Emotions as a Useful Category in Global Urban History

by Joseph Ben Prestel


Scholars frequently write about cities’ past as nationally or regionally specific stories. A variety of publications frame the history of urban settings along the lines of such categories as “Western Civilization,” “Europe,” “South Asia,” or the “Middle East.” Inspired by global and transnational history, some authors have recently begun to explore new possibilities of connecting these different threads of scholarship. In his The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel dedicates, for instance, an entire chapter to the global history of cities, elegantly weaving together a vast amount of information about changes that occurred around the world between the French Revolution and the outbreak of the First World War. Osterhammel compellingly highlights that it was not only Paris and London that went through a time of tremendous transformation, but also places like Kano, Hanoi, and Hankou.

Especially for the nineteenth century, however, the question of origins has continued to keep scholars interested in global approaches to urban history busy. Innovations in architecture, urban planning, transportation technology, urban governance, and various other fields shaped the trajectory of cities during this period in different locations. Scholars have often depicted these changes with a focus on their European origins; they have portrayed them as emerging in European cities first to be then copied in other world regions. Accounts of the “Haussmanization” of Cairo and Buenos Aires during the second half of the nineteenth century are a case in point. A number of publications have described these two cities as following an ideal of urban planning that was first developed in Paris during the 1850s and 1860s under the prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann. From this perspective, urban change in Cairo and Buenos Aires risks to appear as a story of constant lack and shortcomings, as it never quite reached the Parisian “original.”

Cover of the book “Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910”, Oxford University Press, 2017.

In my recently published book Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910, I suggest that emotions provide a useful analytical category to move away from the question of origins. Rather than looking for the place where specific transformations of cities first occurred, the book proposes a focus on the negotiation of urban change. With this argument, I build on studies in intellectual history and the history of technology that treat the adaption of concepts and practices not differently from acts of innovation. While emotions offer only one possibility among a range of analytical categories that can be used for such an approach, they provide a particularly useful perspective on urban history, since emotions don’t lend themselves to a narrative of origins. Contemporary discussions of fears that were instilled by changing cityscapes, for instance, lead the focus away from such issues as the seemingly European “original” of urban planning versus its “copies” in the rest of the world. As the bourgeoning field of the history of emotions has demonstrated, emotions are rather social practices that provide information about the social history of cities.

Emotional Cities traces debates about the impact of urban change on emotions in Berlin and Cairo during the second half of the nineteenth century. In chronological order, each of the book’s six chapters zooms in on developments in one of the two cities. The debates about change in Berlin and Cairo followed a surprisingly corresponding trajectory. Contemporaries began to depict urban change as affecting emotions in the Prussian and the Egyptian capitals shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. In their texts, authors reflected about the effects of activities like newspaper reading and dancing in dance halls on such emotions as love and shame. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, arguments about emotions and urban change started to focus increasingly on entertainment districts that had recently sprung up in both places – the neighborhood around Friedrichstraße in Berlin and the neighborhood of Azbakiyya in Cairo. Especially in the eyes of male, middle-class observers, these neighborhoods risked to rob men of the ability to control their emotions. Under the influence of entertainment districts, they argued, men would be guided by unrestrained feelings of love, anger, shame, or fear. Contemporaries in both cities eventually claimed to have found the appropriate solution for this problem. They portrayed practices of physical exercise and suburban housing as bringing back a controlled emotionality to urban dwellers.

The arguments in the Egyptian capital did not simply reproduce what had been written in Europe earlier. Neither were the debates in Berlin and Cairo entirely different. They rather followed a parallel development. In contrast to a focus on the origins of urban change, the analysis of debates about emotions thus draws attention to the simultaneous historical trajectory of the Egyptian and the Prussian capitals. I argue that dynamics of class formation, nationalism, and the spread of the natural sciences contributed to this parallel development of debates in the two cities.

Ultimately, this finding underscores the usefulness of emotions as an analytical category in global urban history. In his book What is Global History?, Sebastian Conrad has suggested that the concern for Eurocentrism and the synchronicity of historical processes are among the characteristics that set global history apart from other approaches, which seek to transcend the nation state in historical research. If scholars of global urban history want to differentiate their approach from, let’s say, transnational urban history, they should take this argument to the heart. In Emotional Cities, I seek to show that a focus on emotions allows for precisely such a shift in perspective, as it permits scholars to look at cities like Berlin and Cairo within a synchronous global context. This perspective can eventually lead to new questions. Did middle‑class men in other locales formulate similar arguments about entertainment districts? Which cities saw the creation of suburbs based on corresponding claims at the end of the nineteenth century? Engaging with such questions could not only contribute to less Eurocentric accounts of cities’ past. It also promises to show the analytical potential of urban histories that look beyond nationally and regionally framed narratives.


Joseph Ben Prestel. Picture: private.

Joseph Ben Prestel is assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) of modern history at Freie Universität Berlin. Before, he was a Fellow at the Research Center for the History of Emotions at the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development. Joseph is the author of “Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910” (OUP, 2017). During the winter term 2017-18, he is a postdoctoral fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut, where he works on his current project Revolutionary Arabesque: Palestinian Groups and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1979.






Citation: Joseph Ben Prestel, Emotions as a Useful Category in Global Urban History, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.01.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8579.


Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2018, 18. Januar). Emotions as a Useful Category in Global Urban History. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/usny

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Eine Antwort

  1. 13. August 2018

    […] Joseph Ben Prestel is assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) of modern history at Freie Universität Berlin. Joseph’s research and teaching focus on global and urban history as well as the histories of Europe and the Middle East during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His first monograph Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910 was published with Oxford University Press in fall 2017 (see here). […]

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