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, environmental processes,
changes and problems of an urban area and by doing so provide inputs
for urban 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 and economic
The philosophical foundations of modern urban sociology originate from
the work of sociologists such as Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile
Max Weber and
Georg Simmel who studied and theorized the
economic, social and cultural processes of urbanization and its
effects on social alienation, class formation, and the production or
destruction of collective and individual identities.
These theoretical foundations were further expanded upon and analyzed
by a group of sociologists and researchers who worked at the
Chicago in the early twentieth century. In what became
known as the
Chicago School of sociology the work of Robert Park,
Louis Wirth and
Ernest Burgess on the inner city of Chicago
revolutionized the purpose of urban research in sociology but also the
development of human geography through its use of quantitative and
ethnographic research methods. The importance of the theories
developed by the
Chicago School within urban sociology have been
critically sustained and critiqued but still remain one of the most
significant historical advancements in understanding urbanization and
the city within the social sciences.
1 Development and rise of urban sociology
2 Evolution of urban sociology
4 See also
5.2 Further reading
Development and rise of urban sociology
Chicago school (sociology)
Urban sociology rose to prominence within the academy in North America
through a group of sociologists and theorists at the University of
Chicago from 1915 to 1940 in what became known as the
of Sociology. The
Chicago School of
Sociology combined sociological
and anthropological theory with ethnographic fieldwork in order to
understand how individuals interact within urban 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 sought to answer a single
question: how did an increase in urbanism during the time of the
Industrial Revolution contribute to the magnification of contemporary
social problems? Sociologists centered on
Chicago due to its 'tabula
rasa' state, having expanded from a small town of 10,000 in 1860 to an
urban metropolis of over two million in the next half-century. Along
with this expansion came many of the era's emerging social problems -
ranging from issues with concentrated homelessness and harsh living
conditions to the low wages and long hours that characterized the work
of the many newly arrived European immigrants. 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
distinct 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 upon the
transmission of immigrants' native culture roles and norms into new
and developing environments. Political participation and the rise in
inter-community organizations were also frequently covered in this
period, with many metropolitan areas adopting census techniques that
allowed for information to be stored and easily accessed by
participating institutions such as the University of Chicago. Park,
Burgess and McKenzie, professors at the University of
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 becomes marked by high levels of social
disorganization that prevent local ties from being established and
maintained in local political arenas.
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 along with
other burgeoning social sciences. Micro-sociology courses at the
Chicago were among the earliest and most prominent
courses on urban sociological research in the United States.
Evolution of urban sociology
Further information: Social network
The evolution and transition of sociological theory from the Chicago
School began to emerge in the 1970s with the publication of Claude
Fischer's (1975) "Toward a Theory of Subculture Urbanism" which
incorporated Bourdieu's theories on social capital and symbolic
capital within the invasion and succession framework of the Chicago
School in explaining how cultural groups form, expand and solidify a
neighbourhood. The theme of transition by subcultures and groups
within the city was further expanded by Barry Wellman's (1979) "The
Community Question: The Intimate Networks of East Yorkers" which
determined the function and position of the individual, institution
and community in the urban landscape in relation to their community.
Wellman's categorization and incorporation of community focused
theories as "Community Lost", "Community Saved", and "Community
Liberated" which center around the structure of the urban community in
shaping interactions between individuals and facilitating active
participation in the local community are explained in detail below:
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,
sociologists such as
Alejandro Portes and the
Wisconsin model of
sociological research began 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
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 and urban geographers such as Harvey
Molotov, David Harvey and Neil Smith began to study the structure and
revitalization of the most impoverished areas of the inner city. In
their research, impoverished neighborhoods, which often rely on
tightly-knit local ties for economic and social support, were found to
be targeted by developers for gentrification which displaced residents
living within these communities. 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 spurred by rising land values and
inter-urban competition between cities in as a means to attract
capital investment.  The interaction between inner-city
dwellers and middle class passersby in such settings has also been a
topic of study for urban sociologists.
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 an
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.
William Julius Wilson has
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.The urban sociological theory
is viewed as one important aspect of sociology.
Bibliography of sociology
Index of urban studies articles
Garden city movement
List of urban sociology topics
Sociology of architecture
Sociology of space
^ Dictionary reference
^ Martin, D.G., "
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M. Watts and S. Whatmore, eds., The Dictionary of Human Geography,
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^ Flanagan, W., Contemporary Urban
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^ Trepl, L., City and Ecology Capitalism Nature Socialism: Volume 7,
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^ Burgess, E., "The growth of the city: an introduction to a research
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^ Wellman, B., The Community Question: The Intimate Networks of East
Yorkers American Journal of Sociology: Volume 84, Number 4, 1979.
^ Granovetter, M., "The Strength of Weak Ties", American Journal of
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^ Portes, A., and Sensenbrenner, J.,"Embeddedness and immigration:
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^ Oliver, E., Democracy in Suburbia Connecticut: Princeton University
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^ Harvey, D., ""From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The
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