What do you mean when you say "urban"? Divergence between everyday language and Northern analytical vocabularies in South African Cities

Joseph Pierce, Mary Lawhon


The everyday meanings of key words about urban topics in South Africa differ markedly from their received definitions in much of the international geographic literature. Terms such as urban, city, rural, modern, and developed are used in everyday settings to represent concepts that are sometimes subtly and in other cases markedly in contrast with Global North norms, and embody problematic racialized values and histories.  This article briefly describes the authors’ experiences of the everyday meanings of these key terms through engagement with South African students and research participants. We suggest research tactics that may enable better understandings of implicit urban concepts used in South Africa and (potentially) elsewhere in the Global South. This is particularly important for understanding urban participants’ reactions to and narratives about rapidly evolving patterns of development in postcolonial contexts.


South Africa, urban language, provincializing, located theory

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