Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Conceptualizing urbanism and its social consequences

Wirth’s (1938) piece is a seminal text on defining and conceptualizing urbanism as described through the social consequences of three factors: density, size and heterogeneity—three seemingly interrelated elements he keeps separate in order to differentiate among consequences.

Numbers alone cannot distinguish a city from the rural, but the clear distinction of larger amounts of people produces secondary rather than primary contacts. That is, relationships that are “impersonal,” “superficial,” transitory” and formalized through associations. This places a premium on efficiency and utility and gives the corporation advantage over individual business owners. Interests are better heard through representation. In more densely populated areas, a large number of divergent personalities and modes of life on one hand may lead to a toleration of differences but it also leads to a more competitive spirit and increased loneliness in neighborhoods that lack sentimental and emotional ties. Heterogeneity in cities associates with social stratification, which creates a different framework for societies than a more homogeneous neighborhood. Rapid turnover in these societies places a premium on novelty, performance, inventiveness, but also favors mass production, standardization of processes and products and perhaps mass appeals through propagandistic techniques. Essentially, urbanism leads to fewer ‘true’ ties amongst people and weaker interpersonal communication.

Gans (1961) focuses on similarities and differences among contemporary settlement types: the inner city, and the outer city and suburb. He draws in other important variables like income and education to explain these different areas to question Wirth’s three factors. Gans favors distinction among outer city and suburb from the inner city. He places large import on characteristics of individuals (class or where they are in their ‘life-cycle stage,’ such as child-rearing) and factors that place less agency on the individual (such as political, economic and social processes that influence where people reside). Gans does not place much import on the physical differences between city and suburb (for instance, is driving to the drugstore so different from walking to the cornerstore?). Ecological concepts of physicality cannot solely explain humans and their environment. Institutional and social processes or human interactions are also important factors.

1 comment:

Jim said...

As I read this article, I became very curious about Wirth’s own personal views on the city and city life. For someone developing an “objective” framework for making sense of cities, a general cynicism seemed to permeate much of his article. His analysis also came across as rigid. What was happening in the field of sociology (and perhaps the world more generally) that might contextualize this view or way of thinking? Part of this, as we discussed in class, might be a result of his reliance on a neoclassical economic analysis that was part of the Chicago School. He was also working towards creating a more universal framework for thinking about cities. As such, he uses a lot of if/then statements to develop his writing without providing room for complexity. He also fails to present the process he went through in developing many of his conclusions.

While he does presents some positive aspects of city life, here are two examples of a more cynical (and positivistic) view:

The necessary frequent movement of great numbers of individuals in a congested habitat gives occasion to friction and irritation. Nervous tensions which derive from such personal frustrations are accentuated by the rapid tempo and complicated technology under which life in dense areas must be lived.

Consequently he finds it difficult to determine what is to his own “best interests” and to decide between the issues and leaders presented to him by the agencies of mass suggestion.

For me, arguments like these beg for comparison between the “urban mode of life” and the “rural mode of life”. If Wirth defines the city in this way then how does the “rural way of life” measure up? Is rural life less nervous with fewer frustrations? Are rural people better at determining what is in their best interest?

In the end, it is perhaps most important to consider the function of the article within the emerging field of urban sociology. It seems that this article was partially aimed at saying – “previous work was adhoc and unscientific and the framework I present here is going to help us move forward from a theoretical and scientific perspective.” The fact that Gans builds on Wirth’s work (more than 20 years later) suggests that he succeeded in this regard.I certainly got more out of the Wirth reading by reading it in conjuntion with the Gans article.