urban sociology

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Sociological concern with urbanization began with sociology itself, for it was the rapidly growing 19th-century industrial cities that first supported those social relationships and structures which inspired the new discipline. Most early sociologists shared the anti-urban bias of much Victorian thought and writing—and a correspondingly romanticized view of rural life. A key concern was the apparent breakdown of community and social control consequent upon urbanization.

Georg Simmel (The Metropolis and Mental Life, 1903) incorporated these concerns in a brilliant, impressionistic discussion of urban life-styles and personality, viewing the social organization and culture which typified urban areas as the consequence of large population aggregates, thus linking causally the physical characteristics of cities with the social characteristics of their inhabitants. Simmel's analysis and ideas, derived from Darwinian ecology, shaped the Chicago School of urban sociology—the dominant paradigm from the 1920s to the 1950s. The most famous summation of this paradigm occurs in an article (‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’, American Journal of Sociology, 1938) in which Louis Wirth derives ideal-typical social characteristics of urban life (urbanism) from three apparently universal features of cities—large size, high density, and social heterogeneity.

Chicago urban sociology stimulated important empirical research. However, by the 1960s the paradigm had disintegrated and the sub-discipline was a sociological backwater. Empirically, the work of researchers such as Herbert Gans (in the United States) and R. E. Pahl (in Britain) disproves any necessary connection between urban location (hence Wirth's universal features of cities), and particular life-styles. Theoretically, this approach involves a form of naturalism, reifying physical characteristics of cities, falsely identifying these as the causes not the consequences of social processes, and erroneously concluding that social patterns occurring in cities are caused by cities.

This suggests that to derive typical or characteristic patterns of social life from supposedly universal physical or demographic features of cities is to commit not just an empirical but also an epistemological error. Nevertheless, there have been several more recent attempts to provide a new unifying theoretical paradigm for urban sociology, including neo-Weberian theories of housing classes and urban managerialism; so-called non-spatial urban sociology focusing on consumption-sector cleavages; and neo-Marxist perspectives centring on collective consumption.

The last of these defined the new urban sociology of the 1970s. Its most important text was Manuel Castells 's The Urban Question (1977). Drawing on the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, Castells developed an elaborate account of the so-called structures and practices of capitalist urbanization, suggesting that modern (monopoly) capitalism was increasingly dependent on state-supplied urban goods and services (or ‘collective consumption’) to ensure adequate reproduction of its labour-force. This led to rising conflict between the state and urban social movements. The latter, in alliance with workplace struggles, might bring about revolutionary change in capitalist societies as a whole.

The Urban Question offered a seemingly powerful analysis of capitalist urbanization. It certainly inspired much new work in urban social theory and research. However, this tended to show that key aspects of Castells's formulation were theoretically and empirically wanting, notably his definition of cities as ‘spaces for collective consumption’, the importance given to urban social movements, and his structural-Marxist conception of the relatively autonomous state. Subsequently, indeed, in The City and the Grassroots (1983), Castells abandoned Marxist theory, and adopted a less dramatic view of the potential effects of urban social movements. In later work (The Informational City, 1989, and, in particular, his three-volume study on The Information Age, 1996–8) he argues that the revolution in information technology marks a major new phase in capitalist production and consequential patterns of urban and regional development.


Subjects: Sociology.

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