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Comparisons: colonial or cosmopolitan?


  • Jennifer Robinson

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Geography, University College London, London, UK and African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
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Editors' Note: The following is the ninth in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography Lecture Series. It is based on the plenary presentation of 3 September at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geography Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) held in London in 2010.

In the search for a more international approach to theorizing cities, comparative methods hold considerable promise, although one concern might be that in their theoretical ambitions they foster a universalising approach rather than one appreciative of diverse and sometimes divergent urban experiences. The potentially universalizing ambitions of comparative methods lead some postcolonial theorists to question the extent to which comparativism carries the marks of colonial histories. Critics argue that some aspects of formal comparative methods can be traced to ambitious and geographically encompassing intellectual projects from the colonial era, when the interest and capacity to bring different parts of the world together within the same intellectual frame advanced significantly. This paper explores the complexities of these colonial lineages of comparative research with a view to assessing their implications for postcolonial comparative urbanism. It concludes by assessing the potential for more modest comparative experiments in a postcolonial vein through attending to the diverse vernacular cosmopolitanisms of cities. Following the spatialities of cities themselves has the potential to offer non-universalizing but variously internationalizing theoretical engagements with different places.