Urban Sociology Research Paper

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Urban sociology concerns itself with the social and cultural forms assumed by the urban phenomenon in the past and in the present. It endeavors to understand the worldviews of the various cultures that have produced cities, and the coherence or incoherence with which these worldviews have been given concrete form.

The city is the entity to which the Greek philosopher Aristotle attributed a capacity ‘to suffice unto itself.’ He argued in Politics that ‘the perfection of existence’ was possible in the city and he concluded that ‘man is a political animal created to live in cities.’ The history of cities displays wide typological differentiation: cities vary according to the manner in which they began and subsequently developed, and according to their geographical and cultural area. But there seems to be one feature shared by them all: a capacity to dominate and organize the space surrounding them by virtue of their concentration of power in its various forms—political and administrative, military, economic, cultural, scientific, and religious. There have indeed been societies and cultures without cities as their political, administrative, economic, and cultural points of reference, or which possessed them only to a limited extent—consider the Europe of the High Middle Ages—yet it is nevertheless true that the organization and development of systematic control over a territory has always centred on a capital city, and therefore on a hierarchy of cities and settlements.

1. The City In History

Urban sociology seeks not only to describe and explain the rich variety of the phenomenon ‘city,’ but also to interpret the causal connections between the elements that constitute a city and the factors that first gave rise to them. This approach furnishes understanding of the complex as well as profound meaning of every urban reality. To study the history of cities is to study the history of civilizations, of societies, and of cultures: a far-reaching enterprise which involves numerous disciplines and is constantly enriched with the results of scientific research.

One might enquire whether urban sociology is able to identify a single interpretative theme linking what by now constitutes a vast complex of urban phenomena. A simple list of the best-known urban forms demonstrates the difficulty of the undertaking. The history of the city, in fact, displays a rich variety of forms, which may be summarily listed as follows: the Sumerian cities; those of the Mesopotamian kingdoms; the Greek polis; the Phoenician cities; Rome and the cities of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire; the cities of the Asiatic empires; the cities of the Central American cultures; the Muslim cities; the city communes of the Middle Ages; the cities of the seigniories; those of the European sovereigns; the cities of the industrial revolution; the cities of Africa, Latin America, and Asia that arose as a result of European colonization; the metropolises of the twentieth century, and those that have now become city region and global cities; as well as the metropolises of the Third World. Finding an interpretative theoretical paradigm that comprises this huge variety of urban forms is an arduous undertaking, unless one resorts to a set of generic statements which risk lapsing into triviality.

One approach might be to single out a set of shared features and then flank them with those specific to each individual form of urban society and culture. As will be shown, every urban form, in its birth and its development, is geared to the production and distribution of goods, and to the management of the surpluses that engender the city as the hub of functions, services, and political power, administrative and organizational. The city also develops and disseminates patterns of urban planning and organization, models for the construction of supply and service infrastructures. It is the engine of technological innovation and knowledge, the center of political, religious, and military activity. These features, however, vary considerably across the manifold historical forms of the city, and it would be a gross oversimplification to impose a single sociological framework on such diversity. The general considerations to be drawn from comparative sociological analysis take the form of a social-urban philosophy, albeit one grounded on analysis of specific sociological urban types. Examples are the (important) assertions that can be made concerning the relationship between the forms assumed by the city and freedom, democracy, and the reciprocal exchange of urban political power and other cultures.

2. The Territorial Stabilization Of Social Life

The city was at first a permanent settlement of a population on a particular territory, a settlement which developed specific forms and functions. The advent of humankind began the process known as Civilization (from the Latin noun for ‘city,’ civitas) with the birth of the first settlements devoted to farming and cattle-raising but also to a sacred element: cemeteries and shrines. ‘The city of the deAdvantedates the city of the living. In one sense, indeed, the city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city’ (Mumford 1961, p. 7). The villages of the Mesolithic age surrounded themselves with palisades, they ‘specialized’ space, and they organized themselves into a hierarchy, with a political, economic, and social system that the city would later develop and strengthen.

3. The Rise Of A Space Symbol System And Culture

It was this revolution that gave origin to space as a symbolic system. By choosing to live in settlements, humankind opted for a form of social life that gave priority to social features expressed through increasingly rich forms of communication: language, tools, communal meeting-places, the recognition of a leader, obedience to the rules of the community, places and forms of worship. Language and the home were the distinctive features of the Palaeolithic village, while the inhabitants of the Neolithic village clung to their burial places and their vital significance for the social group, while continuing to develop agriculture and cattle raising.

The origin and evolution of human settlements produced the sociological meaning of the city through the stages outlined in the following sections.

4. Antiquity And Urban Revolution In The Near East

The origin and evolution of human settlements with their diverse geographical and temporal features were replicated in the birth and rise of the cities. At the end of the last Ice Age, the alluvial plains of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus yielded abundant crops for the peoples who moved in from the South and organized themselves as farmers. Surplus produce was used to maintain a group of artisans, scribes, functionaries, priests, and soldiers who introduced the spatial distinction between city and countryside. The first known urban conglomeration arose five thousand years ago (Clark 1977).

Space organization was connected with structured social functions: the beginning of the ambivalent relation between the city and its surrounding territories and settlements. The city became the locus of power: the place where the allocation of surplus goods was established, where reliable communication over long distances was made possible by the written word, where construction techniques were developed, where stable patterns of behavior were formed, and where the law was formalized (the fundamental law and rules regulating everyday life which supplanted the family and kinship bonds). An entirely new social and spatial dimension arose, which opened the way for a more formal and objective legal order, one legitimated by the urban community and which, in some cases, acquired the form of a state. The production of material equipment was enormously increased by the advent of models fixed by writing and registration. Thus, culture as a set of symbols produced and reinforced technology, exerting a powerful influence over the material production of goods which, in the absence of that culture, would only have developed sparsely and slowly. City and civilization, therefore, were closely bound up with each other in their birth and development.

5. The Development Of A Governmental Hierarchy

The city came to reproduce, in historically different ways, the structural elements of the first human settlements. Various factors induced settlements to grow into cities, but the most notable of them were the centralization of the population, the advent of market, the court and administration, the temple, science (writings), and the army.

The clay tablets unearthed during excavations of the Sumerian cities (Ur, Erech, Lagash) document the corporative government exercised by priests who considered themselves the stewards of land entrusted to them by God. This belief was reproduced in the physical form of the city dominated by the temple, with its dwellings, storehouses, and workshops, and around which the city articulated itself according to social and spatial differentiation. When the Sumerian cities came under the sway of a king with sacred status and power, they manifested a power and an administrative organization arranged in a hierarchy between the capital city and those of lesser status in authority and function. Regulating this hierarchy of cities and localities was a set of laws that ensured the consignment of surplus or appropriated goods to the more central cities, and then developed into a system of tax collection and military organization which produced a veritable state. The Egyptian city pivoted on the power of the god-like Pharaoh, who wielded absolute control over the economy, which he utilized to build temples, pyramids, and tombs that raised him above common mortals. In the second millennium BC, the cities of the Far East developed according to a similar hierarchical pattern whereby the provincial cities were dominated by the capital.

The Greek city was the template for Western urbanism. Born of an alliance among communities and their kings (synoecism), from the sixth to the fourth centuries BC the polis became a reality in which the Greeks developed a culture devoted to reproducing in the city a vision of the world whose central component was not absolute power and the conquest of neighboring territories, but rather human harmony, body and intellect expressed, both physically and spiritually, in literature and the figurative arts, and also in the social life reproduced concretely and organizationally in the polis. The term ‘city’ thus came to coincide with ‘politics,’ a city organized as a city-state, the place of orderly and individual freedom. The Greek polis of this period was a city whose walls protected the country people when attacked and which granted freedom to its citizens. The polis carefully regulated its size (surplus population moved away to found new colonies), the purpose being also to preserve harmony and to protect the system of self-government constituted by the prytaneum, the place where the community’s divine protector was worshiped, the agora or citizens’ assembly, and the bule, the council of nobles and representatives of the assembly.

6. Roman And Greek Urban Development

The Greek city expressed in admirable harmony the relationship between the city and its rural surroundings, but it was a relationship that was always ambivalent. On the one hand, the city comprised a complex set of powers which subjugated the surrounding territory; on the other, it developed a political, legal, economic, and organizational order, and a network of services, which incorporated the smaller communities into a system of which the city was the center and the administrative seat. The Alexandrine city that arose from Alexander the Great’s expansionary policies and conquests was symmetrical in form, ordered according to a Euclidean geometry which ensured control and the orderly deployment of troops; a cultivated, refined and monumental city. The concentration of powers in Alexandria gave it decisive dominance over nonurban territory (Mumford 1961).

Rome, the capital city that ruled the territories around the Mediterranean basin, invested its Senate, consuls, praetors, aediles, tribunes, and quaestors with powers that produced one of the most stable empires of history. As caput mundi, the headquarters of the state, Rome undertook the division of urban and agricultural territory, the founding of new cities, the building of aqueducts, sewers, basilicas, baths, amphitheaters and circuses, and the construction of an immense network of roads and military outposts. Besides being the capital of the state and the empire, it was the locus in which political powers concentrated and evolved, and where the urban models of the empire’s cities were developed (e.g., Th. Mommsen). Rome established an organic, almost biological, relationship with the world of the empire; but it was a relationship which, amid the city’s estimable political, administrative, legal, organizational, and military system, permitted no form of political, and especially cultural, reciprocity. When Rome’s powerful inner impetus subsided, its grand design imploded because it was unable to draw on resources arising from interaction with other cultures regarded as equals. One single legal order was admitted, and no other order was allowed that might introduce innovations.

7. The Disappearance Of The Ancient City

The barbarian invasions destroyed the political and organizational structure of the Western Roman Empire, while the empire in the East fell to the advancing Muslim Turks. The urban structure of the Roman empire was replaced in the West by the Christian territorial organization based on large rural landholdings, while the cities and the road network lapsed into decay through disuse. In the East, the Muslim cities represented an extension of the power wielded by princes and merchant corporations: without specific autonomies, they served to protect citizens and to safeguard trade routes and the agricultural market, while for other commodities they added further urban components.

8. European Cities In The Middle Ages

The medieval city in Europe was the result of revival in the economic and commercial development of the coastal cities of the Mediterranean and northern Europe, and the resumption of agriculture and artisan industry. The cities were revivified and became the centers of corporations, guilds, and confraternities, while their citizens developed a legal order different and distinct from that of the medieval lordship. This was a ‘nonlegitimate and revolutionary’ legal order (Weber [1921] 1958) endowed with city walls, its own civil law (which regulated relations among citizens according to rules established independently), its own law-courts, and an armed corps of citizens called upon to defend the new order; all of which were guaranteed by the oath-swearing (conjuratio) of those who perceived themselves as brothers in a common enterprise. The medieval city, with its public spaces for artisan, commercial, religious, and social activity, assumed a complex urban form: the social configuration of the new notion of an autonomous community, with a political and legal system that gave birth to the constitutional and civil law of the modern state. The medieval structure of many European cities resisted the assaults of the lords and princes of the Renaissance, and those of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century kings. The latter decided to forgo their endeavor to change the city, and instead set about building royal palaces with parks and estates outside the cities (Versailles, Schonnbrunn, Aranjuez, Caserta). This separation between royal-noble power and the urban classes made up of shopkeepers and professionals was the prelude to, and ground for, the bourgeois revolution.

9. The Modern City

The bourgeois and industrial revolutions engendered the subsequent great urban revolution. Population growth, immigration from the countryside, the more articulated organization of the city, heightened demands for comfort: these factors upset the balance between traditional and new urban space. Flanking such ecological problems were the inequalities among the urban classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat) that socialist (e.g., F.-N. Babeuf, C. Fourier) and liberal theory analyzed, and which the urban policies of the constitutional states addressed, but only by creating public and social spaces and services, while giving free rein to speculation and the market under rules that applied to all the social groups admitted to the competition for social ascent.

Sociology arose in concomitance with the problems that attended the birth and growth of industrial society, and it analyzed the urban phenomena that embodied the urban revolution. Marx conducted his critique of capital by starting from the radical inequality between the owners of the means of production and an exploited proletariat forced to sell its labor in the city called Coketown. Max Weber sought to understand the birth and crisis of capitalism by studying the medieval European city as the origin of the free economic enterprise that gave rise to the new and free legal order; the city that gave liberty to all those who decided to join it, and whose motto was ‘Die Stadtluft macht frei’ (The city air makes us free).

However, although this city produced a political and legal system by which citizens were free under the state and the modern legal order, it was not a city of equals: it may have been made up of formally equal citizens but it was marked by frequently profound social and spatial disparities.

The Chicago School analyzed the phenomena and problems of a modern industrial city under pressure from multiethnic immigration and with spatial and social segregation according to income, ethnicity, and profession (Park et al. 1925), its conviction being that urban dynamics were similar to those of a biological organism. The modern city has developed this segregation into the new and dramatic form exemplified by the cities of the Third World. These urban conglomerations are unable to drive development because they consist of enormous concentrations of immigrants in search of sustenance and with little hope of finding stable and decent employment. They are cities, with their almost boundless demographic and spatial expansion, that lack ancient centers of historical importance with which their inhabitants can identify. The modern installations of the cities that have developed in the ex-colonial countries, their business districts and quarters restricted to the middle and upper classes, have forced their poor and marginalized inhabitants into the periphery.

The metropolises of the European and American West have become the world centers of political, economic, and financial power, of services and the organization of production. Extending as they do across the territory of several states, and incorporating the entirety of politics, science, technology, business, and leisure, for some time they have constituted the symbol, and become the Utopia, of the ‘new order of ages’ described by Jean Gottmann (1961) in Megalopolis, which suggests that the world is controlled and receives its meaning from an urban culture which acts as the engine of all development, material, social, and cultural.

10. The World As A City System

The contemporary city has burst through the boundaries that used to separate it from the countryside and surrounding space. It pervades them as does Gottmann’s megalopolis, or it penetrates them and binds them with a network of communication and transport structures which do not stand in a reciprocal relation with the countryside and external space; on the contrary, it is thus that the city asserts its ramified supremacy. On this view, the city determines every type of production and the ways in which surpluses are utilized; it decides who should receive economic rewards and professional recognition; it establishes which spaces are to be allocated to services and which should be reserved for different social classes, according to a meritocratic hierarchy based on a scale of values determined by the elites of the city itself.

11. Urban And Regional Sociology

Cities do not change, even less do they dissolve in the regional dimension. On the contrary, the latter demonstrates that the urban dimension of power has not freed itself from the restrictions imposed by city walls, by administrative or jurisdictional boundaries, by the attraction of a market spatially identified with an area called ‘city.’ Finance and the organization of production and work do not rely solely on the automation and advanced technologies that require increasingly skilled workforces. One feature of the ‘global city,’ in fact, is its indifference to the spatial allocation of the production process. The increased production of nonmaterial goods and information technologies has led to the greater use of teleworking, which enables closer and more efficient monitoring of the quantity and quality of output.

The city continues to control the production of services and access to them, and has thus become dominated by tertiary activities. It ensures and refines its supremacy over increasingly broader territories, using instruments of ever greater sophistication but of decreasing visibility to public opinion. The city, in fact, has developed a new technological and professional perspective: that of communications, which is now one of the most highly developed and influential of production sectors, able to construct images which convey lifestyles, symbols of prestige and gratification, and, indeed, visions of the world. The global city displays the features of a market on the world scale which nation-states and international bodies are unable to regulate with effective policies. The city, precisely because it represents and coincides with the power centers of the global market, also produces the symbols and mechanisms that legitimate this planetary power; symbols and mechanisms of legitimation which the legal and political orders of states are unable to counteract or to replace.


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