Week 3

“Theories of Urbanism” [Claude S. Fischer]

In “Theories of Urbanism” Fischer seeks to define “urbanism” as a theory in order for it to be properly studied. He explains his view on theory development in terms of the following metaphor: “To begin a major study without a good theory or theories is like being dropped into a dark jungle with neither map nor compass (43).” In this case, the compass would be developing a theory of urbanism, and the map would be answering the question ‘what is urbanism’? In the past defining urbanism had been approached from four different directions, or viewpoints: demographic, institutional, cultural, and behavioral (43); Fischer points out that in doing this, in demographically defining urbanism, there would be a focus almost solely on defining a city in terms of the size and density of the population within certain demographic limits (43). To institutionally define urbanism would be to approach the idea of calling a place a city depending on there being certain institutions within its city limits (43). Similarly, to define a city culturally and behaviorally would necessitate a primary focus on what Fischer calls “cultural features” (44) for a cultural definition, and to focus on what Fischer refers to as “behavioral styles” (44) for a behavioral definition.

While defining urbanism in terms of its characteristics: demographics, institutions, cultures, and behaviors, had been highlighted by Fischer as being a method that seemed to be lacking in its range—meaning, simply defining urbanism by these characteristics alone would leave the true definition of urbanism and its experience almost hollow in its understanding—he chose to approach understanding urbanism by critiquing and comparing more encompassing theories: determinist theory, compositional (also known as neoecological) theory, and subcultural theory (44). Determinist theory, developed by Louis Wirth, focuses on defining urbanism in terms the psychology of urbanites and the social structure of the city. Ultimately it is argued that a defining characteristic of urbanism is an increase in mental and social instability as of urban dwellers as compared to rural inhabitants. Compositional theory addresses the make-up of communities as a defining characteristic of urbanism; the social and psychologically effects of urbanism are given little to no weight in this specific theory. And finally, subcultural theory appears to combine the two theories previously mentioned—compositional and determinist theory—to give a more complete picture of urbanism: “….[subcultural theory] adopts the basic orientation of the compositional school but holds that urbanism does have certain effects on people of the city…[there is] evidence of social disorganization (44).”

“The Uses of City Neighborhoods” [Jane Jacobs]

In “The Uses of City Neighborhoods” Jane Jacobs focused on the physical composition of a city and its effects on city organization and planning. More specifically, she views city planning as strategic and specific: there’s no one successful plan for a city, and the goal for the flow, or composition of a city should be toward smooth, or efficient, functioning. For Jacobs efficient functioning comes in the form of “self-government”: “Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government (51).” Jacob argues that the proper functioning of a city district can determine the success of a neighborhood. She views neighborhoods within cities sort of like “organs” (52) within a body. In fact, it could be argued that her views on the proper functioning of a city, and thus an urban neighborhood, is Durkheimian in nature—every part has its function, and the overall proper functioning of one aspect contributes to the proper functioning of the whole.

Jacob theorizes that successful self-government can occur when you have the proper functioning of: “…the city as a whole, street neighborhoods, [and] districts of large subcity size, composed of 100,000 people or more (52).” She argues that the dense populations of cities provides the numbers necessary for powerful districts, and that powerful districts control city planning and policy making. She also argues that dense populations alone do not decide the fate of cities, nor do they guarantee success. The proper mix of city planning, which results in actual district establishment, powerful networks, and money will decide how efficient, or inefficient a city, and thus the neighborhoods within it, will be. She recognizes that none of these aspects of the proper function of a city, and thus an urban neighborhood, could stand on its own. For example, you cannot have a successful district without the dense numbers to support it—votes matter: “But population size is vital because it represents, if most of the time only by implication, votes (53).” Similarly, votes can only get you so far when powerful social networks ultimately decide how the money is used once it reaches these densely populated districts: “The art of negating the power of votes with the power of money can be practiced just as effectively by honest public administrators as by dishonest representatives of purely private interests (54).”

There is an argument to be made here that a successful city functions on dense populations with powerful networks that enable the efficient functioning of localized self-government. Simple enough. About as simple as making a cake with all the necessary ingredients being required. Jacob refers to this complex, but necessary, arrangement as “cross-use” (54). Cross-use describes both the physical use of a city, and the internal mechanisms that contribute to the use and functioning of a city; it is not the boundary of a city per se, but in how a district evolves: “The fact of a district lies in what it is internally, and in the internal continuity and overlapping with which it is used (54).”

“Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities: Approaches to the Study of the Community Question” [Wellman and Leighton]

In “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities” Wellman and Leighton focus on the idea of what defines a neighborhood versus what defines a community. They come to the conclusion that a neighborhood is not necessarily a community and should not be studied as such: “We urge, therefore, that the study of the community question be freed from its identification with the study of neighborhoods (60).” One argument toward this point would be that neighborhoods are not typically lost—they can be dismantled, or established, but not lost—but a community can be described in such a way. More specifically, when referring to a ‘lost’ community what is really being addressed is the loss of social ties and/or networks. To say such a thing about a neighborhood would be almost inaccurate; in this way it is clear that Wellman and Leighton consider the physical structure and make-up of a community to be the ‘neighborhood’ and the social ties and networks formed between urbanites, or within a community, to be the community itself.

Once the idea of community and its social implications are established Wellman and Leighton go on to compare the two schools of thought examining the effects of urbanization on communities: the first school argues that communities are lost as a result of urbanization, where the other proposes that communities are not lost as much as they have been restructured and/or established differently and in different social contexts. The lost community view argues limited social engagement for the urbanite; a general weakening of the social structure of the individual as a result of city living is ascribed (61). Similar to Wirth, the idea of there being negative effects on the individual, and on the social structure of the community is predominant.

Wellman and Leighton contrast the idea of a community being lost as a result of urbanization with the idea of social structures being reestablished in new, more formidable ways in response to urbanization. More specifically, it is almost an optimistic and evolutionary approach arguing for the resilience of human social structures no matter the environment. In effect, the community saved argument recognizes communities where they can be found rather than where they have failed to be established. For example, the saved community argument highlights the fact that communities are formed based on common interests and social networks where the limits of proximity are boundaries of the city itself. Within those city limits a common link could be formed between urbanites who share interests rather than addresses, and whose ties are not necessarily familial but familiar.

Wellman and Leighton also address the policies that were created in response to the ideas presented in the ‘community lost’ school of thought, and the policies that could be developed based on the ideas in the ‘community saved’ school. They point out that the policies created from the ‘community lost’ school have had negative effects on the support of urban communities. In an effort to ‘save’ the networks and social cohesion of what they saw as the elevated alienation of urban communities policies were created to re-establish social ties based upon non-urban, or rural, environments. The application of such a model to an urban community is nonsensical and doomed to failure. This failure resulted in a loss of community funds and political support with the claim of “social disorganization” as the culprit (61), which in itself is an effect of urbanization according to Wirth and the “community lost” argument. Conversely, policies and community organizing based upon the ‘community saved’ school of thought has resulted in “neighborhood movement[s] (62)” made up of urbanites actually protecting and improving the functioning of their city.

Lin, Jan and Mele, Christopher (Eds.) (2013). The Urban Sociology Reader (2nd ed).

One thought on “Week 3”

  1. Good summaries.
    Fisher discusses the University of Chicago School and Park’s idea of a “mosaic of social worlds” and the need for Sociologist to go out into the community to conduct their studies and get their “pants dirty.” These studies provided descriptive studies and pointed out the social problems believed to be created by urbanism. These groups that lived near one another formed their own “social worlds” with their own rules, set of beliefs and values whether deviant or specialized.
    Subcultural theory “contends that urbanism independently affects social life-not, however, by destroying social groups as determinism suggest, but instead by helping to create and strengthen them” (p. 48). This theory believes that people create meaningful relationships with those who have similar characteristics/traits e.g. ethnicity, occupation, etc. Fisher states that “social worlds and subcultures are roughly synonymous” (p. 48). Critical mass is an important concept within the subculture theory thus the move from rural to urban creates new subcultures, changes existing ones and bring them into contact with one another. He concedes that urbanism can create deviance but it can also create opportunities’ for like-minded people to interact in a variety of settings and fight for social change. 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).
    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.
    Jacobs is a well-known urban enthusiastic who discusses the possibilities that cities present to those who dwell within certain districts (diverse). She focuses on the networks, diversity and density of cities and how they could potentially positively impact laws, lives and spatial (built environment) areas within. She was a force in the theory of New Urbanism and advocated for smart growth, pedestrian walkable areas, mixed use of land/space but was not a fan of urban sprawl.

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