Religious and urban ambivalences

The concept of ambivalence – in difference to diffusionism, historical dialectics, development, or progress – takes a synchronic stance and observes tensions and contradictions. It stresses conflict and constitutive ambiguity, bi-polar orders, bi-valence at any given moment. The opposition in a religious or urban ambivalence is neither dissolved in good and bad religion, good and bad urbanity nor are such ambivalences seen as ephemeral and transitory. As a consequence, metamorphosis of such ambivalences is not about gaining in mono-valence, one-to-one, or reduction of complexity. When using such a concept in a research approach, complexity is predicted as a condition for survival of a city or religion rather than a critical state. This is a deeply normative methodological decision by the researcher.

UrbRel Application
Even a quick glance at research literature demonstrates that cities and religion are characterised by contradictions or tensions. Even synchronously, and even in individual actors’ conceptions of urbanity or religion, both are internally complex and charged with tensions, and do not interact as two monoliths. These tensions have been defined very differently, for the urban, for example, as a tension between contact density and the compulsion to individualise (Georg Simmel), competition and communication (Robert Park), between culturalisation and economisation (Zukin 1995), diversity and equivalence (Sennett 1991, see Meier, Steets and Frers 2018, 81), of formal and informal economy (on dual urbanism López 2020), and spatially between topophilia and heterophilia (Bloomfield 2006). Socially, notions and practices of homophily are in tension with heterophily, ‘inclination towards similarity’, which is accompanied by an interest in standardisation and administrability, is in tension with ‘inclination towards diversity’, which focuses on complex division of labour and creativity (in particular Jacobs 1970, 1993). Inclusion is in tension with exclusion.

The complexity of urbanity from connotations of moral order, the necessity of politeness or friendliness and class consciousness for peaceful coexistence, the differentiation and diversity of the inhabitants and their life practices caused by densification processes, as well as their view beyond their own city, can be seen as constitutive of the ambivalences of the urban as a field of tensions that can be examined in terms of actors, positions, strategies and phenomena.

Religion can likewise be described by the tense relationship of double ambivalence. Religious ambivalences have been described, for instance, by Jonathan Z. Smith with the conceptual pair locative and utopian, Thomas Tweed as dwelling and crossing, and Jörg Rüpke in the concept of the duplicity of religious (and divine) agency mutually constituting each other (Smith 1978, 1987; Tweed 2006, 2011; Rüpke 2021). As in the case of the urban, further ambivalences that do not just occasionally occur but are constitutive for what is embraced by religion as an academic classification or people’s practices.

General Bibliography
Bloomfield, Jude. 2006. ‘Researching the Urban Imaginary: Resisting the Erasure of Places.’ In Urban Mindscapes of Europe (European Studies 23) edited by Godela Weiss-Sussex and Franco Bianchini. Amsterdam. 43-61.

Jacobs, Jane. 1970. The economy of cities. New York: Vintage Books.

Jacobs, Jane. 1993. The death and life of great American cities. New York: Modern Library.

López, Marcela. 2020. ‘Building Resilience through Commercial Relations: The Formalization of Carwash Sites in Medellín.’ In Urban Resilience in a Global Context: Actors, Narratives, and Temporalities (Urban Studies) edited by Dorothee Brantz and Avi Sharma. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. 147-66.

Meier, Lars, Steets, Silke and Frers, Lars. 2018. Theoretische Positionen der Stadtsoziologie (Grundlagentexte Soziologie), Weinheim: Beltz Juventa.
Rüpke, Jörg 2021. Religion and Its History: A Critical Inquiry, London: Routledge.

Sennett, Richard 1991. Civitas: Die Großstadt und die Kultur des Unterschieds, translated by Reinhard Kaiser, Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1978. Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religion (Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 23), Leiden: Brill.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1987. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism), Chicago: UP.

Tweed, Thomas A. 2006. Crossing and dwelling: A theory of religion, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tweed, Thomas A. 2011. ‘Space’, Material Religion 7. 116-23.

Zukin, Sharon 1995. The Cultures of Cities, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Cite this blog post
Jörg Rüpke (2022, December 5). Religious and urban ambivalences. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is Fellow in Religious Studies and Vice-director of the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt, Germany. His research interest focus on ritual, religion and urbanity. Recent publications include: Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Princeton, 2018); Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change (Berlin, 2020); Religion and its History: A Critical Inquiry (London, 2021); Ritual als Resonanzerfahrung (Stuttgart, 2021).

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