Claude S. Fischer “Theories of Urbanism”

Claude Fischer discusses three major theories of urbanism in the context of the way it transforms behaviors and the psychological effects on individuals. The first, deterministic theory is specific to the place in that its main tenet is that, unlike the rural environment, the urban environment increases social and psychological disorders. As theorized by Georg Simmel and subsequently Louis Wirth, increased stimuli (i.e., noise, lights, and people) inherent in the city can cause undue stress on individuals. In response, city dwellers adapt by withdrawing from interactions. What little interactions they do have are rational and unemotional and only serve as a means to and end. The avoidance of any interpersonal relations leads to fewer and fewer interactions and weakened network and kinship ties until the individual is alone and with out any support systems; all precursors to deteriorating social, mental and physical health.

The second theory of urbanism Fischer presents is compositional theory, which is specific to the people. Founding theorists Herbert Gans and Oscar Lewis posit that rather than the ecological environment, such as size and density, nonecological characteristics, such as class, ethnicity, family structure, diminish social and psychological health. Ecological impacts are regarded when they indirectly alter the social composition. For instance, redrawing district maps so that a disproportionate of lower class citizens now inhabit the same zone could have consequence for the amount of resources available to them, thereby leaving people unprotected, vulnerable, and possibly isolated.

Fischer’s subcultural theory, the final theory in urbanism discussed here, posits that the phenomena of critical mass characteristic in urban society can give rise to new subcultures. Similar to compositional theory, subcultural theory promotes the idea that urbanism strengthens social life rather than destroying it. Strong social ties persist, in spite of urbanism, and actually flourish into new and diverse subcultures. In fact, subcultures typically cannot survive anywhere other than a large urban city as a subculture requires a large enough interest base. However, subcultural theory argues that contact between different subcultures can cause friction and ignite social disorder. Again, like compositional theory, social disorder is not directly created by urbanism, but instead by proxy.

I can find credence in compositional theory thought; spatially determined structures would probably have very little bearing on your social and mental health status if you had sufficient money to sustain you and your happy family and were not a subjugated member of society. While remembering Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I wonder how anyone living in an industrialized American city in the early 20th century could have a healthy psyche, but Jurgis’ urban mileu had little to do with the size and density and more to do with ethnicity, power and class.

One thought on “Claude S. Fischer “Theories of Urbanism”

  • September 9, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Good summary!
    Just a couple of notes;
    Fisher, Claude “Theories of Urbanism”
    In this article Fisher while rehashing the definitions of conceptualizing Determinist Theory and Compositional Theory provides a type of paradigm shift from earlier understandings/studies of urbanization and urbanism and introduces subcultures into the understanding of urbanism. While reviewing the historical origins of studies on urban environment Fisher points out what appears to have been overlooked or over analyzed by past Urban Sociologist. He does utilize some of the concepts of past urban scholars but redefines (Broadens) some of the concepts. He provides a great summary and critique of the historical (Classic) theorist e.g. Marx, Simmel, Wirth, Durkheim and Tönnies, which he claims assisted in the formation of the determinist approach to urban theory.
    In the spirit of Parks, Fisher states that subculture theory and urbanism produce the “mosaic of little worlds, which touch but don’t not interpenetrate. People (migrants) bring with them to the city a variety of cultural backgrounds that form into a diverse set of social worlds and that due to the critical mass of people institutionalize specialization occurred along with special interest groups. Fisher claims that urbanism intensifies subcultures in two ways, the first being based off of critical mass and the second due to the intensification results from contacts between subcultures. He gives examples of different races/ethnicities interacting and potentially feeling offended which results in those individuals embracing their own social world more firmly (intensely). He concludes with stating that “subcultural theory is thus a synthesis of the determinist and compositional theories, like the compositional approach, it argues that urbanism does not produce mental collapse, anomie, or interpersonal estrangement, that urbanities at least as much as ruralites are integrated into viable social worlds” (p. 49). He also recognizes that urbanism does have consequences on the population.
    We could currently think of the “Black Lives Matter” movement as a subculture of vested individuals who have come together to rally for a change in the Criminal Justice Structure of things. Another subculture that is questioning the status quo is also the “LBGT” movement, which has been successful in getting gay marriage to become the law of the land.

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