Urban Sociology Research Paper

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As the cutting edge of change, cities are important for interpreting societies. Momentous changes in nineteenth-century cities led theorists to explore their components. The French word for place (bourg), and its residents (bourgeois), became central concepts for Karl Marx (1818-1883). Markets and commerce emerged in cities where “free air” ostensibly fostered innovation. Industrial capitalists thus raised capital and built factories near cities, hiring workers “free” from the feudal legal hierarchy. For Marx, workers were proletarians and a separate economic class, whose interests conflicted with the bourgeoisie. Class conflicts drove history. Max Weber’s (1864-1920) The City (1921) built on this legacy but added legitimacy, bureaucracy, the Protestant ethic, and political parties in transforming cities. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) similarly reasoned historically, contrasting traditional villages with modern cities in his Division of Labor (1893), where multiple professional groups integrated their members by enforcing norms on them.

British and American work was more empirical. British and American churches and charitable groups that were concerned with the urban poor sponsored many early studies. When sociology entered universities around 1900, urban studies still focused on inequality and the poor. Robert Park (1864-1944) and many students at the University of Chicago thus published monographs on such topics as The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929), a sociological study of Chicago’s near north side by Harvey Warren Zorbaugh (1896-1965).

The 1940s and 1950s saw many efforts to join these European theories with the British and American empirical work. Floyd Hunter published Community Power Structure (1953), an Atlanta-based monograph that stressed the business dominance of cities, broadly following Marx. Robert Dahl’s Who Governs? (1961) was more Weberian, stressing multiple issue areas of power and influence (like mayoral elections versus schools), the indirect role of citizens via elections, and multiple types of resources (money, votes, media, coalitions) that shifted how basic economic categories influenced politics. These became the main ideas in power analyses across the social sciences.

Parisian theorists like Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), and Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) suggested that the language and symbols of upper-status persons dominated lower-status persons. Others, such as Jean Baudrillard, pushed even further to suggest that each person was so distinct that theories should be similarly individualized. He and others labeled their perspective postmodernism to contrast with mainstream science, which they suggested reasoned in a linear, external, overly rational manner. Urban geographers like David Harvey joined postmodernist themes with concepts of space to suggest a sea change in architecture, planning, and aesthetics, as well as in theorizing, although Harvey’s main analytical driver is global capitalism.

Saskia Sassen starts from global capitalism but stresses local differences in such “world cities” as New York, London, and Tokyo. Why these? Because the headquarters of global firms are there, with “producer services” that advise major firms, and market centers where sophisticated legal and financial transactions are spawned. Individual preferences enter, via global professionals and executives who like big-city living, but hire nannies and chauffeurs, attracting global migrants, which increases (short-term, within city) inequality. Some affluent persons create gated housing, especially in areas with high crime and kidnapping, like Latin America.

These past theories stress work and production. A new conceptualization adds consumption. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) theorized that the flaneur drove the modern capitalist economy, by shopping. Typified by the top-hatted gentleman in impressionist paintings, the flaneur pursued his aesthetic sensitivities, refusing standardized products. Mall rats continue his quest.

Theories have grown more bottom-up than top-down, as have many cities, although this is controversial, as some capital and corporations are increasingly global. The father of bottom-up theory is Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), whose Democracy in America (1835-1840) stressed community associations like churches. Linked to small and autonomous local governments, these associations gave (ideally) citizens the ability to participate meaningfully in decisions affecting them. Such experiences built networks of social relations and taught values of participation, democracy, and trust.

In the late twentieth century, Tocqueville and civic groups became widely debated as nations declined and cities competed for investors, residents, and tourists. With the cold war over, globalization encourages more cross-national travel, communication, investment, and trade. Local autonomy rose. But nations declined in their delivery of egalitarian welfare benefits, since ideal standards are increasingly international. “Human rights” is a new standard. Yet the world is too large to implement the most costly specifics, even if they remain political goals.

Over the twentieth century, many organizations shifted from the hierarchical and centralized to the smaller and more participatory. The community power literature from Hunter (1953) to Dahl (1961) and beyond suggests a decline in the “monolithic” city governance pattern that Hunter described in Atlanta. Dahl documented a more participatory, “pluralistic” decision-making process, where multiple participants combine and “pyramid” their “resources” to shift decisions in separate “issue areas.”

New social movements (NSMs) emerged in the 1970s, extending past individualism and egalitarianism and joining consumption and lifestyle to the classic production issues of unions and parties. These new civic groups pressed new agendas—ecology, feminism, peace, gay rights—that older political parties ignored. In Europe, the national state and parties were the hierarchical “establishment” opposed by NSMs. In the United States, local business and political elites were more often targeted. Other aesthetic and amenity concerns have also arisen— like suburban sprawl, sports stadiums, and parks; these divide people less into rich versus poor than did class and party politics.

Comparative studies emerged after the 1980s of thousands of cities around the world. They have documented the patterns discussed above, and generally show that citizens and leaders globally are more decentralized, egalitarian, and participatory. The New Political Culture (1998), edited by Terry Nichols Clark and Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, charts these new forms of public decisions and active citizen-leader contacts via NSMs, consumption issues, focused groups, block clubs, cable-television coverage of local associations, and Internet groups. Global competition among cities and weaker nations makes it harder to preserve national welfare-state benefits. This encourages more income inequalities, individualism, and frustrated egalitarianism, which is registered in higher crime rates, divorce, and low trust. As strong national governments withdraw, regional and ethnic violence rises (e.g., in the former Soviet Union or diverse cities like Miami). Voter turnout for elections organized by the classical national parties (which still control local candidate selection in most of the world) thus declined, while new issue-specific community associations mushroomed in the late twentieth century. Urbanism has become global, carried by civic groups, diffused by the Internet, and operating in more subtle ways than past theories proposed.


  1. Clark, Terry Nichols, and Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, eds. 1998. The New Political Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  2. Dahl, Robert A. [1961] 2005. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Hunter, Floyd. 1953. Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. Durham: University of North Carolina Press.

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