Edward Crenshaw Ohio State University


Past research suggests that many autocratic regimes concentrate their countries' populations and economic activities in single, very large cities (usually national capitals). This pattern is known as "urban primacy" in the scientific literature. In the short term, this allows highly centralized, autocratic regimes to maximize economic efficiency and easily monitor and control the rise of political opposition. This project instead examines the long-term, unintended consequences this urban primacy strategy has for autocratic regimes. Over time, primate cities can concentrate grievances because rapid rural-to-urban migration causes increasing inequalities. Moreover, these densely populated urban centers increasingly offer a unique blend of resources that encourage political mobilization (e.g., local and international media, non-governmental and civic organizations). Thus, the PIs hypothesize that primate cities may indeed become an Achilles heel for authoritarian regimes, serving as key sites of political contention. In short, the project examines whether -- contrary to common perceptions -- urban primacy plays a crucial role in explaining under which conditions authoritarianism has yielded to democracy over time at a global scale.

The project employs pooled times-series and zero-inflated negative binomial regressions to investigate the relationship between authoritarianism and urban primacy, different forms of violent and non-violent contention (e.g., riots, protests, terrorism), and democratization during the period 1960-2010.

Broader Impact

This project seeks to inform our understanding of democratic and authoritarian regimes, social movements, and urban development. Moreover, democratization has long played a central role in U.S. foreign policy. Findings may inform the policy community regarding the conditions under which to expect (1) contention to lead to democratic reform; 2) certain types of cities to become key to regime opposition; and 3) that the complex relationship between e.g., repression, urban primacy and political contention creates political consequences. In light of recent political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere, a better understanding of how these forces shape political development may be valuable to a broad set of stakeholders.

Project Report

NSF SES 1125307 Primacy and Political Contention: The Role of Urban Form in Mobilization and Democratization PROJECT SUMMARY This research investigates an ironic theory linking cities to democratic reform. Some past research demonstrates that authoritarian regimes, early in development, tend to concentrate their countries’ populations and economic activities in very large primary (or primate) cities (usually a nation’s capital). While this allows very centralized, autocratic regimes to easily monitor and suppress most of their nations’ would-be political entrepreneurs and incipient social movements, over time such primate cities begin to grow large, concentrating both grievance (via the conspicuous inequalities and diversity attendant upon rapid rural-to-urban migration) and a unique blend of mobilization resources (e.g., rapidly growing civil society, international media, non-governmental organizations). We theorize that such primate cities become "ticking time bombs" for authoritarian regimes, and that ultimately the geography of a nation’s space-economy is a crucial part of the puzzle explaining why authoritarianism yields to democracy. This theoretical mechanism is ironic for two reasons. First, while dictators and oligarchs centralize their space-economies to intensify political control, they may actually be sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Second, while the academic view of urban primacy has been mostly negative, more often than not assuming such urban concentration impedes economic and political advancement, this theory suggests that primate cities become global "stages" upon which political contention and democratic pressures play themselves out. In short, urbanization may be a critical stepping stone towards political modernization. Scientific Merit Over the past sixty years, scholars have assumed that simple urbanization and peaceful political contention (i.e., protests, demonstrations) lead to democratic reform over time. Yet there is very little cross-national research that empirically links urbanization with both political contention and democratization. What little that does exist is mostly case-study oriented, regionally bounded, or quite dated. Our series of pooled times-series and zero-inflated negative binomial regressions investigates the relationships between 1) authoritarianism, 2) urban primacy, 3) different forms of violent and non-violent contention, and 4) democratization. There are at least three major contributions. First, the theory linking urban primacy and city size to political contention and democracy outlined above improves received theories of democratization, filling in many gaps that remain in our understanding. Second, the research suggests many fruitful avenues to investigate regarding relationships between different types of political contention (e.g., riots, protests, terrorism), urbanization, and democratization. Currently, we have only the vaguest notions of how contention shapes political regimes, or how cities might influence these relationships. Third, this research helps reinvigorate a branch of development studies that has been (undeservingly) moribund (i.e., urban primacy, overurbanization, national space-economy). Broader Impact The research is particularly relevant to students of democracy, social movements/political contention, and urban development. Furthermore, democratization has long played an central role in the foreign policy of the United States. This research gives the policy community a much better understanding of 1) when (and when not) to expect contention to lead to democratic reform, 2) what type/size/ranking of city is the most likely to act as a "stage" for political contention, and 3) what other factors (e.g., repression) may interact with primacy and contention to change political outcomes.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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Ohio State University
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