Interdisciplinarity in Urban Studies


Urban Studies is generally recognized as a textbook example of an interdisciplinary field of inquiry.  Contributors look to synthesize observations and insights from multiple disciplines including anthropology, geography, history, sociology and many others.  Such integrative work has the potential to produce new models, metaphors, concepts and heuristics for thinking about the city.   The field becomes “transdisciplinary” when urban studies scholars collaborate with colleagues in urban planning, architecture, real estate, and other professions to practically implement ideas in the interests of improving urban life.

A couple of recent articles in major journals ordinarily read by very different academic audiences indicate how much more is still to be done to build interdisciplinary collaborations in the field of urban studies.  In the June 23 issue of Nature Florian Lederbogen and colleagues at the University of Heidelberg report some research in cognitive neuroscience that begins to explain why city living is associated with a greater lifetime risk for anxiety and mood disorders compared to country living.  It is known that anxiety disorders for city dwellers are 21% higher, mood disorders are 39% higher, and schizophrenia twice as common.  The team’s brain imaging experiments correlated city living with greater stress responses in the amygdala, a region of the brain involved with emotional regulation and mood.  This region was only activated in the subjects who


were city dwellers.  The team suggests that their work points “…to a new empirical approach for integrating social sciences, neurosciences and public policy to respond to the major health challenge of urbanization.”  A Nature News account of the research notes that such integration has always been a hard sell for social scientists enculturated by their disciplines to believe that biology plays no role in human affairs.  Indeed, one urban design professional commenting on the research cautioned that “all cities are not the same” and that there is “great variation in types of urban environment” worldwide. Nonetheless he admitted that understanding the neurobiological impacts of different urban designs would be a great boon to his profession.

Global variation in city type is the starting point for the second article by Michael E. Smith, an anthropological archaeologist.  Writing in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal Smith suggests that archaeology, with its “deep time” perspective on human settlement, can be a major contributor to contemporary discussions of urbanism including debates around such hot button issues as sprawl, squatting, and sustainability. Archaeologists might even offer some generalizations about the relationship between urban form and quality of life that are relevant to public policy if they can be confident about the comparability of ancient and modern urban contexts.  For example, detailed mapping and excavation of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan has revealed that architecturally distinctive “informal housing” was a significant feature of the cityscape.

Teotihuacan City Plan

Such housing fell outside the planning purview of central administrative elites and, thus, may indicate that the “right to the city” was taken-for-granted within this complex polity. Archaeology’s contributions to contemporary debates have heretofore been limited because archaeologists haven’t typically shown such an applied interest, nor developed concepts and models for studying the ancient city that would facilitate comparisons with modern cities.  At the same time Smith understands that it takes two to tango.   In a 2009 editorial in Urban Geography he noted that most urbanists are not aware of how an understanding of the ancient world can benefit the comparative study of city life (Edward Soja’s interest in the ancient Anatolian settlement of Catalhoyuk–arguably the first city in history–is one exception).

Although Smith and Lederbogen operate in very different academic domains they are united in calling for research to break down the artificial boundaries that divide disciplines.  Such research stands to enrich both disciplinary practice and public policy, and inevitably changes disciplinary practice itself.   This is what makes interdisciplinary work different from the various forms of multi- and cross- disciplinarity that far too often substitute for the former in most academic contexts.


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