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In Memoriam
Last Updated: 10/21/2011
The urban acadademic legacy of Mahmoud El Zain Hamid or : The solemn Scientific Revolutionary
Sven Schulte

Sven Schulte reflects on the academic legacy of Dr Mahmoud El Zain Hamid, particularly in light of ontological and epistemological considerations, and Dr Hamid's establishment of a groundbreaking graduate programme at the University for Peace dedicated to the study of peace and security in urban areas.

To the utmost shock to the scientific community, Professor Mahmoud El Zain Hamid passed away in September 2011. His untimely death follows his newly created MA in Sustainable Urban Governance and Peace, which, in this form, is unique in the academic realm and quintessentially becomes an epitome of his academic legacy.

This orbituary, in turn, seeks to recall some epistemological and ontological tenets underpinning his unique approach to what may be called urban conflict studies for information and inspiration, so that this legacy will not dust as a tome of the past, but to illuminate the paths of interdisciplinary urban studies.

Hamid gained outstanding credentials on the topic of water scarcity in Sudan as previous commemorative articles have surmised. The methodology and insights Prof. Hamid gained and used are transferable to around the planet. Not seeing arsing problems in simple binaries like supply and demand, his analysis oscillates between access, marginalisation, cultural modes and modern institutions of governance in order to regard the problematique as nuanced, interdependent and interdisciplinary. This realisation of interconnectedness led him from the river basins of the Nile to the urban dimension of socio-environmental problems.[1]

In reality, the science of peace and conflict studies has fundamentally failed to recognise the importance of urban structures and dynamics in its analysis of conflicts. Conversely, architectural and business sciences have neglected the conflictual potential that buildings and urban designs carry.

Like in a Venn Diagram, these sciences form intersections, yet a significant scholastic vacuum was created as both disciplines consistently ignored these intersections.[2]Hamid was aware of this discrepancy and consequentially embarked on building a bridge between these paradigms. As a social scientist, his methodological and epistemological approach to the city is radically different than previous generations of urban planners, architects, and real estate scientists regarded the city to be.

Rather than considering the city as a mechanical, static built environment, he (among others) advocates a picture of a living, dynamic organism whose constant interplay of sociological and environmental variables produce the conflictual situations that we all seek to solve.

The city, in consequence, is not a passive recipient of conflict but an active generator thereof, which marks another critical difference in the ontological approach of Prof. Hamid.

It is here that Prof. Hamid was at the forefront of a new paradigm: According to Thomas Kuhn on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions[3], paradigm shifts come about when an emerging paradigm clashes with the dominant paradigm because of incommensurability of methodology, terminology and focal points.

Mahmoud did precisely this: His seismic shift in focal points –e.g. from the built environment receiving conflict to an organism byproducing conflicts- created such a drastically different methodology and terminology that it challenged established paradigms on urban studies. After all, the city is predominantly scrutinized in economic-architectural terms from a functional perspective in modern and positivist frameworks.

The paradigm that Mahmoud postulated far exceed this, introducing more socio-environmental variables while expanding our ontological understanding by a refreshing post-modern and post-positivist approach. In as much, he recognised the important contribution that empirical evidence can supply, yet he encouraged benefit of doubt as to whether we as social scientists are actually able to clearly prove or disprove anything. Moreover, his critique of expert-driven process culminated in the methodological promotion of informal settlers and marginal groups in the development of theories and projects, instead of simple recipients thereof. These are just two aspects that may qualify him as a post-modern and post-positivist researcher.

It seems fair to state that Prof. Hamid’s scientific approach is latently present within many contemporary paradigms that have become inter pares to the dominant discourses in urban science. Indeed, a scientific revolution in a Kuhn’ian spirit that Mahmoud Hamid played a peaceful part in.

The hallmarks of this paradigm, the revolutionary ideas, are more pragmatic nevertheless. In as much, the assessment of urban risk factors and best-practise examples of increasing urban resilience are solemn, rational tenets.

The revolutionary thought is to promote the neglected to the heights of urban agendas and recognising indigenous and alternative potentials instead of pursuing standardised ‘one size fits all’ policies.

It is this philosophical and interdisciplinary approach to the city that shall not be forgotten. Do not limit your thought, question the ontological and epistemological ways that cities are imagined from all sciences. Prof. Hamid was famous for encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and the empowerment of everyone as agents of analysis and change, from slum dweller to ex-student. Whoever we are, we are peaceful agents as well, carrying unique messages that are tacitly influenced by the spirit of thought of Prof. Mahmoud El Zain Hamid.

[1] The author continues to write in present tense when talking about Prof. Hamid’s ideas, as ideas will continue to exist even after death.

[2] Except for the sociological urban discourse.

[3] Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The author left Germany at the age of 16 to study at an International School before embarking on studying International relations and peace&conflict studies in London, UK. He currently holds one MA in Environmental Security and Peace (UN-mandated University for Peace and is a candidate for an MA in Peace, Development, Security and Int. Conflict Transformation. He is member of Chatham House (Royal Institution of International Affairs) and on the Board of Trustees for the IREBS Foundation for African Real Estate Research ( A former student of Dr. Hamid, he returned to UPEACE to work with him on new modules for the MA in Sustainable Urban Governance and was honoured to have him as a mentor.