Urban Sociology

Urban sociology studies human groups in a territorial frame of reference. In this field, social organization is the major focus of inquiry, with an emphasis on the interplay between social and spatial organization and the ways in which changes in spatial organization affect social and psychological well being. A wide variety of interests are tied together by a common curiosity about the changing dynamics, determinants, and consequences of urban society’s most characteristic form of settlement: the city.

Scholars recognized early that urbanization is accompanied by dramatic structural, cognitive, and behavioral changes. Classic sociologists (Durkheim, Weber, Toinnes, Marx) delineated the differences in institutional forms that seemed to accompany the dual processes of urbanization and industrialization as rural-agrarian societies were transformed into urban-industrial societies.

Several key questions that guide contemporary research are derived from this tradition: How are human communities organized? What forces produce revolutionary transformations in human settlement patterns? What organizational forms accompany these transformations? What differences do urban living make, and why do those differences exist? What consequences does the increasing size of human concentrations have for human beings, their social worlds, and their environment?

Students of the urban scene have long been interested in the emergence of cities (Childe 1950), how cities grow and change (Weber 1899), and unique ways of life associated with city living (Wirth 1938). These classic treatments have historical value for understanding the nature of pre-twentieth-century cities, their determinants, and their human consequences, but comparative analysis of contemporary urbanization processes leads Berry (1981, p. xv) to conclude that ”what is apparent is an accelerating change in the nature of change itself, speedily rendering not-yet-conventional wisdom inappropriate at best.”

Urban sociologists use several different approaches to the notion of community to capture changes in how individual urbanites are tied together into meaningful social groups and how those groups are tied to other social groups in the broader territory they occupy. An interactional community is indicated by networks of routine, face-to-face primary interaction among the members of a group. This is most evident among close friends and in families, tribes, and closely knit locality groups. An ecological community is delimited by routine patterns of activity that its members engage in to meet the basic requirements of daily life. It corresponds with the territory over which the group ranges in performing necessary activities such as work, sleep, shopping, education, and recreation. Compositional communities are clusters of people who share common social characteristics. People of similar race, social status, or family characteristics, for example, form a compositional community. A symbolic community is defined by a commonality of beliefs and attitudes among its members. Its members view themselves as belonging to the group and are committed to it.

Research on the general issue of how these forms of organization change as cities grow has spawned a voluminous literature. An ecological perspective and a sociocultural perspective guide two major research traditions. Ecological studies focus on the role of economic competition in shaping the urban environment. Ecological and compositional communities are analyzed in an attempt to describe and generalize about urban forms and the processes of urban growth (Hawley 1981).

Sociocultural studies emphasize the importance of cultural, psychological, and other social dimensions of urban life. These studies focus on the interactional and symbolic communities that characterize the urban setting (Wellman and Leighton 1979; Suttles 1972).

Early theoretical work suggested that the most evident consequence of the increasing size, density, and heterogeneity of human settlements was a breakdown of social ties, a decline in the family, alienation, an erosion of moral codes, and social disorganization (Wirth 1938). Later empirical research has clearly shown that in general, urbanites are integrated into meaningful social groups (Fischer 1984).

The sociocultural tradition suggests that cultural values derive from socialization into a variety of subcultures and are relatively undisturbed by changes in ecological processes. Different subcultures select, are forced into, or unwittingly drift into different areas that come to exhibit the characteristics of a particular subculture (Gans 1962). Fischer (1975) combines the ecological and subcultural perspectives by suggesting that size, density, and heterogeneity are important but that they produce integrated subcultures rather than fostering alienation and community disorganization. Size provides the critical masses necessary for viable unconventional subcultures to form. With increased variability in the subcultural mix in urban areas, subcultures become more intensified as they defend their ways of life against the broad array of others in the environment. The more subcultures, the more diffusion of cultural elements, and the greater the likelihood of new subcultures emerging, creating the ever-changing mosaic of unconventional subcultures that most distinguishes large places from small ones.

Empirical approaches to urban organization vary according to the unit of analysis and what is being observed. Patterns of activity (e.g., commuting, retail sales, crime) and characteristics of people (e.g., age, race, income, household composition) most commonly are derived from government reports for units of analysis as small as city blocks and as large as metropolitan areas. These types of data are used to develop general principles of organization and change in urban systems. General questions range from how certain activities and characteristics come to be organized in particular ways in space to why certain locales exhibit particular characteristics and activities. Territorial frameworks for the analysis of urban systems include neighborhoods, community areas, cities, urban areas, metropolitan regions, nations, and the world.

Observations of networks of interaction (e.g., visiting patterns, helping networks) and symbolic meanings of people (e.g., alienation, values, worldviews) are less systematically available because social surveys are more appropriate for obtaining this kind of information. Consequently, less is known about these dimensions of community than is desirable.

It is clear that territoriality has waned as an integrative force and that new forms of extralocal community have emerged. High mobility, an expanded scale of organization, and an increased range and volume of communication flow coalesce to alter the forms of social groups and their organization in space (Greer 1962). With modern communication and transportation technology, as exists in the United States today, space becomes less of an organizing principle and new forms of territorial organization emerge that reflect the power of large-scale corporate organization and the federal government in shaping urban social and spatial organization (Gottdiener 1985).

Hawley’s (1950, 1981) ecological approach to the study of urban communities serves as the major paradigm in contemporary research. This approach views social organization as developing in response to basic problems of existence that all populations face in adapting to their environments. The urban community is conceptualized as the complex system of interdependence that develops as a population collectively adapts to an environment, using whatever technology is available. Population, environment, technology, and social organization interact to produce various forms of human communities at different times and in different places. Population is conceptualized as an organized group of humans that function routinely as a unit; the environment is defined as everything that is external to the population, including other organized social groups.

Technological advances allow people to expand and redefine the nature of the relevant environment and therefore influence the forms of community organization that populations develop (Duncan 1973).

In the last half of the twentieth century, there were revolutionary transformations in the size and nature of human settlements and the nature of the interrelationships among them. The global population ”explosion” created by an unprecedented rapid decline in human mortality in less developed regions of the world after 1950 provided the additional people necessary for this population ”implosion:” the rapid increase in the size and number of human agglomerations of unprecedented size. Urban sociology attempts to understand the determinants and consequences of this transformation.

The urbanization process involves an expansion in the entire system of interrelationships by which a population maintains itself in its habitat (Hawley 1981, p. 12). The most evident consequences of the process and the most common measures of it are an increase in the number of people at points of population concentration, an increase in the number of points at which population is concentrated, or both (Eldridge 1956). Theories of urbanization attempt to understand how human settlement patterns change as technology expands the scale of social systems.

Because technological regimes, population growth mechanisms, and environmental contingencies change over time and vary in different regions of the world, variations in the pattern of distribution of human settlements generally can be understood by attending to these related processes. In the literature on urbanization, an interest in the organizational forms of systems of cities is complemented by an interest in how growth is accommodated in cities through changes in density gradients, the location of socially meaningful population subgroups, and patterns of urban activities. Although the expansion of cities has been the historical focus in describing the urbanization process, revolutionary developments in transportation, communication, and information technology in the last fifty years expanded the scale of urban systems and directed attention toward the broader system of the form of organization in which cities emerge and grow.

Much research on the urbanization process is descriptive in nature, with an emphasis on identifying and measuring patterns of change in demographic and social organization in a territorial frame of reference. Territorially circumscribed environments employed as units of analysis include administrative units (villages, cities, counties, states, nations), population concentrations (places, agglomerations, urbanized areas), and networks of interdependency (neighborhoods, metropolitan areas, daily urban systems, city systems, the earth).

The American urban system is suburbanizing and deconcentrating. One measure of suburbanization is the ratio of the rate of growth in the ring to that in the central city over a decade (Schnore 1959). While some Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) began suburbanizing in the late 1800s, the greatest rates for the majority of places occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Widespread use of the automobile, inexpensive energy, the efficient production of materials for residential infrastructure, and federal housing policy allowed metropolitan growth to be absorbed by sprawl instead of by increased congestion at the center.

As the scale of territorial organization increased, so did the physical distances between black and white, rich and poor, young and old, and other meaningful population subgroups. The Index of Dissimilarity measures the degree of segregation between two groups by computing the percentage of one group that would have to reside on a different city block for it to have the same proportional distribution across urban space as the group to which it is being compared (Taeuber and Taeuber 1965). Although there has been some decline in indices of dissimilarity between black and white Americans since the 1960s, partly as a result of increasing black suburbanization, the index for the fifteen most segregated MSAs in 1990 remained at or above 80, meaning that 80 percent or more of the blacks would have had to live on different city blocks to have the same distribution in space as whites; thus, a very high degree of residential segregation remains. Although there is great social status diversity in central cities and increasing diversity in suburban rings, disadvantaged and minority populations are overrepresented in central cities, while the better educated and more affluent are overrepresented in suburban rings.

A related process—deconcentration—involves a shedding of urban activities at the center and is indicated by greater growth in employment and office space in the ring than in the central city. This process was under way by the mid-1970s and continued unabated through the 1980s. A surprising turn of events in the late 1970s was signaled by mounting evidence that nonmetropolitan counties were, for the first time since the Depression of the 1930s, growing more rapidly than were metropolitan counties (Lichter and Fuguitt 1982). This process has been referred to as “deurbanization” and “the nonmetropolitan turnaround.” It is unclear whether this trend represents an enlargement of the scale of metropolitan organization to encompass more remote counties or whether new growth nodes are developing in nonmetropolitan areas.

The American urban system is undergoing major changes as a result of shifts from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the aging of the population, and an expansion of organizational scale from regional and national to global decision making. Older industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest lost population as the locus of economic activity shifted from heavy manufacturing to information and residentiary services. Cities in Florida, Arizona, California, and the Northwest have received growing numbers of retirees seeking environmental, recreational, and medical amenities that are not tied to economic production. Investment decisions regarding the location of office complexes, the factories of the future, are made more on the basis of the availability of an educated labor pool, favorable tax treatment, and the availability of amenities than on the basis of the access to raw materials that underpinned the urbanization process through the middle of the twentieth century.

The same shifts are reflected in the internal reorganization of American cities. The scale of local communities has expanded from the central business district-oriented city to the multinodal metropolis. Daily commuting patterns are shifting from radial trips between bedroom suburbs and workplaces in the central city to lateral trips among highly differentiated subareas throughout urban regions. Urban villages with affluent residences, high-end retail minimalls, and office complexes are emerging in nonmetropolitan counties beyond the reach of metropolitan political constraints, creating even greater segregation between the most and least affluent Americans

Deteriorating residential and warehousing districts adjacent to new downtown office complexes are being rehabilitated for residential use by childless professionals, or “gentry.” The process of gentrification, or the invasion of lower-status deteriorating neighborhoods of absentee-owned rental housing by middle- to upper-status home or condominium owners, is driven by a desire for accessibility to nearby white-collar jobs and cultural amenities as well as by the relatively high costs of suburban housing, which have been pushed up by competing demand in these rapidly growing metropolitan areas. Although the number of people involved in gentrification is too small to have reversed the overall decline of central cities, the return of affluent middle-class residents has reduced segregation to some extent. Gentrification reclaims deteriorated neighborhoods, but it also results in the displacement of the poor, who have no place else to live at rents they can afford (Feagin and Parker 1990).

The extent to which dispersed population is involved in urban systems is quite variable. An estimated 90 percent of the American population now lives in a daily urban system (DUS). These units are constructed from counties that are allocated to economic centers on the basis of commuting patterns and economic interdependence. The residents of a DUS are closely tied together by efficient transportation and communication technology. Each DUS has a minimum population of 200,000 in its labor shed and constitutes “a multinode, multiconnective system [which] has replaced the core dominated metropolis as the basic urban unit” (Berry and Kasarda 1977, p. 304). Less than 4 percent of the American labor force is engaged in agricultural occupations. Even the residents of remote rural areas are mostly “urban” in their activities and outlook.

In contrast, many residents of uncontrolled developments on the fringes of emerging megacities in less developed countries are practically isolated from the urban center and live much as they have for generations. Over a third of the people in the largest cities in India were born elsewhere, and the maintenance of rural ways of life in those cities is common because of a lack of urban employment, the persistence of village kinship ties, and seasonal circulatory migration to rural areas. Although India has three of the ten largest cities in the world, it remains decidedly rural, with 75 percent of the population residing in agriculturally oriented villages (Nagpaul 1988).

The pace and direction of the urbanization process are closely tied to technological advances. As industrialization proceeded in Western Europe and the United States over a 300-year period, an urban system emerged that reflected the interplay between the development of city-centered heavy industry and requirements for energy and raw materials from regional hinterlands. The form of city systems that emerged has been described as rank-size. Cities in that type of system form a hierarchy of places from large to small in which the number of places of a given size decreases proportionally to the size of the place. Larger places are fewer in number, are more widely spaced, and offer more specialized goods and services than do smaller places (Christaller 1933).

City systems that emerged in less industrialized nations are primate in character. In a primate system, the largest cities absorb far more than their share of societal population growth. Sharp breaks exist in the size hierarchy of places, with one or two very large, several medium-sized, and many very small places. Rapid declines in mortality beginning in the 1950s, coupled with traditionally high fertility, created unprecedented rates of population growth. Primate city systems developed with an orientation toward the exportation of raw materials to the industrialized world rather than manufacturing and the development of local markets. As economic development proceeds, it occurs primarily in the large primate cities, with very low rates of economic growth in rural areas. Consequently, nearly all the excess of births over deaths in the nation is absorbed by the large cities, which are more integrated into the emerging global urban system (Dogan and Kasarda 1988a).

Megacities of over 10 million population are a very recent phenomenon, and their number is increasing rapidly. Their emergence can be understood only in the context of a globally interdependent system of relationships. The territorial bounds of the relevant environment to which population collectively adapts have expanded from the immediate hinterland to the entire world in only half a century.

Convergence theory suggests that cities throughout the world will come to exhibit organizational forms increasingly similar to one another, converging on the North American pattern, as technology becomes more accessible globally (Young and Young 1962). Divergence theory suggests that increasingly divergent forms of urban organization are likely to emerge as a result of differences in the timing and pace of the urbanization process, differences in the positions of cities in the global system, and the increasing effectiveness of deliberate planning of the urbanization process by centralized governments holding differing values and therefore pursuing a variety of goals for the future (Berry 1981).

The importance of understanding this process is suggested by Hawley (1981, p. 13): “Urbanization is a transformation of society, the effects of which penetrate every sphere of personal and collective life. It affects the status of the individual and opportunities for advancement, it alters the types of social units in which people group themselves, and it sorts people into new and shifting patterns of stratification. The distribution of power is altered, normal social processes are reconstituted, and the rules and norms by which behavior is guided are redesigned.”


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