urban sociology

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urban sociology

The study of social relationships and structures in the city. It is a subdiscipline of sociology whose development has been influenced by debate about the distinctiveness of its subject matter, by the willingness of researchers to adopt cross-disciplinary approaches, and by a social-problem orientation which has fostered research outside of the mainstream of intellectual change in sociology.

Early sociological writing about the city located the urban dimension within the broader compass of sociological theorizing. TÖNNIES, SIMMEL and WEBER in the 1890s addressed such issues as the characteristic forms of association and social life in urban environments, and the role of urban development in social change. With the establishment of the CHICAGO SCHOOL of sociologists in the 1920s, urban studies emerged as a distinct area of research. Focusing upon the issues of social order and organization, members of the Chicago school conducted empirical research into the social characteristics of different areas within the city. For example, research on the ZONE OF TRANSITION (the area bordering the central business district characterized by high levels of migration, social heterogeneity and poor housing stock) explored the relationships between the incidence of social problems such as crime, mental illness, alcoholism and social cohesion. Urban sociology demonstrated that:

  1. socioeconomic factors were more significant than geographical or environmental factors in the genesis of social problems; and that
  2. meaning and social order exist in areas of apparent disorganization (see W. Whyte's study of Boston street-corner boys, Street Corner Society, 1955).

Although the Chicago school established a rich empirical tradition, its theoretical deficiencies led to a decline in urban sociology between the 1940s and 1960s with the exception of a number of community studies showing urban neighbourhoods to have forms of association commonly associated with rural communities (Gans, 1962, called them ‘urban villages’). The theoretical poverty of the rural/urban typologies and the metropolitanization of society left urban sociology indistinguishable from the sociological analysis of advanced, industrial, capitalist societies. However, in the late 1960s urban sociology was revived under the influence of a new generation of (a) Weberian and (b) Marxist scholars:

  1. J. Rex and R. Moore published a study of housing and race relations in Sparkbrook, Birmingham (Race, Community and Conflict, 1967) which combined Burgess's insights into the dynamics of the zone of transition with Weber's ideas about the sociological significance of the meaningful actions of individuals. This work relocated urban sociology within the sociological mainstream and in turn stimulated discussion of Weberian stratification theory through the concept of the housing class. Because the housing market is structured around different forms of tenure it gives rise to new status groups or consumption classes whose interests do not necessarily coincide with economic class interests. Housing is a scarce resource whose distribution is influenced by a political group which Pahl termed urban managers. The degree of autonomy they possess vis-à-vis the central state, private capital and the local consumer of social goods is an empirical question, but according to Pahl their operations give rise to forms of social inequality and political struggle which are independent of the sphere of production;
  2. Marxist work on the city began with a critique of urban sociology as ideology. Lefebvre (1967) argued that urban sociology was an apology for capitalism because it failed to examine the ways in which space is actually produced and distributed in capitalist societies. Space is itself a commodity, a scarce and alienable resource, in this view. The contradictions between profit and need, exchange and use-value, the individual versus the collective, are exemplified by the conflicting need of capital to exploit space for profit and the social requirements of the people. CASTELLS, although a Marxist, begins his analysis (The Urban Question, 1977) with the conventional interest in spatially significant social phenomena, but he does not regard space as such as a theoretically important issue. What is significant is the role of the urban system in the mode of production. Castells concentrates upon the reproduction of LABOUR POWER which he sees as being increasingly concentrated within particular spatial units where the provision of social goods and services is dependent upon the state. Centralization of services results in the collectivization of consumption. He sees the city as an important element in the struggle against capitalism because urban crises cut across class boundaries and give rise to social movements with a specifically urban base which can in turn create the conditions for new political alliances. These ideas stimulated discussion of COLLECTIVE CONSUMPTION, an underdeveloped concept in Marx's work, and the political economy of housing and rents. Marxist critics (Pickvance, 1976; Harvey 1973) have argued that these approaches must not replace class struggle with consumption and accumulation as the main factors in the analysis of capitalism.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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