Stephen Collier studies city planning and urban governance from the broad perspective of the critical social science of expertise and expert systems. His work addresses a range of topics, including climate resilience and adaptation, emergency preparedness and emergency management, neoliberal reform, infrastructure, and urban social welfare. Collier examines both contemporary and historical topics, and is engaged with a number of sub-disciplinary fields, including science and technology studies, actor-network theory, governmentality studies, and cultural geography.
Climate Change, Urban Resilience, and Emergency Government
Collier’s current research examines urban resilience as a significant new paradigm and practice in city and regional planning. In a field originally oriented to a future vision of improvement and development, what does it mean—both theoretically and practically—that city planners must increasingly anticipate a future marked by ever more frequent and intense disasters? And how must urban governance and planning practice change in order to take up the challenge of climate adaptation?
Collier has conducted fieldwork on urban resilience in New Orleans and New York, with ongoing comparative projects in other U.S. cities that examine how urban governments are developing and financing resilience interventions. Specific topics of research in this area include: the relationship between city planning and catastrophe insurance for hazards such as floods and fires; the historical development and current uses of catastrophe modeling in urban planning; infrastructure as a focal point for resilience planning and for public participation in climate adaptation; and new intersections between design and resilience planning.
Collier’s ongoing work on resilience builds on longer-term research on the genealogy of emergency government in the United States, which resulted in a co-authored book, The Government of Emergency: System Vulnerability, Expertise, and the Politics of Security (forthcoming, Princeton University Press). This book examines the emergence of now taken-for-granted problems of emergency management—such as system vulnerability and preparedness—through the interlinked histories of air war and mobilization planning in the mid-20th century. This study connects emergency management to basic problems of modern government, such as the relationship between constitutional liberalism and crisis situations, and the role of technical expertise in democracy. Other publications connected to this project have addressed biosecurity, critical infrastructure protection, the “distributed” model of American emergency preparedness, and the emergence of “vital systems security.”
Socialist Planning and Neoliberal Reform
Prior to these projects on emergency government, disasters, and resilience, Collier studied Soviet city planning and post-socialist urban transformations in Russia, with a particular emphasis on fiscal mechanisms, infrastructure, and neoliberal reform. His book Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics (Princeton University Press, 2011) examined the planning and construction of small industrial cities, which Soviet urban planners believed could overcome the pathologies of capitalist urbanization. This research also investigated post-Soviet reforms of these cities that targeted mundane infrastructural and budgetary systems that underpinned the Soviet project of social welfare. Collier’s work in Russia showed that these reforms—often analyzed as “neoliberal”—sought to preserve key norms and systems that comprised the substantive economy of Soviet cities.
An extension of this work on socialist planning and post-Soviet reform has been a series of specific inquiries that reconceptualize neoliberalism by examining how new liberal thinkers have taken up concrete governmental problems. Among these are: the management of disaster risk, the status of technical expertise in democratic government, and social welfare. Collier has also written on methodological approaches to neoliberalism, in particular on Foucaultian alternatives to the critical conventional wisdom about neoliberalism.
Theory and Method
A final area of Collier’s scholarship is theory and methods in the interpretive social sciences. Beginning with Global Assemblages (co-edited with Aihwa Ong) he has explored an emerging body of work on modern science, technology, and expertise at the intersection of geography, sociology, anthropology, and science and technology studies. He has also written on new approaches to governmental rationality suggested by the late work of Michel Foucault and on methods in anthropology and related fields.
Collier is co-editor of Limn, a scholarly magazine on contemporary problems that arise at the intersection of science, technology, and expert knowledge. He has edited issues of Limn on systemic risk, disease ecologies, design and development, and public infrastructure.