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Presence-absence of urban studies in France: Challenges and Perspectives


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1The spread of the urban phenomenon is now a mainstay, alongside the urbanization of social questions. On that basis, a vast body of research, usually grouped together under the name of “urban studies,” investigates the spatial enigmas of life in society. The situation in France is relatively singular in that regard, since Urban Studies are marginal. This is the situation that we will discuss here.

2For about ten years, a dual movement has indeed been observed, with, on the one hand, the affirmation of a field of studies revolving around the urban phenomenon – already established as urban studies in the English-speaking world – and, on the other hand, a return to the challenge of disciplinary perimeters – that we can observe during the recruitment of professors-researchers for example, and which alleviates the scope of attempts to overcome or reconnect the disciplinary borders. Several reflections on the status and the meaning of Urban Studies can be mentioned, whether it is in the United States or in France. Therefore, in their article “What is Urban Studies?”, William Bowen, Ronnie Dunn and David Kasdan (2010) question the definition of Urban Studies in the United States, while reminding the readers that it is a study field that does not seem to coincide with the criteria of a traditional field. Years later, the Métropolitique journal published an article with the following question: “Are there French Urban Studies?” (Collet and Simay, 2013). From both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Urban Studies are indeed characterized by an uncertain positioning within social sciences, with a blurry definition.

3The degree of institutionalisation of the urban studies field is no stranger to the fragility of its foundation. However, the context in which they appear plays a role that is not to be ignored, as Christian Topalov points out: “This discipline hasn’t known a process of collection of knowledge within a stable institutionalisation, but rather as a discontinued series of local emergences, followed by eclipses. The object definition has changed often, sometimes in a radical way. The reason for this is that each definition is connected to the specific historical configuration of the time and country considered – despite episodes of partial internationalisation.” (2013, p. 1). The fact remains that the city as an object for analysis, and more broadly societies’ space, cannot be seized by any discipline (Ramadier, 2004), and we often gain from associating the well-identified analytical fields to those that are first and foremost expressive and narrative, such as literature, cinema, poetry and music. Many prizes (“la ville à lire”, “écrire la ville”…) as well as many thematic exhibitions prove this point.

4How to read the connections between the disciplines that are at the centre of Urban Studies? Some favour the discipline from where the studies appeared (Huxley and McLoughin, 1985). Moreover, the same fields are often mentioned, and some people attribute the birth of Urban Studies to one specific discipline. Therefore, Jacques Brun (2008) believes that, in France, Geographer Pierre George can be considered as one precursor in Urban Studies. The same acknowledgment comes from Paul Mercier, in the African context (1973). For others, the works undertaken by the Chicago School started Urban Studies (Legates, 2003, p. 13). The same authors sometimes create connections with the evolution of the urban and social landscape and the birth of some schools of thought (Frey and Zimmer, 2001; Kwok, 1983; Scherrer, 2010; Van Damme, 2005; Zukin, 1980; Gottdiener and Feagin, 1988).

5Other authors focus more specifically on the challenge of interdisciplinarity. If it often represents a banner, its practice is in fact much more discreet and does not specifically achieve academic recognition. Moreover, its scientific basis is demanding and foreign to the lazy version that consists in juxtaposing knowledge, and another, barely more satisfactory, that consists in an integrated knowledge to equip urban actions and decisions. Therefore, Gabriel Dupuy and Lucien Gilles Benguigui (2015) warn about the different forms of practice in terms of disciplinary junction to discuss the idea of an offensive interdisciplinarity, mostly carried out by hard sciences, and facing urbanism with its blurriness and its “pseudo-scientific” aspects (that lack requirements as to be validated empirically), that could be fatal to it. This is valid both for the questioning of key concepts, such as space or scale, and for the highlighting of the virtues of self-organisation, facing urbanistic knowledge, or with what big data is promising without the urbanists. Often positivistic, this critic is about urban planning itself and not so much about Urban Studies, but the critic on interdisciplinarity can also be found there. Such a disruptive interdisciplinarity deserves at least some monitoring, since it happens in a rich context that explores the promises of data mining (Devisme, Guérin-Pace, Voiron, 2019). In the American context, Urban Studies are institutionalised and hold some legitimacy, as proven by many university curricula in this field, or by the Urban Affairs Association. It is thus relatively easy to explain what Urban Studies are – both in terms of research and teaching – even despite the limits mentioned earlier. However, what about countries that, just like France, have a weaker institutionalisation of the field (Van Damme, 2005)? More specifically, how can we undertake urban studies when they are not institutionalised into the academic field?

6This paper aims 1) at introducing a reflection on the Urban Studies field in contemporary France, 2) at providing markers on a relevant exploratory approach whose outcome remains partial and 3) at presenting the contribution of this journal’s thematic issue.

1. The lessons from editorial adventures and exploratory interviews

7To answer the question of the Urban Studies practice in France, two entry points can be considered interesting. The first one revisits publications that discuss, more or less directly, this field of study. The second relies on interviews with researchers, asking them explicitly the question.

8The French-speaking publications that focused, for lack of proper field delimitation, at least on a culture of the stakes, are useful. The number of sources considered as primary in this context is a sign that it is difficult to engage both accumulation and internal critic.

9Penser la ville (Ansay and Schoonbrodt, 1989) provided philosophical texts, of which we can remember the identification of four types of discourse on the city, whether they are the expression of an original experience, the production of objective knowledge, the participation to a challenge or the “right to the city” in itself. Desseins de villes, art urbain et urbanisme (Gaudin, 1991) established a social-historical reflection on the intentional transformations of built spaces from a corpus composed of texts from a 20th century intermediary technical field that switches between aesthetic and functional considerations. Villes et civilisation urbaine. XVIIIe – XXe siècle is an anthology as well, the result of a collaboration between Roncayolo and Paquot (1992). If it is part of the composition of a field (science of cities), its thematic choices regulating the chapters are very broad, and the reading is not organised around one specific grid: they discuss the design of the city (doctrines and utopias), specific geo-types, but also wide cultural regions (USSR, United States, “Third World” – as it was specifically identified). This anthology aimed at thinking the city of today, and insisted on the generalised urbanisation and the end of the duality between city and countryside. It highlighted the challenge of a mobility/rooting dialectic and strived for “de-provincializing” urban thinking. It was based on three pre-conditions: firstly, urbanisation changes in nature with industrialisation; secondly, the change of scale expresses the emergence of urban civilisation; finally, the relationship to nature is transformed by the urbanisation of the world. This book aimed at distinguishing founding texts, articles that are references and did not focus on contemporary articles.

10La ville et l’urbain. L’état des savoirs (Paquot, Lussault and Body-Gendrot, 2000) is explicitly included in a collection aiming for referential stabilisation. In addition, it starts from an enigma that we rediscover, more or less the same, 15 years later: in France, the city is not the object of a specific area of knowledge. The six chapters try to establish this, calling for short contributions from French urban researchers. A year later, the release of La ville des sciences sociales (2001) as a tribute to Bernard Lepetit, was the confirmation of this challenge, echoing the seminar of the same name by Bernard Lepetit and Christian Topalov. In a historicist and reflexive perspective, some authors relied on a narrower reading of several texts that are not necessarily staples in the field, and its analysis could show how the city is both the object of knowledge and the object of practice and intentional transformations. We can see a converging project, albeit more prospective, with La ville et l’urbain. Des savoirs émergents (Da Cuhna and Matthey, 2007), a blend collected by Jean-Bernard Racine and organised around emerging fields: in this case, around complexity, sustainability and identity. Similarly, the Traité sur la ville (Stébé and Marchal, 2009) is a collection that seems to be pioneering in the variety of collected approaches, within the paradigm of global urban condition. Recently, Transformations des horizons urbains (de Coninck and Deroubaix, 2012) convenes approaches from developers, architects, environmentalists to qualify the expertise about the city, the effects of urban policies, representations of the city and changes in scale, in a way that reminds us of the older, collective work L’urbain dans tous ses états, Faire, dire, vivre la ville (Haumont dir., 1998).

11Moreover, Enjeux de la sociologie urbaine (Bassand, Kaufmann and Joye, 2007 [2001]) appears indeed under interdisciplinary conditions, but it refers to an instructive partition, with each chapter referring to metropolitan dynamics, mobilities and fluidity, to urban fragmentations and the action on the urban. Lastly, Les faiseurs de villes (Paquot, 2010) is a collection of texts assembled to bring visibility to 26 urban manufacturers; it can be read as a continuation of Conversations sur la ville et l’urbain (Paquot, 2008), which integrates 79 biographies of social sciences scholars who question the urban phenomenon. Those two books gather publications from the Urbanisme journal and allow to give a continuation on the debate, in the French-speaking world, about the critical scope of Urban Studies (Gintrac and Giroud, 2014).

12Without being complete, this French-speaking review shows that the urban question torments more than a single scientific community, but that it does not appear as one structuring or restructuring pole for disciplinary affiliations. Despite auspicious institutional creations, in our case the Paris Institute of Urban Planning (from the merger of IUP and IFU), the Paris Sciences Po Urban School or the Lyon Urban School, the field struggles to structure itself. The exploratory interviews for the constitution of this thematic issue mention more willingly the concept of epiphenomena, of shooting stars: conjunctures rather than structures.

13Several interviews – conducted with researchers selected for their publications or their specific background – allowed us to test some hypotheses, with a grid that discusses both the researchers’ trajectory and questions on the role of actors’ requests, of students’ requests, of the structure of the editorial field and potential tutelary figures (without trying to find heroes). We can provide a brief overview of those discussions.

14One of our respondents, trained in both sociology and geography, has been a research officer for the Paris Urban Planning Workshop for 10 years and is now a professor in social sciences in architecture school. He considers urban sociology as a construction site, an area of freedom that discusses more directly the experience of students than the sociology of work or education. He also insists on the challenge of being able to express himself both in French and in English, and to be potentially recruited both in sociology and in geography. The founders’ side is characterised by Georg Simmel, as well as Jean Rémy and Jean-Paul Lévy. His considerations demonstrate the desire to operate regulated borrowings, without poaching. According to him, the Urban Studies field exists only because it has resources, even modest ones. It is indeed a small field of research, influenced by urban preoccupations, but which is facing a professional demand at the University. Lastly, it is a field that encounters a rather specific question: the relation between the local level (and its environment) and the international level.

  • 1 The Conseil National des Universités is a University body that involves qualification and career ma (...)
  • 2 Launched in 2005 and nowadays led by the interministerial research and experimentation program PUCA (...)

15Another respondent underlines that, according to him, “Recherche urbaine” (urban research) would be clearer in France than Urban Studies. If he considers himself more in connection with the fields of history where the closure of the academic field is regularly highlighted, he explains that there is generally an editorial field as such, with journals and collections of publishing houses, let alone the institutionalisations represented by a section of the CNU (24th) and the CNRS (39th)1. He also mentions what the role of Thesis awards about the city2 can represent about the existence of a field (this award receives about 50 propositions every year) – N° 107 (December 2012) of the Annales de la recherche urbaine thus highlights the awarded theses. It still does not prevent pointing out a lack of self-reflection on the field.

16Another researcher, trained in philosophy, states that his disciplinary origin allows him to go back to the challenges of the practical turn of philosophy (its “landing”, which leads an increasing number of philosophers to be recruited to dialogue with professional communities, like doctors for example). There exists a dual risk of marginalisation when one teaches in an architecture school (about the project fields and about their own discipline) but the plasticity of the position can allow a lot of freedom to the researcher. Moreover, the practice of answering calls for research also leads to distancing oneself from disciplines’ strict codes: “when we are working on the interface or the articulation of disciplines, we become aware of their limits very quickly, and that is good!” If students usually come to higher education with expectations relative to objects, the researchers’ work is to translate, and not to strictly choose an approach by discipline or by object. To the always-delicate question of founding father, Georg Simmel’s name always comes back, at the crossroads between philosophy and sociology.

17Another respondent is a geographer. If the beginning of his university career took place in the Urban Studies department at the University of Lyon 2, it now seems to him that Urban Studies could display themselves as the heart of the social sciences offered in French urban planning institutes. However, it appears clear that the academic workings hold the perimeters in France, and this fact does not support the recast for the expected profiles. We can thus hypothesise about a commutative field that is not yet completely constituted. According to his statement, it would be beneficial to explore how a doctorate in sciences of territories is initiated at the University of Grenoble, and with what expectations. Another member of our small sample notes that what always interested him was to understand how “the city could, in the end, be a mission territory”. He also reminds us that Urban Studies designated, in the 1960s, the practical knowledge of research offices, and was thus distinguished from research and the “epistemological cuts”.

18Lastly, the last interviewee’s professional map highlights this field, but she admits that the field is not structured as such, contrary to urban planning. Naturally, we can find major actors, but none of them is a prime example; we can thus talk about an Urban Studies tradition de facto. More specifically, as a professor from the University of Nanterre, she sees there a fertile ground (eg. Lefebvre) and stresses the importance of the American influence in the implementation of an Urban Studies curriculum via a critical anchoring. What about a collection of urban theories in France?

19Those researchers do not agree on the questions asked by the hypothetical Urban Studies field, but they are sensitive to it, and it is because most of their paths are that of secant outsiders. Two contrasting sides appear: one consists in not regretting the lack of field and in doubting the merits of Urban Studies proliferation; the other, more activist, argues for the structuration of this field, considering it a way to denationalise the French urban research. All of them point at a reduced visibility and at the absence of a collection on urban theories in France (the American-centred aspect of the collection is obvious).

2. Promises of an extended investigation

  • 3 Reminder: it started from a transatlantic questioning, especially between Québec, the English-speak (...)

20Both the bibliographic research and the interviews were at the origin of a research project3 and of the construction of a corpus of texts left in midstream. Nowadays, its deliverable is the special issue of a journal at the border of the studied field.

  • 4 From 40 researchers selected and contacted, 14 “played the game” of sending us 15 major texts publi (...)
  • 5 Cf. the Champ libre ? L’aménagement et l’urbanisme à l’épreuve des cadres théoriques symposium, Jan (...)

21During our interviews, the thoughtful answers to one of our questions motivated the extension of the investigation: “What studies, texts or researchers do you instantly think about when you think about Urban Studies in France?” The feedback4 confirms a wide spectrum of affiliations: sociology, urban planning, philosophy, geography, political science. The texts are either essays or case studies with a tendency to generality. They are sometimes “un-disciplinary” approaches of social sciences (which echoes the editorial line of the journal), but they mostly have a strong empirical content, with a more or less assumed critical scope. The place for theory is not easy to distinguish, which also motivates movement in the university world of urban planning that aims at testing the theoretical frameworks about their field, and their universalising tendencies5.

22Beyond the panorama supported by this initial project (the list of selected texts is available in the annex), such a study also questions the organisation and the scope of knowledge that is specifically about Urban Studies. Firstly, the question of cultural and linguistic area arises. Several researchers told us that they (almost) do not read or write in French anymore: it questions the evolution of internationalisation within academic fields, and the validity of questioning an issue in the French-speaking area. Secondly, Urban Studies are notoriously involved with professional universes (of the urban transformation), and it is likely that they win a lot from structuring spaces for debate, discussions, cross-reflections with territorialised public policies and from empowering themselves within the academic field. Urban theories are thus as much theories of urban action, and cannot be left away from the actors working on urban public issues. They should explore the conditions for research in partnership and the concept of action-research. Lastly, the critical situation of urban research on France is precisely an interesting moment for its future, initiated by CNRS between 2015 and 2016 (6 study days took place, a thematic school was set up and a collective publication will conclude this work which started by a manifesto).

23Simultaneously, we can question the way some debates that structure the American scene nowadays are transferable in France. The criticism from Michael Storper and Allen Scott (2016) about theses on planetary urbanisation, postcolonial issues or the scope of the theories on actor-network in urban questions can lead to believe that we are at the right time for the examination and the expression of Urban Studies. Those are expectations for the concluding book of the Prospective Nationale de Recherche Urbaine (french forecast exercise for urban research), from the special 10th anniversary edition of the Métropoles journal, or an upcoming issue of the Annales de la recherche urbaine (2019).

3. Scope and limits of a thematic issue

  • 6 The purpose of this text is not to reflect on that aspect, but the question of time managing the pr (...)

24The joint publication originally envisioned was divided into two parts. The first one was focusing on the themes within the main publications in the field since the 2000s. The second part highlighted the future perspectives, as well as the commitment from different researchers in contemporary social debates. The vicissitudes of a joint research project by itself and without specific funding6 led to the selection of a rather smaller, more prospective ensemble of texts.

25If in most countries urban planning and Urban Studies are clearly identified, the case of France is different, and most Urban Studies promoters work within the field of urban planning, or very close to it. This represented the challenge of having a text questioning urban planning. To this end, Juliette Maulat and Mathieu Gimat question research and teaching in this field and study the difference between “knowledge to” (guide, facilitate action) and “knowledge about” urban planning, which is much more analytical. As young researchers, they offer a direct questioning of what it means to belong to a discipline and clearly advocate for a more discursive interdisciplinarity, where transfers and appropriations are discussed to avoid abusive and restrictive blending. Therefore, they propose more pronounced research agendas and research programs.

26The elements for a history of Urban Studies presented by Yankel Fijalkow (in collaboration with Amélie Nicolas) highlight the effects of having agendas that bring forward types of sites shaping public action and directing the researchers’ eye. The news from the 1950s, with popular communities-neighbourhoods, are compared to that of the 1980s with the city centres’ old neighbourhoods, to the 1990s with their pedestrian neighbourhoods commemorated as part of heritage, and the 2000s with enclaves from the French suburbs and the peri-urban pavilion areas used by middle and working classes. It represents a punctuation of French Urban Studies from the study of keywords such as “neighbourhood”, “street” and “public spaces”: a contextualisation that does not exclude other terms, while still facilitating ways to formulate questions within Urban Studies.

27Beyond a very exhaustive French bibliography and a text with a tree structure about many typologies, Clément Boisseuil proposes a disciplinary constitution for Urban Studies with the example of potential convergence through a program to study implementations. The focus is the urban renewal of French working-class areas. Therefore, this approach involves different study types (analysis of the city policies in France, objectives for the reduction of territorial inequalities, analysis of projects governance) and proposes, with a specific theoretical framework, to overcome discipline-related grids and read perspectives of association.

28In this issue, the most prospective contribution provides a way to build up many relations between philosophical and anthropological challenges. Through the emergence of new frameworks in terms of sensitivity, Jean-Paul Thibaud explores the way in which the ambiance is what makes the world sensitive and how it could be a keyword for Urban Studies. “We could thus ask ourselves how an ambiance can animate (to breathe life into something), condition (to influence conducts), air-condition (to control conditions), create atmospheres (to pervade spaces) and attune (to compose affects) an urban environment. A generative grammar should be developed, and it could describe the different modalities of sensitivity about inhabited spaces.” The fields suggested by Thibaud appear to us, in a way. They indeed condition the contemporary world, and thus are able by nature to orientate the prisms for Urban Studies: aestheticisation, increasingly refined preparations (by different operators) of ambiances; increasing digitalisation (risk of anaesthesia and amnesia); deployment of ecological sensitivity.

29The relevance of a thematic issue in an online journal is more about being a potential than a fixed unit. It should help updating Urban Studies.

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Appendix – Cumulative bibliography from researchers on French Urban Studies. Compiled from 14 contributions by researchers working in the field, after requesting “15 inevitable articles according to you, published since 2000, exclusive of books”. This indicative bibliography demonstrates some dispersion among authors, with some recurring ones (14 appear at least twice). The following themes are identified: gentrification, neighbourhood, suburb-segregation, mobility, governance-participation.

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Agier, M. (1999). Communautés inventées : les uns sans les autres L’invention de la ville : Banlieues, townships, invasions et favelas (pp. 57-90). Amsterdam : Éditions des archives contemporaines.

Arab, N. (2007). À quoi sert l’expérience des autres ? « Bonnes pratiques » et innovation dans l’aménagement urbain Espaces et sociétés (131), 33-47.

Ascher, F. (2000). Quelle civilisation urbaine à l’échelle planétaire ? In T. Paquot, M. Lussault et S. BodyGendrot (Eds.), La ville et l’urbain : l’état des savoirs (pp. 392-403). Paris : La Découverte.

Ascher, F. (2010). La ville hypermoderne. In A. Masboungi (Ed.), Organiser la ville hypermoderne (pp. 114-130). Paris : Parenthèses.

Authier, J.-Y. (2008). Les citadins et leur quartier. Enquêtes auprès d’habitants des quartiers anciens centraux en France. L’Année sociologique, 58 (1), 21-46.

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1 The Conseil National des Universités is a University body that involves qualification and career management for professors-researchers, organised in disciplinary sections. The 24th section is called “space development, urban planning”. The research organization that is CNRS is also composed of sections, managed by institutes. Within the Social Sciences Institute, the 39th section is called “Spaces, Territories and Societies”.

2 Launched in 2005 and nowadays led by the interministerial research and experimentation program PUCA (Plan Urbanisme Construction Architecture), the international APERAU (Association for the Promotion of teaching and research in development – urban planning) and the Institute for the Research of the Caisse des Dépôts group.

3 Reminder: it started from a transatlantic questioning, especially between Québec, the English-speaking part of Canada and France. About the Québec situation, cf. Breux, Collin, Cloutier, Poitras, 2015.

4 From 40 researchers selected and contacted, 14 “played the game” of sending us 15 major texts published since 2000, according to them. The others have either expressed their interest for the adventure or declined for different reasons.

5 Cf. the Champ libre ? L’aménagement et l’urbanisme à l’épreuve des cadres théoriques symposium, January 14-15, 2016, and more specifically in this issue, Juliette Maulat and Mathieu Gimat’s contribution.

6 The purpose of this text is not to reflect on that aspect, but the question of time managing the production of the articles was challenging.

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LAURENT DEVISME et SANDRA BREUX, « Presence-absence of urban studies in France: Challenges and Perspectives », Environnement Urbain / Urban Environment [En ligne], Volume 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2018, consulté le 18 novembre 2018. URL :

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ENSA-NANTES, UMR AAU. Professor of human sciences at the Graduate Schools of Architecture in France, Laurent Devisme teaches Urban Studies at ENSA Nantes. His research mainly represents an ethnographic approach of urban planning and the analysis of the distributions of the urban fabric within territorial contexts with contested urbanity degrees. The challenges of action theories, of practical meaning for urban planning is also in his research program. He recently conducted, in collaboration with Claud Cohen, L’Architecture et l’urbanisme au miroir des formations (Ed. la. Villette, 2018).

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INRS-UCS, Montréal. Professor-researcher at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Urbanisation Culture Society. Director of the Urban Environment journal – this editorial is the opportunity for her to end her mandate as such. To this end, the France/Québec collaboration initiating this issue reflects the directions taken within the journal these past years.

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