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Janet Abu-Lughod was one of the great sociologists. She died at the age of 85 in New York City on December 14, 2013. Her work will live on in her writings and in that of so many authors across the world who use her work. Living in diverse cultures, from Cairo and Rabat to New York and Chicago, gave her writing a worldly and knowing sensibility. It enabled her to bring a strong sense of the multi-sited character of basic building blocks of the social condition, no matter the enormous differences in their materialization. And it enabled her to appreciate both these differentiations and the recurrence of something perhaps more basic in place after place.
All of this gives her comparative analysis a particular character. It also gives her understanding of the global a strong empirical quality—a recurrence generated through the specifics of place and particular genealogies of meaning. We see this in her books on the world prior to European hegemony, her work on global cities, and her work on race and racism in urban neighborhoods. Her audiences cut across the social sciences. No single discipline can claim her fully.
She published over 100 articles and 13 books. These include an urban history of Cairo that has become one of the classics on that city: Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious and probably her most famous book, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. In the latter she shows us that prior to the formation of the modern world-system identified by Immanuel Wallerstein, there was a pre-modern world system extending across Eurasia in the 13th century; one of her key argument is that it was the collapse of this earlier system that enabled the rise of the modern world-system. Other much admired books include Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco; New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities; and Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
Her understanding of urban form was visual as well as sociological. She had a keen eye for non-verbal signs and signals on the street and a keen appreciation of the physical transformations of cities like Rabat and Cairo. Her many students have followed her in this, looking as well as listening keenly to the city.
Janet Abu-Lughod received multiple honors, among which a John Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, and awards from the Getty Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, a Fulbright to India, and more. She was a very active member of the American Sociological Association, where she received section awards and served on a long list of committees and projects.
She received graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She taught at the University of Illinois, American University in Cairo, Smith College, and Northwestern University, which eventually became her home for 20 years and where she directed several urban studies programs. And then came her move to New York City, and a whole new phase in her work on cities, neighborhoods, racism. In 1987, the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research offered her a professorship in sociology and historical studies, which she led until1998 when she retired as professor emerita
A memorial celebration has been organized by Janet’s daughters, Professors Lila and Deena Abu-Lughod, for February 21.
Saskia Sassen, Columbia University, and Richard Sennett