Cultural Capital and the City: reflections on Manchester

Cultural Capital and the City: reflections on Manchester

Mike Savage

Note: This essay was written for the volume, ‘Culture in Manchester: institutions and urban change since 1850’, edited by Janet Wolff with Mike Savage (Manchester University Press, 2013). In the end it was not included since it lacked rigour and depth and was too impressionistic. I have posted it on this blogsite as it may have some interest to those thinking about how forms of urban studies can be associated with Bourdieusian analysis. It also includes some of my own personal reflections on the city where I worked for 15 wonderful years. I may still work this essay up for publication, so comments welcome!

The formatting is not polished and there are a few missing references……



When I recall the great cities of Europe, I see myself, first of all, clambering in and out of a motor coach on a conducted tour. Some of these became places to live in, or belong to, but they began just as sites. Not so Manchester. There are no conducted tours, no coaches waiting in Albert Square, or touting guides in Piccadilly. Yet Manchester is as distinctive in its way as Athens or Peking[i]

Paris is often considered to be ‘the capital of the nineteenth century’, and other great cities, particularly London, have their claim too…. If we think of nineteenth century modernity as defined by the city of circulation…  then the claims of Paris are strong. But if we think of the city that has to do with production and distribution, then Manchester has its claims, if not to capital status, then to a peculiar sort of centrality’.[ii]

‘Traditionally, for the upper-middle class homosexual man, there was Paris, and going abroad was a double escape… But England had its opportunities too. Alan (Turing) always used to stay in the YMCA in London…. But Manchester was another story…. here merged many kinds of desire – for physical excitement, for attention, for a life outside family and factory confines and money’[iii]


This chapter reflects on how we can register the relationship between the city of Manchester, its cultural institutions, and the wider social and cultural space in which it is positioned. My aim is to resist an influential temptation to render the writ of urban culture as set by the great metropolitan cities which reads urban culture elsewhere in terms of how far it measures up to its standards. But I also want to avoid the obvious counter strategy, where those positioned from subordinate cities accept the terms of reference set by the metropolis and seek to ‘redeem’ the neglect of that city’s cultural life through rectifying the ‘neglect’ of their cultural life.

In the manner of the three quotes at the front of this chapter, I seek an alternative framing which is attentive to the different cultural stakes involved in cities such as Manchester. I therefore question the value of three ways of reading urban culture, none of which adequately renders the creativity of the city. Firstly, I question the association of urban culture with ‘modernist’ high culture. During the course of the 20th century, ‘highbrow’ urban culture became increasingly associated with those cities which were central bases of artistic modernism, and I explore how this marginalised Manchester. Secondly, I argue that to elevate the city as a site of popular culture is also problematic, because its popular heartlands are usually located not in the heart of the city, but in the industrial city region which surrounds it, in the former textile towns which straddle the Pennines. Finally, I reflect on the problems of a social science justification in which the city is defined as a location of ‘social problems’

Within any of these terms of reference, the city of Manchester necessarily fails to ‘measure up’. It is not as popular or plebeian as its surrounding towns and cities in its surrounding regional environment nor as culturally distinguished as a great capital city, and if its claims to distinctiveness lie in its social problems this is, at best, a mixed blessing. This necessarily ambivalent positioning has often led Manchester to be regarded in negative terms, as somehow lacking an essential quality that might allow it to gain a distinctive urban profile. What is needed, I suggest is a more radical concern to understand urban dynamism.

My paper explores how this ambivalence is articulated in several different registers.  I begin in the next section by briefly outlining how we might best conceptualise urban culture and identification, before turning, in the second section to reflect on the way that despite its size and importance, Manchester has been relatively neglected as a cultural centre in prevailing historiography. In the third section I deepen my account by considering Manchester’s muted significance as a specifically modernist city, lacking key features of cultural capital. In the final part of the essay I examine how the social sciences, whilst strongly established in the city, have also fed into this problematic rendering of the city by emphasising it as the site of ‘social problems’.


  1. Manchester and cultural innovation

On the face of it, Manchester’s role as a culturally dynamic city does not need to be underscored. It was the classic site of industrialisation, notably in the 18th and early 19th century where it emerged as the commercial centre of the cotton textile industry[iv]. Peter Hall identifies the city as ‘the first true innovative milieu’. This dynamic role persisted into the later 19th century with the innovative building of the Manchester ship canal, and into the 20th century where the Trafford Park industrial estate pioneered modern forms of consumer oriented business, and even into the early years of information technology where the city was the site of early digital computer. More recent icons abound; the global reputation of Manchester United FC, its gay village (regularly identified as one of the most important venues of its kind in the world); and its international musical profile, ranging from the Halle, one of the first modern orchestras in the world, to its’ music scene in the 1980s and early 1990s played a key role in the generation of the dance scene[v].

Alongside these iconic interventions lie its distinctiveness cultural politics, where over two centuries it has been the pioneering site of movements which came to have global significance. The Anti-Corn Law League, formed in the city in 1838 played a pivotal role in elaborating free trade politics during the 19th century. The modern Co-Operative movement originated from Rochdale in 1844 and sustained a very strong presence in the city and region thereafter. In the early 20th century the city was base to the suffragette movement which played a key role in winning British women the vote and championing second wave feminism. The location of the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, in the aftermath of the Second World War, was a central moment in the anti-colonial politics of the later decades. Campaigns over the development of Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District in 1930s saw the city emerge as a pioneering site for modern environmental politics. Its place in championing a politics of public access to the countryside became legendary with the ‘mass trespass’ of 1932, and its climbers were pioneers in the development of the sport of modern climbing in the 1950s. It became a central beacon for gay culture in the years after the Second World War[vi].

Yet, it Manchester’s claims to cultural originality are so many, varied, and significant, why does an apologetic tone, so amply evident in AJP Taylor’s article, nonetheless prevail? Why is the city so often highlighted as the site of social problems? We might note the similarities, across time and media, of a number of iconic studies of the city. Frederic Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England is arguably the first work of urban sociology ever conducted. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South uses Manchester as its model for Milton, the industrial town which stands in counterpoint to rural southern England. 100 years later, Coronation Street located in the fictional terraced housing of the conurbation, was the first ever ‘realist’ soap opera ever staged in England. In 2003, Shameless, explicitly set in Manchester, takes this realist approach to a further voyeuristic level, through a focus on the vicarious behaviour of the Mancunian ‘underclass’. These four examples indicate the cultural prominence of the city. Yet, although Manchester holds up a mirror to the nation, it is designed towards dis-identification in the mind of the reader or viewer who is symbolically positioned elsewhere. The partial exception is Coronation Street, where, intriguingly, the Mancunian reference is implicit, and the city is not named as such.

In order to understand this urban cultural politics I argue that we need to follow Pierre Bourdieu in seeing urban culture as organised in terms of fields – where different cities are located within force fields which symbolically place them in positions of dominance, subordination and contestation. In making this argument, I take my distance from classical, sociological interpretations of urban culture which identify this as generic to urban experience rather than as contested. It is thus a commonplace of urban sociology that the modern city is the fundamental site of ‘the experience of modernity’ whereby the transient bonds of capitalism are most manifest and far reaching[vii]. Classically, these urban cultures are janus faced. On the one hand they celebrate the freedom and possibility of urban life, the scope for creativity and improvisation as one lives alongside, and encounters a host of urban strangers. On the other hand, the shattering of face-to-face and communal bonds allows forms of anxiety and insecurity to come to the fore.

This influential sociological account of urban culture fails, however, to recognise the variegated nature of urban life. One way of registering this is through Henri Lefebvre’s insistence on the role of ‘representational space’, in which cultural producers had the capacity to seize on distinctive urban imagery to challenge dominant modes of ‘abstract space’. These impulses lead to battles over the symbolic construction of place[viii]. Yet the problem here is that such an account fails to recognise the way that cities have very different resources and capacities to define and identify themselves, and the different positioning of cities needs to be recognised in any adequate account.

My argument here proceeds by taking my cue from Bourdieu’s account of how cultural capital is defined vis a vis popular culture, I argue that cultural capital is also physically located in specific metropolitan cities. I further claim that during the 20th century, it is those cities which specifically embrace artistic modernism which become central locations for cultural capital. This argument has been elaborated with considerable sophistication by Pascale Casanova in her study of the global literary field which emphasises that globalisation involves inextricably defining centres (in her case, France as the guarantor of world literature) and peripheries[ix]. Here, I embrace Berman’s distinction between modernity and modernism, in emphasising that we need to understand urban meaning not as a generic quality of the modern epoch, but as contested between different urban sites.

Marshall Berman’s riveting account in All that is solid melts into air makes it clear that the modern urban experience can be rendered in both democratic and more elitist ways. On the one hand, the transitory nature of the urban experience undermines status hierarchies and allows urban experiences to be common to all its inhabitants as different people rub up against each other. ‘There is a mode of vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and of others, of life’s possibilities and perils—–that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience ‘‘modernity’’[x]. This democratic character of urban life leads Berman to draw attention to the particular ways that large metropolitan shopping streets were the palimpsest of urban modernity. On the other hand, Berman also claims that modernist art and literature has a key role in providing critical resources to allow people to make sense of this urban context: ‘To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one’s own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows’[xi]. Berman thus follows the modernists own project of using art to redeem the fractured qualities of everyday life through realising forms of abstraction which permit the aesthetic to be fully rendered

Berman thus yokes a conception of modernist art as a fundamentally urban form of analysis which chimes closely with the recognition that during the course of the 20th centuries, a few cities come to be iconic sites of cultural modernism: notably London, Paris, New York, St Petersburg and to a lesser extent Barcelona, Turin, Lisbon and the like. My fundamental point here is that Manchester, whilst being a classic city of industrial modernity – for the historian Asa Briggs it was a classic Victorian city – it never became one of these iconic modernist cities[xii]. The shift from Victorian urban culture to 20th century cultural modernism involved a complex redefinition of the city’s relative positioning in which it became seen as increasingly subsidiary to London and other major capitals.

Let me trace this argument through reflecting further on AJP Taylor’s evocative interpretation of Manchester as a form world city which has become an ‘agreeable provincial city’. As he makes clear, this is the loss of a certain kind of civic independence strongly enshrined during the 19th century in which the city saw itself as different from, and incommensurable, with other kinds of cities. The city did not seek to embrace the values of historic cities. Its university did not aspire to be like Oxford or Cambridge. It valued trade and commerce as worthy goals in and of themselves. This account is, of course, anchored in Taylor’s own association with the city as a young lecturer in University’s History Department in the 1930s.

Taylor’s is an account of the how the Victorian city becomes one seen in nostalgic terms, as a city of loss. For this is certainly a story which is familiar from other literary reference points.  Katherine Chorley’s Manchester Made them is an account of the golden age of Edwardian splendour of bourgeois surburbia in north Cheshire. We might note in passing the irony that Chorley’s suburban golden age is actually part of Taylor’s decline, since he sees suburbanisation as a key feature of the fall of Manchester. But we might also consider the cricket and music critic’s Neville Cardus’s famous autobiography which renders his early years in central Manchester, and his residential sojourn in Rusholme, as a part of unique cosmopolitan urban environment. We might stretch our literary gaze even further, to consider Alan Garner’s stories of Manchester and north Cheshire as entrees to another fantastic world (notably his Owl Service where the children stranded in a decaying inner Manchester zone become transported into a nether world). This is also a world rendered in Robert Robert’s Classic slum

“They’re knocking our lives and times away” said an elderly Mancunian. We stood together gazing over a wilderness on which still another vast slum had been razed, and he spoke in grief. A kind of culture unlikely to rise again had gone in the rubble, and he knew it.

We are here in the realm of the narrative construction of urban space as an arena of loss and (partial) recovery through narrative structures and forms of memory which are at best provisional and partial. These idioms are, of course, not unusual ways of dealing with urbanity. Walter Benjamin’s account of his childhood in Berlin, or Marcel Proust’s of his childhood games in the Champs-Elysees are fundamentally written from the same cloth. But in the case of Manchester, these nostalgic portraits are not so obviously challenged by the kind of alternative progressive and utopic urban visions that were seen as key dynamics of urban life by architects, planners, writers and artists[xiii]. As Marshall Berman so evocatively recounted, the boulevards and streets of the modern metropolis are sites for the kinds of fleeting encounters which are emblematic of contemporary times. In this modernist rendering of the city, a number of reference points recur: Paris, claimed by Casanova as the capital of cultural capital, but also London, New York, Berlin and other ‘world cities’ of this ilk.

During the 20th century, as cultural capital became increasingly institutionalised in educational establishments, in cultural institutions, and in the abstracted forms of artistic modernism, so industrial cities such as Manchester lost ground. In making this argument, the issue is not the sociological one as to whether there actually was a significant modernist movement in the city which might now be recovered and given due scholarly attention. There is an argument that the artistic currents around Valette and Lowry led to an impressionist rather than modernist rendering of the city (in contrast to for instance Wadsworth’s role in Bradford). Here, Taylor’s nostalgic article on Manchester is telling. It was initially published in Encounter, the magazine founded in 1954 as the vanguard of the modernist humanities intellectuals, led by Stephen Spender. As notably emphasised by sociologist Edward Shils, in his much cited paper on ‘Intellectuals’, this modernist movement became in the post war years fully complicit with the dominance of metropolitan values. Shils pointed to the increasing dominance of the metropolis as the emotional heartlands of modernist intellectuals

The movement towards London in the twenties and thirties was not merely a demographic fact. It was associated with the assertion of the cultural supremacy of London society – and with it, of Oxford and Cambridge – over the provincial centres[xiv]

Taylor’s account of Manchester was thus – unwittingly? – part of a broad programmatic of modernist disparagement of Manchester, now defined as a provincial city lacking the quintessential metropolitan formation. And this simultaneous construction of cultural and urban value, where the capital city becomes the necessary seat of urban value has increasingly become a modern ‘doxa’, as for instance in the emphasis that Pierre Bourdieu gives to the role of the capital city[xv]. This negative positioning of Manchester has been is an enduring refrain across a wide variety of media. Leaving the city is identified as a form of contemporary bildung – where the gaining of experience and wisdom involves removal from the city. This is something that Terry Eagleton’s autobiography, Andrea Ashworth’s acclaimed account of her girlhood experience of domestic abuse in Manchester, and climber Jim Perrin’s personal reflections on his childhood, (as well as his biographical reflections on Don Whillan have in common[xvi].

My point, then, is that the city of Manchester increasingly became bound up with a cultural force field during the 20th century which made it more difficult for it to occupy a secure position. Located between the highbrow and the popular, it proved increasingly difficult to articulate a distinctive highbrow urban vision during the course of the 20th century. Not all cities have the resources to define themselves as cultural centres. And, since making such claims is inherently relational, at the same times that certain cities elaborate their ‘specialness’, others are denigrated and downplayed. And so it is that the elaboration of the ‘modernist’ city from the later 19th century involved a differentiation from ‘merely’ ‘provincial cities’


2: Manchester and popular culture 

My suggestion above is that during the course of the 20th century, Manchester lost its earlier cultural prominence not due to its own limitations, but owing to the consolidation of a cultural field centred on the large metropolitan centres. This raises the question of how the city figures as a site of popular culture, in contrast to the highbrow. Several of the papers in this volume explore this issue in different ways, through interests in commercial sites of leisure which become key arenas for popular culture (Gardiner on theatre; Wyke and Powell on Belle Vue); contemporary alternative theatre (Todd), and the contemporary cultural engagement of the working classes (Miles). The appeal of the music scene and popular sport is a further marker of this possibility.

However, a fundamental problem for this positioning of Manchester is that it is often specific sites abutting the city which can more easily be defined as true habitats for this kind of popular, plebeian, culture. Thus – for those aware of the regional geography – the neighbouring city of Salford is often a more clear signifier of the popular – as indeed it is for Eagleton. This is precisely how Robert Roberts talked about Salford as The classic slum and articulates with Salford’s recent embrace of a cultural infrastructure through its hosting of the Lowry Centre. In a similar way, the truly industrial towns surrounding the city can be rendered as locales for working class industrial culture. Liverpool can often be identified as a more popular and unruly city. The city of Manchester itself, therefore, is caught in a force field in which it is neither as ‘cultured’ as a great metropolis, nor as popular as its immediate city region.

We can best see this intriguing set of tensions at work by reflecting on this historiography of the city. It seems undisputable that studies of the city region have proved fundamental in shaping our understanding of social change over the past two hundred years. More than any other county, studies of Lancashire have shaped influential visions of the remaking of class relationships, and the development of modern political systems, and notably about how forms of popular politics have played a key role in shaping modern cultural life.  A brief catalogue of the key interventions include John Vincent’s study of how the Liberal Party developed as the first ‘modern’ political party (based on a study of Rochdale); John Foster’s analysis of how Oldham became site for revolutionary mobilisation in the early 19th century; P.F.Clarke’s account of how the Liberal Party took on a social democratic form in the early 20th century; Patrick Joyce’s influential study of working class conservatism, which centred on Blackburn[xvii]. In all of these, the focus is on how the popular classes are involved in political mobilisation which comes to shape modern political cleavages and institutions. A similar story can be told for influential accounts of the redefinition of gender roles and politics, with Liddington and Norris’s study of the working class feminism and Gittins’ of domestic relationships in the textile industry. In all these studies Manchester is present, as the capital of the cotton textile district, yet also absent from the analysis.

These foci on popular engagement therefore largely side step the city itself. And we can see this tension play out even in those few studies which seek to focus directly on the city itself. One line of interest is Manchester as a quintessentially ‘middle class’ city – i.e. as positioned between the elite and the popular, and so implicitly taking up a consistent positioning given my argument above. This comes over in Alan Kidd’s historical textbook on 19th century Manchester, Simon Gunn’s work on The Public Culture of the Middle Class, and John Seed and Janet Wolff’s work on visual culture and the middle classes in these two cities. It also applies to my own collaborative study on middle class culture in contemporary Manchester where those in the suburbs see the city centre as articulating some kind of superior status.

My point, then, is that Manchester is uneasily positioned, neither a site of cultural capital (increasingly located in the metropolitan capitals), or popular culture (located in the poor industrial hinterlands of the city centre). However, over the last century the city has championed a powerful way of escaping this tension through its association with forms of youth culture which are deemed to be new, emerging, and fundamentally located in central urban sites. Through this deft move, the city champions a form of popular culture which is not aligned with industrialism or the working class, but with new generations. This association is not new: the city has, in fact been subject to an unusual number of studies demonstrating the resonance of youth culture over long periods of time, including Andrew Davies’s acclaimed Gangs of Manchester[xviii]. However, over the past thirty years the rapid expansion of higher education (in which the city now figures as having one of the largest student populations in Europe), and the high profile of the contemporary music culture has been very significant. The symbolic location of the Hacienda club in the centre of Manchester, yet also in dialogue with the city’s industrial remnants, is a notable example of the distinctiveness of this cultural move. O’Connor and Wynne’s advocacy of the city’s leisure and music scene  as marking the end of cultural hierarchy with the ‘margins’ moving to the ‘centre’ is a notable example of this trend  We might see this, in Bourdieu’s terms as allowing the city to seek a distinctive identity as capital of ‘emerging cultural capital’. However, it rubs up against the powerful motif of the ‘city of social problems’ which I now turn to consider


3: Manchester and the social science narrative.

Since the writing of Engels, Manchester has been seen, fundamentally, as a site of social problems, and it has thus entered the intellectual field as an icon of disadvantage and dereliction. This in large parts is associated with the city’s prominent location as a centre for a certain kind of social science. The ‘Manchester School of Economics’, with its legacy in the Manchester Statistical Society and the free trade movement has been prominent for well over a century. With the proliferation of the social sciences during the 20th century, this conception of the city has become pervasive.

From the early 20th century social science narratives which both jostled with, and also challenged those of literary narrative form. Associated with the writing of Georg Simmel, and then the Chicago School writings of Louis Wirth and Robert Park, these identified the modern city as a zone of sensory overload and as marking the formation of new groups: communities of ‘choice’ and social interaction. These were groups of people who could interact and socialise in ways not dependent on birth or background and thus exemplify modern forms of creativity

During the later 20th century, these kind of social science narratives have become increasingly influential vehicles for the articulation of urban meaning. Terms like ghetto, gentrified areas, communities, slums, and suburbs are all examples of how social scientific ideas circulate and inform our understanding of urban space. More recently, ideas of urban cosmopolitanism, of global cities, and of the role of the creative classes demonstrate the close association between the social sciences and strategies for urban development. Yet, I want now to show that they share an implicit moralism, and have also proved recalcitrant in specifying Manchester’s distinctive urban qualities.

For, although a quintessentially industrial city, Manchester has never been feted like Chicago as a sociological model for the modern city during the later 19th and early 20th century. Despite Engels’s pioneering study of Manchester, the prime case became Chicago – home of the famous Chicago School – who took the slums and ghettoes as its inspirations for the brilliant ethnographies which began in the 1920s with Park, Anderson, and continued into the 2000s with the work of Dunier and Wacquant. In Britain many of the key sites of research which sought to map social relationships across the entire population moved to London (as with Booth), to York (with Rowntree) and then to smaller towns which appeared to be more congenial to the analysis of sample surveys (as famously, Reading and Northampton). By the later 20th century, the social science narrative of world cities led to an even stronger focus on the large global metropolis’s as centre to contemporary urban belonging.

And, even though it became in the later 20th century a profoundly post-industrial city, nor has not it been treated as epitome for a the kind of de-centred suburban metropolis made familiar by the Los Angeles model, or the more recent discussion of the ‘global suburb’, even though its suburbanisation is one of the most entrenched and historically rooted in the world.

The story here, then, is of the failure of a distinctive social science rendering of the city of Manchester itself. This is, in many ways, a surprise. Manchester’s Statistical Society, formed in 1833, claimed to be “the first organisation in Britain to study social problems systematically and to collect statistics for social purposes” and in 1834 to be “the first organisation to carry out a house-to-house social survey’. The myriad inculcation of utilitarian knowledge in the city’s governing institutions was strongly associated with projects of minute projects of governmentality[xix].

The story here is a complex one: the interest of Manchester University in social research was established early, through the creation of a Department of Economics as early as 1851. Manchester school economics became synonymous with the hegemony of laissez faire. In 1930 this impulse led to the establishment of one of the UK’s earliest economics journals, which began with the famous observation that


has been thought for some time that there was not only room but need for a journal devoted to the work in economics being done at Manchester. Each University develops in time a technique of thought, a method of approach, and a convention of economic understanding peculiarly its own. Everyone passing through a University assimilates to some extent its mode of thought. In Manchester this outlook has been necessarily influenced by the industrial activities congregated around us, and by the special problems with which these activities have been brought face to face.


By the 1940s, indeed, economics at Manchester was one of the largest Departments in the UK, and had extended into pioneering interests in political science and social anthropology. This interest in the social sciences was highlighted by the role of the (one time) University’s Chancellor, Ernest Simon, who as well as being leading industrialists and philanthropists, also played a supportive role in encouraging social science research. Simon’s bequest to the University to support social science research remains one of the most generous of any British University[xx].

Despite the importance of this intervention, and its potential for energising social research, research on Manchester itself was limited down to the 1950s, and beyond.  There were striking contrasts with the London School of Economics and the University of Liverpool, the latter of which became the major centre for social sciences outside London. Here again, in a similar way to the city’s problematic identification as neither fully highbrow nor popular, it was caught in a pincer movement between two alternative definitions of modern urbanism: the capital London on the one hand, and the city of Liverpool – with what were deemed to be its abundant social problems, on the other.

In London, the LSE carefully capitalised on Booth’s poverty research from the 1880s and hosted Bowley’s restudy of London poverty in the 1920s. This concern to use the city of London as a key site for understanding social change fed into the demographic research of David Glass on social mobility and through the work of urban sociologists such as Ruth Durant, and indirectly also cross fertilised with the research of the Institute of Community studies. In Liverpool, building on the legacy laid down by Carradog-Jones in the 1938 Merseyside study, T.S. Simey began to champion the study of northern social problems. Liverpool pioneered the study of workplaces using interview and survey methods, and also developed innovative methods of community studies which involved interviews and simple social network studies. Manchester housing estates Liverpool social scientists became strongly involved with the older sociological journal in the UK, The Sociological Review, which moved to North Staffordshire in 1950, but Manchester interests were much more weakly felt, despite their proximity[xxi].

Despite its size and research orientation, Manchester’s social science urban research interests took on a different form, being removed from minute examination of the urban form. From the later 1940s, the decisive contribution at Manchester was through the role of social anthropology, led by Max Gluckmann, in what became known as the ‘Manchester School’, which was to enjoy a major international reputation. This was a remarkable social science intervention. Gluckmann took insights from the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Africa back to Manchester, through his interest in the role of urban social relationships. Gluckmann’s concern to critique colonial models of social analysis led him to become interested in how interests in African roles could be applied in the UK. Under his aegis innovative ethnographic methods were applied to a series of urban contexts during the early 1960s, notably into the workplace studies), and studies of schooling relations. These studies became highly influential in their own terms, inspiring specialist studies of business and educational research. Lupton became one of the early leaders of Manchester Business School, whilst Hargreaves led the Education department in the University. But these specialist foci did not authorise an interest in the social relations of the city itself.

This is not to say that social science research from Manchester did not develop some pioneering interests in the organisation of space and community relations, yet, tellingly, these took a more orthodox form of directing the gaze of educated researchers from the large metropolis to smaller local studies. Thus, Frankenberg’s study of the Welsh village Glynceriog, as well as the study of Glossop by Birch et al involved a focus on the small-scale locale. The Manchester school of anthropology, even with its distinctive interest in urban networks, thus ultimately did not generate a focus on the city itself[xxii].

And, even with the emergence of sociology at Manchester from the 1960s, a similar story can be told. The dominant foci of early sociology lay in the macro scale study of international development (led by Worsley and later Shanin)  on the one hand, and an interest in the micro scale study of social interaction and conversation analysis on the other (led by scholars such as Watson, Sharrock and Lee). When urban sociology was developed in the Department, under the aegis of Pickvance, Mellor and Stanley, these were of specific sites in the city (Withingon, in the case of Pickvance), or outside it (Rochdale in the case of Stanley). Pickvance left Manchester to move to Kent just at the moment that he was to play a lead role in championing the ‘new urban sociology’. When Rosemary Mellor, Manchester University’s pre- eminent urban sociologist committed suicide in 2001, she had recently completed her last article, a devastating attack on Manchester as a ‘hypocritical city’[xxiii].

My argument, then, is that Manchester remained stamped as a city of social problems, rather than being the site of social scientific research which sought to examine social relationships more widely. This continued, indeed into the 1970s and 1980s. Research in the ESRC’s localities programme focused nearly entirely on self contained towns rather than large urban sites. Rochdale was thus chosen as one of the case study areas (along with Teesside, Kirkaldy, Lancaster and Bournville). Therefore despite its’ iconic status, Manchester failed to generate a distinctive identity as an urban research site. Even in the post war years the wave of ‘community studies’ came to focus on other localities, even when, as with Birch et al’s Small Town Politics study of Glossop, it was led bv Manchester academics. There were only occasional – though telling – exceptions, notably offshoots of Manchester School anthropology which achieved worldwide renown during the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the research of this group was outside the England, but there were some fascinating offshoots. Anthropologist Tom Lupton (the founder of Manchester Business School) researched factories in Gorton as a means of understanding how workers might restrict output and David Hargreaves’s work on schooling in Manchester, notably Social relations in a secondary school proved one of the first ethnographic studies of schooling[xxiv]. Yet these studies, through being applied to particular contexts were predominantly read as generic accounts of workplace relations and urban schooling respectively, and did not address the specificity of Manchester itself.

This concern with the city as a ‘site of problems’ fed into new interests in urban regeneration from the 1970s. Research on inner city deprivation was conducted in Manchester during the 1970s and 1980s, but invariably this had the effect of focusing on a few locations which were deemed to be especially ‘problematic’ (Hulme, Moss Side).  This was all in striking contrast to the social science discourse on global cities and ‘creative cities’ whi

which were deemed to be especially ‘problematic’ (Hulme, Moss Side).  This was all in striking contrast to the social science discourse on global cities and ‘creative cities’ which generated extensive debate from the 1990s and which by-passed the city of Manchester. These interventions, owing much to the work of Sassen, Thrift, Timberlake and others elaborated a concern with the capacities of urban spaces to act as global attractors to financial, media, and corporate interests. To some extent, this work largely reinstated metropolitan images of the urban, and in this process they continued to leave opaque the role of other, ‘second tier’ cities in constructing images and perceptions of urban life[i].

I have emphasised that although a centre for social science for centuries, Manchester’s location as site of social problems has consistently weakened its profile. However, it wouild be wrong to end this section without reference to some work which has attempted a different, more productive tack. Some of these are comparative in vein[ii]. Ian Taylor et al’s A tale of two cities is undoubtedly the most extended treatment of the city in this vein, in its arresting arguments about the existence of a distinctive ‘local structure of feeling’ in which Manchester is identified with a more cosmopolitan and open orientation than the industrial city of Sheffield. Another example of this treatment of the city comes from probably the most important and sustained ethnographic intervention – Pnina Werbner’s ethnographic study of Pakistani’s migrants, and its cultural as well as social and economic aspects. Her ‘Manchester migration trilogy’, Pilgrims of Love; Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims; and The Migration process, is the most comprehensive study of aspects of the city ever written, and testifies to the way that the city is better rendered not as a coherent entity but as part of a web of trans-national social networks. Indeed, if there was one enduring legacy of Manchester social science to urban analysis, it was the concern with networks. Indeed, the study of social networks is seen throughout the world as a central contribution of Manchester social science. We have seen this network approach surface in several of the studies referred to above – it figures in Werbner’s migration triology, as well as the comparative studies of Taylor et al. I attempted to develop some of the same sensitivity to the cultural imaginaries of white middle class Mancunians in my own study with Gaynor Bagnall and Brian Longhurst, Globalisation and Belonging



Looping round in one more curve, the roar of the engines steadily increasing, the plane set a course across open country. By now we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen from the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive’ (Sebald….

In this essay I have offered a framework for understanding the ambivalent positioning of Manchester as a distinctive kind of urban space. Culturally, notwithstanding its striking and occasionally remarkable record in nurturing forms of cultural engagement (including those discussed in this book) Manchester is caught in a field of cultural positions from which it is routinely sidelined. It has never been defined as a key modernist city, a cultural icon on a par with other Western cities which branded themselves as sites for dazzling modern possibilities (see famously, Berman 1982). Its claims to be a centre of popular culture have historically been elided by the more marked claims of its hinterlands, and its frequent evocation as a city of social problems has sapped its profile. My emphasis has been on it being caught up in an intense cultural force field over which it has little control which has severely affected its capacity to define a distinctive identity for itself.

The points I have made in this paper have a resonance wider than Manchester. They firstly alert us to the spurious qualities of ‘urban boosterism’ which emphasise that any city, with the appropriate leadership can change its position in the urban pecking order. Contemporary urban planners argue that with the right kind of cultural investments, through seeking to attract the ‘creative class’, or stage the right kind of ‘mega events’, it is possible for a city to remake itself. Even approaches as fluid as Lefebvre’s or indeed Amin and Thrift run the risk of over-stating the degree of urban agency. Instead, my field analysis suggests an enduring positioning which constrain the relative evaluation and identification of cities.

Yet, this point having been made, I have also tried to render Manchester into a more progressive way of thinking. It is not my intention simply to point out that Manchester is somehow ‘absent’ from urban iconography. As the quotes from Taylor and Sebald indicate, and as I bring out in my own study of Globalisation and Belonging we can identify a haunting, brooding presence, which can unsettle our understanding of city space more generally. Firstly, I have drawn attention to the popularity of the refrain of loss, of nostalgia, and of memory and I have read this not as literal, sociological or historical accounts, but as interesting provocations to develop a different kind of unfinished urban identification, an invitation to re-imagine an urban space which is not constrained by the force field. I have noted the city’s association with emerging and youthful cultural forms, as a creative and effective means of championing a distinctive identity, especially powerful in recent decades.

We can deepen this point through a second intervention, in which the city can be seen from a network perspective, to understand the city as implicated in webs and networks of identification. This is the sense in which Werbner has examined the role of the city as site for Pakistani migrants. It allows us to render nostaligic narratives in a different kind of way, one which does not seek to define a teleologicial end-state of decline and fall, but which is attentive to the mundane webbing of the city into myriad social connections. This is the kind of account that Ian Taylor presents. It allows the city to be linked to its own landscape. Robert Roberts famously recounts the way that as a young boy the mountains circling the city were visible. Jim Perrin articulates this sense of the city as embedded in a quintessentially mountainous environment.

I sit around and look at a landscape I have known since the last golden summer of the 1950s. For me then, as a twelve year old…. the place was one I came to which I came time and again: a focal point, a magnet, a lode star. I would catch the cream coloured Oldham Transport double decker at Stevenson Square for the 10 mile bus ride from the centre of Manchester to Greenfield. All the way up from Oldham, excitement mounting, I could see the pennine moors rising in front’ (Perrin 2005: 354).

This allows us to take a different perspective to Manchester. Rather than regarding it as a distinctive bounded site of urban problems, as a kind of dystopia which contrasts with more cultivated and truly urbane cities, we can instead recognise the city as an open site, extensively webbed to global social and cultural networks, and which can define the city as a site of potential belonging. This delineation of Manchester is fascinating because of its projection as a city of the past or the future, not one of the mundane present.




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[i] AJP Taylor, ‘Manchester, world city’, p 307

[ii] Joyce, Rule of Freedom, 153-154,

[iii] Hodges, Alan Turing, 428-429

[iv] Hall, Cities in Civilisation, 347.

[v] See variously Haslam, Manchester, England

[vi] See variously on the anti-corn law league, Trentmann, The politics of free trade, Rivto, The Dawn of Green, Gurney, ‘The sublime of the bazaar’, .Worden, ‘Reappropriating the pace-egging tradition’,

[vii] See notably Georg Simmel, ‘metropolis and mental life’ and Wirth, ‘…’. for overviews see Savage et al, Urban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity and Saunders, The City and Social Theory

[viii] See Lefebvre, Social Space, Massey, For Space,

[ix] Casanova, World Republic of Letters

[x] Berman, All that is solid melts into air, p 15

[xi] Berman, All that is solid, p 346.

[xii] Tellingly, Briggs’s influential book listed Manchester in premier position and London as taking up the last spot in his list of such Victorian cities.

[xiii] See Benjamin, ‘Berlin Childhood’, Dennis, Cities in Modernity

[xiv] Savage, Identities and Social Change, p 72

[xv] See the general discussion in Savage, ‘lost urban sociology of Pierre Bourdieu’

[xvi] Ashworth, Once upon a house on fire; Eagleton, Gatekeeper, Perrin, The villain

[xvii] See Vincent, Formation of the Liberal Party; Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution; Joyce, Work, Society and Politics; Clarke, Lancashire and the New Liberalism  These examples can easily be extended: consider my own study of Labour politics in Preston (Savage, The dynamics of working class politics, or Kirk’s working class reformism in Stalybridge

[xviii] And indeed, as the hyper links on Amazon’s web pages make clear, Davies’s book is only one of several which focus specifically on Manchester’s gang culture

[xix] See notably, Joyce, Rule of Freedom

[xx] See generally, Savage, Identities and Social Change, , p 126 and f

[xxi] See the discussion in Savage, Identities and Social Change

[xxii] Frankenberg, Village on the border; Birch, Small Town politics

[xxiii] Cooke, Localities; Mellor, ‘hypocritical city’,

[xxiv] See Morgan and Hargreaves,

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