Comparative study of urban aspirations in mega-cities

Comparative study of urban aspirations in mega-cities

Peter van der Veer



  • Urban Aspirations in Seoul: Religion and Megacities in Comparative Studies
  • Urban Aspirations in Mumbai 


This is a project that studies the effects of the urban environment in globalizing mega-cities on the formation of ethnic and religious aspirations. It is not another project that surveys quantitatively urban ethnicity and religious identity. The concept of “identity”, with its static connotations has had limiting effects on the study of urban transformations, somewhat similar to the concept of “kinship” in earlier studies of society. We use the concept of “aspiration” to point at the ideational character of many of the processes that effect cityscapes and urban movements. This is true for city planning, squatting, migration, gentrification, as well as the extraordinary role played by the media and creative arts in mega-cities.

In prior studies of global processes, the dominant tendency has been to associate concepts like innovation, risk and productivity exclusively with the economy and market phenomena. This tendency was in tune with a more general emphasis on political economy in processes of globalization. Our proposal aims to supplement this emphasis by also looking at innovation, risk and productivity as central features of the cultural life of common people in global cities. We expect this corrective angle to generate new hypotheses about media, religion and social movements in the global cultural economy. Similarly, in the past, the urban has often been seen as a space of secularity, almost equating urbanity with secular modernity, but this is a misunderstanding that mainly arises from outdated modernization and secularization theories.

Mega-cities constitute constantly transforming arenas for the risk-taking of capital and religion in various instances of spatial contestation. Since they are constantly in flux, they are hard to study and thus require innovative methodologies. We use the term “observatory” in our project to refer partly to the theory-inflected long-term quasi field-biological method of observing behavior, with the caveat that behavior is understood here as the meaningful practices of humans and thus cannot easily be subjected to statistical surveying. Partly we also refer with this term to our emphasis on processes of mediation in combining the neighborhood with the larger city and with global networks.

This project understands mega-cities as a central element in globalization and is firmly comparative. Does globalization make comparative sociology redundant? Some might argue that it does, since global forces shape societies everywhere at the same time and it is these forces that have to be studied. But we want to argue that they shape societies in very different ways that need to be compared. For example, the IT revolution has shaped societies in important ways worldwide, but very differently in Europe and in India, and even very differently in Bangalore and Mumbai. In an earlier phase of globalization, imperialism shaped Britain and India simultaneously, but quite differently and the differences and similarities now and then call for comparative analysis.

The project aims to explore the Asian mega-cities of Mumbai, Singapore, Shanghai and Seoul. Mumbai is India’s financial capital and simultaneously the arena of a vibrant youth culture and a violent religious nationalism. Shanghai is very comparable to Mumbai as a colonial port and a premier financial center. Both cities are expressive of the nation-states that they are part of, but also quite uniquely different from them. Singapore is important as it combines a Chinese majority with considerable Indian and Malay minorities. It is also a financial center. Seoul is a financial center that is at the heart of East Asian modernity.

Interdisciplinary methodology
The methodology of the project needs to be unapologetically innovative and interdisciplinary, employing scholars from sociology, anthropology, urban studies, and architecture, and in the future from design academies, systems-planning, and media studies. It entails the following elements: (a) the observation and documentation of links between old and new media practices, users and audiences; (b) analysis of the role of new technologies in documentation, planning and design for “urban futures”: GIS for mapping, cell phones for spontaneous local photography, text-messaging for creating new links among urban youth, documentary cinema culture as a bridge between art and social activism, etc.; (c) study of the role of older media, such as popular cinema, music concerts, billboards and processions, English and vernacular newspapers, printing presses, etc., in the ecology of “new media”; (d) observation of the place of media in fostering new religious movements, churches, leaders, etc., especially as they affect the social imaginaries of migrants to cities, and create climates for social conviviality or violence; (e) accounts of the emergence of new generations of designers, animators, photographers, software experts, etc., as shapers of emerging youth cultures that cross-cut older ethnic, linguistic, religious and class boundaries through new spaces such as malls, office buildings, cineplexes, etc. We also aim to use new models of collaboration between local and international researchers, in order to maximize the catalytic relations between inside and outside views. Results of this project will directly examine the extent to which mega-cities have contributed to the paradox that modernization has not produced secularization. It will furthermore provide a comparative lens on those features of life in the mega-city that most contribute to this outcome in different national and regional settings, with a particular eye to distinguishing the role of fantasy-machines (such as cinema); political movements (especially those that have utopian or radical tendencies); new occupations (such as those involved in new sectors such as software, tourism, entertainment and finance), which may facilitate new religious identifications; and new neighborhood demographics, which may redefine the self and the other, present and future, hope and despair. Each observatory will provide a methodological equivalent of a dynamic, kaleidoscopic device, which will allow us to develop new understandings of fundamental social relations between urbanization, mediation, globalization and religious identification.