Public policy and urban life

LARHRA’s Public policy and urban life research group welcomes researchers working on the history of urban governance and intervention in the public sphere. The term “public policy”, considered in its broadest terms, is taken to mean all actions and processes relating to the public sphere, whether they concern public sector institutions and actors as such (the State, local government, etc.), or those from the private and voluntary sectors; and at all levels, ranging from the local to the international. The Public policy and urban life group approaches these themes from a “Connected History” perspective, paying attention to the particular contexts and trajectories of the actors involved. 



Urban history has been a defining feature of historical research in Lyon and Grenoble since the 1970s. For the next stage of the four-year programme (2016-2020), the Public policy and urban life research group will focus on the questions of governance and intervention, reflecting the priorities of the LARHRA research centre as a whole. This reflects in turn the arrival of researchers specialising in public policy (social and health policy, environmental policy); the creation of the “Labex” research programme on the Logic of urban societies (IMU) at Lyon Lumière University; and finally the ongoing links with the Triangle interdisciplinary research Centre, also based in Lyon, notably in the fields of political science and the history of economic thought.

The research undertaken by the Public policy and urban life research group is based on a conception of public policy that takes into account the impact of varying social and economic processes, and relates them to the roles of an equally diverse and shifting set of actors. The study of geographical patterns, ranging from the local to the international, is considered of particular significance in this respect. Taking on board the notion of “Connected History”, the work of the group focuses on both the institutionalisation and regulation of urban life, in its social, economic and cultural dimensions.

Three interlocking research themes underlie the work of the Public policy and urban life research group:


  1. Environment, health and social policy. This field contains two sub-themes: (1) Environmental issues and socio-economic forces; and (2) Social policy and marginal communities: models, political actors, institutional mechanisms and the voluntary sector.


  1. Exchanges, markets and regulation. This field contains three sub-themes: (1) Urban markets, economic actors and power; (2) Populations, borders and urban mobility; and (3) Education and market regulation.


  1. Writing the urban : norms, power, discourse and practice.



Research projects

Following on from these themes, the research carried out by the members of the Public policy and urban life research group is organised in terms of three distinct research projects:


1. Institutions and governance

The first of these projects involves a study of institutionalised power; a social history of institutions which examines in detail the processes and instruments of regulation and reform, and analyses networks and forms of governance. This field of research has developed substantially, particularly with regard to medieval and early modern history, in the last decade or so, and has often taken the study of the town as its particular focus, looking for example at the role of municipal oligarchies or the involvement of elites in urban life. Within this research group, several projects are in progress, studying these complex themes over different time periods. For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a comparative approach is favoured. European developments are studied with regard to administrative reform and economic regulation, while for Latin America, the focus is on monarchical regimes. Nineteenth-century specialists in the group are also working on criminal justice history, and their twentieth-century colleagues on the institutional history of the Catholic Church in France.


2. Cultures and representations of power

The second project in progress aims to study the process by which symbolic cultures are constructed, and in particular the way in which they contribute both to the formation of urban identities in medieval and early modern kingdoms, and to the role of symbolism and the legitimation of power amongst the urban elites of the Ancien Régime. Research on this topic needs to be placed in the historiographical context of debates about absolutism since the 1980s. These debates have thrown up questions such as those concerning the formation of nation states in the context of growing local urban autonomy, and the role of local urban elites in the expression of demands for local autonomy and the development of the concept of the “good town”. For the post-revolutionary period, research on political culture focuses in particular on urban elites, electoral behaviour, on major events, and the role of the symbolic in politics.


3. The urban public sphere

The third project concerns policy and politics in the urban public sphere. This involves taking on board the historical dimension of politics, and explores the role of the State and other public authorities in processes of social change. This field, which tends to be dominated by the work of political scientists and sociologists, often involves the study of the history of particular organisations and sectors, and tends to concern above all the study of the twentieth century. One strand of this project examines policies aimed at tackling exclusion and poverty, while a second looks at fiscal policies put in place by the major French urban authorities along with urban environmental policy.

Finally, building on the previous work undertaken by the group, research continues in the field of historical demography, based on international partnerships as well as ongoing collaboration among researchers in the Lyon region.