World of Cities Workshop: What Makes a ‘World City’? Local World Views and Global Knowledge

by Jan Nijman, University of Amsterdam

About twelve years ago, during a lecture at the Indian Institute for Technology in Mumbai, I was confronted with a question from the audience as to ‘where Mumbai ranks among world cities’ (the lecture was not about that topic and the question came out of left field). This was just over a decade ago, and the city hardly figured in any of the existing studies at that point. I remember trying to bring the news gently but to no avail. The audience was taken aback by what they considered a striking lack of appreciation by ‘world city scholars’ of Mumbai’s ‘obvious’ significance as the economic capital of a country with nearly one-sixth of humanity. While I was not ready to submit to the biases of local city boosters, I vividly remember feeling compelled to rethink the validity of world city theory. As the audience would have it, surely something was wrong with it.

About six months later, I gave a talk at UCLA and I reiterated my experience in Mumbai. The reaction of the audience there was, as I recall, quite blunt: surely we should not let our understanding of the urban world base on the subjective views of Mumbaikars?! I was left somewhat frustrated with this point of discussion because, at the time, I could not quite articulate what I felt was the crux of the issue and why it mattered. But in hindsight it did become more clear, and it actually was not that simple.

While it is not necessarily true that all knowledge is local, there is a good deal of truth to the point that world views are – from Mumbai to Los Angeles. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. The fascinating confluence of urban studies and globalization studies exhibits this inherent tension between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ – not just in terms of broad perspectives but also in terms of methodological approaches. It is especially manifest in the hugely interesting and important concept of the global urban network which is a lot easier to theorize than to circumscribe empirically.  They are almost without exception constructed from ‘the’ center outwards, i.e., London, or New York or other places centrally placed on the mental maps of (predominantly western) scholars. And, almost by definition, other cities in the world then appear on the map on the basis of their importance to that center. It is bias, systematized.

From an empirical, methodological point of view, the global urban network (if we want it to carry a semblance to reality) must be constructed from ‘the ground up’, node by node, dyad by dyad, flow by flow. To be sure, it would involve an outrageous amount of localized data collection across the globe. Unless, of course, we are not really interested in the global urban network per se but rather in the ways that the rest of the world relates to us, connects to us, how important other cities are to us.

Imagine, for a moment, that Mumbai were not at all connected to Europe or to the USA but it would still be urban centre to all of India – wouldn’t it still matter on the global stage, even as the main node of a ‘global subdivision’?

World-views, whether espoused in LA, Mumbai, or Amsterdam, are intrinsically biased. But if it is really the global that we are interested in, then a billion people can’t be wrong.

Jan is speaking at the cities@manchester ‘World of Cities: comparison across the disciplines’ workshop, 17-18 May 2012. The workshop is fully booked but will be audio recorded. This and a collection of the workshop papers will also be added to the workshop page after the event. 

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