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Reviewed by:
  • What's in a Name? Talking about Urban Peripheries ed. by Richard Harris and Charlotte Vorms
  • Ludger Basten (bio)
Richard Harris and Charlotte Vorms, eds. What's in a Name? Talking about Urban Peripheries. University of Toronto Press. x, 360. $36.95

What's in a Name is a book at the intersection of various disciplines (geography, sociology, history, cultural studies, and linguistics), investigating the processes of naming a specific category of urban places in an international comparative perspective. It is the first collection of articles in English on how suburban spaces and settlements are usually referred to and what those references actually mean in different geographical (language) circumstances around the world. It has emerged from two main academic contexts: first, the Global Suburbanisms international collaborative research initiative (the book is part of the Global Suburbanisms series published by the University of Toronto Press) and, second, the 2012 International Conference on Urban History, where the theme and ideas for the book (and several of its chapters) were first developed.

The collection of sixteen chapters is framed by an introduction to discuss academic contexts and research questions, plus a more conceptual–theoretical investigation in chapter two and a short final chapter reflecting on (methodological) possibilities for further comparative work rather than presenting universalistic conclusions. The empirical chapters in between present case studies from different geographies, languages, scales, and historical perspectives.

Common to the project are two premises (explained in the introduction by Richard Harris and Charlotte Vorms). First, concerning the object of study, there is the idea that the growth of the urban periphery is a global phenomenon, even if only a few features are shared by all of these new sub-/urban spaces. While physical character, legal status, processes of production, and social character may vary widely, the newness of these developments and their location near the city's edge are common to all. Second, there is a shared assumption of the importance of language in describing and understanding these places and ascertaining their importance within different contexts. Language never being "neutral," the case studies vividly illustrate how different groups of actors involved in producing/selling, governing/policing, studying/researching, and, of course, living in these suburban developments use language to describe them in a way that reflects their specific interests.

The theoretical chapter by Christian Topalov, drawing on a separate, collaborative research program that compares words used for describing the urban in eight different languages, illustrates some common linguistic/semantic processes regarding the naming of the urban periphery. First, how local place names can acquire generic meaning and usage (for example, favela, ghetto); second, how generic meanings become adopted/adapted – or not! – in specific geographic and language contexts; third, how specific terms become part of semantic systems that themselves change and adapt over time, thus changing the usage and meaning of these terms (for example, in the "naming game" played by developers of new peripheral developments). [End Page 204]

The variety of the thirteen case studies making up the bulk of the book is huge. They fall into three groups. The first five focus on the usage of common generic terms to describe the urban periphery (for example, suburb, banlieu) in Australia, Hamilton (Ontario, Canada), bilingual Montreal, Bombay, and Java. A second cluster of four chapters examines words describing extensive low-income areas to be found in urban fringe areas in Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil), Rome, Madrid, and Bucharest. A third group of four chapters looks at newly emerging peripheral developments or neighbourhoods and the "naming games" associated with ascribing social status to them in the United States, France, the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, and Beijing.

Individually and together, they clearly demonstrate the tremendous importance of language in shaping sub-/urban realities and why language matters in these social and political processes. They also draw attention to our own usage of terms (as academics, maybe even involved in planning or political consultation processes) and its implications for different groups of actors. And they make us think about how an increasingly internationalized research community and its usage primarily of English as a lingua franca may influence the way we conceptualize reality, design research, and disseminate our findings...


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pp. 204-205
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