Urbanity

Urbanity is a practice and strategy transforming material and social arrangements into something “urban” amalgamates ideas, narratives and symbols of the urban, including media practices and spatially anchored urban behaviors. It also covers institutions and agents that seek to ensure an urban character. Propelled by these, long-term processes occur which can be summarized as urbanization, the expansion of urban spaces, or as an increasing network of settlements qualified as “cities”.

Along with religion, urbanity is one of the fundamental concepts of the “Religion and Urbanity” Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies. Far from being invented by us, the term has been in use since antiquity – at least in Latin and ancient Greek, and later in some European vernacular languages.[1] Its appearance always indicates explicit reflection on the conditions and practices of urban life. In the “Religion and Urbanity” context, however, we use ‘urbanity’ as an analytical term. This is to examine the diversity of urban spaces and urban lifestyles in selected regions of the world: not only in Europe, but also in the Mediterranean region (with North Africa and West Asia) and in South Asia. Only on such a basis does the diversity of religious practices and groups and their influence on the formation and use of cities come into view.

To understand cities as lived spaces, we follow definitions given by Georg Simmel, Max Weber’s ‘Stadtgemeinde’ and ‘Gemeindeverfassung’, and especially Louis Wirth, who coined the phrase ‘urbanism as a way of life’, de facto understanding it rather as ‘urbanity’ (Wirth 1938). We have supplemented these definitions with the work of Henri Lefebvre and other approaches that allow us to consider spatiality and temporality as social constructions. We are quite aware that we need to argue strongly for ‘urbanity’ instead of ‘urbanism’ when we are addressing an English speaking audience but we think that this is a worthwhile endeavor.

Urbanity is thus not only a conception or an aristocratic ethos, but are also spatially reflected, whether in ephemeral, fluid, imaginary, institutional or architectural ways, i.e. in monuments or layouts of settlements. It is interesting to observe how the different perspectives have complemented (or contradicted) each other – and how urbanity changes like in a kaleidoscope when we look into it and turn it.

As researchers working historically, we also know that we should not simply project sociological theories and definitions onto the past, and that we should not simply transfer European definitions to other regions of the world. Instead of considering urbanity as a normative concept – historically a frequent usage of the term -, we therefore take the self-interpretations of actors of the respective epochs and regions very seriously by also looking at the whole range of their vocabulary and language, their practices, visions and perceptions.

To us, the conceptual core of urbanity is a kind of lowest common denominator. The term refers not to an immutable substance but something constructed, produced and negotiated by agents. It is both a historical concept (meaning culturally determined and needing to be contextualised) and a concept of form [Formbegriff] that helps us to analyse and better understand the spatial configurations and transformations of cities and, in our context, the urbanity-producing effects of religion.

Considering urbanity as a concept of form (see Ledrut 1985; Levy 2005; Maskarinec 2019) covering cognitive meta-notions of urbanity detached from specific contexts allows applications in a non-normative, but in an open and questioning way to different historical cities. Setting out from such an unbound notion of urbanity, historical actors across space and time enacted their own specific understandings, practices and physical incarnations of an urban way of life. These often implicit realizations of urbanity were given their form by processes of materialization, temporalization, and spatialization in specific, city-related contexts (Rau 2020). These processes relate to an urban space not limited to the physical extent between city walls or boundaries. Notions of urbanity migrate with the historical actors carrying them as they cross these boundaries. In this sense, urban ways of life are where those enacting them are. Regardless of whether they live in or outside the city or outside, they can orient their way of life to the city – or alternatively categorically reject this way of life. This decision in particular can time and again also be influenced by religious-moral arguments. It is not only such religiously influenced decisions that makes urbanity interesting for the study of religions. Taking a closer look at how religious groups and individuals adapted their religious outlook, practices and places of worship and organization will also illuminate how they – in turn – shaped the city and its design by their sheer presence.

Urbanity thus emerges as a condition enabling and driving a particular way of life through attribution, comparison, discursive negotiation, or in spatiotemporal practices. It is concerned with the respective interplay of spatial configurations, spatiotemporal practices, ideas and perceptions, as well as descriptions of oneself or of others. In this openness, the term allows object-language or meta-linguistic terms of other cultural and linguistic traditions to have an epistemic function, from ville to village and polis to nāgara.[2]

Our special focus, not least to narrow down the object of research, is on religion, an aspect that has so far remained understudied in urban studies as a whole, when it was not exactly about the ‘Reformation’. The diverse ways of looking at things that continue to be possible are also reflected in this conference when it comes to urban planning and architecture, superimposition, temporal aspects, staging, rituals or the perspective of marginalised groups.

Festivities at the Ghats of Varansi in 2009

UrbRel Bibliography

Christ, Martin et al. 2022. ‚Entangling Urban and Religious History: A New Methodology (Version 1)’. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7002796

Rau, Susanne and Jörg Rüpke. 2020. ‚Religion und Urbanität: wechselseitige Formierungen als Forschungsproblem.‘ Historische Zeitschrift 310, 3: 654-680. https://doi.org/10.1515/hzhz-2020-0021

Rüpke, Jörg and Rau, Susanne. ‘Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations’. Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1515/urbrel.13230336. Accessed 2023-04-16.

Rau, Susanne. 2011. ‘Urbanität’. In Enzyklopädie Der Neuzeit, edited by Friedrich Jaeger, 13:1120–23. Stuttgart: Metzler. https://doi.org/10.1163/2352-0248_edn_a4491000.

———. 2020. ‘Urbanity (Urbanitas, Urbanität, Urbanité, Urbanità, Urbanidad…): An Essay’. Edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Religion and Urbanity Online, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1515/urbrel.11276000.

Rau, Susanne und Jörg Rüpke, eds. 2022. ‘Urbanität und Religion. Neue Perspektiven auf Religion in europäischen, süd- und westasiatischen Städten.‘ Moderne Stadtgeschichte 1.

Lévy, Jacques. ‘Urbanity and Humanity: Babel as an Open Myth.’ Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1515/urbrel.17263018. Accessed 2023-04-16.

Lafi, Nora. 2022. ‘Conceptualising Urbanity, Reinterpreting Coexistence: A ḥisba Manuscript of the Late Ottoman Era in Tunis.’ Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/urbrel.11276311. Accessed 2023-04-16.

General References

Hartmann, Jens-Uwe. 2017. ‘Das Leben Des Kultivierten Städters Im Frühen Indien: Alltag Oder Ideal?’ In Über Den Alltag Hinaus. Festschrift Für Thomas O. Höllmann Zum 65. Geburstag, edited by Shing Müller and Armin Selbitschka. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz: 289-269

Ledrut, Raymond. 1985. ‘La Notion de Forme Appliquée à l’espace Social’. In Figures de La Ville : Autour de Max Weber, edited by Alain Bourdin and Monique Hirschorn. Paris: Aubier: 103-111..

Levy, Albert. 2005. ‘Formes Urbaines et Significations : Revisiter La Morphologie Urbaine’. Espaces et Sociétés, no. 3: 25–48. https://doi.org/10.3917/esp.122.0025.

Maskarinec, Malika. 2019. ‘Form Als Streit Der Kräfte. Kant, Schopenhauer Und Simmel’. In Formbildung Und Formbegriff Das Formdenken Der Moderne, edited by Markus Klammer, Malika Maskarinec, Raplh Ubl, and Rahel Villinger. Wilhelm Fink: 25-38..

Rau, Susanne. 2011. ‘Urbanität’. In Enzyklopädie Der Neuzeit, edited by Friedrich Jaeger, 13:1120–23. Stuttgart: Metzler. https://doi.org/10.1163/2352-0248_edn_a4491000.

———. 2020. ‘Urbanity (Urbanitas, Urbanität, Urbanité, Urbanità, Urbanidad…): An Essay’. Edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Religion and Urbanity Online: 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1515/urbrel.11276000.

Russo, Manfred. 2016. Projekt Stadt: Eine Geschichte der Urbanität. Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag AG.

Schmidt-Lauber, Brigitta, ed. 2018. Andere Urbanitäten: Zur Pluralität des Städtischen. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag.

Skala, Dominik. 2015. Urbanität als Humanität: Anthropologie und Sozialethik im Stadtdenken Richard Sennetts. Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh.

Sonne, Wolfgang. 2014. Urbanität und Dichte im Städtebau des 20. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: DOM Publishers.

Wirth, Louis. 1938. ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life.’ American Journal of Sociology 44: 1–24.

Wüst, Thomas. 2004. Urbanität: Ein Mythos und sein Potential. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.


[1] The concept of urbanity in its post-ancient, Romance and Germanic derivatives of the Latin urbanitas was not only used to describe the prosocial aspects of high education (wit, esprit), but also to reflect on the necessary conditions for successful coexistence and a good life in urban space (Rau 2011).

[2] In South Asian studies, the Sanskrit term nāgara has often been used as the counterpart of grāma, the rural settlement or village. Thus, nāgara generally refers to a town or a city, and nāgaraka to the inhabitant of a town or a cultured man (Hartmann 2017). However, epigraphical and literary sources show that a great variety of terms was used from the second urbanisation period onwards (from the sixth century BC) for urban settlements. The Sanskrit term Rāja-dhānī translates into capital or court city, pattana to market place/port town, and pura to a small fort. The Persian term śahar was commonly used for Sultanate and Mughal cities from the thirteenth



Cite this blog post
Susanne Rau (2023, April 25). Urbanity. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vzu7

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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