5 Understanding urban issues
The second type of question which the framework of critical spatial thinking leads us to ask focuses on understanding how potential objects of action are identified and recognised. This aspect of analysis draws into view the various 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. In calling this second aspect ‘understanding’ of urban issues, we mean to signal two related things:
- This aspect of analysis is concerned with how participants in urban issues or spatial practices themselves come to understand their own identities and how best to pursue their own interests. Academic analysis can, of course, still seek to explain the processes through which this understanding is developed; however, because properly appreciating these processes requires sensitivity to the perspectives of actors themselves, adopting an observer–participant approach has its limits.
- The second aspect of critical spatial thinking requires a movement between an observer perspective and a sensitivity to participant perspectives, so academic analysis is better characterised here as seeking a form of understanding that is not necessarily reducible to causal explanation.
The second aspect of the critical spatial thinking framework draws on two related traditions of urban and spatial thought, both of which alight on the distinctive characteristics of modern cities as social and cultural organisms. Both of these traditions focus on ‘who’ questions more than ‘why’ questions.
First, there is a strand of sociological thought that has emphasised the distinctive forms of social interaction and sociability that characterise the city – a strand best-known for the claim that the city gives rise to a distinctive culture, dubbed ‘urbanism as a way of life’.
Second, there is a strand of sociological thought and political theory that connects this sense of the distinctive social forms of city life to a stronger quasi-political claim about the city as the scene for the formation of a distinctive type of public life, through which urban residents recognise themselves and act as citizens of a shared collective course.