memorable occasion.


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* Neil Brenner, Department of Sociology, New York University,

Edited and posted on the web on 4th July 2001

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Urban Affairs Review, 37 (1), (2001), 124-147