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Panel 37. Urban politics and shifting relations between cities and states


  • Côme Salvaire (Les Afriques dans le Monde, IRD)
  • Stijn Oosterlynck (University of Antwerp)


Do cities exist as political entities, or are they merely delegated forms of state authority? In Western Europe, a sociological tradition going back to the works of Max Weber has looked at cities as forms of political organization that, at various points in history, have been strongly differentiated from states. In contemporary contexts, some have argued that cities have returned to the forefront of political regulation and the structuration of collective action (Le Galès 2002), and debates regarding the dynamics of relations between cities and states have regained vitality as entry point into urban politics. This differs from earlier accounts on state spatial rescaling, in which the reinvigorated global role of cities is interpreted as a rescaling of state capacities (Brenner, 2004). This panel aims to open debate on the changing relations between cities and states and the degree to which they govern society in qualitatively different ways.

Whereas European scholarship has (over-)generalized the territorial state model to make sense of sociopolitical organization elsewhere (Herbst 2000), it has, on the contrary, largely held onto the Weberian idea that cities produce(d) a distinctive form of political organization considered as an exclusively European phenomenon (Lantschner 2015). Though the European city model retains clear specificities, a lingering sense of exceptionalism has often deterred attempts at considering political cities elsewhere and recover them from state-centrism. During the past two decades, scholarship on cities of the Global South has exposed the non-state forms of regulation and alternative urban sovereignties that have emerged together with neoliberal globalization (Rodgers 2006, Davis 2010). However, high levels of urban conflict together with fragmentation and segregation have generally discouraged efforts at conceptualizing them as part of urban forms of political organization.

Even as we grapple with the possibility of conceptualizing cities as more or less coherent political entities, this panel hopes to sketch out various configurations of urban politics and state-city relations. Though often a “love-hate affair” (Tilly 1990), how do cities and states differ in their political organisation and mode of governance? How are institutional structures, policymaking, and collective action and identity formation in cities (differently) organized? How are relations between cities, states and supra-national public institutions changing over time and are we truly living in ‘an urban age’ (Brenner & Schmid, 2014)? For example, are migration and integration policies any different in relatively autonomous cities? Do cities shape urban environments differently than states? Why is it that some states limit the scope of urban political agency (Beveridge and Koch 2023), while some cities manage to partially escape state domination and pursue their own agendas (Oosterlynck et al., 2019; Salvaire, 2021)? Are North-South divides relevant in making sense of these variations, or should we rather delineate configurations based on other factors (Rokkan 1973)? From an epistemological perspective, are urban studies still mainly informed by a statist ontology?

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