The City in Political Theory

Course content

Johannesburg adopts innovative measures to address climate change. Protestors in Hong Kong occupy urban infrastructure in their fight against the expansion of state power. Grassroots movements from Salvador, Brazil to Baltimore, USA confront the inequalities of gentrification. Everywhere we look, cities and urban spaces are remaking the terms of our politics. Currently, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the United Nations projects that number will rise to 68% by 2050. With rapid urbanization, cities have become places of tremendous geopolitical, economic, and ecological significance. Political theory has a long history of thinking about the city from at least as early as Aristotle’s definition of the human as the animal who is a member of a polis (city). Contemporary political theory has drawn upon this tradition to theorize the politics of cities that far exceed the size and scale of the ancient polis. This course asks how returning to the political theory of the city can shed new light on ideas of community, agency, security, equality, and democracy. The course will address the following questions: How do power relations within cities differ from those that define the nation-state? What possibilities for democratic practice and egalitarian redistribution does the “right to the city” offer? How has the city’s return to prominence in politics brought with it the expansion of surveillance and the securitization of everyday life? In an era of ecological crisis, can collective action in cities “scale up” to have global effects?


Outline of Topics

  1. The Polis and Politics
  2. Understanding Urban Inequality
  3. The ‘Right to the City’ and the Commonwealth
  4. Urban Militarization
  5. The Democratic Politics of Infrastructure
  6. Returning to the Polis Today



Bachelor student (2012 programme curriculum): 10 ECTS

Bachelor student (2017 programme curriculum): 7.5 ECTS

Master student: 7.5 ECTS

Learning outcome


Students will learn to identify the importance of cities for classical and contemporary political theory. They will be able to explain challenges within urban politics today.



Students will be able to analyze arguments and concepts in political theory texts. They will learn to critically assess theories and combine complex arguments.



Students will be able to apply theories to contemporary challenges faced by cities. They will also be able to write concisely and effectively on these topics, presenting an argument and supporting it with clear explanation and evidence.

Lecture, student-led discussion, student presentations, and group work

Aristotle. The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Ed. Stephen Everson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


Holmes, Stephen Taylor. "Aristippus in and out of Athens." The American Political Science Review 73, no. 1 (1979): 113–128.


Engels, Friedrich. The Housing Question. Moscow: Progress, 1975.


Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. New York: Verso, 2005. Selections.


Kohn, Margaret. The Death and Life of the Urban Commonwealth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.


Lefebvre, Henri. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities. Ed. and trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. London: Blackwell, 1996. 147–159.


Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. Trans. Graham Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 1–86.


Graham, Stephen. Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso, 2010. Selections.


Weizman, Eyal. Hollowland: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso, 2007. 185–220.   


Honig, Bonnie. Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair. Fordham University Press, 2017.


Simone, AbduMaliq. “The People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16, no. 3 (2004): 407–429.


Bennett, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture 17, no. 3 (2005): 445–465.


Cowen, Deborah. “Logistics Cities: The ‘Urban Heart’ of Empire.” In The Deadly Life of Logistics. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 163–196.


Magnusson, Warren. Politics of Urbanism: Seeing Like a City. London: Routledge, 2011.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Free assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28