Historicizing Social Change,
Even in a Design School

Diane E. Davis




A big shout out to Julian Go for asking previous editors to share

some of their experiences during prior years at the journal, and

more importantly, for inviting us to reflect on the meaning and

significance of Political Power and Social Theory in our own professional

lives and the discipline more generally.  


My story is probably quite unique in these regards, having migrated away from comparative-historical sociology into the fields of urban planning and design. Because I continue to stress the importance of politics, history, collective action, and change-oriented social science thinking, I would like to suggest that the threads which connect these disciplines are strong, in my mind at least. I do think that spatial thinking, which is absolutely central in the fields of urban planning and design, can be a great entry point for understanding some of the contemporary sociological, political, and historical dynamics of injustice and inequality, and how and why they emerge at a variety of scales. Such concerns actually define much of the journal’s contents under Julian’s leadership, one reason I am so honored to continue my involvement with PPST.


"Spatial thinking...can be a great entry point for
understanding some of the contemporary sociological,
political, and historical dynamics
of injustice and inequality"



But back to the story of the journal, and how my years as editor have influenced my own trajectory in these regards, leading me from sociology to urban design and planning.  Of course, any such account must start with Maurice Zeitlin, my dissertation advisor from UCLA who turned the journal over to me and Howard Kimeldorf in the mid-1980s. I remember all this very clearly, and am still amazed that Maurice put so much trust in us, his former doctoral students.  He gave two very new Assistant Professors without tenure the opportunity (and challenge) of a lifetime:  to become co-editors of one of the leading journals of comparative-historical sociology,  replete with a stellar editorial board of very senior scholars, and allowed us to fashion the journal as we saw fit.   In those early days, I would say that we did not stray far from Maurice’s original mandate, in part because of his towering contributions with the journal and in comparative historical sociology more generally, as well as PPST’s already established reputation as producing serious, empirically-grounded scholarship that examined the historical relationships between classes and political power. The latter mandate matched our own scholarly interests, and we were honored to carry the baton.  


I do believe that Maurice [Zeitlin, founding editor] was very strategic in selecting both Howard and me to jointly edit the journal.  His own work had moved from a focus on Latin American class politics and political revolution, among other things, to more US-focused work on the working class and American labor movement. Howard and I represented both those strains of research, and we had been great friends at UCLA.  This also meant that the journal could reach far and wide in terms of geographic and substantive areas of interest, building on our slightly separate scholarly circles but sharing a common methodology and epistemology.  Working with Howard was great fun because we usually agreed on matters related to editorial decision-making.  I might not have accepted this editorship if I knew I had to do it all myself.  However, that the original editorial board held an array of the leading historians, sociologists, and political scientists of Latin America also was a huge draw, for me in particular.  In those early days Howard and I tried to balance our divergent interests in the US and Latin America, bringing other regional experiences into our editorial deliberations.  One of the wonderful things about Julian Go’s current editorship is the way he has continued to expand the journal’s focus to new parts of the world, and to introduce a more explicit global focus (often seen in the amazing volumes that re-examine the theory and practice of empire) into the pages of the journal.   Back in the day, we were focused on smaller scales of inquiry, more likely to publish works that examined class politics and social change at the scale of the nation-state, a focus quite consistent with our own research work and that of many members of the editorial board.


This is not to say that Howard and I did not try to steer the journal in different or newer directions, or that global issues were absent. And once Howard stepped down to become Chair of his department at Michigan, and left me on my own, I began turning to topics and issues that were being heatedly discussed at the New School for Social Research, where I was an assistant and later associate professor in Sociology and Historical Studies.  In the Graduate Faculty of the New School, debates between Chuck Tilly, Andrew Arato, Janet Abu-Lughod, Ira Katznelson, Ari Zolberg, Vera Zolberg, and David Gordon, among others, pulled me into the study of democracy and social movements, and how they related to classes and political power as well as national development. Probably even more significantly, in this widely cast group of scholars, all of whom cared deeply about radical social change and history, an interest in the city was a common thread. Having written my own dissertation with both Maurice and Manuel Castells, on the political economy of urban growth in Mexico City, even while at the New School I  started to gravitate towards urban subjects. As with any journal, one’s circle of reviewers, colleagues, and contributors is often hard to disentangle, and as I advanced my own career in the fields of social movements, democracy, and cities, the journal began to publish more in these areas.  To be sure, the journal never became identified with urban studies in any obvious way, with its reputation strongest among comparative-historical sociologists, most of whom were not studying cities back in the 1980s and 1990s.  But I do remember one early volume in which we published a provocative piece by Craig Calhoun that introduced the importance of thinking about physical location in the study of politics, identity formation, and revolutionary change.  That article, along with others I encountered in the review process, led me to strengthen my own a commitment to using the empirically-grounded historical study of cities and urban social classes as a basis for understanding the possibilities of social and political change.



When I left the New School in 2001 to join the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, I realized that the focus on cities and the role they played in political, economic, and social change had become a key part of my own scholarly agenda.  The personal challenge was to introduce such concerns into a planning school, both in my course work, but also through the lens of PPST, which I continued to edit.  This was no small task. Planners by their nature are interested in the future, not the past, and trying to introduce historical thinking into the planning lexicon was much more challenging than convincing students and colleagues the class struggle and political power were key enablers or constraints on urban planning action.  Indeed, one thing that urban planners and the scholars who embraced PPST shared was an interest in social change, or making the world a better place -- a theme also embraced by my colleagues at the New School. Granted urban planners’ strategies were different. While sociologists and political scientists are often interested in theorizing action, planners tend to be more interested in acting. But because my own training from Maurice and the ethos of PPST was always oriented towards empirical study more than grand theorizing, I found considerable commonality in strategy and mission. For my first several years at MIT I thus continued to edit PPST, and to stay connected to the field of comparative-historical sociology.  I also continued to work on urban Latin America, an academic concentration that grew out of my dissertation research and that brought me to MIT’s international development group, where students and faculty focused on cities in the developing world. While at MIT I sought to impress upon my doctoral students the importance of recognizing the weight of history on forces and conditions they were seeking to understand and change, and to prepare them to deploy empirically-grounded, historical study of places to derive better action strategies.  


"one thing that urban planners and the scholars who

embraced PPST shared was an interest in social

change, or making the world a better place"




Even so, as it became harder to introduce these historical and sociological proclivities into the planning curriculum, it became clear that it was time for someone else to take on the editorship at PPST. The journal needed someone who could maintain stronger connections to the discipline – someone who was embedded in the scholarly debates of the field that were unfolding in the early 2000s. Julian Go was that man, coming highly recommended by PPST Editorial Board Member Susan Eckstein, and strongly supported by all the board’s other members. I remember several deep conversations with Howard and Maurice, as we all collectively thought about how to maintain intellectual continuity with the past, even as the journal headed toward a new future.  We agreed that Julian was a perfect choice, and I am happy to say we were absolutely right!   As I reflect on all this now, I find it somewhat ironic that one reason Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) hired me away from MIT five years ago was because they wanted to introduce social science into their planning and design curriculum. Something that I struggled to do at MIT is now developing as a central mission at the GSD.  The possibilities are endless. I am taking out and dusting off much of the great writings in urban sociology and comparative historical sociology that once dominated my bookshelf, among them several recent volumes of PPST that focus on empire.  We are undertaking new scholarly activities for our students that are well-informed by topics published in PPST, including a conference I hosted at the GSD last year on the history of Baghdad. This is a city’s whose political past is dominated by occupation, empire, revolution, struggles over sovereignty, and war -- developments that have been experienced through and affected by the city’s built form and spatial structure, urban conditions that themselves are the product of design work produced some of the greatest names in the architectural and design worlds including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Constantino Doxiadis, among others.  The lesson here is that there are new and potentially unexplored questions about the relationship between urban design and central concerns that have been guiding comparative-historical sociology, political power, and social theory for years. I hope that PPST will be open to submissions from outside its conventional circles, from design schools and elsewhere, and that by doing so it will continue to be one of the most vibrant, important, and provocative outlets for scholarship focused on the politically and socially significant dilemmas of our times.


DIANE E. DAVIS, former PPST Editor and current member of the PPST Editorial Board, is Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, at Harvard University's School of Design.


Julian Go, editor


Political Power & Social Theory

c/o Julian Go, editor

Department of Sociology

University of Chicago

1126 East 59th Street

Chicago, IL 60637