Subjective and Objective Urbanity?

— Mariia Orobinska

The following approaches the concept of urbanity from the angle of paradigmatic analysis in linguistics. It establishes the relationship between subjective and objective aspects of urbanity, which is viewed as a unique feature of a given place and characterized through “charm”, “atmosphere”, and “aesthetics”.

A comparative analysis of the status report on Berlin, published in 2013 (which provides an analysis of the city as it was then), and Yurii Andrukhovych’s description of Berlin  in “The Lexicon of Intimate Cities” is performed to investigate subjective and objective aspects of urbanity. The status report represents a vision of the city and its development intending to be objective, while Yurii Andrudrukhovych offers a self-consciously subjective account.

The main method used here is a paradigmatic analysis. The paradigmatic organization analysis claims to present a model of text perception. During text understanding, the recipient moves from textual syntagmatics (words are lined up in the text) to mental paradigmatics («subject» images are linked according to the laws of logic and associations). The understanding of the text depends on the paradigms’ characteristics and their interparadigmatic links.

With regard to urbanity, I would argue, subjective and objective aspects do not oppose each other but are rather linked by complimentary interconnections.

Blurred lines and linguistic analysis

The question of subjectivity and objectivity is always the matter when seeking to analyse reality. Both science and art have the same purpose of investigating the world and its versatility and diversity. However, in the field of art, the focus lies on personal experience, vision, and perception. Artistic analysis and its products do not claim to be impersonal or objective. It is a means of expressing not only rational thoughts and ideas but sentiments and (at times) unreasonable beliefs. Moreover, the majority of creative works intend to stir the perceiver’s feelings or emotions. Especially in terms of postmodernism, the shift to subjectivity becomes not just noticeable, but principal.

In the field of science, however, objectivity is the key point. Objectivity is considered to be an essential characteristic of science in general. Nevertheless, both the possibility and necessity of conducting a perfectly objective analysis are doubtful since the analysis is always already a matter of interpretation. Olaf Dammann states that the transition from data (collected facts or statistics before the analysis) to knowledge requires contextualization, comparison, and consensus (Dammann O. (2019). In other words, data transforms into knowledge (predictive, testable, consistently successful belief) in the course of its elucidation. However, interpretation is only possible with an interpreter.

Furthermore, subjective distortions may occur at any step of obtaining knowledge. Already the collection and choice of data opens the possibilities of manipulations. The choice of analysed material is influenced by theaims of the research and itself affects the study results. Karl Popper states that nothing can be built on pure data because there is nothing that could be defined as pure data. There is nothing merely ‘given’ to us uninterpreted. All human knowledge is interpreted in the light of expectations and theories (Popper, 1983). Thus, human factor is one of the principal aspects of any kind of scientific investigations. Everything mentioned above raises the question of the limits placed by subjectivity on scientific analysis in general and the study of urbanity in particular.

Subjectivity and objectivity seem to blend into each other in urbanity, especially if we see a city as a “creative, emergent and generative process” (Leadbetter, 2021). Nothing is fixed, nothing is defined and distinguished once and forever. Thus, with regard to urbanity, subjectivity and objectivity relate to each other not only in a dialectical manner but even complement each other in terms of the scientific tools chosen.

This general understanding of the relationship of subjectivity and objectivity may allow us to profit from both methods and supplement the results with necessary details and nuances. It seems fruitful to examine a concept  that claims to be both objective and subjective. It gives an opportunity to establish the input each of the mentioned approaches brings to perceptions of urbanity. A comparative examination of the status report of Berlin published in 2013 and Yurii Andrukhovych’s description of Berlin in “The Lexicon of Intimate Cities” will showcase how aspects of subjectivity and objectivity might be investigated about urbanity. The main methodological approach for this is functional linguistics which analyses text in an act of text perception. Consequently, the text understanding process is modelled.

The perception of a text occurs both at the linguistic and figurative-conceptual levels. While perceiving a text on a linguistic level, the recipient reads the words sequentially, one after another: the first, then the second, the third, etc. Words generate «objective» images in our minds. We understand the text if we link all the images to each other. However, the «objective» images, generated by words, are connected not only due to language competence. Knowledge of surrounding world phenomena provides these connections. And these «objective» images are not connected consistently. The recipient may connect the first one with the fourth one, etc. Thus, in the course of is perception, the text is restructured, i.e. there is a transition from words images connected at the language level to «objective» images connected at the mental level. The interconnected «objective» images form paradigms (Stepanchenko, 2014). Hence, the text paradigms represent the key notions which form particular concepts. They may consist of words, combinations of words, sentences and etc.

Science and “adventures” – State of the art

Science has come a long way from pretence to being fully objective (we may recall the times when beauty was supposed to be measured) to solipsism (that may be a characteristic of post-structuralism). Still Md. Abdul Mannan claims that the conventional and rather common perception of science nature “gives us the idea that scientific knowledge is free from any kind of human attitude and strictly based on observations, experiments, logical analysis of its concepts and so on which give us the bare facts of the real world” (Mannan, 2016). However, such pure knowledge is inaccessible for many reasons. Scientific awareness might be produced from any person’s ideas merged with errors, preferences, prejudices, and aspirations. Popper believes that any product of people’s minds – such as myth, metaphysics, stories, guesses, or whatever– may be a valid source of scientific knowledge. Knowledge is thus an adventure of ideas. These ideas are produced by us, and not by the world around us (Popper, 1965). It is obvious that the possibility of errors during such an “adventure” should be eliminated with criticism.

Mannan states that “the theory becomes objective only after the theory is put forward to criticism” (Mannan, 2016). Still, the issue of interpretation evokes again in the context of criticism, nevertheless, just critical discussion may transform conclusions into a decent scientific theory (Mannan, 2016). Scientists perform specific actions such as testing, verification or falsification to achieve objectivity. These activities are taken to be objective (or objectifiable), but they may be objective only as long as the approach supported by this particular scientist is accepted. Yet, if the discussion goes beyond the approach, this objectivity is lost (Mannan, 2016). Generally, whatever is considered to solves empirical problems effectively is deemed objective. Julian Reiss and Jan Sprenger claim that objectivity is necessary characteristic of all science as it underwrites the trust put in scientists, their results and recommendations (Sprenger, J. M., & Reiss, J. (2014).

In a similar vein, Allan Megill distinguishes 4 principal senses of “objectivity”:

● a philosophical or absolute sense of objectivity, which derives from the idea of “representing things as they are”;

● disciplinary sense which takes consensus among the members of the particular research group;

 ● dialectical sense which studies the objects in the course of their interplay with subjects, thus it leaves some room for subjectivity;

● procedural sense which aims at the practice of the impersonal method of investigation and administration (Allan Megill, 1994).

A disciplinary sense of objectivity is of interest here to us.

What is objectivity in terms of urbanity? What makes an analysis of urbanity more or less objective?

Urbanity can be viewed as a cause and effect of urbanization and is a distinctive element of consumption in cities (Glaeser, Kolko, & Saiz, 2001). Still, urbanity as a concept of form that allows for “the analysis and better understanding of spatiotemporal configurations, practices and representations in relation to cities” (Rau, 2020). Gabriel Ahlfeldt states that “urbanity value arises from urban charm, character and atmosphere that are jointly created by consumption (bars, restaurants, art spaces, etc.) and aesthetic amenities (architecture, parks, waterfronts) and is consumed and valued locally” (Gabriel Ahlfeldt, 2013).

We may notice that the characteristics mentioned above are quite subjective and highly dependent on the observer’s position. “Charm”, “atmosphere”, and “aesthetics” are not clearly defined categories and might be perceived in different ways. Yet, it is impossible to consider all features, at least because it is onerous to observe them. Still, urbanity is viewed as flexible and constantly changing and involving not just a city itself, but different forms of life as well as temporal and regional characteristics, ways of perception, and different practices related to them.

Ambiguity is considered to be an essential urbanity attribute (Zijderveld, 2009) underlining the nature of city that gives reasons for different kinds of interpretation. It brings us back to subjective and objective sources in terms of urbanity analysis.

Image by melancholiaphotography from Pixabay

The 2013 status report and “The Lexicon of Intimate Cities”

Examining examples which are perceived as being extremely subjective and objective is seems to be promising here. It gives us an opportunity to establish the input which each of the mentioned approaches brings to understandings of urbanity.

The 2013 status report on Berlin is commonly presented an example of objective recording and representation. It claims that it “provided an in-depth analysis informed by a number of ideas, strategic plans and future policies designed to build a foundation for the strategic development of Berlin” (Urban planning Berlin). Starting from a range of policy fields including but not restricted to those related directly to spatial planning and urban development, it analysed the strengths and weaknesses of the city and highlighted the opportunities and threats inherent in future development.

In contrast, Yurii Andrukhovych claims that “Автор настільки заплутався у переходах між реальним та вигаданим, що про всяк випадок оголошує витвором власної уяви всіх дійових осіб, а також усі історії, ситуації та, зрештою, й міста цієї книжки” (The author got so confused with transitions between the reality and fantasy that proclaims all the characters, stories, situations and, finally, cities of this book to be the work of his imagination). He emphasizes the subjective nature of the cities’ descriptions and their almost illusionary character. In the case of Andrukhovych`s book, subjectivity clearly comes to the fore and becomes a structuring principle.

Donald E. Hall argues that subjectivity, once considered potentially knowable and conceptually one-dimensional, has been rendered various, fractured, and indefinite in recent theorizations, largely because of a new recognition of the complexity of our social roles and the multiplicity of our interactions (Hall, 2004). Sherry Ortner argues that the whole of social and cultural theory in the twentieth century could be seen as a struggle over the role of the subject in society and history (Ortner, 2005). So, we cannot underestimate the part subjectivity plays in the scientific analysis as far as it is still built on an objective base.

Seeking objectivity, the status report by Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Development focuses on the following city features:

Capital and metropolitan position: The report draws attention to Berlin being home to government and administrative institutions, which allows it to attract international and civil society organisations.

Population and demographic development: It is pointed out that Berlin is getting older; the city’s average age has risen. At the same time, the city is becoming even more international.

Economy: Senate Department for Urban Development finds that the economy of the city is growing steadily. However, unemployment is comparatively high and income levels are under the German average.

Science and research: It is stated that Berlin is positioning itself as a place for science and research successfully. Institutions have concentrated here more than in any other German city.

Housing: Berlin faces the challenge of maintaining affordable housing. Still, the number of households increased much more sharply than population growth.

Transport and mobility: Berlin’s transport and mobility situation has improved in recent years. Individual motorised traffic has significantly decreased since 2000, while eco-mobility has further increased. Berliners use public transportation, bicycles, or walking around the city.

Health: The report claims that there is a significant, geographic coherence between a weak social structure and the increased prevalence of acute and chronic illnesses. Unemployment, less education and a migrant background have negative effects on health. Some areas of the city suffer from structural environmental pollution, e.g. noise emissions, and often possess problematic social structures.

Sports: The status report argues that sport allows citizens to improve their identification with Berlin and their neighbourhood. It is obvious that sport is important for social interactions and integration as well as for a person`s well-being and health. Furthermore, sport also gives a significant benefit to the city’s economy.

Education: Senate Department for Urban Development finds that Berlin`s residents’ educational opportunities depend too strongly on social class. In Berlin, a disproportionately large number of children grow up in uneducated households, a factor expressed, for example, in shortcomings related to a lack of language proficiency.

Environment, energy and climate: Berlin faces environmental problems distinctive for large cities. Environment, nature and climate protection is becoming more and more difficult. Some of the current problems cannot be solved at the local level because they depend on global factors.

Cityscape and open spaces: Berlin has expanded and networked its open spaces. There are many green areas, parks and green corridors. The majority of the city residents lives within walking distance to a park. Such city analysis gives no chance to “feel” the city, its charm, atmosphere, and aesthetics (which are claimed to be important components of urbanity (Gabriel Ahlfeldt, 2013), even though around 2500 Berliners were involved in creating the status report (Urban planning Berlin). It was stated that “without human actors who build, use, and perceive this space, there is no city”.

Andrukhovych’s text, written from a different background and in a different genre, offers his readers a very personalized, subjective vision of the city. Tetyana Shevchenko notices that every time the author finds a new way for describing topos: a meeting with an interesting person, a story that is remembered, a fabulous urban landscape, a read book, an unexpected detail that makes you want to talk about it in different contexts (Shevchenko, 2018).

The writer presents pages from his diary („Берлін видається мені щоденником” (Berlin seems to me to be a diary). However, these pages are not arranged with the time, as it traditionally happens due to the laws of the diary genre. The dates are blurred, because they do not really matter (дати розмиті, бо радше несуттєві), yet they are moderately clearly stated. Nevertheless, mentioning of the dates just leads to the timeline shifts: …здається, вересень 2005… (…it seems to be September of 2005…), …десь так у грудні 1993… (…around December 2003…), …на межі жовтня й листопада 2005… (…between October and November…), …повертаючись у той 1993… (…coming back to that 1993…). The ellipses attract attention, underlining the unreliability of the dates. The timeline shifts are realised not only with mixed diary dates but with the shifts within the stories themselves. This time uncertainty demonstrates that the story is not about a specific time or events but about a specific place. The diary notes are united with space, with the concept of one city, Berlin. The concept of Berlin is dynamic and contradictive in Andrukhovych’s work.

The main paradigms, creating the city concept, are the following:

● The paradigm VISUALITY (рослинний і порожнистий, залишені велетенські прогалини, назагал негарному місті, де попри незугарність аж так багато води і дерев, воно стримано світиться зсередини, Вистачає придивитися до пейзажів — і все стає очевидним. Я не шукаю пейзажів — вони самі знаходять мене (vegetal and hollow, leaving huge gaps, in general, an ugly city, where, despite the lack of sugar, there is so much water and trees, it discreetly glows from the inside, It is enough to look closely at the landscapes – and everything becomes obvious. I don’t look for landscapes – they find me themselves, etc), which is closely connected to the LOVE paradigm (любов’ю і вдячністю, бо мені в Берліні особливо добре, є твоє місце, Я захотів 7 бувати в Берліні знову і знову (with love and gratitude, because I feel especially good in Berlin, there is your place, I wanted to visit Berlin again and again, etc.).

● The elements of the WATER paradigm mark the backbones of Berlin: під нами текла, мов текіла, Шпреє (Spree was flowing under us like tequila); його насичено-чорні води, здатні навіювати якісь майже міфологічні асоціації (its saturated black waters that are able to provoke almost mythological associations); у власні витоки, над озером Ваннзеє (to own headwaters, above Wannsee Lake) etc. Water connects Berlin districts, it connects the megalopolis to other cities. It is worth mentioning that including the WATER paradigm in the Berlin concept is not unique, e.g. the same feature may be observed in the films “Undine” and “I love you, Berlin”.

ART (літератури, він заповнюється письменниками. Вони їдуть з усього світу, деякі з них, ледь не випадково приземлившися на три дні, лишаються тут назавжди. богемна дільниця Берліна новий фільм, приміром, Антоніоні, ірландського поета (Art literature, it is filled with writers. They come from all over the world, some of them, almost accidentally landing for three days, stay here forever. the bohemian district of Berlin, a new film, for example, by Antonioni, an Irish poet, etc.)

PEOPLE (важкуватим ковзанням офіціанток, Люди, які призначають побачення в кафе, мають звичку цілуватися — на початку і в кінці, коли розходяться, панки з вогняними ірокезами і волохатими псами, Нас було з десяток — і всі українські поети, ми привертали увагу, Самійленко, ветеран УПА, засмалив у підземному переході якусь нашу партизанську сигаретину без фільтру, німецькі організатори (by the heavy sliding of waitresses, People who make dates in cafes have a habit of kissing – at the beginning and at the end, when they part, punks 8 with fiery mohawks and shaggy dogs, There were a dozen of us – and all Ukrainian poets, we attracted attention, Samiylenko, a veteran UPA, burned some of our partisan cigarettes without a filter in the underground passage, German organizers, etc.).

INTELLIGENCE (Університетські ліваки, виснажені цілонічними діонісійськими дискусіями, нелюдськи велетенським простором (University leftists, exhausted by all-day Dionysian discussions, inhumanly huge space, etc.).

OPENNESS (І панки рвонули до нього — на запах, берлінська дама твердо зажадала від нас говорити вголос про історію і визнати українську провину за Освєнцім, Я люблю його передусім за особливе відчуття легкості та відкритості, завдяки якому в Берліні мені вдається все; У Берліні мені дають ключа від помешкання, а він виявляється ключем від міста. А часом і від світу (And the punks rushed to him – at the smell, the Berlin lady firmly demanded that we speak out loud about history and admit Ukrainian guilt for Auschwitz, I love it first of all for the special feeling of lightness and openness, thanks to which I succeed in Berlin; In Berlin, they give me a key to an apartment, and it turns out to be a key to the city. And sometimes from the world, etc.).

CHANGES (не лише постарів, але й відчутно збуржуазився, з’явилися якісь будівельні паркани, почалося щось, схоже на черговий ремонт, якась така напівруїна довкола гігантоманської «Галереї Кауфгоф», цього, як вважається, символу змін у колишній ендеер, На наших очах провалюється ще одна утопія Окциденту — про те, що знявши протистояння систем, можна раз і назавжди досягнути безпеки, певності і — головне — стабільно високого стандарту життя. Усе, що трапилося з ними згодом, десь починаючи з 1933 року, можна вважати поступовим, але дедалі різкішим і боліснішим згортанням 9 (not only aged, but also noticeably bourgeois, some construction fences appeared, something similar to another renovation began, some kind of half-ruin around the gigantic “Kaufhof Gallery”, this, as it is considered, a symbol of changes in the former endeer, Before our eyes another utopia of the Occident is failing – that by removing the opposition of systems, one can once and for all achieve security, certainty and – most importantly – a consistently high standard of living. Everything that happened to them later, starting somewhere from 1933, can be considered a gradual, but increasingly sharp and painful collapse).

HISTORY (Усього лише 15 років тому, на зламі десятиліть, дещо згодом помилково і самовпевнено означеному як «кінець історії». прекрасну епоху зламу століть, інакше звану fin de siècle, що так неочікувано (для кого — для нинішніх істориків?) обірвалася Першою світовою війною. Ґруневальд і є сам по собі тією прекрасною епохою, штучною й відірваною від епохи реальної, ідеальний та елітарний, з віллами і садибами, застиглий у собі самому і по-буржуазному старомодний. Десь тут наприкінці 1920-х міг би прогулюватися молодий Набоков — у шортах, панамі і з сачком (). Only 15 years ago, at the turn of the decades, which was later erroneously and self-confidently defined as “the end of history”. the beautiful era of the turn of the century, otherwise known as the fin de siècle, which so unexpectedly (for whom – for today’s historians?) ended with the First World War. Grünewald is in itself that beautiful era, artificial and detached from the real era, ideal and elitist, with villas and estates, frozen in itself and bourgeois old-fashioned. Somewhere in the late 1920s, a young Nabokov could have been strolling here, in shorts, panama, and with a net)

Andrukhovych`s analysis of Berlin is focused on the way a person may perceive the city. He aims to transfer the specific feeling, evoking such a perception, unique atmosphere (underlining not ordinary details in city description), to make his reader believe that he or she visited the city. This subjective analysis apparently cannot be called a scientific analysis, nevertheless, it may contribute greatly to the vision of Berlin urbanity. It is noticeable, that the key points of Berlin perception are rather similar in the state report and Andrukhovych’s creative work.

The paradigm PEOPLE correlates with “Population development and demographic development”. There is no doubt that residents both reflect the place they live in and make this place their reflection. That’s why focusing on inhabitants is rather anticipated.

The paradigms CHANGES and HISTORY are comparable to the chapter “Capital and metropolitan position” of the status report. Modern Berlin is the result of its history and the changes which occurred during it. These processes are extremely important for understanding and perceiving the city, therefore both sources are concentrated on them.

The paradigms INTELLIGENCE and ART correspond to “Education” and “Science and research”. The state report is focused on developing educational and scientific infrastructure, and ways of attracting more attention to existing problems. It is concentrated on the means of creating the educational and scientific environment. Meanwhile, Andrukhovych emphasises the result of being in such an environment. He creates an image of the city saturated with comprehension, capacity and reason making intelligence rather an attribute of space than a human characteristic. The same might be stated about art. Berlin is an artistic city in Andrukhovych’s opinion. It was and currently is inhabited by artists of different kinds. This attitude connects the paradigm ART with the paradigms HISTORY and PEOPLE.

The paradigm WATER is associated with “Environment, energy and climate”. Berlin as any other city is highly dependent on the surrounding ecosystem. City development is predetermined by the climate, landscape, location, etc. Still, the writer brings water to the fore. Berlin being permeated with numerous channels and rivers is commonly associated with them.

The paradigm VISUALITY is connected to “Cityscape and open spaces”. The images of the cities are usually bound to some specific landscape, making them unique. And the uniqueness of their looks allows to recreate distinctive features of the cities urbanity.

There are no irresolvable contradictions between Andrukhovych’s vision of Berlin and the status report. They focus on the same characteristics of the city choosing different ways of investigation them, concentrating on the different aspects of the same quality.

It is worth mentioning that the paradigm OPENNESS which is one of the principal paradigms of the concept of Berlin in “The Lexicon of Intimate Cities” does not correlate with any of the city features mentioned in the status report. However, Andrukhovych’s vision of Berlin is a vision from an outsider. The status report is quintessentially  an inside vision. It is not just about diversity and tolerance for Andrukhovych. It is more about the feeling of freedom and acceptance, an ability to be whoever the person is in this city.

The economy, housing, transport and mobility, health and sports aspects are not represented in Andrukhovych’s description of the city significantly. They are rather minor. The writer is clearly focusing on human aspect and human values creating the image of the city. It leaves some Berlin characteristics (even quite significant) out of the context. Nevertheless, Andrukhovych’s hyper-paradigm Berlin manages to provoke an extremely sufficient and adequate view of Berlin.

Thus, both descriptions of Berlin re-assemble the same features of the city, but different aspects of these features. Andruchovych recreates a specific view of and being in the city. The status report intends to provide statistically accurate information about Berlin. Despite of Andrukovych’s claims to be “totally subjective”; his vision of the city is evoked his (inter)actions in the city and his perception of its residents, so it has an objective basis. At the same time the status report has subjective features as it uses residents’ responses, their opinions and beliefs.

Regarding urbanity, paying attention to both aspects is valuable, as both reflect dimensions of reality – indeed  urbanity may be found at their intersection.

Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

Rethinking notions of subjectivity and objectivity

Shapin argues that science has been traditionally seen as the major, if not the only, domain where objectivity lives (Shapin, 2012). However, nowadays the majority of scientists finds that this traditional and common point of view is not really the one that corresponds to reality (Montford, 2010; Oreskes & Conway, 2010; Proctor, 2012). Thus, it seems to be fruitful not only to rethink the notions “objectivity” and “subjectivity” themselves, concerning impossibility of achieving neither of them. Nevertheless, their connections are regarded to be a matter of bigger interest. The interrelation of subjectivity and objectivity is usually seen as antagonistic one. Still, the observations make it clear that objectivity and subjectivity often complement and contribute extra features to one another with the regard to scientific analysis , improving or emphasising their results. Such an approach to understanding their connections allows us to resolve contradictions between objectivity and subjectivity and obtain benefits from both aspects of the analysis.

With reference to urbanity, the amplification of subjective basis is considered to be constructive in the view of the fact that urbanity is supposed to involve the subjectivity of its agents and their perceptions and beliefs. However, this approach may have a practical aspect as well, e.g. while planning a cultural city landscape aiming to create some specific urbanity or reflecting the subjective preferences of residents.


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urbrel (2024, March 11). Subjective and Objective Urbanity? Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

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