Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

3.3 Three types of questions about agency

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Figure 5 Urban processes present multiple challenges for analysis

Thinking about ‘theory’ as comprising distinctive problematisations of urban processes helps us to regard these different strands of academic inquiry not so much as providing definitions, but as opening up questions, questions we can deploy analytically in our own investigations of particular urban issues and problems. So the three broad approaches to thinking about urban agency can be redescribed as drawing our attention to three types of questions about agency:

  • The first type of question we can ask about urban issues concerns causal analysis. This type of question seeks to explain the processes, practices, interests and actors that generate the conditions through which issues emerge as potential objects of debate, contention, intervention, management and regulation.
  • The second type of question focuses on how these potential objects of action are identified and recognised. This type of question seeks to understand the communicative processes which provide opportunities for people to recognise shared interests, identify a shared sense of grievance or develop collective strategies to express their concerns.
  • The third type of question we can ask is concerned with understanding the powers that different actors or organisations have to act effectively on urban issues. Is the city, for example, necessarily the most effective jurisdictional scale for managing urban issues, whether it is thought of as a scale of legitimate government or as a scene for the exercise of citizenship?

It is important to reiterate that this three-way distinction between types of questions is an analytical device for thinking about spatial issues. Each of the three questions opens up to view one aspect of any particular issue – causal aspects, aspects related to how social relationships are formed and the aspect pertaining to the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of actually acting in response to issues and problems. A comprehensive approach to any specific issue will involve the integration of all three aspects.

In order to further develop the framework of critical spatial thinking that builds on these different traditions – in which cities and other places are thought of as agents in processes of issue formation, in the articulation of opinions and interests, and in the enactment of collective action and institutional authority – we will now move on to look at each of these three traditions in a little more detail in Sections 4, 5 and 6.


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