Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture


  • Jennifer Robinson

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Geography, University College London, UK, and African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa
    Search for more papers by this author

  • This article was written over quite a long period, during which my colleagues at The Open University offered me a stimulating and hugely supportive environment for research and thinking. I would like to thank them for their practical support as well as their input and advice at various stages of the preparation of this article. John Allen commented directly on the article and helped to focus the argument. Questions and discussion on various occasions when I presented the article helped to clarify many points. The three referees for the IJURR were very generous, and their advice helped enormously to finalize the article.

Jennifer Robinson (, Department of Geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, UK, and African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, Private Bag X3, Rondebosch 7701, Cape Town, South Africa.



Cities exist in a world of cities and thus routinely invite a comparative gesture in urban theorizing. However, for some decades urban studies have analytically divided the world of cities into, for example, wealthier and poorer, capitalist and socialist, or into different regional groupings of cities, with subsequently very little comparative research across these divides. Interest in drawing comparisons among different cities has escalated in an era of ‘globalization’, as economic and social activities as well as governance structures link cities together through spatially extensive flows of various kinds and intense networks of communication. Nonetheless, scholars of urban studies have been relatively reluctant to pursue the potential for international comparative research that stands at the heart of the field. Where an interest in globalization has drawn authors to explicit exercises in comparison, both the methodological resources and the prevalent intellectual and theoretical landscape have tended to limit and even undermine these initiatives. This article seeks, first, to understand why it is that in an intrinsically comparative field with an urgent contemporary need for thinking across different urban experiences, there has been relatively little comparative research, especially comparisons that stretch across the global North–South divide, or across contexts of wealthier and poorer cities. Secondly, through a review of existing strategies for comparing cities, the article considers the potential for comparative methodologies to overcome their limitations to meet growing demands for international and properly post-colonial urban studies. Finally, it proposes a new phase of comparative urban research that is experimental, but with theoretically rigorous foundations.


Les villes existent dans un monde de villes et invitent donc normalement à un mouvement comparatif au sein de la recherche urbaine. Toutefois, depuis quelques décennies, les démarches analytiques des études urbaines ont scindé le monde des villes en, par exemple, riches et pauvres, capitalistes et socialistes, ou en d’autres regroupements par régions, ce qui s’est traduit par de rares comparaisons entre ces grandes divisions. L’intérêt pour les travaux comparatifs entre villes s’est accentué au fil de la ‘mondialisation’, les activités économiques et sociales ainsi que les structures de gouvernance reliant les villes par des flux de plusieurs types et de grande envergure spatiale, et par d’actifs réseaux de communication. Pourtant, les auteurs d’études urbaines se sont montrés peu enclins à approfondir le potentiel de recherches comparatives internationales qu’offre ce domaine. Lorsqu’un intérêt pour la mondialisation a poussé certains à des exercices comparatifs détaillés, tant les ressources méthodologiques que le contexte théorique et intellectuel dominant ont plutôt limité, voire anéanti, ces initiatives. Dans un premier temps, cet article cherche à comprendre pourquoi, dans un domaine comparatif par nature où un besoin urgent appelle à une réflexion associant différentes expériences urbaines, les études comparatives sont relativement rares, notamment les comparaisons qui dépassent la division entre Nord et Sud, ou entre les villes les plus riches et les plus pauvres. Ensuite, faisant le bilan des stratégies de comparaison existantes, il envisage les méthodologies comparatives qui pourraient repousser leurs limites pour répondre aux demandes croissantes en études urbaines internationales et réellement postcoloniales. Pour finir, l’article propose une nouvelle phase expérimentale d’études urbaines comparatives, également dotée de fondements rigoureux sur le plan théorique.