Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

The Urbanization of Injustice

Andy Merrifield and Erik Swyngedouw (editors)
Lawrence and Wishart: London
0 85315 842 8
246 pp.

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This book, edited by two former students of geography at Oxford, in Harvey's regime, derives from a conference there in 1994, held to commemmorate the twentieth anniversary of the publication of his landmark book, Social Justice and the City. Eleven papers are included in three sections:

I The Contested Terrain of Justice

Fainstein S: Justice, politics and the creation of urban space
Katznelson I: Social justice, liberalism and the city
Harvey D: The environment of injustice

II City Injustice

Massey D: Space/power, identity/difference
Smith N: Social justice and the new American urbanism
Keith M: Street sensibility?

III Justice and the cultural politics of difference

Berman M: Justice/Just Us
Soja E: Margin/Alia
Merrifield A: Social justice and communities of difference
Zukin S: Cultural strategies of economic development and the hegemony of vision

It will be evident that this was a round-up of the great and the good in socially committed urban studies, a rare occasion for eminent scholars to talk with honesty about the issues which have come to preoccupy them in their consideration of the geographies of capitalism. All write with distinctive voices, style, and, occasionally, wit, and any one of the essays gives cause for reflection. In that respect it is a good collection and one that should be on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in urban discourse.

It is not really a book about cities and city life, and it certainly not about the dominant experience of migration and upheaval, squalor and survival, which characterises world urbanization. There is probably more reference to the early modern city than to the environmental disasters that cities of the developing world create. I find it hard to understand how Harvey, for example, can present a thoughtful essay on the environment of injustice without talking about urbanization. But then, Soja writes an essay without referring once to a specific city, and only using the terms 'urbanization' and 'city' in reference to Harvey. His interest is in developing a 'radical postmodernist cultural politics'. It is noticeable that the three women represented in the collection - Fainstein, Massey and Zukin - all write essays in which contemporary urban living and urban culture are recognisable. All three, also, write without pretension. Massey's is, as ever, a sensible and sensitive discussion, this time, on the theme of identity-through- difference/domination.

Geography has certainly come a long way since the pre-theoretical days in which I studied the subject at Oxford. Theory was a wholly mystificatory fifth paper (on a Saturday morning) midway in a stream of regional papers and historical special subjects to which it had no evident relationship whatsoever. No-one taught theory, and there was no prestige in it. Harvey, from the 'other place' (Cambridge) was to change all that. Berman's splendid characterisation of Oxford in the 1960s as 'a Twilight Zone, an imperial capital of the mind whose Empire was extinct' (162) has a kernel of truth. But, there were strengths to the older tradition: empiricism was one; precise, careful writing could be another; and, overall, a persistent interest in the geography of place and people, changes and continuities in the way we live.

Rosemary Mellor
Department of Sociology, University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998