The Cambridge Elements In Global Urban History: Building Up the Theoretical and Methodological Foundation of the Subfield

Editors Note: This is the first post in our July series on global urban history, structured around the recently launched Elements in Global Urban History from Cambridge University Press. This post introduces the logic and aims behind the Elements, and forthcoming posts by Richard Harris and Alexia Yates will elaborate on the work they contributed to the series. The month will end with interviews about the next two Elements to be published. Our book reviews are joining in the series, and every week we will post critical reflections on new works in the field of global urban history.

By Michael Goebel, Joseph Ben Prestel, and Tracy Neumann

Even in a digital age, academic publishing moves slowly. It has been five and a half years since we launched the Global Urban History Blog and two years since we announced our new project, the Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History. Now the first two “Elements” have seen the light of day.

The first of these, authored by Richard Harris, fittingly introduces readers to the overarching question of How Cities Matter. The second, written by Alexia Yates, is likewise dedicated to one of the fundamentals of modern urban history: real estate. On June 17, we celebrated the occasion with a launch event on Zoom, featuring the three series editors and the two authors alongside discussants Jennifer Robinson and Sheetal Chhabria. If you missed it, you can still watch it on the Global Urban History Project (GUHP) YouTube channel.

Cambridge University Press describes Elements as nothing less than “a new concept in academic publishing and scholarly communication, combining the best features of books and journals.” It certainly has been new for us, including some nearly invisible work for us editors behind the scenes. Aiming for diversity and coherence at once in our series involves a balancing act, especially when a relatively new field of study, such as global urban history, is concerned. Yet the format of the series offers advantages for our purpose. With their length of 20,000–30,000 words, Cambridge Elements fall half-way in between monographs and journal articles. Every “Element” thus promises to offer space for methodological reflections concerning the intersection of urban and global history, while they are still concise enough to be usable in seminar rooms, providing a survey of a specific theme or approach.

Even as the pandemic has delayed the appearance of our first volumes, we still aim to publish five “Elements” per year over the next five years. Our future authors include both emerging and established scholars, building on the networks the blog and the GUHP have helped to create. Yet, drawing on the experience we’ve had with the Global Urban History Blog, we hope that the new series receives attention not only from scholars who have long felt at home in urban history—an academic demographic that so far has proved more receptive to what we are doing. It is our aspiration that the series will also provide a platform for authors who so far have primarily anchored themselves in global history or in the historical area studies; historians of, say, Africa or East Asia with an interest in urbanism whose main interlocutors have not been other urban historians.

Our aim is to make global urban history into something more than a fashionable relabeling of urban history, simply adding the “global” label because it may promise better funding opportunities or career chances. Instead, we require a more coherent and sustained discussion of the meaning and the implications of the adjective “global.” Closely related to this is a debate about the Eurocentrism and United States-centrism of nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban history and its implications. This is a necessary precondition for the second goal: we need to better demonstrate what an urban focus offers to global history. This case must amount to something more than an unimaginative and unrealistic exhortation that everyone study cities and title their books accordingly. Instead, we might start by tweaking Chris Bayly’s famous quip about “world history” by saying: We are all urban historians, even though many of us don’t know it.

Consider three examples. First, modern migration history, surely an area dear to global historians, is in good part a history of urbanization, yet it is not written as such. In many historical settings, migrants have primarily moved to cities. The association is so strong that people who went to work the land have typically been described differently: settlers, indentured laborers, and so forth. In spite, or because, of these truisms, there is little sustained theorizing today about the reasons, meanings, and implications of this link, even as the influential Chicago School of Sociology was in many ways a two-pronged approach to both migration and cities.

Second, the history of capitalism. In recent years scholars have published various studies that explore the history of capitalism in a global context, focusing on topics from liberalism to tax havens. The Element on Real Estate and Global Urban History by Alexia Yates demonstrates that cities played a pivotal role in this history, not only as sites of such institutions as stock exchanges and banks, but through real estate as a specifically urban form of capital accumulation. With this argument, Yates’ contribution illustrates that historians of global capitalism need to be ready to put on an urban lens.  

Finally, there is social history, which not coincidentally was born as an institutionalized subfield in Western academia alongside urban history. Here, too, it is worth bearing in mind that the entire discipline of sociology essentially developed out of an interest in social differentiation in cities, which historically have been, and continue to be, key drivers of inequality both globally and nationally. Whether a “global social history” is possible or useful is an urgent question for global history at large. It is not one that can be answered without conscious attention to the urban.

None of this should be misunderstood as a plea to abandon histories that focus on the rural. Neglect of the countryside continues to be a significant problem for history altogether, not only because most historians today are urbanites, whereas the human past was a more rural affair, but also because the traditional archival record tends to be denser for cities than for non-urban places. But the spatial dichotomy between the urban and the rural should not be seen as an either-or choice of subject matters. On the contrary, it is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most successful agriculture-related global history books of the past decade, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, was written by someone previously known as a specialist of the New York bourgeoisie. Our call is not to narrow our topics to things that happened within city limits, but instead to pay attention to “urbanness” (and its defining opposites) as a category of analysis.

This, in short, is what our Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History will seek to achieve cumulatively. Moving forward, we envisage the Elements series to contribute to global urban history as a subfield with a more rigorous theoretical and methodological basis – one that more intentionally draws together the urban and the global.


Michael Goebel is the Pierre du Bois Chair Europe and the World and Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute Geneva. From September 2021 he will be Einstein Professor of Global History at Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the PI of the SNSF-funded project Patchwork Cities: Urban Ethnic Clusters in the Global South During the Age of Steam.

Joseph Ben Prestel is an Assistant Professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) of history at Freie Universität Berlin. His research focuses on modern global and urban history with an emphasis on the entangled history of Europe and the Middle East. He is the author of Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910 (Oxford University Press, 2017) and currently working on a book about Palestinians and the West German radical left.

Tracy Neumann is an Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University. Her research focuses on cities and the built environment. She is the author of Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and of essays on urban history and public policy. She is writing a book on the global dissemination of urban design and international development models since 1945.

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