Greet De Block and Bert De Munck (University of Antwerp, Centre for Urban History and Urban Studies Institute)


Simon Gunn (The Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, UK), Patrick Lantschner  (University College London, UK), Stijn Oosterlynck (University of Antwerp, Dept. Urban Sociology), Alexia Yates (University of Manchester, UK)


This Round Table will address the relationship between urban history and urban theory. The aim is to critically examine the value added of urban theory to urban history, and vice versa. More specifically, discussants will explore and question the need for more theoretically engaged empirical research.

In sustained attempts to describe and capture the socio-spatial processes that make and unmake cities, urban theorists are tirelessly generating new concepts. The scope of the urban is expanded and urbanization is re-conceptualized as a planetary, networked, multi-scalar, and relational phenomenon. In the process, urban theory has become overly abstract, exponentially producing new concepts, often independent from concrete social practices. How can urban historians relate to that and create a valued-added? Do they simple have to stress empirical research or is there more to it?

Historians typically navigate handily between description and explanation, while leaving their conceptual and analytical framework implicit. Recent theoretical developments have moreover revealed that they often seem to be working with outdated models, based on the study of a limited number of so-called ‘paradigmatic’ cities like Athens, Rome, Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles. While the models and concepts emanating from these cases are often used as a template to evaluate and judge other urban experiences, the variety of urban ontologies and epistemologies in the past is hardly attended to. Is it time to turn the tables and look for formats of historical research which inform, even advance, theory rather than the other way around?

What is or could be the value-added of urban history for urban theory exactly? How to enter into a fruitful dialogue with recent theories on the Anthropocene, multi-scalar relations, non-human ontologies, actor-network-theory, planetary urbanization, or resilience, etc.? This roundtable sets up a dialogue between urban history and urban theory. We critically address the tensions and frictions inherent in historically grounded theory and theoretically grounded history and explore the relevance of history in the broader field of urban studies.