Building Castells in the city air

The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory
June 7, 2002

This collection could be titled "Manuel Castells: Essential Readings". It comprises key selections from the work of this prominent urbanist throughout his career, together with two previously unpublished chapters that sum up Castells's views on the state of both the urban and of urban sociology at the millennium. The well-chosen selection conveys a proper impression of Castells's work over a 30-year period. But the editorial introduction is thin. It veers towards hagiography rather than proper critical assessment, although Ida Susser does permit herself to note the British historical school of Marxism, exemplified by E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, writers to whom Castells has paid minimal attention. It is a pity she does not develop this because it indicates the crucial weakness in the work of Castells who, while interesting and stimulating, does not tell us everything about the present state of cities or about contemporary urban theory.

The first section outlines "a theoretical approach to the city in advanced capitalism". Here Castells the Althusserian attempts a rigorous confrontation of urban theory (primarily the Chicago school and its US successors) with a rigidly deterministic, systemic and essentially ahistorical structuralism. He lays out a general story that he has never quite abandoned, despite major shifts in empirical focus and writing style.

The second section, "Social movements and urban culture", mixes two phases in Castells's work. The first two empirically based chapters were written when he was still a Parisian structuralist. One is a perfectly decent, if dated and partial, account of immigration in postwar Europe. The other spells out Castells's most important original formulation: the idea of the urban as the sphere of collective consumption.

The third chapter sees Castells transformed into a leftwing Weberian historical sociologist reporting on empirical work and theoretical understanding dealing with urban social movements in the San Francisco of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of us welcomed this shift. Castells seemed to have abandoned the sterile structuralism of his earlier period in favour of an action-centred history. In so doing he had, without any real explanation, identified himself with what in his earlier work he called "a rightwing (but apparently leftwing) deviation, which consists in recognising these new problems, but doing so in terms of the urbanistic ideology, moving away from a Marxist analysis and giving them a theoretical - and political - priority over economic determinism and class struggle". To be fair, Castells never quite abandons the notion of class, although he never really had a properly developed understanding of the nature of social classes as historical agents - exactly what he might have got from a reading of Thompson and Williams.

The book's final section is titled "The city in the information age". The first two chapters provide an excellent summary of Castells's views on the nature of post-industrial capitalism and the post-industrial urban. Here we have Castells as a Schumpeterian, tying his account of mode of production to a technological determinism of spatial and social forms. There is a lot of force in his general analysis that it was "not... the shift from goods to services but... the emergence of information processing" that was "the one, fundamental activity conditioning the effectiveness and productivity of all processes of production, distribution, consumption, and management" - even if it is incomplete and, in important respects, wrong.

In the late 1980s, Castells was a Schumpeterian techno-economico-determinist, but in his later three-volume The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture he softened this position somewhat by paying serious attention to the character of the new global elite of the globalised space of the global city in general. Actually Castells seems never quite to let go of any of the thematics he has acquired over his lifetime's work. There remains a kind of systemic structuralism from his French period coupled with an interest and belief in the power of elites, which reflects the character of US studies in the political-science tradition.

The last two chapters, published for the first time in this volume, furnish an excellent introduction to Castells's current thinking. But they also demonstrate its serious limitations. Castells does not have the complete command of the character of urban research which would be necessary to validate his account of the stagnation of urban studies in the 1990s. In particular, and this reflects and reinforces the major theoretical weakness in his grand scheme, he seems unfamiliar with contemporary ethnographic accounts of lived urban experience. He knows a lot about global elites and their forms of cultural consumption but seems to know less about how people live and what motivates them. The old ahistorical systemic determination is still there. For Castells, as for so many urbanists, culture is an aspect of elite consumption and economic production within a general story of economic geography, and also a tribute these urbanists pay to postmodernist theorising - which is even more ignorant of lived experience than they are. Castells is far from the worst offender in this respect.

Overall the book is a good selection of interesting and important work. But how much better it would have been had Castells engaged with the modes of thinking and acting exemplified by Thompson and Williams.

David Byrne is reader in sociology and social policy, University of Durham.

The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory

Editor - Ida Susser
ISBN - 0 631 21932 3 and 21933 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 431

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