Sample Essay on How Urban Conflicts Dislocate City Spatial Structures

Cultural Studies

Part I: How Physical Features of Urban Conflicts Dislocate City Spatial Structures and the very nature of everyday experience


Urban conflicts have been a common phenomenon in major cities such as Belfast, Jerusalem, and many other cities located in the Middle East. These cities have been rocked in centuries-old territorial conflicts about state and national identities, borders, and cultures. Many urban borders have been imposed in major cities and have been a powerful tool in causing separation between people. For instance, the separation barrier (wall) of Israel is a classic example of such an urban border that has for a long time altered Palestinian Jerusalem. Another example of long-time urban disputes in the so-called ‘peace lines’ in Belfast that even share some parks between Protestants and Catholics. In Locating Urban Conflicts: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Every day, the authors have forced us to look at urban conflict in a different way. The leading researchers and scholars who have authored the book discuss how conflicts arising from bigger issues associated with ethnicity, religion, and nationalism are largely connected to the very nature of the cities. It explains to us how the everyday, easily ignored, practices in most congested cities have played a significant role in causing huge urban conflicts issues. The contributions of both violent and non-violent ethnonational issues in shaping most cities today have been illustrated. The book argues that some historical infrastructural structures such as the Berlin Wall, the city of Belfast and Beirut Vukovar have in themselves represented enmity and social conflicts by themselves. For the longest time in history, these structures have acted as physical representations of the existing social conflicts between two factions of people living within the same geographical area. Pullan has named these structures conflict infrastructure.


In this work, Pullan coined the term conflict infrastructure to denote how physical manifestations of physical planning decisions have impacted and transformed the spatial structure of everyday life for the ordinary person in most cities. It argues that the multiple overlapping power structures, politics, and space have worked together to restructure how ordinary person leads their everyday life within the city. According to Pullan, the various sources of urban conflicts can be located “both inside and in between cities” (1). The perceptions of socio-spatial practices within the city are the greatest contributors to urban conflicts. For the longest time, the existing and always changing geography of most cities has been associated with the cause of urban conflicts, which have existed since time immemorial. The most common forms of locational issues causing urban conflicts in major cities include things like mode of providing public services, closing schools, traffic patterns alteration, and modification and implementation of zoning codes.

Pullan exposes the social impacts of planning in most cities with an argument that most spatial reorganizations of cities have been carried out to serve the interests of the privileged in society at the expense of the less-privileged. Several mechanisms have been employed by social actors to enable them to invest in certain locations, produce space, and subsequently transform them into infrastructures of social power. Through definition of public routes of transportation, private property regulation, drawing administrative boundaries, as well as representing areas in a certain way, i.e. stereotyping or promoting given neighborhoods, social actors play a big role in shaping the geography of urban cities which significantly alters the existing social relations. How the social actors place the city infrastructure affects the accessibility of opportunities to the urban poor. Infrastructure investment in the geography of most cities is designed in terms of productive capital needs and has placed little consideration on social equity.

Pullan contends that urban planning plays an important role in creating social stratifications and whether or not the role of planning will lead to unification or division of the city depends largely on its effectiveness in achieving this objective. He also states that urban planning may not be the only factor that leads to urban conflicts but it is a great contribution to this major problem. Urban planning here denotes any collective initiative undertaken in order to shape the environment of the urban city. This definition applies even to third world countries where even though the cities are largely unplanned may nevertheless modify the urban geography in order to meet the needs of the rich and affluent usually at the expense of the larger less-privileged group. Most people have continued to ignore the role of urban planning towards urban conflict majorly because it is felt that how people have distributed within the city is just a mere coincidence and market forces. This theory looks at space as merely a reflection of society. This view is used to argue that the solution to urban problems can only be realized by solving the existing social problems.

In contrast, Pullan argues that socially created geographies have actively influenced social relations in most cities. He argues that if planners were to design the city putting into consideration the various social problems caused by these plans, they are capable of producing more just cities and in effect more just societies. For example, a certain segregation pattern may lead to the marginalization of a section of the city’s population. On the other hand, if planned with that in mind, it may work to foster the integration and assimilation of people living in those areas. For instance, a city that has been heavily designed to portray the needs of automobile transportation can have the effect of marginalizing those who do not have access to cars. Pullan argues that cities can be planned to eliminate historical urban conflict and transform these cities into emblems of peace and unity. An example of cities that have been transformed into new cities exhibiting the peace and togetherness of a people are Berlin and Belfast.


Allan Cochrane gives the history of the divided Berlin. For 45 years Berlin has remained divided and has even become a symbol of social division in itself. The Wall which remained erected on the city for almost 30 years was the force behind the division of and separation of West Berlin from the communism nightmare in East Germany. Even though it was just a physical structure, the Berlin wall represented a material manifestation of the state of everyday life in Berlin which was shaped by the wider social and political issues in which they all lived in. the peculiar feature of Berlin is the fact that its urban conflicts were not between ethnic groups but rather between world powers. Berlin was itself a product of state-based competitions between itself and its surrogates. There were different regimes with competing interests each of which sought to describe Germany according to its own terms. In the East, the Wall defended it against fascism which was necessary to enable them to strengthen their socialism system. On the other hand, the West viewed it as a representation of bad blood between people of the same family while at the same time separating part of Germany’s democracy and civilization. The author states that “Berlin has always been a myth, of legend, and of the deliberate manipulation of history” (214).

The position of Berlin during the Cold War had diverse effects on it after 1945. As a combination of several social, economic and political factors, Berlin had managed to develop its own political culture. Since being enrolled into the military was not mandatory in Berlin, the city saw the influx of many refugees running from the war and this had diverse cultural effects too. With time Berlin came to play a strong cultural role as an interaction point between the west and the east of Germany. It would later become a point where intellectuals made a stop before entering the West. Living in Berlin as a divided city was marked and dominated by state-backed ideological conflicts. Even then, the city still contained a certain amount of understanding that represented it as a unification of the West and the East. Though the Wall demarcated two worlds, these two factions were a set of a whole in many respects. Thus even though they occupied two ends of the spectrum they also exhibited certain unifying factors. For example, Berlin was and still is the Capital city of Germany.

The author argues that the only way the city was able to heal and grow over the division was only by the demolition of physical structures that had represented the division throughout the history of the country. The writer argues that the demolition of those historical structures had the psychological effect of eliminating all berries between people of one nation which then binds them into a complete whole. Then there was physical development to replace the previous structures that represented the division. Of course, it’s disputable whether that was a legitimate argument or it was only a way of providing opportunities to major property developers. The writer argues that for the longest time, Berlin integrated division as a characteristic feature of the city. This division was further given a physical manifestation, but most especially, the city was defined by division. Ironically, the differences existing in these two sides of the wall, East and West German were in themselves what brought them together as a constituent whole. This was large as a result of the fact that the two extremes were largely dependent on each other when it came to certain aspects of life. To a great extent, this is what brought them together and finally managed to unify these two cities into one unit despite the social divisions that had existed between them for a long time.


Authors Komarova and O’Dowd argue that the redesigning of Belfast into a capitalist city significantly influenced the peace process in Ireland. From the moment the Good Friday agreement of peace was concluded there has been a transformation of Belfast changing it from the representation of decades of violence to a rebranded consumerism city having new offices, recreational facilities and retail. This transition has largely been achieved through reconstruction projects by private developers as well as public-private partnerships. The new developments have in fact spearheaded the transformation and rebranding of the city to exhibit a culturally diverse urban city, a center for open trade, tourism, and direct foreign investment. A number of renovated venues have also played a big role in re-imaging Belfast to exhibit a place for commoditized cultural activities, major cultural events, and into a city of festivities. Writers have argued that the physical rebranding of the city heightens the probability of increasing and substantially restructuring the factors leading to ethnonational division and therefore increasing the potential for violent conflicts in the future.

However, due to its very nature, the regeneration of conflicts will usually multiply the antagonisms that are intensified when place, space, and territorial location become highly contested. In such a situation, conflicts may arise as a result of capitalist space versus politics or as a result of the meaning of place or territory. The continued existence of ethnonational divisions which are represented in the segregation of residential areas and evidenced by public institutions such as education, political representation, recreational activities, and religious practices means that they are forever entrenched in the physical structures elongated in our cities. In Belfast, these conflicts are challenged by destructive creativity embedded in neo-liberal capitalism. This has been placed in the hands of state administration who for a long time have sought to prioritize economic development while at the same time reconstructing the structures of governance of Northern Ireland. This reconstruction is carried out twice every year and has the effect of transcending the major destructive and antagonistic features of the ethnonational division.

The writers seek to explore the extent to which the economic transformation of a city and how this is manifested through reconstruction increases the probability of transforming the antagonistic ethnonational and cultural relations as ingrained in the material and societal structure of Belfast. In giving the history of the city, the writers state that the city has been very rigid when it comes to changes in its ethnonational violence for the last two centuries. Thus to this extent, the religious, ethnic, and national division forces in Belfast have seemed more impervious to the triggers of economic and political change.

The writers give an account of the sources of conflicts within the city. Due to religious, ethnic, and social conflicts, there developed a set of residential territorial restructuring in the city that shrouded that of the regional and urban planning. As a result, many Catholics became overcrowded in enclaves located within the city while Protestants occupied the suburbs and the outlying growth centers. These occupations resulted in a group of working-class royalists who were eager to fight for the retention of their newly acquired territories from being encroached by the poor Catholics overcrowding in the neighboring enclaves. However, with time, the government started implementing structures that challenged these new developments while at the same time undermining the efforts of unionist workers to attain territorial control. This status quo of the working class also faced challenges from the introduction of welfare measures, which were highly non-discriminatory and largely universal. Even though the administrators were adamant to implement these procedures, they eventually had to do as they were mandatory. In the end, the measures discussed above had the effect of transforming Northern Ireland into being dependent on subsidies from Westminster. The situation had also been included in the conflict management measures adopted by the British government in 1972.

Part II: Aretxaga’s contribution to the study of nationalism – Based on Shattering Silence by Aretxaga.

The Feminists Nationalist

The author looks into the role of women in contributing to major political decisions such as the case of attainment of peace status in Northern Ireland. Due to its historical significance, republican feminists argued that women should have been consulted before a declaration of the cease-fire by the IRA, which the author states seemed so petty at the time taking into consideration the political situation of the country. However, he also states that this is exactly where the problem lies since for these women, the situation was more than just seizing of the war; what they had to lose in terms of the struggle for recognition of women in national policies and decisions which they had struggled for in the last twenty-five years was equally important to them. He argues that while men have been associated with war, women have long been associated with peace. You would expect that this image would change as more and more women become involved in liberation wars and guerilla movements but this is not so. In fact, most conflict representations are characterized by pictures of violent men while women are the victimized group.

The author argues that the reason for this continued non-recognition of women is due to the fact that while women have not been active in pursuing their nationalistic goals as women in the political framework. This is because women have continued to engage in heterogeneous political positions which cannot be easily categorized in a highly contra posed political environment where only two main extremes are recognized and nothing in between. Thus due to this subversive character in relation to the existing political definition, women have been left out of the Northern Ireland political and nationalistic struggles. He adds that the reason for their being left out is not necessarily because analysts have recognized and want to eliminate their subversive nature but due to that fact the position they undertake in politics fails to fall within any of the established categorizations and therefore they are accorded no recognition at all. The author then turns to the issue of republican women and argues that if generally, this is the position for the ordinary generalist woman, then even truer for republican women who are usually working against two extreme political fields; feminism and nationalism. Thus the main reason why a republican woman is critical of the peace process in Northern Ireland is due to the fact that they are not properly positioned within the wider scheme of things of the countries politics.

For other republican women, it is not an issue of being repulsive to peace; they like everyone else want peace. The only problem is in defining peace on their own terms. According to the writer, peace has different meanings for different countries depending on their political and social structure. The concepts of peace and war are therefore multifaceted and ambiguous, capable of different constructions. According to him, peace is not necessarily signified by the end of the war, in some situations, the end of way could just be the catalyst for political instability. The writer then describes the Clar n mBan women organization which was formed mainly to ensure that women are no longer ignored in major political decisions of the country and also to pursue a peace agenda in the country. The Clar n mBan held a conference in 1995 where to find a way of asserting their own differences and common ground, and also to implement a democratic structure to ensure that all political groups were able to participate in major political forums. The author argues that this second objective was misplaced and a bit radical since it would not be appropriate to place democracy at the center of achieving your objective at a time when the country is marked by huge scars of gender and ethnic discrimination. It also showed that violence and political exclusion had a long history in Ireland. He attributes the breakdown of the 1996 ceasefire as well as the crisis that arose in the peace process to the failure to recognize republicans as important aspects of the political discourse.

However, he acknowledges that the formation of the Clar n man was a crucial step towards the inclusion of women in historical debates and policies.  In fact, he describes the movement as “interruptions in political discourse, disturbing presences that break the order of authorized historical narratives and in so doing raise the questions about the nature of such order” (6). According to him, the movement acts to defend women from the long-used phrase that since the war is over women have nothing important to contribute to the nation. This notion has been a tool for driving many Irish women back to the domestic tasks they undertook prior to colonialism. It was significant to ensure that the agency of nationalist women did not disappear into oblivion at a time when the risk of doing so was so high. The author argues that the women’s political perspectives within the country were once again shifted by the breakdown of the ceasefire. He, therefore, explores the ways in which the republican nationalist woman can be able to redefine herself in the new political environment.

Developing Gendered Identities

In the past, nationalist/ catholic women in Belfast were able to wage organized modes of resistance to counter the violence that was meted on them by the British Army and Northern Ireland police within the city. However, in most social literature chronicling the conflict, the struggle by these women and their political contribution to the conflict has gone completely unnoticed and unmentioned. The writer, therefore, sets to prove that these minor and invisible struggles were critical to the organization of the entire nationalist culture and the reconstruction of women’s identities. In addition, the political practices of nationalist women in Ireland portray the complex structures through which the political process, in general, was propagated.

Among the few existing documentation of feminist activities, there emerge wide differences between the Irish feminists themselves. These women have come together in order to establish a common identity amidst the challenges of eliminating their varied differences. Writers have proposed the establishment of a new form of feminism through which feminism can be represented. The author argues that the echoes of these scholars portray the many existing identity differences in Ireland. These ambiguities in identities have worked to shape the modern feminists forcing her to take different but usually contra-posed positions within the arena of feminism. He argues that most of the time, women evoke their diverse social experiences to strengthen their political positions. For example, nationalist women have confessed that being victims of anti-Catholic violence gave them a unique understanding of being second-class citizens or that living in situations of military occupations inspired them to fight injustices of the colonial masters. This enables them to blend with their living experiences from their positions in social life. Yet, the writer contends that these complex processes which have resulted in such political experience have never been studied in detail.

Studies have warned historians against taking experience for granted. The author argues that this warning should be to all people. He argues that such experience is what has informed feminist nationalists debates while at the same time excluding subordinate groups from public discourse. Thus in order to successfully become a nationalist woman and contribute to important political forums, it is critical to have a reliable background of experience. The writer argues that this important aspect of women’s nationalism, i.e. experience, has not been accorded due recognition in the history of political debates. He however argues that by putting too much emphasis on experience alone, one may forget the necessary process by which such women come into the experience. As such to gain an inner understanding of the debate, we need to define it in such a way as not to take it for granted.  He argues that political agency arises as a result of movements that go forward and back through discursive possibility and on to experience and then back to changes in conditions of possibility. It, therefore, assumes the existence of consciousness and intentionality but it is also based on cultural settings of unconscious discourses, modes of thinking, images, and feelings. However, we choose to look at this cultural repository, the political experience obtained and which seeks to enlighten on social transformation possibilities cannot be ignored.

The involvement of women nationalists in political activities has been described as an extension of the domestic role of women which cannot achieve any major social transformations. It has also been described as a cooptation by the male fraternity. These definitions have tended to portray the woman as merely a victim of violent clashes which fall beyond her control. Fiction has shown that every time woman wages war against these invisible forces, their struggles turn out to be in vain. However, if we are to adopt this general approach, how do we explain the situation of women walking in neighborhood streets during the night to free their men from military detention, the organized marches protesting arbitrary arrests, taking arms against the government, breaking the silence on violence by the state, protesting the penal system, and all the struggles to incorporate women voices into a male-dominated world? These very visible acts, histories, and experiences defy the assumption that women can only be helpless bystanders to a war that can only be fought by men. This assumption tends to represent that women only live within a specified gender identity and ignores the fact that women are inextricably intertwined with their communities. In conclusion, the author argues that women should stop being dependent on men in voicing their concerns as this only makes them subjects of the male species. They should articulate their issues from an independent point of view, where they can separate themselves from the issues facing women and where they can subjectively point out the gaps ailing the nations in terms of exclusion of women in nationalism.

Works Cited

Aretxaga, B.Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism andPolitical Subjectivity in Northern Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan,, 1997.

Pullan, W. and Baillie, Britt. Locating Urban Conflicts: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Everyday. Palgrave Macmillan,, 2013.