Urban Sociology Theories: In a Nutshell


Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels

Ferdinand Tonnies

Emile Durkheim

Georg Simmel

Max Weber

W. E. B. Du Bois

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels – macro-sociological

·         People in preindustrial, traditional societies were generic, tribal beings

·         Rise of city was transition from barbarism to civilization

·         People realize political and economic freedom, productive specialization

·         Social evolution of humans not complete until capitalism was transformed into socialism

·         Emphasis of economics and problems of inequality and conflict

Ferdinand Tonnies (1855-1936) German (pessimistic) – macro-sociological

·         Considered social structure of city

·         Defined and described two basic organizing principles of human association or two contrasting types of human social life, a typology with a continuum of pure type of settlement:

1.     Gemeinschaft (community): characterized country village, people in rural village have an essential unity of purpose, work together for the common good, united by ties of family (kinship) and neighbourhood, land wåorked communally by inhabitants, social life characterized by intimate, private and exclusive living together, members bound by common language and traditions, recognized common goods and evils, common friends and enemies, sense of we-ness or our-ness, humane

2.     Gesellschaft (association): characterized large city, city life is a mechanical aggregate characterized by disunity, rampant individualism and selfishness, meaning of existence shifts from group to individual, rational, calculating, each person understood in terms of a particular role and service provided; deals with the artificial construction of an aggregate of human beings which superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft in so far as the individuals peacefully live together yet whereas in Gemeinschaft people are united in spite of all separating factors, in Gesellschaft people are separated in spite of all uniting factors

·         There are three types of Gemeinschaft relationships: Kinship, Friendship, and Neighborhood or Locality

1.     Kinship Gemeinschaft is based on Family; the strongest relationship being between mother and child, then husband and wife, and then siblings. Gemeinschaft also exists between father and child, but this relationship is less instinctual than that of mother and child. However, the father-child relationship is the original manifestation of authority within Gemeinschaft.

2.     Kinship develops and differentiates into the Gemeinschaft of Locality, which is based on a common habitat

·         There is also Friendship, or Gemeinschaft of the mind, which requires a common mental community (eg: religion).

·         He feared the undermining of the fabric of social life

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) French (optimistic) – macro-sociological

·         Considered social structure of city

·         Social solidarity–the bond between all individuals within a society

·         Developed model of contrasting social order types: both types are natural

·         Mechanical solidarity: refers to social bonds constructed on likeness and largely dependent upon common belief, custom, ritual, routines, and symbol, people are identical in major ways and thus united almost automatically, self-sufficient; social cohesion based upon the likeness and similarities among individuals in a society. Common among prehistoric and pre-agricultural societies, and lessens in predominance as modernity increases.

·         Organic solidarity: social order based on social differences, complex division of labour where many different people specialize in many different occupations, greater freedom and choice for city inhabitants despite acknowledged impersonality, alienation, disagreement and conflict, undermined traditional social integration but created a new form of social cohesion based on mutual interdependence, liberating; social cohesion based upon the dependence individuals in more advanced society have on each other. Common among industrial societies as the division of labor increases. Though individuals perform different tasks and often have different values and interests, the order and very survival of society depends on their reliance on each other to perform their specific task.

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) German (pessimistic) – micro-sociological

·         Considered importance of urban experience, i.e. chose to focus on urbanism (life within the city) rather than urbanization (development of urban areas), “The Metropolis and Mental Life” is an essay detailing his views on life in the city, focusing more on social psychology

·         Unique trait of modern city is intensification of nervous stimuli with which city dweller must cope, from rural setting where rhythm of life and sensory imagery is more slow, habitual and even, to city with constant bombardments of sights, sounds and smells

·         Individual learns to discriminate, become rational and calculating, develops a blasé attitude – matter-of-fact, a social reserve, a detachment, respond with head rather than heart, don’t care and don’t get involved

·         Urbanites highly attuned to time

·         Rationality expressed in advanced economic division of labour, and the use of money because of requirement for a universal means of exchange

·         Acknowledged freedom, transcendence of pettiness of daily routine, new heights of personal and spiritual development but sense of alienation could override this

·         To maintain sense of individuality and not feel like cog in machine, do something different or odd to stand out

·         Social distance

·         Author of this concept, from which we have Bogardus Social Distance Scale (Emery Bogardus – Chicago School)

·         A complex interpretation of social interaction as forms of distance in two ways

1.     geometric form (Euclidian) and 2) a metamorphic sense, or

1.     spatial and 2) symbolic

1.     Euclidian and 2) imagined

1.     Physical and 2) symbolic

Philosophy of Money

·         Economic exchange is a form of social interaction

·         When monetary transactions replaced earlier forms of barter, significant changes occurred in the form of interaction between social actors

·         Money is subject to precise division and manipulation, it permits exact measurement of equivalents

·         Money is impersonal, objects of barter are/were not

·         Money promotes rational calculation in human affairs, furthering rationalization characteristic of modern societies

·         Money replaces personal ties by impersonal relations that limited to a specific purpose

·         Abstract calculation invades areas of social life, e.g. kinship relations or realm of esthetic appreciation

·         Shift from qualitative to quantitative appraisals

·         Money increases personal freedom and fosters social differentiation

·         Money in modern world is standard of value and means of exchange

·         Above economic functions, it symbolizes and embodies modern spirit of rationalism, calculability and impersonality

·         Money is the major mechanism for shift between gemeinschaft to gesellschaft

The blasé attitude

·         incapacity to react to new sensations due to saturation.

·         reinforced by the money economy: money–a common denominator of all values, regardless of their individuality.

·         reserve, indifference, apathy–forms of psychological protection–become parts of the metropolitan lifestyle.

·         Positive aspect of metropolitan life: reserve and detachment produce individual freedom.

·         Paradox of city life : objectivization leads to greater individualism and subjectivism.

·         [The most significant characteristic of the metropolis] “functional extension beyond its physical boundaries”—a person’s life does not end with the limits of his/her body and the area of his/her immediate activity.

Max Weber (1864-1920) German – macro-sociological

·         Considered social structure of city

·         Ecological-demographic characteristics: the city was a relatively closed and dense settlement

·         Undertook survey of various cities throughout world unlike previous theorists who focused on European cities solely

·         Defined urban community, an ideal type, required:

1.     trade or commercial relations, e.g. market

2.     court and law of its own

3.     partial political autonomy

4.     militarily self-sufficient for self-defence

5.     forms of associations or social participation whereby individuals engage in social relationships and organizations

·         Suggested that cities are linked to larger processes, e.g. economic or political orientations, instead of city itself being cause of distinguishing qualities of urban life, i.e. different cultural and historical conditions will result in different types of cities, same as with Marx & Engels who argued that human condition of cities was result of economic structure.

D. E. B DuBois – The Racialization Paradigm and Critical Race Theory

·         Concerned with the centrality of “race” {racialized power dimensions} in the analysis of social structure

·         Du Bois(along with Woodson) presented cogent arguments for considering race as the central construct for understanding inequality.

·         First to theorize the intersection of race and property creates an analytic tool through which we can understand social (and, consequently, urban) inequity.

·         The precursor of the modern critical race movement.

·         Broadly defined “critical race theory” or a “critical theory of race” attempts to examine the human interactions both in their historical context and as part of the social and political relations that characterize the dominant society.

·         There are two important aspects shared by proponents of the critical race movement that are central to this analysis:

(1) a challenge to the traditional claims of legal neutrality, objectivity, color-blindness, and meritocracy as camouflages for the self-interest of dominant groups in North American society, and

(2) an insistence on subjectivity and the reformulation of social life to reflect the perspectives of those who have experienced and been victimized by racism firsthand

·         critical race theory today is analogous to feminist theory of the late-1970s which challenged the gender blindness of political economy highlighted by the narrow economicism of Whitemale-stream scholarship; and it attempts to provide a starting point for understanding contemporary urban problems and issues


The University of Chicago: University of Chicago is the origin of Urban Sociology in the United States. The Urban Environment surrounding the University provided the perfect laboratory for scholars like Robert Park and Ernest Burgess to study the city.

Robert Park

Louis Wirth

Ernest Burgess

Homer Hoyt

Harris and Ullman

URBAN ECOLOGY (Robert Ezra Park (1864-1944) of the Chicago school)

Coined concept of Human Ecology as a perspective that attempts to apply biological processes/concepts to the social world since maintained that the city and life in the city is a product of competition in the natural environment, i.e. the natural environment is an instrumental force in determining city characteristics.

·         Believed city to be a social organism with distinct parts bound together by internal processes, not chaos and disorder

·         City was also a moral as well as physical organization suggesting evaluative judgements

·         Focused on the physical form of the city and human’s adjustment to the ecological conditions urban life


Theoretical premises

·         Influence of natural sciences arguing there is a similarity between the organic and social worlds, i.e. the idea that natural laws can be adapted to society; a form of Social Darwinism

·         “Web of life”–all organisms are interrelated, there exists an interdependence of species sharing the same environment that seems to be the product of a Darwinian struggle for existence (numbers of living organisms regulated, distribution controlled, and balance of nature maintained where survivors of struggle find niches in physical environment and in existing division of labour between species)

Symbiotic versus societal organization

Symbiosis: mutual interdependence between 2 or more species

Processes characterizing the growth and development of plant and animal communities applied to human communities.

Community (plant, animal, human): defined as individual units involved in struggle and competition in their habitat, organized and interrelated in most complex manner

Essential characteristics of a community

1.     Population, territorially organized

2.     More or less completely rooted in the soil it occupies

3.     Its individual units living in a relationship of mutual interdependence that is symbiotic rather than societal.


Human community (city) organized on two levels:

1.     Biotic or symbiotic (substructure): driven by competition, structure of city resulting from inhabitants’ competition for scarce resources, idea is that cities were similar to symbiotic environments

2.     Cultural (superstructure): driven by communication and consensus, way of life in the city which was an adaptive response to organization of the city resulting at the biotic level; at the cultural level city is held together by cooperation between actors.

Symbiotic society based on competition and a cultural society based on communication and consensus.

City was a super-organism containing “natural” areas taking many forms:

– ethnic enclaves

– activity related areas (business, shopping, manufacturing, residential districts, etc…)

– income groupings (middle class neighborhoods, ghettos, etc…)

– physically separated areas (rivers, airports, railroads, etc…)

Dynamics and processes of human community:

Human community is a product of the interaction of four factors to maintain biotic and social equilibrium:

1.     Population

2.     Material culture, i.e. technological developments

3.     Nonmaterial culture, i.e. customs and beliefs

4.     Natural resources of the habitat

Human societies are characterized by competition and consensus:

·         Made up of interdependent individuals competing with each other for economic and territorial dominance and for ecological niches, have competitive cooperation with its resulting economic interdependence)

·         At the same time, involved in common collective actions, existence of a society presupposes a certain amount of solidarity, consensus and common purpose

Competition: mechanism of society to regulate population and to preserve balance between competing species, gives rise to domination, invasion and succession, also ecological principles

Domination: result of the struggle among different species

Invasion: introduction of new species would upset old balance where there would then be a struggle for dominance with a process of succession

Succession: various stages or the orderly sequence of changes through which a biotic community passes in course of its development, e.g. territorial succession of immigrant groups

The societal pyramid: a social order conceived as a hierarchy of levels

1.     Ecological – the base

2.     Economic

3.     Political

4.     Moral – the apex

While human communities exhibited an ecological or symbiotic order quite similar to that of nonhuman communities, they also participated in a social or moral order that had no counterpart on the nonhuman level. Park studied the ecological order to understand better man’s moral order.

Differences between ecology and Human ecology:

·         Humans are not as immediately dependent on the physical environment – largely the product of a world-wide division of labor and systems of exchange;

·         Humans by means of inventions and technical devices have a great capacity to alter the physical environment; and

·         Humans have erected upon the basis of the biotic community an institutional structure rooted in custom and tradition.

Limitations of early urban ecology:

·         Focus only on economic competition for land

·         Oversimplification and overgeneralization

·         Other factors, such as government regulations, sentiments, cultural preferences, are not taken into account

Louis Wirth (1897-1952) U. of Chicago – micro-sociological

·         Developed first urban theory in US, previous urban sociology comprised essentially descriptive studies

·         Focus on urbanism–urban lifestyle–more than on structure

·         Definition of city was that it was large, dense with permanent settlement and socially and culturally heterogeneous people, and so urbanism was a function of population density, size and heterogeneity:

1)      Population size: creates great diversity because large numbers of people coming together logically increase potential differentiation among themselves, and with migration of diverse groups to city; creates need for formal control structures, e.g. legal systems; supports proliferation of further complex division of labour specialization; organizes human relationships on interest-specific basis, i.e. “social segmentalization”, where secondary relationships are primary, in essence urban ties are relationships of utility; creates possibility of disorganization and disintegration

2)      Population density: intensifies effects of large population size on social life; manifests quality of separateness, e.g. economic forces and social processes produce readily identifiable distinct neighbourhood, “ecological specialization”; fosters a loss of sensitivity to more personal aspects of others, instead tendency to stereotype and categorize; results in greater tolerance of difference but at same time physical closeness increases social distance; may increase antisocial behaviour

3)      Population heterogeneity: with social interaction among many personality types results in breakdown of the rigidity of caste lines and complicates class structure, thus increased social mobility; with social mobility tend to have physical mobility; leads to further depersonalization with concentration of diverse people.

Ernest Burgess’ Concentric Zone Theory

·         Cities grow and develop outwardly in concentric circles, i.e. continuous outward process of invasion/succession

·         The jobs, industry, entertainment, administrative offices, etc. were located at the center in the CBD.

·         Felt that zone development resulted from competitive processes, i.e. competition for best location in the city and


1.       Commercial center

2.       Zone of transition

3.       Working class residences

4.       Middle class residences

5.       Commuter zone

Homer Hoyt’s Sector Theory (1939)

·         City develops not in concentric circles, but in sectors

·         Each sector characterized by different economic activities

·         The entire city can be thought of as a circle and various neighborhoods as sectors radiating out from the center of that structure. These factors or principles direct residential expansion:

1)       High grade residential areas tend to originate near retail and office centers.

2)       High grade residential growth tends to proceed from the given point of origin, along established lines of travel or toward existing retail office centers.

4)       High rent areas tend to grow towards areas which have open space beyond the city and away from sections enclosed by natural or artificial boundaries.

5)       Higher priced residential areas tend to grow towards the homes of leaders in the community.

6)       The movement of office buildings, banks and stores tends to pull higher priced residential neighborhoods in the same general direction.

7)       High rent neighborhoods continue to grow in the same direction for a long time.

8)       Deluxe high rent apartment areas tend to gradually appear in older residential areas near the business center (gentrification, downtown condos and high rent lofts).

9)       Real estate developers may bend the direction of high grade residential growth, but they cannot develop an area before its time or in another direction very easily.

Harris and Ullman’s Multiple Nuclei Theory (1945; more advanced stage of urbanization):

·         Cities do not have a single center, but have many “minicenters”

·         Similar activities locate in the same area and create minicities within the larger city

·         Distribution of housing of certain type and value along communication corridors

·         Topography: higher land, better (more expensive) housing

·         Effect of adjacent land on housing quality

·         Certain areas/activities tend to locate where they are most: effective, desirable and financially feasible

More contemporary research has since found that:

·         tolerance in the city is more dependent upon levels of education and wealth and regional differences in US

·         anonymity and privacy are important to city dwellers encouraging a live and let live attitude

·         many bonds override anonymity, e.g. ethnic bonds, kinship, occupation, lifestyle, other shared interests, with cities encouraging alternative types of relationships

·         technological advances stimulate urban connectedness, e.g. telephone, email

·         proliferation of voluntary associations has provided areas for the establishment of primary relationships of urbanites

·         people’s perceived needs for space are a learned behaviour not biological basis

·         urban pathology has other probable causes, e.g. poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination

·         humans have a superior ability to adapt

·         relationship between stress and mental and physical pathology is dependent not so much on the nature of the stress but on the individual’s perception of it

·         there is a difference between public demeanour and private lives of city dwellers.


Political Economy

·         Stems from work of Marx & Engels

·         Term “political economy” refers to the interplay of political and economic forces in a society

·         Political and economic forces are seen to be principal driving forces underlying urban activity

·         See work of Henri Lefebvre, David Gordon, Michael Storper and David Walker, Manuel Castells, David Harvey, Allen Scott

Central themes of all Political Economy based urban sociological theories:

·         Social conflict between competing interest or status groups is a ubiquitous social process

·         Capitalism as a dominant system of power dominates the development of modern urban-industrial communities,

·         Cities or metropolitan communities are now increasingly controlled and shaped by worldwide system of emerging global economy

·         Attempts to establish causal relationships between broad macroeconomic trends with a host of urban social problems at the more microsociological level of the local urban community or neighbourhood

Assumptions (Joe Feagan)

1) Cities are situated in a hierarchical global system, and global linkages among cities help define the structure of the world system

2) The world system is one of competitive capitalism

3) Capital is easily moved, locations of cities are fixed

4) Politics and government matter

5) People and circumstances differ according to time and place, and these differences matter

David Harvey (1985, study of Baltimore)

·         Focus on capital accumulation and circulation

·         The urban environment is built, destroyed, and rebuilt to allow for a more efficient circulation of capital

·         Overproduction and overaccumulation of profitable commodities result in urban development

·         Suburban individual home construction

·         a market response to the overaccumulation of surplus capital

·         a way to maintain social stability by satisfying the demand for individual homes

Allen Scott

·         Arrangement and structure of city are determined by the needs of industrial manufacturing.

·         Production process rather than circulation of capital was the most important process.

·         vertical disintegration–parts of the production process are “out-sourced” leaving the corporation as more of an administrator.

Growth Machine (John Logan & Harvey Molotch)

·         Real estate investors are primary “players” in the development of urban environment, but also have bankers, developers, corporate officials

·         Cities are “growth machines” –growth and development/change are necessary for well being of city.

·         Growth machine ideology influences local government to view cities not as places where people live, work and have social relationships, but solely as a place where it is necessary to create a good business climate

·         Increasing value of commercial property comes ahead of community values, neighbourhood needs or a livable city.

Contemporary Perspectives on the Difference between Canadian and American Cities

1.     Canadian cities are higher in density, which means they have less urban sprawl. It is cheaper to provide services in compact cities, and commuting to work is far easier. The core areas of Canadian cities are much healthier than those in the United States. In many u.s. cities, residents have moved to the suburbs to avoid crime, high taxes, and other inner-city problems.This has created what some observers refer to as “doughnut cities”, with poor central core areas that have no industry, no job opportunities, poor schools, deteriorated housing, and no tax base to help improve things. The strength of our urban core is a major reason Canadian cities have a much lower crime rate.

2.     Urban Canadians rely on public transit more than do Americans, though both countries are far behind European cities in public transit use. Because of this our cities are less divided by freeways than American urban areas.

3.     Racial tension has been far less pronounced in Canada than in the United States, where it has led to many problems including urban riots and “white flight” to the suburbs. Ex: Studies show when an American neighbourhood reaches 7% black residence, it induces white flight.

4.     Canadian and U.S. public housing policies have been very different. With a few exceptions, such as Toronto’s Regent Park and Montreal’s Jeanne Mance, governments in Canada have not built large-scale, high-rise developments.

5.     Public housing in Cnada has taken the form of small, infill projects in established neighbourhoods. There are small housing developments typically consisting of small apartment buildings or row housing.

6.     Canada has not faced the problem of large numbers of economically disadvantaged people crowded into areas that can easily be neglected by the rest of society. Ex: “Urban blight” in the U.S. is seen as the problem of decrepit buildings; urban blight in Canada is thought to be the problem of street people, panhandlers and squeegee kids.


York University


About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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