Relationality in the metropolis

Deborah Warr, University of Melbourne & Peter Walters (University of Queensland):

The fledgling Urban Sociology Thematic Group hosted its first symposium at the University of Melbourne on 2 December 2016. The thematic group is keen to foster a distinctive sociological approach to the interdisciplinary field of urban studies and the theme for the symposium, ‘Relationality in the Metropolis’, addressed questions of ‘relational sociology’ in urban and suburban settings. Most broadly, relational sociology conceives social worlds as unfolding dynamic relationships rather than categories of entities (Emirbayer 1997). While the concept of relational sociology has a rather low profile in theoretical and methodological discussions and debates, these ideas are evident in many sociological theories and empirical approaches. We wanted to consider more deliberately its potential relevance to the field of urban sociology.

Unlike many sub-disciplines in sociology, urban sociologists have a central concern with issues of place and space and that concern is generally focused on the relational nature of urban space. Issues of power, disadvantage, governance, culture and the general effects of neoliberalism manifest in the nature of the urban space and while we should avoid ideas of spatial determinism, there are undoubtedly particular forms of relationality that are constrained and enabled by particular spatial arrangements in the metropolis.

These ideas were unpacked and explored in different ways across the symposium. We started on the evening of 1 December with the opening of an exhibition of photographs, text, textile and video works, ‘Not THAT Place: Art vs Stigma’. The work was generated in art-sociology projects focusing on stigmatised neighbourhoods (ARC Discovery Project ‘Challenging Stigma’; Deborah Warr, Keith Jacobs, Rowland Atkinson and Gretel Taylor). In the project, this vein of enquiry explored how art might be employed in the navigation of the sometimes-difficult terrain of neighbourhood issues and urban relations. Site-specific art created with residents was used as a means to interrogate, problematise and represent difference within and between communities.

Our two keynote speakers were well qualified to speak about issues of relationality from radically different perspectives! Professor Jeff Malpas, University of Tasmania, presented the first keynote talk. Jeff is one of a small number of philosophers whose work explicitly deals with explorations of philosophical concepts of place. He gave a thought-provoking exposition, drawing on a range of philosophic work to highlight the importance of place to identity and the ‘life of the mind’. He explored the distinctions between space and place, and sketched out his own understanding of the significance of place as entailing both boundaries and borders, and an opening up and unfolding in which relationality is embedded. He critiqued metaphors of flow to describe contemporary social worlds, including relations, to remind us that relationality inevitably ramifies within dynamic notions of place. Referring to thinkers such as Kant, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Proust, Jeff demonstrated the centrality of place to so much of the philosophical canon, but which few have explored as a primary focus. It sounds complex and it was, but Jeff did a fabulous job of making largely unfamiliar philosophical ideas accessible and relevant to sociological issues. ( You can listen to Jeff’s talk via TASA’s Sound Cloud here.

Our second keynote presentation was delivered by Dr Terence Heng from the Singapore Institute of Technology. Terence is a visual sociologist who combines creative practice and sociological research to investigate the making of ethnic identities in Singapore. Terence illustrated his claims by drawing on his long involvement in filming religious rituals that take place in homes and public spaces around Singapore. Much of what Terence does involves the investigation of transformations of space and place and he used his significant technical and aesthetic skills to demonstrate the ways in which Singaporeans have been able to transform highly structured places such as public housing estates to play host to religious and cultural practices. In one case study, Terence showed us the ways in which modern Singaporeans practise the ‘Hungry Ghost’ festival where spirit mediums are used to transfer the ghosts of departed relatives and ancestors from the netherworld to roam the earth. This ancient practice was brought by migrants from Southern China to Singapore in the 19th century and through a transformational process it survives and has been appropriated to the normally clinical spaces of a Singaporean public housing estate (Heng 2014). In another example, Terence gave us a visual tour through the practice of spirit mediums and the transformation of residential spaces into sacred spaces for this purpose. Terence explained the ways in which this type of practice can be seen as resistance to the functionalist political climate that exists in Singapore (Heng 2016). You can listen to Terence’s talk via TASA’s Sound Cloud here.

As you would expect from a visual sociologist, Terence included images and videos in his presentation. He talked about the possibilities of visual practice, both as a method and as strategies for marking out spaces of identity in multicultural urban environments. He also provided some very practical advice for photographing sociological subjects and phenomena. You can view his work on his website:

Our four panel discussions were diverse and lively and provided an excellent opportunity to explore the many ways that sociologists engage with the urban. Peter Walters (University of Queensland) led the first panel discussion on Authenticity and Global Cities. The second panel on Art and Urban Expression was led by Deborah Stevenson (Western Sydney University). Keith Jacobs (University of Tasmania) led the panel discussion on Writing the City Sociologically. In the final panel, early career researchers working in a range of local and international urban contexts talked about their work and its intersections with issues of relationality.

We would like to thank Associate Professor Deborah Warr for organising and hosting the day, all the participants who contributed to excellent discussions and to TASA for making this possible through their generous support.


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