City Essay

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Cities were a feature of all the great ancient civilizations. Relatively small by modern standards, they, nevertheless, facilitated a far more diverse range of activities than was possible in other forms of human settlement. The city and the urban way of life that accompanies it, however, inasmuch as they have interested sociologists, are of more recent origin and are closely linked to the rise of industrialism.

In the nineteenth century, the city and urbanism began to exert a powerful fascination upon social theorists and sociologists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw the rise of the city as an integral part of human development and they recognized, as did Max Weber, that differing cultural and historical conditions lead to different types of cities. In addition, however, they argued that the human condition that is experienced in cities is the product of economic structure. Engels went so far as to examine the human condition of the working class in nineteenth-century Manchester in what has come to be seen as a pioneering exercise in social inquiry.

Ferdinand Tonnies drew an unfavorable contrast between the social bonds that are experienced in rural societies (Gemeinschaft) with the much weaker ties that are common to towns and cities (Gesellschaft). This pessimistic view of life in the city was shared by Georg Simmel who regarded the unique characteristic of the modern city as the intensification of nervous stimuli contrasting with the slower, more habitual and even quality of rural existence. Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, whilst acknowledging that city life brings with it impersonality, alienation, and the potential for conflict, also believed that the organic solidarity that emerges in the city can be the basis of a deeper form of social cohesion than that of mechanical solidarity found in pre-urban societies.

The industrial age made urban centers increasingly attractive to immigrants, both internal, from the rural hinterland, and external, from other parts of the world. As a consequence, all modern industrial societies became heavily urbanized and since the second half of the twentieth century, globalization has also become a growing influence on the social transformation of developing countries.

In this period, cities have become the centers of economic, industrial, and political power. For some social commentators, cities are dynamic, full of creative energy and offering a previously unknown range of diverse opportunities. For others, they are infernal places, characterized by violence, crime, corruption, and ill-health. More realistically, they are a blend of the attributes that are indicated at both ends of this spectrum. What is undeniable, however, is that they are unequal and divided social spaces that have continued throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries to be the objects of sociological analysis and research.

The study of cities has involved focusing on the built environment, on the social life of urban people and on the relationship between the two. A hugely significant work in this respect was The Death and Life of Great American Cities written in 1961 by Jane Jacobs. However, the origins of urban sociology can be traced to the work of the Chicago School in the 1920s and 1930s. Robert E. Park was the founder of an ecological approach which likened cities to biological organisms. Many subsequent studies of cities have been influenced by this approach even though its emphasis on the natural development of the city ignores the importance of economic and political decisions about planning.

Louis Wirth was responsible for introducing the idea of urbanism as a way of life. Extending the concerns of earlier social thinkers, he argued that in cities people may live in close proximity but they do not truly know each other. Weak social bonds, a more frenetic pace of life and the centrality of competition rather than cooperation characterize their lives. Despite Wirth s undoubted influence, it has been suggested that both he and Park were overly affected by their experiences of North American cities. Indeed, even in the USA at the time they were writing, although arguably less so today, it was possible to find close-knit communities resembling villages which helped to preserve ethnic difference even in huge ethnically diverse cities such as Chicago itself and New York.

There is no doubt, however, that the idea of life in the city as being a distinctive form of human existence has continued to figure in sociological debate. Indeed, this belief has intensified with the emergence of what is generally known as the post-industrial city. Since it was previously thought that the modern city and industrialism are inextricably linked, the idea of a city with very little industrial activity has proved difficult to understand.

More recent major contributors to the sociological understanding of the city include Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and Manuel Castells. Like Simmel, Lefebvre was interested in the relationship between the social space of the city and the mental life of its citizens. In addition, he sought to demonstrate the extent to which urbanization in and of itself has come to replace industrialization as the key determinant of capitalist accumulation. For Harvey and Castells, however, the city remains a product of industrial capitalism rather than its major driving force. More specifically, according to Harvey, industrial capitalism continually restructures space and, for that reason, urbanism has been an important product — arguably the most visible product — of industrialization. For Castells, the spatial form of the city is bound up with the overall mechanism of its development. That is to say, he does not regard the city solely as a distinct location but also as an integral part of the entire process of collective consumption. In such ways has the sociological debate moved from seeing cities as natural spatial processes to socially and physically constructed features of the social and economic systems of power.

Theoretical considerations have arguably underpinned most emerging concerns within the overall study of the city. These include suburbanization, inner city decay, urban conflict, urban renewal (including gentrification and civic boosterism) and spatially identifiable inequalities. Sharon Zukin, for example, has powerfully demonstrated the ways in which access to ”public spaces in modern cities is increasingly controlled. Studies have also taken into account the relationship between globalization and the city, including the emergence of what are described as global cities, the rapid growth of cities in the developing world and the city as the agent of consumer capitalism.


  1. Castells, M. (1977) The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach. Edward Arnold, London.
  2. Harvey, D. (1973) Social Justice and the City. Edward Arnold, London.
  3. Jacobs, J. (1992) The Death and Life ofGreat American Cities. Vintage Books, New York.
  4. Lefebvre, H. (2003) The Urban Revolution. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
  5. Short, J. F. Jr. (ed.) (1971) The Social Fabric of the Metropolis. Contributions of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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