The RC21 urban studies conference in Berlin triggered participants to rethink the resourcefulness of cities in today’s urbanized world. A wide variety of papers turned on sociologist’s fancy for topics ranging from gentrification, to conflict, to geography, and back to gentrification. The visitors displayed a vast amount of urban dwelling in the way they presented their papers. Urban dwelling, however, seemed in slight contrast to the plenary sessions that were mostly in search of ‘a new theory to understand the changing nature of the urban environment’.
The speeches were certainly inspiring and made us all rethink the blurry boundaries between what they call the global “north” and “south”, the “hinterlands” to the “industrial agglomerations”. But they did not invite us to rethink what is going on insight of these urban environments. How do residents deal with the density of space, culture, and economic activities? How can we look at conflicts between city planners and residents who wish for other plans? Where do the people go that move out because of gentrification? None of these questions is anything new, and most of the papers presented were about these very same topics. Urban sociologists know that to understand the city we must live the city, we must emerge ourselves in the places we study. To take a bottom-up perspective is a common goal. Then why are we in a frantic search for top-down theories? I would like to propose something very simple. Something I believe could break our vicious circle of theory based on theory explaining theory.
Instead of viewing the city from the top-down, from maps of growing, shrinking, and polluting urbanizations, I suggest we take our parachutes and jump out of the helicopter. Let us use the recourses that every city, street, corner intrinsically has to offer us; the interaction between people, institutes, and places. Let us be sociologists again and dive into the street, squares, and parks. Let’s take up our pen and notebook and learn from what is actually going on in the cities we study.
Let us observe how that old German man in Prenzlauerberg walks 7 blocks each day to circumvent the yuppie coffee shops to meet up with his Turkish and Kuwaiti friends with whom he used to play ‘jeux de boulle’ in Mauerpark before it turned into a Karaoke venue. Watch how African immigrants build their tents in Oranienstrabe to protest against illegality. And observe how the hipsters don’t pay attention to their struggly in their hurry to get to the Prinzessinnengarten to eat their organic urban garden food. Sit in the Ubahn and observe how Berliners perform their civil inattention in contrast to the London tourists who paradoxically master the art of being attentive in the context of Berlin.
If we would all do this, make one observation in our urban or non-urban environment each day, no matter what we intend to look at, we build a huge resource to understand the city. Simply describe the movements, face expressions, overheard conversations, and places in detail. And we can get informed and inspired by the everyday interactions of almost every city in the world. Let these interactions be the basis of our analysis. So that we can return to the RC21 next year in Japan using our amazing resource of being such an international group of sociologists with insightful street-level stories that allow us to rethink urban theories and philosophical discussions from the ground up. Let the Small Stories allow us to rethink the Large Issues of today’s the urban world.