Monthly Archives: March 2008


I was having a drink with a couple of colleagues, who, like me, are engaged in case study research, and the conversation turned to interviews. One of my colleagues mentioned some questionable propositions that had been put to him in one of those interviews. “I don’t believe that,” he said, “but if that’s what they say, what are you going to do?”
I knew the answer to the question: triangulation. But it took some excavation of my own research experience to remember how I had arrived at that answer. The idea of triangulation never actually occurred to me. It presented itself, in the form of a puzzle I encountered as a graduate student immersing myself in my first primary research project, a study of Kenya’s Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, the starting point for a book I later published under the title Land and Class in Kenya.

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James Howard Kunstler has been telling anyone who will listen that we will, very soon, experience a shock that will force a fundamental re-thinking of how we build our cities. Kunstler is the author of Home from Nowhere and Geography of Nowhere, sharply worded polemics against modernist architecture and street design. More recently, in The Long Emergency, he has become a prophet of suburbia’s doom.
His latest argument, in a nutshell, is that, having passed into an era in which world supply of oil has entered a long decline, we face, not only sharp increases in the price of oil products, but also shortages. Once the shortages hit, we will be forced into a fundamental re-thinking of our consumption habits in general and our urban development practices in particular. Wrenching social and economic change will follow, and suburbia as we know it, as well as much of the rest of civilization as we know it, will become a thing of the past.
That’s a good way to sell books. Whether it – despite overwrought rhetoric and probably exaggerated claims – contains a kernel of sound political analysis remains to be seen. But before we dismiss Kunstler’s argument altogether, it’s worth reflecting on how quickly and easily apparently impregnable political fortresses have been known to fall in the wake of a shift of public awareness and attitude.
In my youth, I saw drunken driving, smoking in public buildings and vocal racism all flagrantly, and often boastfully, put on public display. Today, though all three are still with us, they are widely frowned upon, and strict legislation has driven them underground. “If you can’t drink and drive, how are you going to get home?” is no longer considered a funny line. In all three cases, a change in public perception was a tipping point after which legislative change came relatively easily.

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