Cosmopolitan Europe represents a progression in John Western’s books towards ever-fuller reliance on ethnographic methods. That is, perhaps one-third of the material in his first, Outcast Cape Town, was drawn from face-to-face, one-on-one interviews with residents of that city battered by apartheid. (This study had quite an impact, being positively reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, the London Times, the Rand Daily Mail, 49 other academic or otherwise outlets, plus U.S. National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air.)
A Passage to England (1992) was perhaps two-thirds drawn from face-to-face interviewing (and only one-third from archives, secondary sources, or official reports). It was also more self-consciously reflexive, something I had hardly allowed myself with Outcast at the vulnerable beginning of my career in 1981, but which had become an acceptable mode of scholarly narrative ten or so years later. The first and last chapters of Passage in particular attempted to weave the researcher into the research -- and with the researched. (You will find that one critic, David Ley, finds in the Annals AAG Review of Books online forum [# 3, Fall 2013: see more fully below] that "… the last chapter of Barbadian Londoners, ‘Islands and Insularities,’ is one of the most evocative pieces of geographical writing I have read.")
By the time another score of years have passed and Cosmopolitan Europe gets published in 2012, the research has become almost wholly based on original ethnography. By intent there are very few references to secondary sources -- to other scholars -- and also, by intent, the explicit reflexivity of much of the narrative is an attempt to engage not only the reader's attention but also their emotions, their care. Whether or not reviewers have appreciated such an attempt may be read below.
Copyright regulations demand that full published
reviews cannot be provided here.
Therefore I have selected limited portions only, as permitted. Naturally enough, one chooses the most
complimentary sentences, although I would much rather that the whole review had
been available, warts and all. There is
however no attempt to misrepresent or mislead here, but, yes, surely an
attempt to employ a judicious amount of self-promotion!
1. in Regional Studies, by David Andersson, January 2013.
"Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is
the way in which it illustrates the diversity within ethnic groups, both as
regards the perception of economic opportunity and (other) immigrants. The stereotypical image of European cities
pits old and affluent natives against young and poor immigrants. Western shows that real-life attitudes and
conflicts are more multifaceted…. All in
all, however, the ‘self-portrait’ that emerges in this well-written book is
that of an increasingly cosmopolitan and tolerant city…. The book's main strength lies in the way that
many of the juxtaposed statements point to unresolved research questions in the
2. in Journal of
Contemporary European Studies, by Delene Case White, 2013
"The author conducted research with the
individuals over a seven-year period, relying upon a thirteen-item open-ended
questionnaire as well as personal interviews and intimate conversations, often
over a coffee or dinner at interviewees’ homes.
Western aims for an ‘enjoyable reading, that whatever learning present
might be worn lightly’ and thus avoids almost totally any use of footnotes. … This
book offers a unique contribution to general knowledge about Strasbourg and as
an example of European cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, while also
addressing its remaining problems of racism and xenophobia."
3. in Geographical Review, by Hugh Clout, July 2013.
have read Western's rich and powerful book three times, and on each occasion I
have been impressed by a different
theme. First, it was the intricacy and
variety of the life stories and the author's skillful, reflexive engagement
with them that captured my imagination. Here was a master geographer at a work
teasing out details from his informants and sharing his reactions with them
with unfailing tact and courtesy. … As well as a work of geography, this is a
sensitive exposition of the big themes in the history of Europe in the 20th
Paradoxically, Strasbourg is both an exemplar of urban Europe,
and a place unlike any other. This
contradiction is at the heart of Western's marvelously successful book…. To my mind, Cosmopolitan Europe is a triumph
of which ‘Monsieur John’ should be justly proud."
4. in Annals of the
Association of American Geographers, Review of Books online, # 3, Fall 2013.
i) An introductory abstract by Myriam
"John Western's opus weaves together a rich trove
of 160 in-depth interviews…. The book is ethnographic in method and profoundly
empathetic by choice. Its tone is marked
by a deep honesty, and sometimes more than a hint of mischievousness -- on both
interviewer and interviewees’ side…. Underlying all these themes is a constant
interrogation of what it means to be a Strasburger, an Alsatian, French or
European -- to be all, some, even none of the above; of who identifies and is
identified as such. The tapestry of
narratives shows these shifting scales of identities at play, a deck of cards
(often happily) mixed and constantly reordered.
This rather optimistic story, tinged with ambivalence
and by the ghosts of tragedies past, constitutes a book of, by, and for the
people of Strasbourg. Here is a book in
which I, a Frenchwoman from a Germanophile family, could recognize not only the
astonishing achievements of the European project that has built a solid peace
over ruins, but also its current inability to address racial and social
by Katharyne Mitchell
wonderfully rich empirical investigation of the city of Strasbourg, which
simultaneously attempts to draw larger linkages to the transformations
occurring in Europe as a whole. In this work he embraces a refreshing and
unusual scholarly style based on the quotations and anecdotes drawn from 160
interviews with Strasbourg residents.
The interview format, noted as ‘leaving the door ajar,’ enabled
informants to talk about anything that drew their attention or which they
thought was important; as a result the book covers a lot of territory and moves
at an unhurried pace and in a seamless fashion through many of the critical
issues and dilemmas facing modern Europe today.
… this book comes alive with the cacophony of everyday life….
In a nuanced chapter on War and Remembrance he solicits
the multiple narratives of Alsatians through both world wars. This is where his technique of drawing forth
the stories of the Strasburgers to paint a larger portrait of Europe works so
well. The lived experiences and situated
practices of these residents lets us know how place-making works through the
actual presence and suffering of bodies in space -- people who have friendships
and enmities, and who ‘suffer for territory’….
Western describes this territory from the bottom up….
A final area that was touched on that might be
developed further is the role of youth in the city's ‘self-portrait.’ In most cases here, young people are narrated
through the words of the older generations but rarely get to tell their own
stories…. There is more here worth
pursuing, encompassing the lives and urban imaginings of the young. Given the fabulous information that is
incorporated in this book, coupled with Western’s clear love of the city,
perhaps he could be persuaded to write a ‘companion’ volume for his next chef-d’œuvre!"
by Marie-Hélène Bacqué
"The structure of the book is stimulating. It
differs from classic works of social science whereby a casual reading normally
carries you from introduction to conclusion and sometimes allows the lazy
reader to go straight to what is most important. If you want to have a thorough grasp of this
particular book, however, you have to take the time to plunge into the story
and into the various complex life trajectories which make up Strasbourg. The city is thus built up via the kind of
sedimentation which is illustrated by French geographer-historian Marcel
Roncayolo’s (1990) axiom: ‘the city, like time crystallized.’
… one of the questions raised by this book concerns the
give and take between cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in a French society
which has also been strongly marked by a culture of republicanism. … In
conclusion, Cosmopolitan Europe is a great book. Let’s hope it will soon be translated into
French and that this narrative will therefore be made available for those who
are the principal characters in it, for social science offers an interpretation
of the world which cannot fully attain any sort of efficiency unless it enters
into the deliberations of precisely those who make the world go round."
by David Ley
"John Western is a writer of books about places
and the people who shape them…. They are
grounded and deeply field-centered, they are dialogical in the sense of being
conversational with a sense of ongoing discovery in exchanges between the
author and participants, they engage moral-cum-ethical issues around place and
race, and they are profoundly, even viscerally, geographical. Locale is sensuous: sounds, sights, smells,
emotions, memory all matter and are part of the portrait being assembled. [Western's] books articulate a human
geography as an accumulated everyday experience of place through time; they
represent a genre of work that is sadly underdeveloped today…. This is indeed a magnum opus.
by Alexander Murphy
"Grounded in an extraordinary range of interviews
conducted over many years, Cosmopolitan Europe provides a remarkable portrait
of the city…. The genius of the book
lies not just in the range and depth of the interviews conducted by its author,
but in the way Western tells the stories of his interviewees. He interweaves their stories with thoughtful
observations of his own -- extrapolating from his own background and
experiences in a way that makes the book eminently readable. He also uses the stories of his interviewees
to reflect on some of the major issues facing Europe today. In the process, the reader comes to
understand not just how Strasbourg has developed over time, but what
Strasbourg's story suggests for a Europe that has become increasingly multicultural,
globalized, and politically integrated over the past half-century.
He has also crafted a methodologically interesting work
-- one that charts a new path for geographic research even as it raises
questions about the role of the personality and demeanor of the researcher in
the research process. Research methods
courses usually focus on question development, survey strategies, and the
like. Many of Cosmopolitan Europe’s insights
have less to do with the careful implementation of a particular research
design, however, then with the exceptionally open, gentle, thoughtful, and
undogmatic approach its author evidently took when interacting with research
subjects. This book could be read, then,
not just as a portrait of a city, but as an implicit challenge to the way we
teach research methods."
by Kevin Cox
"More specifically, though, I was left to decipher
what was meant by that keyword in the title of the book, ‘cosmopolitan.’ It is
never unearthed though there is a lot in the book that is suggestive. On the other hand, the book made me think
about the issue, and that was a major provocation, and one for which I am
grateful. Again, the materials assembled
here were extraordinarily useful in trying to think through this question
… I'm grateful to John Western for
posing the question, if only implicitly.
This it seems to me illustrates a major value of the book. It is chock-full of all manner of
observations and cross-referencing which, through the questions that they
imply, open up rich possibilities for further inquiry. Books are always what you make of them, and
there is a lot to be made of this one."
response (concluding sentences): [As a graduate student about to launch out
onto dissertation fieldwork in apartheid South Africa, I heard Robert Coles,
who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his Children of Crisis, speak at UCLA
on November 8, 1973.]
"There on the podium Coles inspired, convincing me
of what I already suspected: that there was joy in person-to-person
interviewing. He also insisted that the
emotion, and sometimes poetry, that charges words and gestures may properly
find itself on to the academic’s printed page, and not be summarily dismissed
as lacking in professional objectivity or as ‘journalistic.’ Thus he propelled me toward the method I have
used in all my major studies: talk with the people about the places in which
For a historian like Paul Fussell in The Great War and
Modern Memory (1975), for Henry Glassie in Passing the Time in Ballymenone
(1995), and for Robert Coles in so many fine and beautiful works, it's about
the human condition. It is about
pathos. That's what ethnographic human
geography is about for me."
5. in Annales de Géographie, by Hugh Clout, 2014.
"This is a remarkable book: a labour of love
written by a social geographer based at Syracuse University, who is well-known
for his books on race and urbanity in Cape Town and in London. … Western's method -- and this is the most
original feature of the book -- is deeply reflexive. … [He] has written a most impressive book. He shares the lives of his interviewees --
and friends -- with its readers, and reveals his own thoughts and experiences
in an engaging way. Cosmopolitan Europe
is a really novel example of social geography that will not leave readers
unmoved; it is nothing short of a masterpiece of geographical writing."
6. in Géographie et Cultures, by Paul Claval, 2014. [my translation from the French]
A Truly Human Geography….
The work that John Western has just published offers us a rich and nuanced portrait of Strasbourg. To deal with a city torn between France and Germany and being transformed by the powerful currents of contemporary global migration is a touchy business, but John Western, who has long been interested in divided worlds, here succeeds admirably.
… Perhaps most remarkable is the author’s art as he draws us through the narrative via a felicitous style. One couldn't dream of a higher quality of expression -- which shouldn't surprise, in that this writer has produced other works of equal quality. On burning issues or on controversial subjects, nothing is better than a literary sensibility.
Le plus remarquable
peut-être, c’est l’art avec lequel le récit est mené et la limpidité du
texte. On ne peut rêver de plus haute
qualité d’expression – ce qui ne saurait étonner d’un auteur auquel on doit
d’autres textes de la même qualité. Sur des problèmes brûlants et où les
opinions sont divisées, rien ne vaut une sensibilité de littéraire.
7. in Social and
Cultural Geography, by Richelle Bernazzoli, July 2014.
Cosmopolitan Europe continues
Western’s scholarly enterprise of investigating the spatialities of memory,
migration, and difference in an urban context (see his earlier work, for
example, on Cape Town and London). The
present book constitutes a hugely ambitious undertaking: documenting the sense of
place, belonging, and otherness in Strasbourg, France over an entire century.
Western’s deep commitment to understanding the Strasbourgeois has certainly paid off; the reader will undoubtedly
come away from this book with a significant grasp of social-cultural-political
life in the city and its region of Alsace.
… Chapters 5 through 9 present a vibrant, thick, and
meaning-rich account of European integration and Europeanization in their
truest sense. The material portrays the
construction of a ‘cosmopolitan’ European identity as deeply cultural and
personal, with community ties and the built urban environment playing key roles
in the process. Such a focus is particularly welcome amid the overwhelmingly
dry, institutional, and policy-oriented approaches prevalent in EU studies.
… [The book concludes] … via an apt reflection from
Western's young daughter and the memory of a particularly idyllic moment in the
city. Such an ending is fitting, given Western's elegant incorporation of his
own positionality, which seamlessly becomes a part of the audience’s learning
about Strasbourg…. Hence, this work stands out as a particularly rich and
thorough ethnography that weaves together prolonged engagement with the city,
deep historical knowledge of the place, and the author's own lived experience.
… Additionally, an interesting notion of scale is at play
throughout the interviews … Sometimes these ruminations beg spatial-theoretic
exegesis, but perhaps it is this omission that will allow the book to have a
wider appeal, beyond a human geography audience.
All told, Cosmopolitan
Europe is a beautifully written and powerful piece of ethnography with real
potential to compel the field of EU studies to take notice of what geography
and geographers bring to the study of identity and integration.
8. in Journal of
Historical Geography, by Michael Heffernan 53 (July 2016).
"In this fascinating, highly original book, urban
geographer John Western provides an insightful and provocative account of
Strasbourg's past, present, and future, brilliantly capturing the strange and
contradictory paradox of a cosmopolitan European city that is simultaneously
provincial and metropolitan.
Western's account of Strasbourg's post-war historical
geography is an intensely personal testimony, shorn of the usual academic
references and footnotes (the bibliography has fewer than fifty items). Drawing
on dozens of interviews, conducted mainly in French over the past two decades, Cosmopolitan Europe tells us as much
about the impact that Strasbourg has had on the author and his family as it
does about Western’s interpretations of the city's contested histories and
geographies, as evidenced by his many interviewees. For this reason, and
without ever presenting itself in these terms, Cosmopolitan Europe is an important methodological statement about
the value of long-term, ethnographic urban geographical inquiry based on
extended and repeated visits to the same city over several years."
And not in scholarly journals, you may access "Fionnuala’s
Reviews" in the bibliophiles’ e-forum Goodreads, October 3, 2012. Strasburger Pierre Karli, renowned
neurobiologist and member of the French Academy of Sciences deemed this study to be "un œuvre magistrale" in
Prepublication readings by
Edward Pilkington, New York bureau chief of
The Guardian, by Yi-Fu Tuan of the University of Wisconsin, by Wilbur
Zelinsky of the Pennsylvania State University, and by Paul Claval of the
Sorbonne, are to be found on the pre-pages or cover of the book. Both Claval, in 1996, and Tuan, in 2012, have
been recipients of what has been termed academic geography’s Nobel Prize, the
Prix Vautrin-Lud. Respectively, they
deem Cosmopolitan Europe "un chef d’œuvre" and "John
Western's second masterpiece."
Jacques Trentesaux, editor at L’Express
(Paris), crisply summed up his reaction: "Remarkable. An American comes to Strasbourg, gets to know
the city, and writes it loveletter."
Furthermore, the Mayor of Strasbourg, Roland Ries, has undertaken to
write the Foreword for any French translation of the book. The foreword to the present English-language
book is written by Loïc Wacquant, Professor of Sociology at the University of
California, Berkeley, and a MacArthur Fellow.