Book Review: La città nella scienza politica americana

Francesca Gelli, La città nella scienza politica americana (Soveria Mannelli, Italy: Rubbettino, 2012). 162 pp., €14 (paper) ISBN: 9788849836325.

What does the city tell to political scientists? With this reasoned review of sociological and politological studies on American cities from the 50s on, the book by Francesca Gelli introduces a discussion on the relevance of urban studies and local politics to US academic debate. In the view of the author, these studies go beyond power and élites by focusing on their contribution to methodology and to empirical theories of democracy. Moreover, by the end of the book, the Author gives an up-to-date perspective on metropolitan areas and on the participative and deliberative practices in the context of American federalism with a presentation of the directions of urban policies of the US government.

The unconventional interpretation of these studies, often masterpieces of political science and sociology, represents the pros of the book. In the first chapter, the classic study on New Haven in 1961 is presented with reference to its methodological distinction and to Robert Dahl’s polemic vein towards the very first theorists of the pluralist approach and the weak empirical control hypothesis (p. 21). Similarly, following the argumentation of Bachrach and Baratz (1970) and Rae (2003), the Author introduces the issue of the ideological and conflicting facet of ‘non decisions’ in urban policies along with the fading of local political representatives as dominant actors in the complex economic and social texture of the American city. In the second chapter, the author cites the cases of political appointments in New York and of the conflicts in Oberlin and Chicago to show how new concepts and analytical categories were created in reality. Lowi, Wildavsky and Bansfield developed the idea of the “arens of policy” and the vision of the urban political system as a never-ending process of distribution of power according to a “mix of decisions (and decision makers) about social issues” (p. 86). In chapter 3, different views about the usefulness and rigour of case studies as a methodological choice are proposed. The Author reconstructs the different evaluations of the scientific value of case studies and connects them to different epistemological views (p. 93) by elaborating generalizations on power dynamics vs reconstructing narratives to account for policy change.

Towards the end of the 70s, the American city becomes the scene of harsh political confrontation. On one side, the analysis of the implementation at the local level of federal programs shows the limitations of paradigms inspired to planning and efficiency (p.99). At the same time, the development of different forms of participation is investigated, from contestation to collaboration between political institutions and civil society (pp. 121-127). On the other side, politics in cities spreads from the access to power provided by self-government and by the contrasts among different levels of government (p. 141). The author recalls here Elazar’s theory of American federalism, the checks and balances of a fragmented political power that is at the same time an opportunity and a constraint for effectiveness in metropolitan areas (p. 131-132).

In this discussion, the author introduces issues typical of the European debate, such as local governance and its complexity. Leadership of mayors in American cities becomes than the fundamental activity to solve implementation problems while building power coalitions (p. 151). Leadership is though the mechanism for the promotion of innovation also due to the “ability to listen” and to mediate in the relationship with different levels of governments (p. 111).

The book closes up with an evaluation on what the studies on the American city means to the Italian political science as an academic discipline. According to the author, Italian political scientists would have read the American city in order to inspire traditional comparative studies on political parties and machine politics, leaving aside other issues such as the relationship between urban policy and political culture (p. 152). In the author’s opinion, the debate among scholars, institutions and political representative on urban policies is still lacking, thus opening up to the development of a new research agenda of the city as the locus of politics, where conflict, leadership, participation, responsiveness and social equality are intertwined and the quality of democracy is expressed.

Maria Tullia Galanti, Università degli Studi di Firenze

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