Cosmopolitan Europe Reviews

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 social sciences."

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.

"I 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 century. 

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 Houssay-Holzschuch:

"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 inequalities."

ii) Reviews:

by Katharyne Mitchell

"… a 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."

iii)    Author’s 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 they live.

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."

6in 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 August 2012.  

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.