Migrants and Comparative Urbanism

Nina Glick Schiller, Director of Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures and Professor of Social Anthropology University of Manchester.

afro shop by roboppy on flickr

 

It was in the back room of an ‘Afro-shop’ in 2001 in Halle/Saale, a downscaled city in eastern Germany, that I was introduced to the comparative perspective that African migrants deployed to assess the relative merits and deficits of living in various European and American cities. As the men exchanged information and experiences, interspersed with comments on the football match they were watching on a small television perched high on a shelf, I realized that they lived within a transnational social field —a network of networks—that provided them with information with which to compare cities. They discussed employment opportunities, the degree of surveillance by authorities, the cost of living, the availability of health care and the quality of life and the cultural ambience of various localities.

Based on information from siblings and other kin, co-religionists, and friends, the men compared general differences between state policies and the specific differences between cities in Germany, France, the UK, the United States and Canada. To these men, who came primarily from Nigerian cities but had often come to Germany after working as traders in cities across West Africa, not all cities were equal. They deployed a system of comparing and ranking cities in which the cities that urban scholars have called global cities and gateway cities such as London, Paris, and New York were most desirable, although sometimes other rich and prosperous cities with less global cultural prominence such as Frankfort were also highly ranked.  Cities that held less cultural allure but allowed for some industrial employment and anonymity such as Birmingham were acceptable.  In contrast, cities without the possibility of even illegal work and without urban cultural capital such as Halle/Saale were generally ranked as undesirable but not as undesirable as the African cities from which they had fled. Most of the migrants who remained in Halle did so because their asylum seeker, refugee, student status or marriage to Germans kept them in the area. However, some migrants found ways not only to settle in the city but also to claim rights to the city and make it their own. These included the Ghanaian woman who owned the ‘Afro-shop’ and sold cooked food to the men gathered in the backroom and the Pentecostal Christians in the group who saw themselves as claiming the city for Jesus (Glick Schiller, 2009; Glick Schiller and Çağlar, 2008b; Glick Schiller et al, 2006)

In the 1980s and 1990s, a set of urban scholars had declared a handful of primarily European and American cities global on the basis of a limited number of economic indicators. A closely related scholarship ranked cities as world cities based on factors such as their interconnectivity and whether they contained significant firms serving the financial sector—accounting, advertising, banking/finance, insurance, law, and management consulting. Over the succeeding decade, global cities/ world cities literature have been critiqued on many points including the implication that only a small set of cities could be considered globe-spanning in their economies, interconnections and flows of labour and capital. By implication, all other cities remained bounded within nation-states.

This weakness of the global cities literature led some scholars to characterize any attempts to assess the relative merits or attractiveness of cities as Eurocentric and elitist. For example, Jenny Robinson has popularized Amin and Grahm’s (1997) term ‘ordinary’ cities, suggesting that urban scholars ‘post-colonizalize urban studies’ by setting aside the binary modernist division between the west and the rest and examine the way cities “off the map” were globally imprecated. Robinson’s arguments highlighted the globally interconnected historic urban project of capitalist production and distribution. Recognizing interconnection does not necessarily preclude the possibility of comparisons. To say cities are all interconnected does not mean they all equally benefit from such linkages or experience them in the same way.  However, some urban geographers, fearing an econometric ranking system began to argue against any comparative perspective. Yet urban comparisons have flourished in recent European cross-national research programmes but without clear criteria upon which city comparisons are being made.

Inspired by what I learned from African migrants in Halle, who recognized hierarchies of economic, political, and cultural power in their ranking of cities I argue for a relative comparative approach to the study of cities. Such an approach, builds on and develops Kevin Ward’s work on a ‘relational comparative’ urban studies. I add a concern for the ways in which residents of cities including migrant populations experience, understand, and evaluate the relative merits of cities. It is important in such comparative work to actively engage in an analysis of city rescaling processes and acknowledge active agency of migrants as what Ayse Caglar and I have called ‘scale makers’.  As scale makers, migrants relate to cities not only as workers but as business people, transnational capitalists, cultural producers, gentrifiers, intellectuals, makers of sacred space, and participants in transnational activism.

The relative positioning of a city within hierarchical fields of power may well lay the ground for the life-chances and incorporation opportunities of migrants locally and transnationally. At the same time, migrants contribute not only to the daily fabric of urban life but also to the construction of these fields of power. In order to understand the different modes and dynamics of migrant incorporation and transnationalism, we need to address the broader restructuring of capital and the rescaling processes affecting the cities in which migrants are settling and the roles of migrants in both restructuring and rescaling processes.

In summary, in comparing the specific similarities and differences between cities, in terms of their relationship to migrants, the variations to be studied include: (1) the production/destruction of capital in a particular city and its region; (2) the power hierarchies (economic, political and cultural) within which that city is situated and to which that city contributes as they stretch within and across the borders of states; (3) the specific history of that city that has shaped its institutional and political structure and narratives; and (4) the ways in which these variations make it possible for migrants to act as scale makers within urban repositioning processes. Within the neo-liberal push toward competition between cities, the resources of cities, including their human resources – which encompass the migrants and their skills and qualities – have acquired a new value and became assets among global competitors.  A comparative variation-finding approach to the relationship between migrants and cities in relative different positions of power and global reputation allows researchers to assess when and how migrants become scale makers.

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