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Urban Scholar Highlight: Margaret O’Mara

Published on April 23, 2018

Image Credit: Jordan Pickett UW Daily

Margaret O’Mara is a Professor in the Department of History and a founding member of Urban@UW. She writes and teaches about the urban, political, and economic history of the modern United States.

What led you to your current research interests?

I’ve always been interested in how politics and government work with business and economics, and how they play out in urban space: why some cities have certain economies, and how politics shape those economies. Why certain types of industries and economic activity grow in some places and not in others. I’m also interested in the patterns we see over time, how cities produce distinctive economies built around certain types of technology, certain types of production, and what those patterns look like throughout human history.

What does research on urban systems look like in your field?

I think that history by nature is cross-disciplinary, drawing on disciplines like: city planning, architecture, sociology, psychology, economics, political science. And historians’ approach to the study of the city have very different foci. Some historians focus on the history of planning, the history of spaces and places; some focus on the interaction between natural environments and human created landscapes in the city. Some focus on social history and why certain groups have more opportunities than others–questions of inequity. My own focus has been on where governmental institutions, both at the national level of the United States and also at the local level, shape urban markets and urban economic outcomes. And I have always thought that urban scholars are a few steps closer to urban practitioners and those engaged in public policy or community outreach, because of the nature of what we do.

As history is cross-disciplinary, how do partnerships add value to your work?

Before I worked in academia I worked in politics. Politics and government by its nature is a very short term business, particularly on the political side of things. People are worried about getting re-elected, people are under a lot of pressure to deliver results in a short time. On the other hand, urban places and urban economic dynamism is something that is graded over a very long time. And, the scholarly world is a total flip: there are no short term milestones pressuring us, we have the luxury of sitting back and thinking, reflecting over the long term and taking our time. I think the more that scholars, and policymakers and other outside constituencies who are each thinking through those really tough problems that cities face–whether they be Seattle or Singapore, or Seoul, those two very different languages and time scales that these two worlds operate on are forced to figure out how to understand each other. It’s not only a matter of people who are academic historians or academics needing to speed up and you know step to it, it’s not that. Nor is it a matter of telling policymakers to slow down and stop being so present-tense. it’s a matter of creating ongoing partnerships and conversations that help the two worlds better understand each other so you can actually move towards some sort of solution.

How would you say your research in urban history informs the way you teach classes?

I think studying the city can be a very useful way to approach history in general. I teach American urban history as a way of relaying a broader sweep of American history, economic history, social history, cultural history, because the city is where things happen. It is both a site, and a place that produces certain types of social and institutional interactions. So I think that looking at the city around you–the history of who has inhabited an urban space, why they were there, what happened, where did they go–helps that history become much more real for people. You look at the places around you differently when you understand their history.

What is the role of data in your work?

The discipline of history is, essentially, an ongoing argument about the past and its meaning, informed by primary-source data from a historical moment produced by the people who lived in it. Historians by and large work in qualitative data rather than quantitative, although I do use a lot of statistical data in my work. But one of the things that historical analysis brings, is a compliment to quantitative, big-data approaches. It shows a sort of granularity: what was the real, lived experience, what does all this really mean to an ordinary life. It also shows certain exceptions to the rule, and conditions and contingencies that shape why certain things go one way and not another.

What do you see as research trends in urban history?

I think there’s going to be an increased focus on using even more digital tools. Digital history has gone from a sideline to a main event in the last decade or so, primarily because there are so many more ways for people with really robust content knowledge to create robust and original platforms and tools for disseminating that knowledge. And when you make things digital you often are also making things public, so we see a trend of historians practicing in public, whether that be writing an op-ed or creating a digital exhibit, delivering research that’s informed by generations of scholarship to broader audiences: not only students and other scholars but also to public audiences and policymakers.

If you could give aspiring urban scholars a piece of advice, what would it be?

When I was starting out, one of the things that I gained the most from was learning how to more deeply read the cities around me. And to not just do that when I was gathering research for a project, but when I was just wandering through the world. And the marvelous thing about learning about urban history is that you start seeing every city differently. And as you walk or run or bike through that city you suddenly get an understanding of how all the different pieces fit together and you start seeing differences across geographies, among nation states, across nations, even neighborhoods within cities. My advice would be to always be keep your eyes open and always be looking and learning The beautiful thing about studying cities is that your research and scholarship isn’t contained to a classroom, that it’s the whole world around you.

Thank you.

Originally posted on Urban@UW by Shahd Al Baz, Communications Assistant
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