Urban Sociology

Urban Sociology

Urban sociology is the sociological study of life and human interaction in metropolitan areas. It is a normative discipline of sociology seeking to study the structures, processes, changes and problems of an urban area and by doing so provide inputs for planning and policy making. In other words it is the sociological study of cities and their role in the development of society.  Like most areas of sociology, urban sociologists use statistical analysis, observation, social theory, interviews, and other methods to study a range of topics, including migration and demographic trends, economics, poverty, race relations, economic trends, etc.

After the industrial revolution, sociologists such as Max Weber, and particularly Georg Simmel in works such as The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), focused on the increasing process of urbanization and the effects it had on feelings of social alienation and anonymity.

The Chicago School (a group of sociologists who studied the built urban environment in Chicago through the early 20th century) is a major influence in the study of urban sociology. Many of their findings have been refined or rejected, but the lasting impact of the Chicago School can still be found in today's teachings about urban sociology.

 

Development and rise of urban sociology

Urban sociology rose to prominence in the wake of the formation of the Chicago School during the 1920s, a field of sociology that combined sociological and anthropological theory with ethnographic fieldwork to understand how individuals interact within social systems.  Unlike the primarily macro-based sociology that had marked earlier subfields, members of the Chicago School placed greater emphasis on micro-scale social interactions that sought to provide subjective meaning to how humans interact under structural, cultural and social conditions. The theory of symbolic interaction, the basis through which many methodologically-groundbreaking ethnographies were framed in this period, took primitive shape alongside urban sociology and shaped its early methodological leanings. Symbolic interaction was forged out of the writings of early micro-sociologists George Mead and Max Weber, and sought to frame how individuals interpret symbols in everyday interactions. With early urban sociologists framing the city as a 'superorganism', the concept of symbolic interaction aided in parsing out how individual communities contribute to the seamless functioning of the city itself. 

Scholars of the Chicago School originally focused around one integral question: how did an increase in urbanism during the time of the Industrial Revolution contribute to the magnification of then-contemporary social problems? Sociologists centered in Chicago due to its 'tabula rasa' state, having expanded from a small town of 10,000 in 1860 to a urban metropolis of two million in the next half-decade. Along with this expansion came many of the era's emerging social problems, ranging from issues with centralized homelessness and poor living conditions to the low-wage and long-hour work periods that many European immigrants faced upon arrival in the city. Furthermore, unlike many other metropolitan areas, Chicago did not expand outward at the edges as predicted by early expansionist theorists, but instead 'reformatted' the space available in a concentric ring pattern. As with many modern cities the business district occupied the city center and was surrounded by slum and blighted neighborhoods, which were further surrounded by workingmens' homes and the early forms of the modern suburbs. Urban theorists suggested that these spatially-defined regions helped to solidify and isolate class relations within the modern city, moving the middle class away from the urban core and into the privatized environment of the outer suburbs. 

Due to the high concentration of first-generation immigrant families in the inner city of Chicago during the early 20th century, many prominent early studies in urban sociology focused around the effects of carrying culture roles and norms into new and developing environments. Political participation and the rise in inter-community organizations were also highly covered in this period, with many metropolitan areas adopting census techniques that allowed for information to be stored and easily accessible by participating institutions such as the University of Chicago. Park, Burgess and McKenzie, professors at the University of Chicago and three of the earliest proponents of urban sociology, developed the Subculture Theories, which helped to explain the often-positive role of local institutions on the formation of community acceptance and social ties.  When race relations break down and expansion renders one's community members anonymous, as was proposed to be occurring in this period, the inner-city was marked by high levels of social disorganization that prevented local ties from being established and maintained in local political arenas. Furthermore, the rise of urban sociology coincided with the expansion of statistical inference in the behavioural sciences, which helped ease its transition and acceptance in educational institutions among with other burgeoning social sciences. Micro sociology courses at the University of Chicago became some of the first and most prominent sociological research courses in the United States.

 

Expansion of urban sociology

Sociological theory regarding the function of the individual, institution and community in the urban landscape has passed through three general stages. These theories have generally centered around the structure of the urban community in shaping interactions between individuals and facilitating active participation in the local community.

- Community Lost: The earliest of the three theories, this concept was developed in the late 19th century to account for the rapid development of industrial patterns that seemingly caused rifts between the individual and their local community. Urbanites were claimed to hold networks that were “impersonal, transitory and segmental”, maintaining ties in multiple social networks while at the same time lacking the strong ties that bound them to any specific group. This disorganization in turn caused members of urban communities to subsist almost solely on secondary affiliations with others, and rarely allowed them to rely on other members of the community for assistance with their needs.

- Community Saved: A critical response to the community lost theory that developed during the 1960s, the community saved argument suggests that multistranded ties often emerge in sparsely-knit communities as time goes on, and that urban communities often possess these strong ties, albeit in different forms. Especially among low-income communities, individuals have a tendency to adapt to their environment and pool resources in order to protect themselves collectively against structural changes. Over time urban communities have tendencies to become “urban villages”, where individuals possess strong ties with only a few individuals that connect them to an intricate web of other urbanities within the same local environment.

- Community Liberated: A cross-section of the community lost and community saved arguments, the community liberated theory suggests that the separation of workplace, residence and familial kinship groups has caused urbanites to maintain weak ties in multiple community groups that are further weakened by high rates of residential mobility. However, the concentrated number of environments present in the city for interaction increase the likelihood of individuals developing secondary ties, even if they simultaneously maintain distance from tightly-knit communities. Primary ties that offer the individual assistance in everyday life form out of sparsely-knit and spatially dispersed interactions, with the individual's access to resources dependent on the quality of the ties they maintain within their community. 

Along with the development of these theories, urban sociologists have increasingly begun to study the differences between the urban, rural and suburban environment within the last half-century. Consistent with the community liberated argument, researchers have in large part found that urban residents tend to maintain more spatially-dispersed networks of ties than rural or suburban residents. Among lower-income urban residents, the lack of mobility and communal space within the city often disrupts the formation of social ties and lends itself to creating an unintegrated and distant community space. While the high density of networks within the city weakens relations between individuals, it increases the likelihood that at least one individual within a network can provide the primary support found among smaller and more tightly-knit networks. Since the 1970s, research into social networks has focused primarily on the types of ties developed within residential environments. Bonding ties, common of tightly-knit neighborhoods, consist of connections that provide an individual with primary support, such as access to income or upward mobility among a neighborhood organization. Bridging ties, in contrast, are the ties that weakly connect strong networks of individuals together. A group of communities concerned about the placement of a nearby highway may only be connected through a few individuals that represent their views at a community board meeting, for instance. 

However, as theory surrounding social networks has developed, theorists have begun placing increased leverage on the importance of these weak ties. While strong ties are necessary for providing residents with primary services and a sense of community, weak ties bring together elements of different cultural and economic landscapes in solving problems affecting a great number of individuals. As theorist Eric Oliver notes, neighborhoods with vast social networks are also those that most commonly rely on heterogeneous support in problem solving, and are also the most politically active. 

As the suburban landscape developed during the 20th century and the outer city became a refuge for the wealthy and, later, the burgeoning middle class, sociologists began to study the structure and revitalization of the most impoverished areas of the inner city. Impoverished neighborhoods, which often rely on tightly-knit local ties for economic and social support, are often targeted by developers for gentrification and highway extension, which in many cases displaces residents living within. Political experimentation in providing these residents with semi-permanent housing and structural support, ranging from Section 8 housing* to Community Development Block Grant programs*, have in many cases eased the transition of low-income residents into stable housing and employment. Yet research covering the social impact of forced movement among these residents has noted the difficulties individuals often have with maintaining a level of economic comfort, which is often spurred by rising land values and transient movement. A great deal of urban planning research currently centers around the impact that government-sponsored programs make on low-income urban residents.

Criticism

Many theories in urban sociology have been criticized, most prominently directed toward the ethnocentric approaches taken by many early theorists that lay groundwork for urban studies throughout the 20th century. Early theories that sought to frame the city as a adaptable “superorganism” often disregarded the intricate roles of social ties within local communities, suggesting that the urban environment itself rather than the individuals living within it controlled the spread and shape of the city. For impoverished inner-city residents, the role of highway planning policies and other government-spurred initiatives instituted by the planner Robert Moses and others have been criticized as unsightly and unresponsive to residential needs. The slow development of empirically-based urban research reflects the failure of local urban governments to adapt and ease the transition of local residents to the short-lived industrialization of the city. 

Some modern social theorists have also been critical toward the apparent shortsightedness that urban sociologists have shown toward the role of culture in the inner city. James Julius Wilson criticized theory developed throughout the middle of the twentieth century as relying primarily on structural roles of institutions, and not how culture itself affects common aspects of inner-city life such as poverty. The distance shown toward this topic, he argues, presents an incomplete picture of inner-city life.

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