Twenty-thirteen is a sad year for the social sciences and history. With the death of Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod (b. 1928) last Saturday, the best of academic learning has suffered another blow. Her passing joins the recent loss of her New School colleagues Eric Hobsbawm, Aristide Zolberg and Charles Tilly. Each in his way enriched the historically oriented social study of the modern world. Among them, known for their dedication to intellectual excellence, as well as versatility and originality, Abu-Lughod distinguished herself as a very rare scholar who could range across centuries and continents, from the thirteenth century to the current moment, from the North Africa and the Middle East to Central Asia and North America. She was to the end a Chicago School urbanist whose methodological approach combined a unique ability to expand its scope into comparative studies that brought a needed political dimension.

Upon her arrival to the New School for Social Research in 1987, she had already achieved a phenomenal output of well over a hundred articles and more than thirteen books in the fields of urban sociology, and North African and Middle Eastern cities. She soon engaged the history and dynamics of the World System, along with the East Village of NYC. After retiring from her last full time academic position, at the New School as Professor Emerita in 1998, she continued her research, and completed and oversaw the publication of important monographs that broke new ground in ways that challenge scholars to tread on new paths in their disciplines to this day.

Abu-Lughod came to The New School as the author of two classic historical studies of cities: Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (1971). Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco (1981). At The New School, she joined the Sociology Department and the Committee on Historical Studies, bringing her brilliance as a teacher as well as her writing to make the New School an internationally renowned center of comparative historical sociology. She also contributed to her new city’s self understanding. Having arrived at the moment when the East Village was facing the process of gentrification, she launched both courses and a center of study, investigating these processes. She drew in faculty members as well as colleagues from other universities or organizations, as well as students. Their efforts led to the publication of articles, dissertations, and the book, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side (Blackwell 1994).

Book cover of Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 by Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod © 1991 Oxford University Press |
Book cover of Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 by Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod © 1991 Oxford University Press |

In addition, she did the research and published her best known work, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. It is in this book that she achieved both acclaim and criticism, when she argued that far from the accepted notion that “a world system” began during the “age of discoveries” (late 15th-16th centuries), a pre-modern world system that stretched across Eurasia existed already in the thirteenth century.

After her retirement from teaching at the New School in 1998, she devoted herself to a major study of three leading cities in the United States and published New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities (2000), which remains a reference for any scholar who seriously works in this domain. The book served her as a foundation for her unique study of race riots in the American North in the 20th century, Race, Space and Riots in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles (2007). In that work she revisits some of the historical questions posed in the earlier work as “global cities” with specific attention in greater detail to “the race question.”

Loss is deeply felt by Janet’s former students, many of whom have responded to the news in anguish, not only because she was a great scholar and pioneer in her discipline, but as a mentoring teacher, who embraced them with a degree of loyalty that went far beyond professional requirements. They remember Professor Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod as a giant among sociologists and intellectuals. She is the rara avis of her reputation, devoted to her intellectual goals, adhering to the highest standards of scholarship, and yet a colleague and mentor of total commitment to those who worked toward those ends. I join those who say simply, she will be missed!