© 2016 Joseph Heathcott

Notes on Methodology in Urban Research

To be an urbanist is to be deeply curious about cities.  But how do we satisfy that curiosity?  After all, there is a tremendous range of approaches to the study of cities: too many, in fact, for any one person to master.  And while this multiplicity ensures the dynamism of urban research, the sheer number of methodological specializations can be daunting to students of urbanism.  This is all the more challenging when you consider that many urbanists are not only engaged in research, but also in practice.


For these reasons, it is important that we come to terms with methodological complexity, and that we hone those methods most relevant to our work--those that help us answer the questions we feel are most pressing, or that compel us most intensely.  At the same time, urbanists must be constantly aware that the methods we embrace inevitably constrain the range and scope of questions that we ask about cities.  That is the gift and the agony of methodology, the tension at the heart of how we create new knowledge. Disciplines and the methods they engender simultaneously reveal and obscure, magnify and miniaturize, the world.


Many social scientists specialize in quantitative methods, using survey instruments, large data sets, and statistical analysis. Others deploy qualitative methods, such as ethnographic fieldwork, thick description, unstructured interviews, and participant observation.  Policy analysts use logic models, evaluation techniques, actor-network diagrams, and case studies. Ecologists draw to varying degrees on laboratory experiment ("bench science"), computer modeling, and fieldwork. Historians troll the world's archives, using interpretive methods, content analysis, temporal reconstruction and sequencing. Architectural historians share these methods, but might also use sketching, site analysis, comparative aesthetics, dimensional surveying, visual analysis, material studies, photo-documentation, photogrammetry, and other approaches.  


Meanwhile, artists and designers bring a very different suite of methods to their work, from drawing and drafting to iteration, prototyping, 3D modeling, data visualization, material composition analysis, and environmental performance studies. Specific disciplines specialize in specific methods.  Architects, for example, often use mathematical calculations for drafting curves, configuring volumes, and governing flows.  Photographers pay close attention both to form and content, concerned not only with subject matter, but also with qualities of light, color, and composition. Sculptors excel at the translation of three-dimensional forms from one medium to another, often through multiple stages. At the root of these approaches is the design process itself--the ability to visualize an object, system, network, or flow and then to realize it through the application of iterative methods.

We have much to learn from other disciplines as well.  Physical and natural scientists excel at combining creativity and falsifiable methods in pursuit of rigorously defined questions.  Poets use language to move us out of narrative space to explore mood, affect, and emotion.  Choreographers chart kinetic movements within defined volumes, collapsing time in space as a way to meditate on motion, body, and form.  Conservatory musicians inspire us to practice our tried and true arts with the aim of continuous improvement, while composers and songwriters model the techniques of variation and improvisation.   Performing artists in general remind us that many of the great disciplines are temporal and experiential in nature.

From this swirl of methodological complexity, urbanists tend to draw on a wider toolkit than our peers in traditional disciplines.  Rather than allowing our disciplinary heritage to define our methods, urbanists tend to let the complexity of cities and the interdisciplinary nature of our inquiries suggest methodical approaches. This becomes particularly challenging when we bridge broad domains of knowledge, such as the humanities with media, or social sciences with design, or art with natural sciences.

Of course, the particular mix of methods we deploy usually emerges out of our training: for example, historians tend to fall back on archival and interpretive methods, architects on drawing, and anthropologists on ethnography. However, most urbanists quickly find that their initial methodological training falters before the "wicked problems" presented by cities.  As a result, most of us have learned by necessity to cross intellectual boundaries and plum other domains of knowledge.