Urban Sociology (Introduction)


Chapter 1

The second decade of the 21st century is witnessing major urban changes. The last decade saw the globe change from a predominantly rural world to one where the majority of us live in urban places. For the first time in history we now live in an urban world. The United Nations estimates that all worldwide growth in the next 30 years will be in urban areas.


Closer to home in North America, the United States population passed 308 million in 2010, and four out of five Americans now live in metropolitan areas. The situation is similar for Canada’s 34 million people.


This text explores and explains the patterns of urban life in the second decade of the 21st century. Its goal is to help us better understand the cities and suburbs where most of us live, and to give us some awareness of the major urban changes taking place elsewhere on the globe. To do this, we begin at the beginning, since without knowing how we got here it is difficult to make sense of what is happening, both in North America and in the developing world where the great bulk of urban growth is now taking place.


As you read the following chapters, keep in mind that the one constant in urban areas is change. Metropolitan areas are not museums but are constantly undergoing physical and social change.




Cities, it turns out, are a relatively new idea. Archaeologists tell us that the human species has been on the globe several million years. However, for the overwhelming number of these millennia our ancestors lived in a world without cities. Cities and urban places, in spite of our acceptance of them as an inevitable consequence of human life, are in the eyes of history hardly even a blink. Not until the end of the last ice age around 11,000 years ago did the first villages emerge. Cities are a comparatively recent social invention, having existed at most 7,000 to 10,000 years. Their period of social, economic, and cultural dominance is even shorter.


Nonetheless, the era of cities encompasses the totality of the period we label “civilization.” The story of human social and cultural development— and regression—is in major part the tale of the cities that have been built and the lives that have been lived within them. The saga of wars, architecture, and art—almost the whole of what we know of human triumphs and tragedies—is encompassed within the period of cities. The very terms civilization and civilized come from the Latin civis, which refers to a citizen living in a city. The city was civilization; those outside were barbarians. Among the ancient Greeks the greatest punishment was to be ostracized (banned) from the city. In Roman times civitas referred to the political and moral nature of community, while the term urbs, from which we get the term urban, referred more to the built form of the city.


The vital and occasionally magnificent cities of the past, however, existed as small islands in an overwhelmingly rural sea. Just over 200 years ago, in the year 1800, the population of the world was still 97 percent rural.’ In 1900 the world was still 86 percent rural. A hundred years ago the proportion of the world’s population living in cities of 100,000 or more was only 5.5 percent, and only 13.6 percent lived in places of 5,000 or more. While cities were growing very rapidly, most people still lived in the countryside or small villages. Today we live in a world that for the first time numbers more urban than rural residents. Demographically, the 21st century is the world’s first urban century (Figure 1.1). [2]




The rapidity of the change from rural to urban life is at least as important as the amount of urbanization.

A hundred and twenty-five years ago not a single nation was as urban as the world is today. The urban transformation initially took place in Europe and countries largely settled by Europeans, such as the United States, during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th-Century. These were the places that first developed modern agricultural, transportation, and industrial technologies. England, the first country to enter the industrial age, was also the first country to undergo the urban transformation. A century ago England became the world’s only predominantly urban country. [3] Not until 1920 did half the population of United States reside in urban places, and not until 1931 was this true of Canada. Figures 1.1 and 1.2 dramatically indicate how the urban population of the world has increased over the last century and will continue to expand. This rapid growth of cities during the 19th and 20th centuries is sometimes referred to as the urban revolution.


We take large cities for granted. Almost everyone reading this book has spent at least part of their lives living in a central city or suburb, so it is difficult for us to conceive of a world without large cities. However, 100 years ago only 12 cities housed a million or more inhabitants.


The rapidity and extent of the urban revolution can perhaps be understood if one reflects that if San Antonio, with a year 2010 population of 1.4 million, had had the same population two centuries ago, it would have been the largest urban place.’ By 2030—less than two decades from now—some 60 percent of the world’s people will live in urban places. By contrast, the United Nations estimates that as of 2005 some 414 cities had over a million inhabitants. More than a third of these cities first reached the million mark in the last 15 years. We now live in an urban world of mega-metropolises; Tokyo-Yokohama has a population of 36 million and greater Mexico City has 20 million. Within the United States the 2010 census reported the New York-New Jersey-Long Island metro area at 20 million and Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County (California) at 16 million. Chicago-Gary (Indiana)-

Kenosha (Wisconsin) was third largest at 9 million. Metro Toronto in Canada has 5 million.



Today, 95 percent of all urban growth is taking place not in Europe or North America, but in rapidly growing cities in the developing world. Some of this change is breathtakingly fast. In Beijing, China, the equivalents of three Manhattans were added to its skyline just for the 2008 Olympics. Twenty-first century world urbanization patterns are different from those of the twentieth century. Today developed Western nations are experiencing little urban growth. Of the 414 previously noted cities of over a million inhabitants, some two-thirds are in developing countries. Few of us could name more than a few dozen of such million-plus developing world cities. The United Nations uses the term megacities to designate places of over 10 million inhabitants. As recently as 1950 only New York and Tokyo had megacity status. By contrast, the World Bank estimates that there are now 26 megacities. Of these 26 megacities, 21 are found in developing countries. Mumbai (previously designated Bombay), India, for example, even with falling growth rates is still adding half a million new city residents each year. It is difficult for us to keep up either intellectually or emotionally with these changes.


The United Nations estimates that 15 new megacities will be added to the globe between 2000 and 2015, all of them in the developing world. As of 2010, the United Nations estimated a population of 19.4 million for the megacity of Mexico City; 23 million for metropolitan Sao Paulo, Brazil; 23 million for Mumbai; and 16.5 million for Shanghai. Some demographers, such as this author, think these estimates are high by several millions, but by any measure these megacities dwarf anything the world has ever experienced. The United Nations estimates that by 2020, nine cities—Delhi, Dhaka, Jakarta, Lagos, Mexico City, Mumbai, New York, Sao Paulo, and Tokyo—will have more than 20 million inhabitants. [5]


Some of our difficulty in understanding or coping with urban patterns and problems can be attributed to the newness of the emergence of this urban world with its huge megacities. Living as we do in developed, Western, urban-oriented places, it is easy for us to forget three important facts:


First, even in the industrialized West, massive urbanization is a very recent phenomenon. This rapid transformation from a basically rural to a heavily urbanized world, and the development of urbanism as a way of life, have been far more dramatic and spectacular than the much better known population explosion.

Today, the number of people living in cities of the developing world outnumbers the entire population of the world only 100 years ago.


Second, over 95 percent of future urban growth will occur in cities of the developing world. The population explosion is, in reality, a third world urban explosion.


Third, about half the urban residents in developing countries live in slums. There are currently some 1 billion slum dwellers, and this will rise to 2 billion slum dwellers by 2030. [6]



Urban growth first accelerated cumulatively during the 19th and 20th centuries. By 1800, London, the largest city on earth, reached almost 1 million, Paris exceeded 500,000, and Vienna and St. Petersburg had each reached

200,000. A century later, as the 20th century began, 10 cities had reached or exceeded 1 million: London, Paris, Vienna, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Calcutta, Tokyo, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. This urban explosion, which will be discussed in greater detail later, began over 200 years ago in the more developed nations of

Europe. Among the more important reasons for this spurt in European population were (1) declining death rates, (2) the beginning of scientific management of agriculture, (3) improved transportation and communication systems, (4) stable political governments, and (5) the development of the Industrial Revolution. While details differ from country to country, the pattern for Western nations is similar. Improvements in agriculture raised the surplus above previous subsistence levels. Then, in rather short order, entrepreneurs, and later governments, transferred this extra margin into the manufacturing sector. The result was urban expansion and growth fed by a demand from the burgeoning manufacturing, commercial, and service sectors for a concentrated labor force. Today the developed world is over three-quarters urban. By contrast, only 41 percent of those in developing countries live in urban areas.


Heavy urbanization in the developing world is largely a post-World War II phenomenon (see Chapter 14: Developing Countries). The pace of urbanization in developing countries has been far more rapid than that found during the 19th century in Europe or North America. Note in Table 1.1 the dramatic projection of African, and especially Asian, urban growth over the next half century. At the same time the United Nations anticipates a declining population in Europe.


Whether we are delighted by the variety and excitement of urban life or horrified by the anonymity and occasional brutality of


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cities, population concentration—that is, urbanization—is becoming the way of life in developing as well as developed nations. Attempts to return to a supposedly simpler rural past must be viewed as futile escapism. Longings for a pastoral utopia where all exist in rural bliss have no chance of becoming reality. We live in an urban world; and for all our complaints about it, few would reverse the clock.



Before proceeding further, it is necessary to define some of the terms we will be using. This is not altogether as simple as it might seem, since countries differ in how they define a place as urban. About thirty definitions of urban population are currently in use, none of them totally satisfactory. Urban settlements have been defined on the basis of an urban culture (a cultural definition), administrative functions (a political definition), the percentage of people in nonagricultural occupations (an economic definition), and the size of the population (a demographic definition). In the United States, we define places as urban by using population criteria along with some geographical and political elements. In actual practice the various criteria tend to overlap and be reinforcing. Let us look briefly at some of the criteria that can be used. In terms of cultural criteria, a city is “a state of mind, a body of customs and traditions.” [7] The city thus is the place, as sociologists put it, where relations are gesellschaft (larger-scale

“societal” or formal role relationships) rather than gemeinschaft (more intimate-scale “community” or primary relationships) and forms of social organization are organic rather than mechanical (see p. 14). In short, the city

is large, culturally heterogeneous, and socially diverse. It is the antithesis of “folk society.” The problem with the cultural definitions of an urban place is the difficulty of measurement; for example, if a city is a state of mind, who can ever say where the boundaries of the urban area lie?


The United Nations has urban data for some 228 countries and accepts each nation’s definition of what it considers urban. This makes cross-nation comparisons difficult. Economic activity is used in defining what is urban in 39 countries. In terms of economic criteria, a country has sometimes been described as urban if less than half its workers are engaged in agriculture. Here urban and nonagricultural are taken to be synonymous. This distinction, of course, tells us nothing about the degree of urbanization or its pattern of spatial distribution within the country. Distinctions have also been made between the town as the center for processing and service functions and the countryside as the area for producing raw materials. However, while in the past these distinctions may have had utility, today it is difficult to distinguish among areas by means of such criteria. How far out do the producing and service functions of a New York or a Los Angeles extend?


Politically or administratively a national government may define its urban areas in terms of functions. Roughly half the nations for which the United Nations has data use administrative criteria. [8] The difficulty is that there is no agreement internationally on what the political or administrative criteria should be. Often those residing in the capital of a country or a province are designated as urban. In some countries such as Kenya and Thailand, all incorporated places are urban, regardless of size. In Canada until 1971 all incorporated places were automatically urban.


Finally, some 51 countries use size of population as the criterion in deciding what is urban and what is not. Demographically, a place is defined as being urban because a certain number of people live in it, a certain density of people is within it, or both. Measurement and comparison of rural and urban populations within a country can be relatively simple when demographic criteria are used, although the problem of making comparisons among nations still remains. Only 250 persons are necessary to qualify an area as urban in Denmark, and only 1,000 in Canada, while


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10,000 are needed in Greece. According to the definition used by the United States Bureau of the Census for the 2010 census, the official urban population of the United States comprises all persons living in urbanized areas, all persons outside of urbanized areas who live in places of 2,500 or more, and all persons living in unincorporated settlements of fewer than 2,500 persons living in “urbanized zones” on the fringes of metropolitan areas. By this definition, three-quarters of the United States population is urban.


Worldwide, the percentage of the population living in urban places varies from 10 percent in Burundi to 100 percent in Qatar, Singapore, and Hong Kong.’ (Table 1.1 shows the percent of urbanization by world regions.)



In this work we will distinguish between urbanization, which is the number of people in urban places, and urbanism, which is the sociocultural consequences of living in urban places, the human culture side of urbanization. As we will see in Part Five: Worldwide Urbanization, cities in the developing world are the largest and the fastest growing in the world. Nevertheless, it must be kept in mind that the growth of cities and a high level of national urbanization are not the same thing; in the Western world both happened at the same time, but it is possible to find extremely large cities in overwhelmingly rural countries. Some of the world’s largest cities—for example, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Cairo—exist in nations that are still largely rural. Having extremely large cities does not necessarily indicate an urban nation.



Urbanization not only refers to the changes in the proportion of the population of a nation living in urban areas but also to the process of people moving to cities or other densely settled


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areas. The term is also used to describe the changes in social organization that occur as a consequence of population concentration. Urbanization is thus a process—the process by which rural areas become transformed into urban areas. In demographic terms, urbanization is an increase in population concentration (numbers and density); organizationally, it is an alteration in structure and patterns of organization. Demographically, urbanization involves two elements: the multiplication of points of concentration and the increase in the size of individual concentrations.’


Urbanization, described demographically as the percentage of a nation’s total population living in urban areas, is a process that clearly has a beginning and an end. Four-fifths of the United States population of more than 300 million is now urban; the maximum level of urbanization is probably somewhere around 90 percent. (Nations that comprise only one city, such as Singapore, can be 100 percent urban.) Even after a nation achieves a high level of urbanization, its cities and metropolitan areas can continue to grow. While there is a limit to the percentage of urbanization possible, the practical limit for the size of cities or metropolitan areas is not yet known.



While urbanization has to do with metropolitan growth, urbanism refers to the social patterns and behaviors associated with living in cities. Urbanism, with its changes in the values, mores, customs, and behaviors of a population, is often seen as one of the consequences of urbanization. [11] Urbanism is a social and behavioral response to living in certain places.


Under the conceptual label “urbanism” is found research concerning the social psychological aspects of urban life, urban personality patterns, and the behavioral adaptations required by city life. Urbanism as a way of life receives detailed treatment in Chapter 6: The Suburban Era, Chapter 7: Urban Lifestyles, and Chapter 8: Social Environment of Metro Areas.


It should be noted that it is possible to live in an area with a high degree of urbanization (population concentration) and a low level of urbanism (urban behaviors) or—less commonly— a low level of urbanization and a high level of urbanism. Examples of the former can be found in the large cities of the developing world, where the city is filled with immigrants who now reside in an urban place but remain basically rural in outlook.


Cairo, for example, is typical of developing cities in that over one-third of its residents were born outside the city. Many of these newcomers are urban in residence but remain rural in outlook and behavior. On the other hand, if the urbanization process in the United States becomes one of population decentralization, the United States might have some decline in levels of urbanization, while urban lifestyles become even more universa1. 12


The explicit belief in most older sociological writings—and an implicit premise in much of what is written about cities today—is that cities produce a characteristic way of life known as “urbanism.” Moreover, urbanism as a way of life, while often successful economically, is said to produce personal alienation, social disorganization, and the whole range of ills falling under the cliché “the crisis of the cities.”


A classic statement of the effects of urbanization on urban behavior patterns is Louis Wirth’s article “Urbanism as a Way of Life.”” According to Wirth, “For sociological purposes a city may be defined as a relatively large, dense, permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.”‘ Wirth further suggested that these components of urbanization—size, density, and heterogeneity— are the independent variables that create a distinct way of life called “urbanism.” Urbanism, with its emphasis on competition, achievement, specialization,

superficiality, anonymity, independence, and tangential relationships, is often compared— at


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least implicitly—with a simpler and less competitive idealized rural past. (The adequacy of this approach is addressed in detail in Chapter 7: Urban Lifestyles.)


Today urbanism as a way of life is virtually universal in nations with high levels of urbanization such as the United States, with their elaborate media and communications networks. Even the attitudes, behaviors, and cultural patterns of rural areas in the United States are dominated by urban values and lifestyles. Rural wheat farmers, cattle ranchers, and dairy farmers—with their accountants, professional lobbies, and government subsidies—are all part of a complex and highly integrated agribusiness enterprise. They are hardly innocent country bumpkins, preyed upon by city slickers. By comparison, urban consumers often appear naive regarding contemporary rural life.


The degree to which even 50 years ago urbanism already had permeated every aspect of American culture was documented in Vidich and Bensman’s study of an upstate New York hamlet with a population of 1,700. Their book, which they titled Small Town in Mass Society, presented a detailed and careful picture of how industrialization and bureaucratization totally dominated the rural village.’ Everything— from 4H clubs and Girl Scout troops, through the American Legion and national churches, to university agriculture agents, the Social Security Administration, and marketing organizations to raise the price supports for milk—influenced how the village residents thought, acted, and lived. The town was totally dependent on outside political and economic institutions for its survival.


The small-towners, though, had an entirely different conception of themselves and their hamlet. They saw themselves as rugged individualists living in a town that, in contrast to city life, prided itself on friendliness, neighborliness, grassroots democracy, and independence. Their town was small, self-reliant, and friendly, while the city was large, coldly impersonal, and full of welfare loafers. In spite of the absence of a viable local culture, and the clear division of the town by socioeconomic class differences, the myth of a unique rural lifestyle and social equality persisted.


Contemporary small-town America is totally enmeshed in an urban economic and social system despite its pride in its independence of the city and cosmopolitan ways. The small town even relies on the mass media to help reaffirm its own fading self image. Even the most isolated rural area in Montana has access to 200 channels of satellite TV, web access, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook. Distances have shrunk. You can view American news on CNN in Indonesian villages, while the Internet provides an international information superhighway.


Today in North America, young people in both rural and urban areas follow the same rap, rock, and concert stars. Partially excepting separatist religious groups such as the Amish, there no longer is a unique rural culture independent of urban influence.




Over the years scholars have studied cities in many different ways. Academics in a variety of disciplines have concerned themselves with a wide variety of questions such as why cities are located at particular places and not others; what the growth patterns of cities are; who lives in cities; how different ethnic and racial groups arrange themselves therein; how living in cities affects social relationships; how cities govern themselves; and whether city living produces certain behaviors and social problems.


If these and numerous other questions addressed in this book are to have meaning for the student, the questions have to be more than an ad hoc list of interesting topics. The material has to be related and organized in some general fashion in order to provide a common understanding and body of knowledge.


The material that follows is organized— with an occasional bit of squeezing—under the previously mentioned headings of urbanization


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and urbanism. Under the more abstract heading of urbanization are included those questions and issues dealing with the city as a spatial, economic, and political entity. This traditionally has been referred to by sociologists as the human ecological approach since it is broadly concerned with how the ecology of the city developed, particularly the interrelationship and interdependence of organisms and their environment.


In recent decades an alternative approach called political economy has become widely used by urban scholars. Those taking a political economy perspective are less likely to give weight to ecological factors. Rather, in explaining the decline of the central city, suburbanization, edge cities, and the explosion of third world cities, they look to the explicit political and economic decisions made by multinationals and political institutions.’ Those advocating a political economy approach are concerned with how economic forces shape urban patterns. Research, for example, might be done on how property values are manipulated to encourage gentrification. (Political economy and other conflict approaches are discussed in detail in Chapter 4, Ecology and Political Economy Perspectives.)


What both ecological and political economy approaches have in common is that they both focus on the larger macro-level urban units and social and economic questions. The urbanization, ecological, or political economy focus is generally on the big picture. They use cities—or, at their most micro-level, neighborhoods—as the unit of analysis. A human ecologist, for example, might research the predictable pattern of neighborhood change over time, while a political economy advocate might look at how major economic institutions decide growth patterns.

Such macro-level approaches are heavily used in Part I: Focus and Development and Part II: American Urbanization.


Urbanism as a way of life, on the other hand, is far more micro-level oriented. It focuses on the impact of the city on small groups or individuals. This cultural, socio-cultural, or social psychological approach focuses on how the experience of living in cities affects people’s social relationships and personalities. The concern of this approach is primarily with the psychological, cultural, and social ramifications of city life. For example, one of the questions regarding the social psychological impact of city life that we will examine in some detail is whether living in a city, suburb, or rural area produces differences in personalities, socialization patterns, or even levels of pathology. To put it in oversimplified form, are city dwellers different? While human ecology focuses on how social and spatial patterns are maintained, and political economy focuses on economic systems, the social psychological or cultural approach is concerned with human effects.


Historically, urbanization scholars and urban social psychologists have gone their own way, while largely ignoring their opposite numbers. Some textbooks also perpetuate the division by all but ignoring alternative approaches, or by treating alternative explanations as discredited straw men. This is unfortunate, for the different perspectives complement each other in the same way that the social science disciplines of political science, economics, and sociology provide alternative focuses and approaches. This book, written by one trained in the urban ecology tradition who finds much of value in the political economy model, makes a conscious effort to present all positions fairly as a means of better understanding the patterns of metropolitan areas and of the lives of those of us living within them. I believe it is necessary to have an understanding both of urbanization and of urbanism as a way of life, or if you prefer an alternate terminology, of urban ecology and urban political economy on one hand, and of urban culture and urban social psychology on the other.



Urban Change and Confusion

The scientific study of urbanism and urbanization

is a relative newcomer to the academic


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scene. Systematic empirical examination of cities and city life only began during the first half of the 20th century, a period in which American cities were experiencing considerable transformation in terms of both industrialization and a massive influx of immigrants from the rural areas of Europe and the American South. To many observers of the time, the city, with its emphasis on efficiency, technology, and division of labor, was undermining simpler rural forms of social organization. The social consequences were disorganization, depersonalization, and the breakdown of traditional norms and values. Classic early 20th century social protest novels such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) reflect this breakdown. An anonymous poem of 1916, called “While the City Sleeps,” mirrors this negative view of urban life:






Rural Simplicity versus Urban Complexity

In the usual description of the transition from simple to complex forms of social organization, there is, at least implicitly, a time frame in which rural areas represent the past and traditional values, and the city represents the future with its emphasis on technology, division of labor, and emergence of new values. Early movies reinforced this view. In silent movies the villain invariably was the city banker, while the hero was a simple farm boy. Similarly, in cowboy movies the villain invariably lived in town, while the hero rode in from the open country. The picture of a fast-paced, alienating, stimulating, and anonymous city life, along with the contrasting romanticized picture of the warm, personal, and well-adjusted rural life is, of course, a stereotype. Such stereotypes affect not only social behavior but also social policy—even if they are poor reflectors of reality. For example, in spite of the emphasis on the isolation, anonymity, and mental stress of the city, there are indications that city residents are actually happier and better adjusted than their rural cousins.


With the exception of the largest cities, Claude E. Fischer found, for example, that on a worldwide scale there is greater evidence of rural as opposed to urban dissatisfaction, unhappiness, despair, and melancholy. 17 Also, research by Palen and Johnson on the relationship between urbanization and health status in 19th- and 20th century American cities found that inhabitants of large cities were consistently healthier than inhabitants of rural areas or small towns. 18 Contrary to the stereotype, mental health is probably superior in the city [19].




The cleavage between the city and the countryside is, of course, not a uniquely American idea. The great European social theorists of the 19th century described the social changes that were then taking place in terms of a shift from a warm, supportive community based on kinship in which common aims are shared to a larger, more impersonal society in which ties are based not on kinship but on interlocking economic, political, and other interests. These views had, and continue to have, profound impact on sociological thought. [20]


European Theorists

Many of the core ideas of the classical (so-called) Chicago School writings of the 1920s and 1930s were based implicitly on the


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thoughts of late 19th and early 20th-century European social theorists. Of these, the most influential were the Germans Ferdinand Tonnies (1855-1936), Karl Marx (1818-1883), Max Weber (1864-1920), and Georg Simmel (1858- 1918), and the Frenchman Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). These theorists sought to explain the twin changes of industrialization and urbanization that were undermining the small-scale, traditional, rural-based communities of Europe. All about, they saw the crumbling of old economic patterns, social customs, and family organization. The growth of urbanization was bringing in its wake new urban ways of life. They sought to theoretically explain these changes.


Typologies. Commonly, changes were presented by theorists in terms of typologies, which sociologists refer to as ideal types. The term ideal type doesn’t mean “perfect;” rather, an ideal type is a model. An ideal type doesn’t represent a specific reality; it is, instead, a logical construct. One ideal-type model was rural society; its opposite was urban society.


Probably the most important 19th-century European social theorist was Karl Marx, who was born in 1818 in Trier into an agrarian Germany that had yet to undergo the Industrial Revolution. Yet Marx spent most of his adult life in an industrializing London where factories, and exploitation of the new class of wage workers, were part of daily life. In the booming cities, a few industrialists enjoyed a level of wealth and comfort more luxurious than that of kings of old, while workers slaved 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for subsistence wages and lived in unspeakable tenements and slums (see insert “Engels on Industrial Slums,” in Chapter 2).


Not surprisingly, Marx saw economic structure as the infrastructural foundation of society. It therefore follows that change in society is through conflict over resources and the means of production. Ultimately, the final struggle of


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mature urban industrial capitalism would be between the capitalists, who owned factories and the means of production, and the urban proletariat, who provided the underpaid labor. However, for Marx, before this could occur, there first had to be a shift from agrarian feudal society to the new, urban, property-owning bourgeoisie. (Since a bourg, or burg, is a town, a bourgeois is by definition a town dweller.) According to Marx:


The greatest division of material and mental labour is the separation of town and country. The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilization, from tribe to State, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilization to the present day…. Here first became the division of the population into two great classes, which is directly based on the division of labour and on the instruments of production. [21]


In early-20th-century urban sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies had great impact with his elaborate discussions of the shift from gemeinsclzaft– a smaller country or village community based on ties of blood (family) and kinship—to gesellschaft— a larger more complex urban society or association based on economic, political, or other interests. 22 In rural gemeinschaft, people were bound together by common values and by family and kinship ties, and they worked together for the common goal. At the gesellschaft pole of the typology, on the other

hand, personal relationships count for little, with money and contract replacing sentiment. City people were individualistic and selfishly out for themselves. For Tonnies this change from common good to private advantage arose as a consequence of the growth of money-based capitalism. Further, he saw this evolutionary change

as inevitable, but not desirable. Tonnies mourned the increasing loss of community. A century later his idea of the warm local town in contrast to the impersonal city still continues to influence popular views of urban life.


Others were more positive regarding urban life. The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim similarly saw societies moving from a commonality of tasks and outlook to a complex division of labor. Societies based on shared sentiments and tasks were said to possess “mechanical solidarity,” while those based on integrating different but complementary economic and social functions were said to possess “organic solidarity.” 25 In Durkheim’s view, the collective conscience of rural society is replaced by a complex division of labor in urban society. The latter is both far more productive economically and far more socially liberating. Durkheim was more positive about urban life than ‘ninnies; while Durkheim saw the division of labor undermining traditional

life, he also saw cities creating new forms of mutual interdependence.


Expanding his theory beyond the European city, the German sociologist Max Weber made an ideal type distinction between “traditional society” based upon ascription and “rational society” based on the “technical superiority” of formalized and impersonal bureaucracy. 24 Weber saw that with the rise of the nation state the autonomous city of the medieval period was no more.


All the above theorists looked at the city from a macro-level. More psychologically oriented was Georg Simmel, whose famous essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” concentrated on how urbanization increases individuals’ alienation and mental isolation. 25 Simmel’s concern was on how the individual could survive the city’s intense social interaction and still maintain her or his personality. Simmel saw the city as a place of intense stimuli that stimulated freedom but also forced the city dweller to become blasé and calculating in order to survive.

Simmel’s ideas were very important in influencing America’s first urban sociologists and are the base of much of the work of the so-called Chicago School of sociologists. The influence of Simmel’s ideas is fully discussed in

Part Three: Metropolitan Life. Finally, a 20th


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century anthropology version of the dichotomy between rural and urban places is the distinction made by the anthropologist Robert Redfield between what he characterized as “folk” and “urban” societies. He described folk peasant societies as:


… small, isolated, non-literate, and homogeneous, with a strong sense of group solidarity. The ways of living are conventionalized into that coherent system which we call “a culture.” Behavior is traditional, spontaneous, uncritical, and personal; there is no legislation, or habit of experiment and reflection for intellectual ends. Kinship, its relationships and institutions, are the type categories of experience and the familial group is the unit of action. The sacred prevails over the secular; the economy is one of status rather than market [26]



Interestingly, Redfield never did define “urban life,” simply saying that it was the opposite of folk society.


Assumptions. The theoretical frameworks described above all contain three general assumptions: (1) The evolutionary movement from simple rural to complex urban is unilinear (that is, it goes only in one direction: from simple to complex); (2) modern urban life stresses achievement over ascription (that is, what you do is more important than your parentage); and (3) the supposed characteristics of city life apply not just to specific groups or neighborhoods but to urban areas as a whole. As you read through this text, note whether these assumptions are supported or rejected.


All these models have at least an implicit evolutionary framework: Societies follow a unilinear path of development from simple rural to complex urban. Rural areas and ways of life typify the past, while the city is the mirror to the future. This change is assumed to be both inevitable and irreversible. A subset of this belief is that the city fosters goal oriented, formal, secondary-group relationships—rather than face-to-face primary-group relationships.


Unspoken but often implicit in this is the value judgment that the old ways were better, or at least more humane. The city is presented as more efficient, but the inevitable price of efficiency is the breakdown of meaningful social relationships. The countryside exemplifies stable rules, roles, and relationships, while the city is characterized by innovation, experimentation, flexibility, and disorganization. In cultural terms the small town represents continuity, conformity, and stability, while the big city stands for heterogeneity, variety, and originality. In terms of personality, country folk are supposed to be neighborly people who help one another—they lack the sophistication of city slickers but also lack the city dweller’s guile. In short, country folk are “real,” while city people are artificial and impersonal.


Fortunately, the newly emerging discipline of urban sociology did not calcify into explaining supposed differences between the rural and the urban, but rather began to examine the urban scene empirically and systematically. Eventually the original rural–urban dichotomy was abandoned, and hypotheses began to be developed on the basis of empirical research. This emphasis on the importance of actual studies and research data is one of the characteristics of urban sociology. The Chicago School of sociology set this pattern.


The Chicago School

Urban research (and in fact virtually all sociological research) until World War II is largely associated with a remarkable group of scholars connected with the University of Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. The “Chicago School” found sociology a loose collection of untested theories, interesting facts, social work, and social reform. It converted sociology into an established academic discipline and an emerging science.’ Foremost among the Chicago School pioneers was Robert Park (1864-1944), who emphasized not moral preachments about the sins of the city but detailed empirical observa


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tion. Park had held a variety of jobs, including newspaper reporter and personal secretary to national black leader Booker T Washington. He was constantly fascinated by studying the city and passed his enthusiasm on to several

generations of graduate students. He was also most interested in how the supposed chaos of the city actually was underlaid by a pattern of systematic social and spatial organization. [28]


Early empirical sociologists, studying under Park, described the effects of urbanization on immigrant and rural newcomers to the city, and the emergence of “urbanization as a way of life.” Works such as The Polish Peasant in

Europe and America, The Ghetto, The Jack Roller-, and The Gold Coast and the Slum are minor classics describing the effects of urbanization. [29].


However, it remained for Louis Wirth (1897-1952), a student of Park, to consolidate and expressly formulate how the size, density, and heterogeneous nature of cities produce a unique urban way of life. Wirth’s essay “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” although much challenged, remains the most influential essay in urban studies.’ Wirth suggested that large cities inevitably produce a host of changes that, although economically productive, are destructive of family life and close social interaction. Wirth’s ideas are examined in detail in Chapter 7: Urban Lifestyles.


For now, however, let us temporarily put aside the questions of the social psychology of city living and focus our primary attention on the spatial and social organization of urban places. We will begin our discussion of the urbanization process by examining how and why cities have come into existence.



As the 21st century progresses, the world is changing from one that always has been mostly rural to one that is majority urban. Cities have only existed for 7,000 to 10,000 years, but what we call “civilization” is the record of that period. At the beginning of the 20th century, 86 percent of the globe’s inhabitants were rural. Today most are urban. We are now in a period of explosive urban growth, with the globe having 414 cities of at least a million inhabitants.

Dramatic urban growth in the developing world is largely a postwar phenomenon, but today over nine-tenths of the world’s urban growth is in developing countries, much of it in megacities.


Urban places can be defined on the basis of having an urban culture (a cultural definition), administrative function (a political definition), the percentage of the population in nonagricultural occupations (an economic definition), or on the basis of population size and concentration (a demographic definition). The latter is most commonly used and indicates that the percentage of urban population varies from a low of 5 percent in Rwanda to 100 percent in Kuwait and Singapore.


The term urbanization refers to the proportion of persons living in urban places, while urbanism refers to the social-psychological aspects or ways of life found in cities. Urbanism as a way of life has permeated even the most rural areas of North America. Social theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century focused on how moving from rural to urban places changes people’s economic behavior, social customs, and family organization.


These changes, as discussed by theorists such as Ferdinand Tonnies, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel, were commonly presented as dichotomous models called ideal types. The ideal types commonly contrasted a simpler and more personal rural past with a complex and impersonal urban future.


Urban research (and most sociological research) prior to World War II is associated with urban sociologists at the University of Chicago known collectively as the “Chicago School.” Their research was wide ranging but had at its


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core the study of the impact of urbanization on urban newcomers and the development of an urban social culture or urbanism as a way of life.



  1. How have urban growth patterns changed over the last two centuries?
  2. How has the proportion of the world’s population living in cities changed over the last century?
  3. Where on the globe is virtually all contemporary urban growth (the so-called Urban Explosion) taking place?
  4. Where did most urban growth occur a century ago?
  5. What criteria do different countries use to define urban areas?
  6. What is the difference between urbanization and urbanism?
  7. Ecological and political economy models or approaches both focus on what level of analysis and questions?
  8. Urbanism as a way of life focuses on what level of analysis and questions?
  9. Who were some of the major European social theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century and how did their typologies explain urban change?
  10. What was the focus of the Chicago School scholars, and how did they change urban sociology?



  1. As of 1800, only 1.7 percent of the world’s population resided in places of 100,000 people or more, 2.4 percent in places of 20,000 or more, and 3 percent in communities of 5,000 or more. Philip Hauser and Leo Schnore (eds.), The Study of Urbanization, New York, 1965, p. 7.
  2. 2010 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau, Washington, D.C., 2010.
  3. Adna Ferrinyeber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1899, Table 3.
  4. For data for cities in earlier eras see, Tertius Chandler and Gerald Fox, 3,000 Years of Urban Growth, Academic Press, New York, 1974.
  5. United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revisions. United Nations, New York, 2010.
  6. 2006 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau, Washington, D.C., 2006.
  7. Robert E. Park, “The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment,” in Robert E. Park, E.W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie (eds.), The City, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1925.
  8. Martin P. Brockerhoff, “An Urbanizing World,” Population Bulletin, Population Reference Bureau, Washington, D.C., September 2000, p. 6.
  9. 2010 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau, Washington, D.C., 2010.
  10. Hope Tisdale Eldridge, “The Process of Urbanization,” in J. J. Spengler and 0. D. Duncan (eds.), Demographic Analysis, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill., 1956, pp. 338-43.
  11. Leo Schnore, “Urbanization and Economic Development: The Demographic Contribution,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 23:37-48, 1964.
  12. Brian J. L. Berry, “The Counterurbanization Process: Urban America since 1970,” in Urbanization and Counterurbanization, Vol. II: Urban Affairs Annual Reviews, Sage, Beverly Hills, Calif., 1976, pp. 17-39.
  13. Louis Wirth, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24, July 1938.
  14. Ibid., p. 8.
  15. Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman, Small Town in Mass Society, Princeton University Press,Princeton, NJ., 1958.
  16. Mark Gottdiener and Joe Feagin, “The Paradigm Shift in Urban Sociology,” Urban Affairs Quarterly (2412): 163-187, 1988; Ray Hutchinson, “The Crisis in Urban Sociology,” in Ray Hutchinson (ed.), Research in Urban Sociology, JAI Press, Greenwich, Conn., 1993, p. 3-26; David A. Smith, “The New Urban Sociology Meets the Old: Rereading Some Classical Human Ecology,” Urban Affairs Review 30(3):432-457, 1995.


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