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Dr Sean Fox

Dr Sean Fox

Dr Sean Fox

Senior Lecturer in Global Development

Area of research

Political Economy of Development & Urban Geography

Office 2.14n
University Road,
Clifton, Bristol BS8 1SS
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+44 (0) 11792 87414


My research revolves around four interrelated themes: the process of urbanisation, the political economy of development, contentious politics, and urban governance, particularly (but not exclusively) in Africa and Asia. I am committed to an interdisciplinary approach to social research, drawing on theoretical insights and methodological tools from the fields of demography, economics, geography, political science and sociology.


Current Projects

Quantifying Cities for Sustainable Development

This project addresses a critical gap in social research methodology that has important implications for combating urban poverty and promoting sustainable development in low and middle-income countries. Simply put, we're creating a low-cost tool for gathering critical information about urban population dynamics in cities experiencing rapid spatial-demographic and socioeconomic change. Such information is vital to the success of urban planning and development initiatives, as well as disaster relief efforts. By improving the information base of the actors involved in such activities we aim to improve the lives of urban dwellers across the developing world, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.

We aim to achieve this by combining innovative spatial sampling techniques that exploit freely available satellite imagery, short-format surveys and statistical reconstruction of population characteristics at the neighbourhood scale. We are piloting our methodology in a city in Pakistan, in partnership with the Collective for Social Science Research and NED University.


Role: Principal Investigator

Funding: UK Economic and Social Research Council, Transformative Social Science scheme


Localising the SDGs for Bristol

This action research project, in partnership with Bristol City Council and the Bristol SDG Alliance (a local network of stakeholders), has worked to integrate the UN Sustainable Development Goals into Bristol’s innovative, multi-stakeholder planning processes and governance structures. Through a combination of ‘embedded advocacy’ and stakeholder coordination, the SDGs have become a benchmark for evaluating the collective efforts of actors across the city to advance environmental, social and economic sustainability in the city. In 2019 we published the UK’s very first Voluntary Local Review of progress towards achieving the SDGs for the city of Bristol. The project is an ongoing partnership initiative.


Role: Principal Investigator

Funding: University of Bristol, UK Economic & Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account, Bristol City Council, British Council


Evolving Into Cities?

We are becoming an urban species. More than half of the global population lives in urban areas; by 2100 over 80 percent of humans will likely live in towns and cities. We are not the only ‘urban’ species, but we’re the only one that has undertaken such a dramatic, near universal and seemingly permanent change in habitation behaviour in such a short space of time. Why did this happen? What are the implications for the future of our species?

It is now well-established that the conventional understanding of urbanization as a by-product of industrialisation is incomplete: trends observed in the late 20th century, such as urbanisation without industrialisation in many developing countries, don’t fit this model. Yet there is no consensus on alternative explanations for these trends. We are therefore revisiting the basic question of why human populations urbanise from the perspective of evolutionary ecology, in partnership with colleagues at the SHOALgroup in the Biosciences Department at Swansea University. This represents a radically different starting point than traditional theories emphasising the primacy of economic forces, particularly with regards to modelling the migration and settlement decisions of individuals. From an evolutionary perspective, we ask how and why humans have come to live in large communities of interdependent strangers. 

Role: Principal Investigator

Funding: Cabot Institute Innovation Fund


Identifying urban areas: Building open source tools for better analysing urban boundaries and political fractionalisation

Cities are often much larger social and physical systems than their governmental or municipal boundaries would suggest. Using unsupervised machine learning, high resolution satellite imagery, and geographic data science, this problem of urban boundary mismatch can be interrogated. Analysing cities in the US, Canada, the UK, Nigeria and South Africa, a globally-applicable method to analyse this boundary mismatch is possible. Using high resolution multi-band satellite imagery, hierarchical clustering, and computational geometry methods we aim to construct a database of 'apparent' urban areas and then identify how the political and government systems in these areas are split by government boundaries.

The aim of this project, led by Dr Levi Wolf, is to come up with a better and more globally-useful method to identify where 'the city' begins and ends, as well as measures of how an urban area is split by multiple governments. This is important work, since ill-aligned boundaries and ill-coordinated urban governments have serious costs on urban efficiency, health, economic performance and the behaviour of urbanites.


Role: Co-Investigator

Funding: Alan Turing Institute


Prior to joining Bristol I was a Research Associate with the DfID-funded Crisis States Research Centre (2006-2010) and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics (2007-2011). I hold an MSc in Development Management from the LSE and Bachelor’s degrees in Literature and Economics from the University of California Santa Cruz.



  • Political economy of development
  • Urbanisation and migration
  • Democratisation
  • Conflict and violence
  • Institutions and governance
  • Urban politics

Recent publications

View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

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