Urban Ambivalences

From 15-17 November 2023, the „Religion and Urbanity“ group held its annual conference on “Ambivalences of Religion“ at the Max Weber Centre in Erfurt. After a welcome by the organisers Elisa Iori and Jörg Rüpke, the programme started with the following opening comments by the spokesperson of the “Religion and Urbanity“ group, Susanne Rau. While the initial welcome address was taken out, a selected bibliography was added.

What is the issue?

If you want to hear from me what urban ambivalence means, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I do not know that either – or not yet.[1] One reason for this is that ’ambivalence’ itself is not a concept widely used in research – and is far from having found its way into handbooks or reference works. It is not to be found in the “Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe” edited by Brunner, Conze and Koselleck, nor in the similarly prominent “Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe”, nor in the brand new “Gesellschaftliche Grundbegriffe” by Armin Nassehi (from 2023). Another reason is that we here in Erfurt have not yet thought the concept of urban ambivalences through to the end. Instead, there is a half-finished essay by Martin Fuchs, Jörg Rüpke and myself in the conference cloud [to date only accessible to conference participants and KFG members].

Poster to the international conference held in Erfurt in November 2023 on “Ambivalences of Religion”.

What do we do now?

I will not go into the history of the term ambivalence in psychiatry, social psychology and musicology here. I mention these other fields solely to clarify that the term has a history. As a matter of fact, there are approaches, especially in sociology, that are not put forward under the umbrella of “urban ambivalence”, but actually refer to just that. In their own words, they would probably have spoken of tensions or opposing tendencies. Georg Simmel’s works on the big city already reveal the tension between the urban collective (embodied in the density of the population) and the individual, who suffers from the increased speed, spatial density and, in addition to the frequency of contact, the brevity and rarity of encounters. According to Simmel, this leads to individualism, which – due to the necessity of punctuality for the smooth functioning of city life – is also expressed, for example, in the increased use of pocket watches. The psychological consequences of city life would be a “heightened nervous life” (gesteigertes Nervenleben), a “blasé attitude” (Blasiertheit) and “reserve” towards others (which can also turn into aversion and hostility).

While Simmel had the city of Berlin at the back of his mind when writing this, the Chicago School was concerned with contemporary American cities. The school’s manifesto, “The City” (1915), written by Robert Park, Ernest Burgess and Roderick McKenzie, drew attention to smaller-scale urban units – such as zones, neighbourhoods or slums – as they also resulted from processes of the division of labour and migration. For the Chicago School, individualisation and community building were thus two fundamental forms of life in the big city. However, their social romanticism towards the rural also led to the thesis that the big cities, with their looser social ties and lack of social control, consequently led to more crime. A few years later, empirical studies refuted this thesis. The fact that they wanted to explain the transformation of urban neighbourhoods through the model of “invasion” and “succession” borrowed from plant and animal ecology is another problematic premise. More recent models have addressed tensions between diversity and equality (Sennett) or inclusion and exclusion (Luhmann, Bohn, Schlögl) – or have even abandoned the binary approach completely.

What’s next?

I don’t want to bore you any longer with partly outdated theories but would like to go one step further. We are looking for an explanatory model for change in societies that is not only situational, but also constitutive. Figuratively speaking, we are perhaps speaking of something like a flywheel of history. This means, as Martin Fuchs, Jörg Rüpke and myself put it in our jointly written essay:

“Employing the concept of ambivalence […] means to reflect the potential simultaneity of two (or more) tendencies that lead to states of tension with different subsequent effects. These tensions can swing in one direction of the other, they can dissolve, or they can reinforce each other.” (Fuchs, Rau, Rüpke 2023)

So, there are possible effects in different directions. However, processes of ambivalence are not purely social reflected in socio-economic stratification, inclusion or exclusion (I.), but also a spatial (II.), because many of these social processes are also reflected in the layout of the city, in spatial segregation or in the facades or heights of buildings; thirdly and lastly, it can lead to processes of community building or individualisation (III.) – certainly this is less an inevitable development (as there are no regularities here) but rather as potential.


In order to explain this basic idea a little better, I would like to draw on a few examples from our fields of observation – i.e. cities, or urbanity and religion. In keeping with my profession and specialisation, I will start in the late Middle Ages and go up to the 19th century; the ancient historians among us will surely add examples from their own eras.

The history of cities is characterised by many different tensions and conflicts between various groups: political conflicts between the urban population and a sovereign or a bishop feature widely, as do conflicts between the ruling council and the citizens as well as conflicts between citizens and urban monasteries or colleges [Stifte in German], as Simone Wagner has just shown in her dissertation.

For now, let us take a look at three examples:

1. Let us turn to the city of Cologne, one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire in the late Middle Ages, and its 1396 charter:

In 1288, the rich merchant lords, the “Geschlechter” (patricians), had wrested control of the city of Cologne from the archbishop. A hundred years later, these same dynasties, worn down by internal battles, were driven out of the city in an almost bloodless revolution – an act of exclusion – by the master craftsmen and merchants who had become rich. After the fall of the patricians, the people of Cologne wanted to find a form of constitution that would make it impossible for a few families to rule the city again. The result of these efforts was the “Verbundbrief”, which came into force on 14 September 1396. It was one of the most important constitutions of a city that lasted for 400 years and was only cancelled by the French occupation in 1796. From then on, the city was governed by a council of a total of 49 men elected every six months by the male citizenry. The new constitution organised the citizens of Cologne into 22 gaffes – (“Gaffeln”, quasi-cooperatives) and every citizen was obliged to join such a Gaffel in which merchants and craftsmen guilds gathered (Hillen 2020). In addition to this communal and professional form of organisation, there were also the parishes, which subdivided the city spatially. So, there were various forms of civic participation in the city, but a large proportion of the urban population continued to be excluded: all women, but also journeymen, day labourers and, after the failed Reformation, all non-Catholics, clergy and those born out of wedlock.

Cologne’s 1996 Verbundbrief with city seal and seals of the 22 gaffs (Cologne City Museum; HOWI – Horsch, Willy (Version 2 from Sir James), CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

2. In cities, however, the struggle was not only for political power and participation, but also for fair wages and food prices.

Such conflicts between those who set wages and prices and those who received wages and had to pay for their living can be seen again and again in the cities and the ever-growing suburbs. One of the first revolts of the industrial age was the revolt of the silk weavers in Lyon, France. The révolte des “canuts”, as the silk weavers in Lyon were called, actually refers to several strikes in 1831, 1834 and 1848, which were put down by the military. Does it mean that the problem had not been “solved”? Not necessarily. Because during this process, groups were formed in a way that had never been seen before, which also had an impact beyond the city of Lyon. The reason for this was certainly the central economic importance of Lyon’s silk industry, which had been systematically developed since the 16th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, it probably fed 20% of the city’s population and accounted for around 30% of French export earnings. Due to the constant growth, the production facilities had moved from the Saint-Jean neighbourhood to the then suburb of Croix-Rousse. The strike was caused by falling silk prices and consequently lower wages and incomes. Many silk weavers who could no longer pay their debts were already in prison in Lyon. Despite the suppression of this first workers’ strike and the barricades and demonstration march of thousands of workers towards the city centre (prefecture), this movement was the basis and model for many workers’ revolts in the 19th century and the emergence of a community of interests that adopted the slogan during the uprising: “Vivre en travaillant, ou mourir en combatant” (live by working, or die fighting).

Suppression of the Second Canut revolt in April 1834 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

3. I don’t want to end this lecture without pointing to a conflict in South Asia, especially as silk (as a global commodity) is a good link, also in terms of a critique of capitalism:

The Malabar rebellion of 1921, also called „Moplah rebellion” (in British records) which refers to the Mappila Muslims originating as a result of the West Asian contacts with Kerala, which grew out of the “spice trade” since the late Middle Ages.

The path Vasco da Gama took to reach Kozhikode (black line; in map “Calecut”) in 1498, which was also the discovery of a sea route from Europe to India, and eventually paved way for the European colonisation of Indian subcontinent. (Português: Nuno Tavares, baseado no BlankMap-World.png. Baseado em informações de várias fontes, incluindo a Wikipédia.English: Nuno Tavares, based on BlankMap-World.png. Based on informations from many sources, including Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

On the one hand, this so-called rebellion was a revolt against the British colonial government, i.e. its local representatives. During the uprising, the “rebels” attacked various symbols and institutions of the colonial state, such as telegraph lines, train stations, courts and post offices.

However, behind the uprisings lay deep-seated conflicting conceptions of property. Malabar’s agricultural system was historically based on a hierarchy of privileges, rights and obligations for all principal social groups. William Logan, a British administrator, described it as a system of corporate unity or joint proprietorship of each of the principal land right holders. The figure of Jenmi is central here. The Jenmi, consisting mainly of the Namboothiri Brahmins and Nair chieftains, were the highest level of the hierarchy, and a class of people given hereditary land grants by the Naduvazhis or rulers. Owing to their ritual status as priests (Nambudiris), the Jenmis could neither cultivate nor supervise the land but would instead provide a grant of kanam (land tenure) to a holder of tenure in return for a fixed share of the crops produced. In contrast, the Verumpattakkarar, generally Thiyyas and Mappilas, cultivated the land but were also its part-proprietors under the holder of tenure The first change to this traditional system came through the Mysorean invasion, which I will skip here. Then came the East India Company. Having defeated Tipu Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore, the Company introduced several Western juridical concepts, such as that of absolute property rights, into the existing legal system of Malabar. Up until then, such rights had been unknown in the region and as a result all land became the private property of the Jenmi. This legal recognition gave them the right to evict tenants, which was in turn enforced through the colonial civil courts.

You can imagine how this shifted not only property relationships, but also income patterns. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, it can be observed that many members of the lower castes converted to Islam. Smaller uprisings had achieved nothing, so it finally came to a well-prepared organised action in 1921. The result was bloody and an estimated 50,000 people were imprisoned by the British forces. The revolt ultimately also reflects a religious movement that expressed its displeasure with the caste system, privileged Brahmins and the British government. Many levels are interwoven here.

Areas affected by the Malabar Rebellion in 1921 in Southern India. The term Taluk refers to an administrative unit.Nmkuttiady, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As a final note and for further discussion: we should of course not mix conflict per se with ambivalence, but these conflicts are a good medium – at least for me as a historian – to bring social, religious and urban tensions to light and to observe the subsequent effects of these tensions which also affected religion and urbanity.

Further Reading

Bohn, Cornelia and Alois Hahn. 2002. ´Patterns of Inclusion and Exclusion. Property, Nation and Religion.´ Soziale Systeme 8 (1): 8-26.

Bohn, Cornelia. 2006. Inklusion, Exklusion und die Person. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft.

Brunner, Otto and Werner Conze, Reinhart Koselleck, eds. 1972-1997. Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, 8 vol. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Cancik, Hubert, Burkhard Gladigow, and Matthias Samuel Laubscher, eds. 1988-2001. Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe. 5 vol. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. 

Fuchs, Martin, Susanne Rau, and Jörg Rüpke. 2023. ‘Ambivalence: A Concept for the Study of Socio-Spatial. Relations and Configurations in Cities’ (manuscript, Sept. 2023 – forthcoming).

Hillen, Christian. 2020. ‚Die Kölner Gaffeln‘, Internetportal Rheinische Geschichte. https://www.rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de/Epochen-und-Themen/Themen/die-koelner-gaffeln/DE-2086/lido/5e98015879dc69.22344533 (last accessed 18.01.2024)

Jaleel, K.T. 2020. Revisiting Malabar Rebellion 1921. Kottayam: D C Books.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1997. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 2 vol., Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Nassehi, Armin. 2023. Gesellschaftliche Grundbegriffe. Ein Glossar der öffentlichen Rede. München: Beck.

Park, Robert E. and Ernest W. Burgess. 1925. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rude, Fernand. 2007. Les révoltes des canuts, 1831-1834. Paris:La Découverte.

Scheller, Benjamin and Christian Hoffarth. 2018 ‘Ambiguität und die Ordnungen des Sozialen im Mittelalter: Zur Einführung´. In Ambiguität und die Ordnungen des Sozialen im Mittelalter, edited by Benjamin Scheller and Christian Hoffarth. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110608250-001

Schlögl, Rudolf. 2004. ‚Vergesellschaftung unter Anwesenden. Zur kommunikativen Form des Politischen in der vormodernen Stadt‘. In Interaktion und Herrschaft. Die Politik der frühneuzeitlichen Stadt, edited by Rudolf Schlögl, Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 9–60.

Sennett, Richard 1990. The Conscience of the Eye. The Design and Social Life of Cities. New York: Knopf.

Sennett, Richard. 1974. The Fall of Public Man. London: Penguin.

Simmel, Georg. 1995 [1903]. ‚Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben‘. In Georg Simmel, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 7, 1: Aufsätze und Abhandlungen, edited by Rüdiger Kramme, Angela Rammstedt and Otthein Rammstedt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 116–131. (online: https://socio.ch/sim/verschiedenes/1903/grossstaedte.htm)

Wagner, R. 2010. ‘Bild der Woche: KVB – Kölner Verbundbrief`. https://museenkoeln.de/portal/bild-der-woche.aspx?bdw=2010_09 (last accessed 18.01.2024)

Wagner, Simone. 2023. Geschlecht und Urbanität. Die Autorität von Äbtissinen und Pröbsten in südwestdeutschen Städten. Diss. phil. University of Erfurt.

William Logan’ Malabar Manual in two volumes, edited by P.J. Cherian. 2000. Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala Gazetteers Department.

[1] At this point, I would like to add a brief note on why we included the concept of ambivalence to the „Religion and Urbanity“ analytical toolkit: ambivalence is a concept that we at the KFG use in the second funding phase to analyse and more precisely describe long-term processes of the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity. Jörg Rüpke originally proposed the concept of (double) dualisms, which proved fruitful for analysing religious fields of tension (dwelling/crossing, immanence/transcendence, etc.), but seemed less fitting when investigating urban developments of social tensions. At this point in the discussion, I proposed the concept of ambivalence, which emphasises less the contradictions but rather the simultaneity of different tendencies with an open outcome/open solution. Time will tell whether ambivalence is the better term, especially when applied to individual case studies. For it quickly became apparent – particularly through Martin Fuchs’ literature review – that the term is already modernistically charged in sociological theory, which is rather counterproductive for a trans-epochal and trans-regional project as ours here in Erfurt. I would also like to thank Klara-Maeve O’Reilly for reviewing this text prior to publication.

Cover image: Aerial view of Jodhpur, also known as the ‘blue city’ (image: public domain).

Cite this blog post
Susanne Rau (2024, January 22). Urban Ambivalences. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vmy9

Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at Erfurt University. Since 2018, she is directing the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (Kollegforschungsgruppe) "Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations" (DFG, FOR 2779).

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