GaWC Research Bulletin 265

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Area, 40 (3), (2008), 411-415.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Cities as Worlds, Worlds as Cities: Commentaries on 'World City'^ by Doreen Massey

P. Hubbard*

S. Holloway, P. Hubbard, H. Jöns, L. Mavroudi and P. Noxolo**

P.J. Taylor, M. Hoyler, K. Pain and J. Harrison***


P. Hubbard


Doreen Massey's World City is that rarest of commodities: a geographic text that is, at one and the same time, both theoretically astute, politically insistent and publicly-accessible. Focusing on the city of London, construed in its widest sense, Massey's book is an attempt to show how a geographical imagination in which place is unbounded and space is relational can help us to address the forms of inequality that beset contemporary societies. Beginning by noting the widespread assumption that Britain revolves around an economic (business) hub centred on London, and that this disadvantages all those outside a particular super-rich elite residing in the South East, Massey's book argues for a politics that de-centres the assumption that certain process of world city formation are inevitable, desirable or necessary. This is a politics in which London's obligations to the world are fully acknowledged, and solidarities negotiated between peoples unbound by any pre-determined understanding of who (or what) is part of London. Insisting on the centrality of class in any socially- and geographically-just settlement, Massey's book is critical of the deregulation, financialisation and commercialisation that seems to blinker contemporary political ambition, and highlights opportunities for progressing a political agenda in which London is imagined as more than a successful centre for financial accumulation. Particular scorn is hence poured on those who represent London as the ‘golden goose' whose competitive world city status needs to be nurtured at all costs.

World City is thus a critical and polemic text, underpinned by Massey's long association with radical politics as well as over thirty years of ground-breaking work on regional inequality, identity and relational geography. Like any attempt to forge a ‘public geography', compromises are made along the way. For example, at times, Massey makes considerable generalisations about the state-of-the-art in human geography (not least world cities research), and also makes assumptions about readers' familiarity with London's multi-layered structures of governance. Yet the book brings together a number of theoretical strands from her previous work (notably the necessity of developing a ‘progressive sense of place') to weave a powerful narrative which will no doubt have appeal for geographers as well as those on the left who look towards academics to make sense of these global times and the seemingly unfathomable multiplicity of the city. Indeed, the frequent references to Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Assembly suggest that Massey sees possibilities for a progressive politics in which politicians on the left can move beyond a New Labour agenda fixated on wealth accumulation. Whether policy-makers will go along with Massey's suggestions for an outwardly-oriented politics is a moot point (see also Hubbard 2001 on a transnational politics of flow). However, the book is written in an accessible and easy style, unencumbered by profuse citation, that means that any policy-maker who reads it may be persuaded by the overall thrust of the argument, if not the detailed prescription (persuading working class voters that Londoners ought to be subsidising Ghana's health service because of the ‘brain drain' from Ghana into London, for example, might prove difficult).

Yet the book is an object lesson in how geographers can demonstrate the applicability and policy relevance of ideas, that when expressed in a different voice, might appear remote and inaccessible. Contrast, for example, Massey's attempt in For Space (2005, 195) to articulate ‘the challenge of our constitutive inter-relativeness and the radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others' - via Bergson, Laclau, Spinoza, de Certeau – with the more direct series of questions posed in World City: what is London? Where does it end? How can it be sustained? This is not to say that World City is theory-lite, or simply a policy-friendly version of the ‘relational politics of the spatial' that was explored in the closing sections of For Space, as it offers some fresh cuts through difficult questions of obligation and reciprocation in a global era. Significantly, it also returns to some of the questions of economic geography that Massey by and large retreated from in the 1990s as she became more interested in questions of gender and identity politics (see Freytag and Hoyler 1999). Indeed, World City is as much (and possibly more) a book about the North-South divide and regional inequality as it is about cultural politics of city life: it thus stands as a remarkable synthesis of Massey's work as it has developed over the last thirty years, folding some of her recently-minted ideas about relationality back onto now-familiar concepts of power-geometries and spatial divisions of labour.

In these regards, Massey's book deserves to be heralded as an important and timely contribution from one of geography's few genuine ‘public intellectuals'. One senses that thinking through the political complexities of governing London has energised Massey, encouraging her to think about the necessity of deploying critical geographical imaginations and concepts in processes of governance and policy-making. To some extent, it is the receptiveness of the GLA to certain ideas about its global obligations that has made this book possible (and here Massey notes the often-prescient ‘outward-looking' stance of the city's governors). But if London was the stimulus for the book – and Massey repeatedly lauds its resilience, brilliance and hospitality – this is ultimately not really a book about London itself (at least, not in the same way that recent books by Buck et al. 2002; Hall 2007, or Imrie et al. 2008 can be described as books about the capital). Instead, it is a book about the way we conceive of places in the world, and the implications of such ways of thinking for the way we ‘do' politics. In various passages it would be possible to replace reference to London/Livingstone with, for example, Paris/Delanoe or New York/Bloomberg with little loss of meaning. Clearly, these cities do not follow the same trajectories, and their mayoral leaders have different preoccupations, but in each case the task of governing imaginatively and generously is burdened by a conception of space that privileges particular neo-liberal strategies of place marketing and competition that ultimately benefit particular groups – the super-rich, the creative class and businessmen in particular.

World City will be no doubt read in many different ways by diverse audiences. But given it offers a distinctive statement about the spatiality of cities in general, and the relational geographies that animate our world, it is surely deserving of careful attention from geographers. It is for that reason that we feel the book deserves a fuller-than-normal discussion here and more than a solitary summation. In the following commentaries we therefore offer two collective responses to, and engagements with, Massey's provocative text. In offering these commentaries, we hope that we acknowledge and reflect World City's wide-ranging scope and tenor, considering it as a valuable and timely springboard into further productive geographic debates.


Worlds in One City

S. Holloway, P. Hubbard, H. Jöns, L. Mavroudi and P. Noxolo


One of the first things that struck us in discussing this book is that we – as practising geographers - were not its intended audience. The book, as the introduction (above) makes clear, draws together many ideas that Doreen Massey has developed over her long and successful career and discusses these in the context of London. Many geographers will find little new in this book, although having the ideas distilled in one volume is always convenient. Nor it is a book we think is targeted at our undergraduates, as there is a paucity of empirical examples through which they could discuss the wider issues she raises, and a rather sparse approach to referencing we would not necessarily want them to adopt. Rather we read this book as a brave and worthwhile attempt at creating a ‘public geography' (Ward, 2006), an effort to take insights developed during a career in our discipline to wider audiences. And for this we congratulate Massey.

The book is written in a wonderfully open and accessible manner, using language that is neither wilfully exclusionary nor obscure. She takes a risk in pursuing this style, the risk of being labelled by academics as popular but not profound. The potential prize though is contributing to a genre of public geography which engages those outside the discipline, updating the image of the discipline and showings its relevance to the wider public, is one for which it is worth taking such a risk. What is particularly positive about this text is that it does this in such a politically-engaged manner, focusing on an issue other than environmental pollution or global warming (which, for some current commentators appears to be the prime justification for encouraging popular engagement with the discipline). Our only disappointment in this respect is that the production of the book did not live up to its writing. Put simply this isn't an attractive book, the type of book which would leap off the table into your hands at the bookshop: the cover design is dated and the paper quality poor. Though it has clearly sold well in relation to many academic texts, if it is to bridge the gap to a more popular market, potentially leading the way in making geography the new history, then its physical production could be better.

Our praise for Massey in creating a more publicly accessible geography is genuinely meant. She is raising issues here about London's internal differences, its relations to other regions of the UK, and the wider world which flag up the importance of new forms of class politics, economic relations, and global flows in a way which challenge simple representations of London's current trajectory as inevitable. We couldn't help though, in discussing the text, starting to think about what else a politically-engaged public geography of London could include. We are not suggesting that Massey should, or even could, have included all these in one text on London. Yet taking inspiration from her lead, and from our own position as researchers interested in Identity, Community and Society, we want now to think through the other ways in which we could develop a public geography of London as a city in which multiple identities take shape.

In this respect, Massey's focus on class, though welcome in itself, tends to obfuscate some of the other keys axes of identitfication – sexuality, gender, race, religion, age and so on – which are made and remade in the contexts of relational geographies. Taking but one example, we would argue that Massey's book, particularly if read in conjunction with her other writings on responsibility (Massey, 2004), gives some important clues about creating a more engaged localised politics based on a shared postcolonial history which are not yet followed up. This could be explored not only from the point of view of London's multiculturalism (with which Massey does engage in World City), but also from the multiple perspectives on London that arise from its imperial past, both as icon and as administrative centre, as much as from its global present.

Historically, for example, there have been a wealth of reflections by celebrated pre- and post-independence writers and activists who came to London to live and to work, and who have reflected on the profound inter-connections between their experiences in that city and their experiences in the countries to which they returned or from which they remained in engaged exile (see, for example, the multiple writings of Sam Selvon, George Lamming or Wole Soyinkai). Careful engagement with these voices, with their profound sense of London's trans-nationality, would create the kind of contrapuntal geography advocated by Said and by a growing number of geographers (see Gregory 2005). In the contemporary context, a range of writers have commented on the shared experiences that impact both on London and on a range of places, including the spatially-differentiated effects of global insecurity, of global population movements and of global environmental movements (see, amongst others, Bayet-Charlton, 2003, Barkawi and Laffey, 2006, Mbembe 2001).

Asking geographers to engage more publicly with this effective decentring of London - in terms of building a politics based on shared experiences that do not necessarily emanate from that city but that can be linked with aspects of its contemporary and historical role - does not diffuse the sense of place-centred responsibility advocated by Massey, but extends this to argue for a dialogic partnership between places in tackling problems that affect us all. For Massey, there appears to be a tension between the need to retain the importance of particular local places and the need to conceptualise spaces as open-ended and relational; the ‘here' and the ‘there' seem to jostle for attention as London attempts to deal with its different priorities and responsibilities, be they economic, social, or political.

Massey accordingly attempts to discuss the ‘struggle' between the global and the local using the case study of London to consider how a ‘world city' is dealing with difference, diversity and inequality in positive ways that encourage ethical responsibility and political engagement. In particular, Massey is critical of the contemporary politics of migration, not least the varied ‘hospitality' and ‘generosity' we extend to new arrivals, but remains open to the possibility we should limit ‘unrestricted migration' to help deal with development issues in the global South. As a response, she outlines new geographical imaginations where the ‘local' is respected and carefully held onto as mutually beneficial within the interdependent relationships and networks negotiated between people and places.

As such, Massey still appears to be searching for a ‘progressive politics of place' where places and identities can be conceptualised in celebratory, positive ways as hybrid, mixed and globally-connected. This very connection supports the need for further detailed empirical studies examining the practices that constitute specific external geographies of cities (and places more generally) as well as the meaning of their wider economic, political, social and cultural networks by following key actors and connections (see Latour 2005). For example, a particular focus might be looking beyond the existing studies of elite migration and financial networking that contribute significantly to Massey's understanding of the spatial concentration of highly skilled professionals in London. Examining the trans-local networks of educational institutions (for instance) might also elucidate some of the ways in which these seats of learning shape external geographies of cities, thereby complicating the frequently-invoked dichotomy between centres and peripheries, revealing the potential for a more balanced ‘circulation of knowledge' (see Teferra 2005). At the same time, however, such a politics of place needs to take into account other circulations: for example, the circulation of drugs, or the exchange of bodies (and body-parts) among those that constitute the city's underclass – the Dirty, Pretty Things of Stephen Frears' (2004) film of London life. Cities consist of all sorts of networks in which people are differently interpolated as, for example, members of particular class, age gender, ethnic and religious ‘communities'.

Massey is accordingly grappling with ideas that many social scientists have been attempting to deal with, but she does so by paying particular attention to the specificities and politics of London. However, we conclude that there could be more of a focus on the multiple places its people inhabit, the networks they create and the politics they practice, noting that London lives may often cross, but also be constrained by, established categories of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.


A Global Sense of Flow?

P.J. Taylor, M. Hoyler, K. Pain and J. Harrison


Doreen Massey has made many contributions to geography over the years but one feature stands out in her research: she has brought region and place centre stage in developing her radical/emancipatory arguments. This powerful strain in her thinking can be said to culminate in her in-depth treatment of contemporary London as a world city. Although we are told that the book is ‘centred on London' she qualifies this by saying ‘it is not really only about London', it is a set of ideas that ‘arises from London' (ibid, 12). This is because to understand London you have to understand what goes on beyond London:

‘[P]ower relations of all sorts … run around the globe and … link the fate of other places to what is done in London. This is the other geography [of London], the external geography if you like, of a global sense of place' (Massey, 2007: 7)

At first viewing, this position is exemplary; it certainly appears to chime well with our focus on inter-city relations in contemporary globalization. But a little further thought shows this not to be the case: Massey's global sense of place is in danger of understating the global.

Here, we can employ Allen's (1999) insightful comparison of Sassen's (1991) and Castells' (1996) treatment of ‘cities in globalization' as a heuristic device to engage with Massey. According to Allen:

‘Where the two accounts radically diverge … is over the source of the economic power and influence of global cities. For Castells, power is concentrated in the networked space of flows, whereas for Sassen it is concentrated in those groups who exercise the command-and-control functions embedded in global cities (Allen, 1999, 202).

Massey makes numerous references to Sassen's research - but not Castells' (despite her use of the terms ‘space of flows' and ‘a world of flows' (Massey, 2007, 54; 154)). This leads us to suspect that, like Sassen, Massey is thinking within a ‘spaces of places' framework. For her, places, - and London in particular - are porous and fuzzy but there is always a sense of inside/outside in the way London is treated as either a source of global neo-liberalism or a point of resistance to it. This does not prevent the identification of the ‘disjunction' between ‘territorialised politics' and ‘another geography of flows and interconnections' (ibid, 14) which so debilitates contemporary urban radical politics through being ‘corralled, and thereby constrained' (ibid, 151), but it does limit how the ‘flows and interconnections' are incorporated into both the geography and its resultant politics in order to confront the disjuncture.

We can see Massey's space of place thinking when she promotes a ‘foreign politics' for local authorities (ibid, 184); when she focuses on ‘trajectories' of cities in regions (ibid 157); and when she calls for a ‘geography of responsibility' (ibid, 179). Such thinking is particularly central to her key argument on the successful strategy of synecdoche through which the City and its interests are deemed to be the interests of London. This representation of the whole by a part means that policy is all about London as a global city at the expense of the rest of London (and the UK). This is an example of what is happening in London having resonances in cities across the world. Massey also refers to Robinson's (2002) idea of ‘ordinary cities' to banish the concept of ‘world city', but this is a classic error of emphasis on place rather than process. Following Jacobs (1969) and Castells (1996), cities can be seen as process, an internal clustering and external networking process. This ‘city-ness' is an extraordinary generic force that has expanded economies across the times and spaces of civilization, taking the form of ‘world city-ness', the linking of business interests across the world, in the present. The major advantage of thinking in these terms is that unlike place, processes can occur simultaneously in the same location.

Thus London is a world city – it experiences this process more intensively than many other cities – but this is one of many processes that are London-as-process in the early twenty first century. For radical politics, it is not a matter of un-naming it and hoping this lessens its power, rather it is necessary to understand world city-ness to better confront it. And this cannot be done one city at a time. This is the point of Castells' city process; it is a network mechanism. The network is manifest as a triple level network: there is a sub-nodal level which is business firms as the agents (network makers), a nodal level which are the cities, and a network level which is the network of cities in the world economy (Taylor 2004). Hence, it is not enough to argue, as Massey does, that ‘the economy of a place, is a product not only of internal interactions but also of relations with elsewhere' (Massey, 2007: 20). We need to know about the work done by American, Japanese, German, French and Spanish banks in London as part of their global strategies of financial work. We need to know how Clifford Chance became the world's leading law firm not just in its London base but through its global network of law offices. Put simply, the power of world city-ness is in the networks not the places.

Such network thinking requires empirical study to depict process patterns, which is where GaWC contributes (Beaverstock et al 2001; Taylor 2004; Taylor and Aranya, 2006). Drawing on such work, the big surprise is the lack of attention given to New York in Massey's attempt to understand London as a world city. Measuring power through networks, these two cities are the twin peaks: the NYLON dyad is ‘Main Street, World Economy' (Taylor et al. 2002). Note that the unit of interest within the network is relational, city dyads. In ‘space of places' terms, such city pairs are seen hierarchically as being in competition, but networks are inherently cooperative, they exist on mutuality. To take another dyad, London and Frankfurt's world city-ness is essentially cooperative despite the common assumption that they compete (Beaverstock et al. 2001). Although the ‘neoliberal mantra' is that ‘cities … must compete with each other' (Massey, 2007, 200), it is surely important to know that this is not the way businesses are using cities in the world city process. Therefore a ‘progressive politics' cannot simply promote cooperation among cities when this is happening already through the agency of their ‘opponents'! This is particularly important for the UK's other cities, which are also underrepresented in this ‘external geography' of London. For Massey, London and the South East are pitted against ‘the regions' (never Manchester and the North West, Newcastle and the North East, Birmingham and the West Midlands, etc.) so that city-dyads are not to the fore. Massey does suggest these regions have ‘a colonial relationship' (ibid,107) with London and their cities have ‘relatively little relational power' (ibid 170) but these assertions are made without empirical knowledge of current network patterns: actually, under globalization, these city-economies appear to be improving through new business networks (Taylor and Aranya 2006) and spatial initiatives like the ‘Northern Way' (Harrison 2007; Taylor et al 2007).

It is the politics of Massey's world city that is, perhaps, most fascinating in her argument. As previously noted, the dilemma of place politics in a network world is recognised; Ken Livingstone's attempt to rectify the ‘London deficit' – ‘a radical mayor' in ‘a minefield' (Massey 2007, 145) – is a wonderful example. Massey's final chapter is on the meaning of her argument for practical politics and it is both the most thoughtful and original chapter whilst also the most unsatisfactory. The paradox is a function of the subject matter – ‘A politics of place beyond place'. There are some dyads here such as London-Caracas (surely the future is not going to be inter-city barter!?) but there is no sense of overall political strategy. The ideas don't fit together as a political way forward. Previously Massey (2007, 154) had quoted Paul Gilroy's notion of ‘cosmopolitan solidarity from below and afar'; we have lots of experience of mobilization ‘from below' through spaces of place but little mobilization ‘from afar' through spaces of flows. And this is the rub: imagining such a project through our modern political lenses appears to be all but impossible.

To conclude, we return to Allen (1999, 203) and his assertion that ‘the question' is ‘whether the networks themselves “generate” cities as sites of power through their interconnections or whether cities “run” the networks through their concentration of resources and expertise'. He quickly retracts the crispness of the distinction saying that he ‘probably overstates the differences' (ibid, 203) and we shall do the same here. There is much in Massey's arguments that is compatible with ‘networks of cities' although her primary thrust is explicitly place-centred. The approaches are best viewed as complementary, as alternative formulations bringing relational theory into geography. For Massey (ibid, 171), there is a need ‘to challenge the nature of the local place, its role within the wider power-geometries'; all we are adding is that for this to be at all achievable, we need to engage practically with global networks. Massey's alternative geography is a regional one, implying territorial reform; ours is a network geography, a revolution only slowly being invented.



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^ Cambridge, Polity Press. 2007 262 pp. £15.99 pb ISBN 978 07456 4095 4

* Phil Hubbard, Department of Geography, Loughborough University, Email:

** Sarah Holloway, Phil Hubbard, Heike Jöns, Liz Mavroudi and Pat Noxolo, Centre for Research in Identity, Community, Society, Department of Geography, Loughborough University

*** Peter J. Taylor, Michael Hoyler, Kathy Pain and John Harrison, Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Research Network, Department of Geography, Loughborough University


Edited and posted on the web on 29th April 2008

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Area, 40 (3), (2008), 411-415