“The Metropolis and Mental Life”
Communities are wherever people are. One could argue that a community could be formed between two people and a resilient fungus on the planet Mars. According to Georg Simmel communities are not the focus, nor is it apart of the fundamental focus of the individual, independence is. Simmel argues that life in the metropolis, or the experience of living life in a city, is all about the individual and her, or his, adjustment to the many complex elements of city life: “The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli (11).”
He goes on to describe some of the conditions of the city. According to Simmel the metropolis is established, or erected, to support the economic functioning of the capitalist model. Essentially, cities are the hub of a capitalist economy; a city’s function is to house both the traded goods, or some aspect of goods production and, most importantly, it is the almost literal representation of the capitalist “piggy bank”. The metropolis is the physical representation of an economic money shelter for capitalism—people just happen to live there.
In fact, Simmel points out that one of the greatest challenges on the individual in terms of city life is the tacit knowledge that the individual is just not as important as the traded good, or the money produced from the traded good in the economic hub known as the metropolis. It puts me in mind of an experience I had growing up in the city, while travelling home from school after a late work-study day I noticed the visual difference between downtown and the inner city. Downtown, whether empty of the almost constant throng of people moving busily from one important place to another, or full, was almost always clean, or at least cleaner than most parts of the inner city. As I got older I also noticed the subtle differences in city planning, and aestheticism. The financial district, though sterile in its construction, was also clean and streamlined. It was aesthetically pleasing in a detached and formal sort of way. The air of business and trade importance was palpable. The little concrete enclosed caged trees were faithfully watered and supported, and the trash was picked up daily.
Comparing the financial district to the inner city is akin to comparing apples to French fries. Aesthetically the inner city was what the residents made it, or so I thought as I was growing up, and oftentimes the residents were renters who could barely afford the amplified city rents let alone the time and money that would have been required to “beautify” the inner city in much the same way the city’s officials had invested in the beautification of places like the financial district. The argument here could be made that using beautification as a visual tool, it is obvious what is valued in the metropolis and what is not. The financial hub and its goings on is valued. The financial and business districts in most cities are places of importance, representing success and economic stability. Inner cities are where the people who work to keep downtown clean take themselves to rest and live another day to polish the great machine, or financial hub.
“Urbanism as a Way of Life”
Wirth writes about city life, or urbanism, in terms of study. He seeks to veer away from conjecture and limited observations of those experiencing city life, and in this way he seeks to define and almost operationalize the method of how city life, and elements of city life, should both be defined and studied: “In formulating a definition of the city it is necessary to exercise caution in order to avoid identifying urbanism as a way of life with any specific locally or historically conditioned cultural influences which, though they may significantly affect the specific character of the community, are not the essential determinants of its character as a city (34).” He describes a social sphere of close “physical contacts” but “distant social contacts” (36), where alienation, loose community ties, and social control –seemingly classic elements within the study of the social realm—are almost redefined and must be approached in study differently when studying ‘urbanites’. He found that ‘urbanites’ do have communities, and social networks, but that these groups are formed on an individual level through networking connections based on a common interest: “It is largely through activities of the voluntary groups, be their objectives economic, political, educational, religious, recreational, or cultural that the urbanite expresses and develops his personality, acquires status, and is able to carry on the round of activities that constitutes his life (40).”
“Community and Society”
Tonnies, similar to Wirth, addressed the question of community ties in the city, and more specifically social control. He begins by making the distinction between social order and laws, and comments on their implementation within communities. He states that social order is “based upon consensus of wills (17)” and is enforced largely through social interaction in the community and/or in community based institutions—such as the church. Laws are based on “convention and agreement, [and] is safeguarded by political legislation (17).” Since every social agreement cannot be a law, how then would some of the social controls established to protect individuals in the community, and the community itself, be reinforced—or even be created—in a society as diverse, independent, and loosely connected as a city? The answer: these social controls are not established as much, or as strongly, as they are established in towns, or non-urban communities. And it could be argued as well that local legislation within cities see this deficiency and seek to compensate for it by establishing more laws and legislation in an effort to protect the ‘urbanites’ that this level of compensation ultimately surpresses.
Lin, Jan and Mele, Christopher (Eds.) (2013). The Urban Sociology Reader (2nd ed).