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ResearchThe Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG)ResearchPolitiek, Media en NatievormingDemocracy, policy, knowledge. City government in transition, 1870-1940


Democracy, policy, knowledge. City government in transition, 1870-1940

In January 2003 the research project Democracy, policy, knowledge. City government in transition, 1870-1940 started. This project is sponsored by the Council for the Humanities of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the Arts Faculty of Groningen University.

The project ended at May 31, 2008. The final financial and scientific reports have been approved by NWO.

Project-leader was Dirk Jan Wolffram, postdoc researcher was Christianne Smit and PhD-student was Stefan Couperus, who started his research project on september 1, 2003 .

From 1-9-2006 Smit is lecturer/assistant professor at the History Department of the University of Utrecht. From October 1, 2008, Couperus is Postdoc researcher at the same university.

As from December 1, 2008, Wolffram is holding the chair in History of Governance and Politics in Modern Times, Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen.

On May 14, 2009, Stefan Couperus successfully defended his dissertation De machinerie van de stad. Stadsbestuur als idee en praktijk, Nederland en Amsterdam 1900-1940, which received the classification 'cum laude' (with honours).

Supervisors: prof. dr. D.J. Wolffram, prof. dr. K. van Berkel

Reading committee: prof. dr. J.T.J. van den Berg (UM, UL), prof. dr. M.G.J. Duijvendak (RUG), prof. dr. P. de Rooy (UvA)

Opposition: Van Berkel, members reading committee, dr. A. Körner (University College London), prof. dr. I. de Haan (UU), prof. dr. C.W. Bosch (RUG)

Couperus’s study deals with the question of how ideas and practices of urban governance altered during the first decades of the 20th century in the Netherlands. Both the conception, as well as the practice, of urban governance underwent fundamental changes from the late 19th century onwards. At the same time its constitutional and juridical framework remained fundamentally unaltered throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Against a background of emerging theories of public administration, organization and management, a strong sense of international orientation, and criticism concerning the working of mass parliamentary democracy and state bureaucracy, urban governance was at the core of debate and experiment in the Netherlands during the first half of the 20th century.

This complex amalgam of ideas and ideals provoked a dynamic reciprocity of theory and practice in the process of urban governance in Amsterdam. Outside the limelight of the city council and the public manifestations of the inter-war period, the relations within urban governance were continuously contested and adjusted. Urban governance was increasingly displaced from the exclusive arenas of political decision making to new spheres of interaction between groups of civil society, experts, civil servants and elected administrators. The unlimited possibilities of the new (the development of ideas and governance practices) ultimately became restricted by the limitations of the old (the persistence of the legal framework).

De machinerie van de stad. Stadsbestuur als idee en praktijk, Nederland en Amsterdam 1900-1940 (Amsterdam, Aksant 2009) ISBN: 978-90-5260-337-7, 362 pp,  € 34,90


The project has resulted so far in a number of articles, the dissertation by Couperus and three volumes, published in 2007, 2008, and 2010.

  • Stefan Couperus, Christianne Smit and Dirk Jan Wolffram (eds.), In Control of the City. Local Elites and the Dynamics of Urban Politics, 1800-1960 Groningen Studies in Cultural Change XXVIII (Leuven: Peeters 2007).
  • Christianne Smit (red.), Fatsoenlijk vertier. Deugdzame ontspanning voor arbeiders na 1870 (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker 2008)
  • Stefan Couperus, De machinerie van de stad. Stadsbestuur als idee en praktijk, Nederland en Amsterdam 1900-1940 (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2009)
  • I.M. van den Broek, C.A.L. Smit and D.J. Wolffram (eds.), Imagination and commitment. Representations of the social question . Groningen Studies in Cultural Change XXXVI ( Leuven: Peeters 2010)

Research topic

At the end of the nineteenth century rapid urbanisation forced local authorities to take upon themselves a wide variety of new tasks in town planning, public health, social services, management of public utilities, and the like. From about 1870 onwards important interventionist arrangements in public housing, public health and social benefits became part and parcel of municipal policies before the central state manifested itself as the main supplier in these fields.

In this research project the challenges to democracy emerging in the period 1870-1940 are analysed in the context of the ‘urban question’, which was to a large extent the transformation of the ‘social question’ of the 19th century. Both were the expression of fundamental concern about the course of modernisation. Of course, just like the social question, the urban question was in fact an accumulation of questions.

On the one hand, industrialisation and urbanisation itself posed a series of ‘objective’ efficiency problems connected with the management of growth. On the other hand, parties involved (politicians, administrators, professional experts) tended to emphasise different aspects and solutions, which caused the urban question to surface in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and to become one of the ‘essentially contested questions’ of the 20th century.

The project explores the growing importance of knowledge in solving the urban question as it was defined and reformulated since the last quarter of the 19th century. The quest for efficiency, professionalisation and specialisation revealed the strength and fragility of local democracy. The project focuses on international networks of scientists, technical experts, local administrators and politicians, following the exchange of theory and practical knowledge related to local government.

Political theory and history have shown that there is a bewildering range of factors which complicate the expression and application of the popular will. Perhaps this democratic transition was most poignant between 1870 and 1940. The 19th century liberal ideal of government representing citizens willing and able to let reason be their guide, proved incapable to face up to the challenges of the second industrial revolution, the ‘social question’ and urbanisation.

Political representation entered a new phase, characterised by a rapidly expanding electorate and the hegemony of mass political parties. Government lost contact with the people it represented. The development of local government was part of this process. Local politics ‘politicised’, and saw itself confronted with the problems of controlling the effects of urbanisation. In order to remain in control of the social fabric, local government relied more and more on specialised knowledge: administrative science, applied science and technology. The expansion of bureaucracy and its increasing interference with the political process of government were the concomitants of the increasing dependence on expertise.

In this research project a certain emphasis lies on local government in the Netherlands , because of the availability and vicinity of primary sources. However, the project explicitly places the case of the Netherlands in a comparative perspective, both by analysing the international transfer of ideas and practices, and by comparing the development of the Dutch local political system(s) to those in other European countries and the United States .

A theoretical framework

In 1927 the American philosopher John Dewey (in The public and its problems) noted that the quality of democracy as a political system can be judged by its capability of systematic inquiry of social and individual needs at the level of the local community, by the capacity of communicating these inquiries to the people, and by the effectiveness in applying knowledge to the benefit of the quality of life.

Dewey himself was dazzled by the dynamics of the American society he lived in, dominated as it was by the complexity of the urban question and by clientelistic and corrupt ‘machine politics’. He emphasised the necessity of informing the public about the consequences of the application of knowledge for social and political life, but had to admit that he had no idea how this flow of information could be organised, as both knowledge and society became too complex to be fully understood, by the individual citizen as well as by the well informed politician. ‘We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium”, are the concluding words of Dewey’s classical study (Dewey 219).

The study of modern democracy lacks historical perspectives which link democracy, (local) government, and knowledge. Recent studies in political science have focused on the concepts of trust of citizens in government and distance between government and citizens in order to assess the quality of government. A discussion of local government since the last part of the 19th century along the lines of trust and distance will gain substantial weight by taking into account the impact of specialised knowledge. Specialisation and professionalisation, both of politicians and of the bureaucratic machinery complicated democratic control and increasingly ‘alienated’ the electorate from government.

In all this the concept of ‘democracy’ is the most problematic. It is helpful to distinguish between an empirical and a normative conception of democracy, between an understanding of democracy as a living system of representation and as a set of values and prerequisites a political system is supposed to fulfil. The advantage of historical research into representative government, such as the project presented here, is that it can compare the democratic performance of institutions in a given period with the prevailing norms in that period. An authoritative voice on these norms was of course Max Weber, who highlighted the tension between democracy and bureaucracy, between the amorphous popular will and the well defined, specialised, judicial and hierarchical administration, of which only the latter is capable of improving directly the quality of life.

In the extensive literature on bureaucracy, starting with the classical studies of Weber, the growing impact of science and knowledge is recognised as one of the main features of modern administration. Local government, however, is usually discussed cursorily, perhaps as a result of Weber’s unfounded assertion that local government could exert only minimal power in a world of expertise and centralised and uniform bureaucratic systems. The real world of politics and administration was different, especially in view of the urban question. Local government contributed greatly to social policy arrangements that were eventually adopted by the welfare state.

Subsequent generations of scholars, in the Netherlands and abroad, have tried to work out the relationship between a knowledge-based public administration and democratic government. Successive theories of bureaucracy, however, have seldom had retrospective effect, and have therefore limited use for the historical analysis this project hopes to offer. Nevertheless, the project will make use of concepts such as institutional performance, administrative behaviour, and bureaucratic efficiency.

Last modified:31 May 2017 2.27 p.m.