Resisting the globalizing bulldozer

Team will study urban culture in Montreal, Toronto, Dublin and Berlin

by Debbie Hum

The chains are here -- Gap, McDonald's, Starbucks and a multitude of others now line the downtown artery of most cities in the western world. In just 20 years, global capitalism has imposed a kind of sameness around the world. Yet, says Sociology and Anthropology Professor Greg Nielsen, cities are responding in unique ways, developing distinct cultures and re-creating themselves through their own specific traditions.

Nielsen, who is Director of the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting Studies, is a member of a multi-university, multidisciplinary research team recently awarded a $4-million SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiatives grant to study the urban experience in Montreal, Toronto, Berlin and Dublin in the context of globalization and "the era of the post-nationalist state."

SSHRC funding for the five-year renewable project amounts to $2.5 million, with another $1.5 million in in-kind contributions from the universities. Concordia's Faculty of Arts and Science is strongly supporting the project through the research infrastructure provided by the Centre for Broadcasting Studies.

Led by principal investigator Alum Blum of York University, the team also includes faculty from the University of Calgary, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, McGill University and UQAM. Participating European institutions include the Free University of Berlin, the Technical University of Berlin, Berlin School of Arts, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin Institute of Technology and Maynooth University of Ireland.

"We are trying to understand the cultures of the planet as they exist within cities, and the ways in which cities struggle to define and sustain their culture," Nielsen said. "How do cities remain distinct in an era when globalization suggests that their distinctiveness is going to disappear? Is globalization an inevitable bulldozer? Will it flatten the world as we know it and make it all the same? Or are people going to respond to it? We think people are responding to it, and we want to understand how they respond."

Cities build their appeal to others on features that make them unique -- the waterways, network of streets, architectural styles and the particular mix of populations that result from their own individual histories. At the same time, they offer experiences taken to be typical of city life, such as ethnic diversity, the variety of languages, clothing and culinary styles, discrete neighbourhoods and cultural experiences. The period of globalization has imposed a sameness on cities, Nielsen said, but some cities manage to sustain local specificity. "The way of living in a community is re-created over time in different ways. We want to try to understand how those communities and traditions get re-created," he said.

The five-year Culture of Cities study will focus on "second-tier cities" that do not have a global status in the same way as cities such as Tokyo, London, Paris or New York. Montreal, Toronto, Berlin and Dublin were selected because they are cities that are experiencing intensive building and rebuilding and have ambiguous and controversial relationships with their national societies. The team hopes to eventually add more cities to the scope of their research, to include American, Asian and non-occidental cities.

The project will be highly student-centred, training graduate students in the five research themes: building and rebuilding; circulation of artifacts; locality, public spaces and street life; arts and communities; and citizenship. As project leader for the team on citizenship, Nielsen will co-ordinate graduate students and faculty in the four cities.

Although the project is drawn mainly from the sociology of culture, it draws researchers from many disciplines, including communications, political science and philosophy, urban studies, geography, architecture, history and fine arts.

At Concordia, MA and PhD students will work on the integration and transgression aspects of citizenship. Some students will be studying the representations of citizenship in media, literature and the arts, while others will pursue research topics that include the different cultural communities in Montreal and Toronto, the experiences of refugees and immigrants in the cities and the distinct ways in which immigrants and refugees are supported and integrated within the cities.

Some studies will delve into the diversity of the communities that compose a city and the question of citizenship and the national question: Who is a citizen, how do you become a citizen and what are the definitions of citizenship for the various communities within the cities? Others will examine culture and sexuality within the city; for example, how they have come in conflict with the legal institutions of the city, how various transgressive sexual activities within the city are governed and how they come into conflict with the identity of the city.

Nielsen taught sociology and social and political thought at York University from 1985 to 1995, and joined Concordia in 1996. He has worked for 20 years on understanding the national question in global and comparative terms. He is the author of Le Canada de Radio-Canada, (Toronto: GREF, 1994), a study of how broadcasting institutions represent the nation, and is finishing a new book for SUNY Press, The Norms of Answerability, which seeks to outline the theoretical foundation for the study of cosmopolitan, national and post-national identities. Nielsen

Greg Nielsen with students (left to right) Donovan Rocher, Laura Shea, Mark Lajoie and Elizabeth Quinlan.

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