Compositional Theory of Urbanism

Compositional theory of urbanism asserts that urban unconventionality and urban–rural differences are due mainly to the social characteristics (i.e., class, race/ethnicity, age) of city dwellers. The density and heterogeneity that define the urban environment do not affect how people relate to one another or cause people to deviate. In other words, there are no independent effects of city life on people’s behaviors.

Compositional theory developed in the 1960s largely in reaction to determinist models of urbanism that assumed cities had harmful effects on people’s well being. The prevailing ideology of Louis Wirth (1938) and other determinists was that large, dense environments with a mix of different types of people create conditions harmful to people’s social and psychological well being and contribute to the development of social problems, like crime, illegitimacy, and so on. The high concentration of people in an area was thought to overload one’s senses, leading urban dwellers to retreat into social isolation as a means of adapting to incessant stimuli (Simmel 1964 [1902]). Further, density or crowding might cause greater friction among people, leading to inter personal violence, greater withdrawal, and ‘‘urban malaise’’ (i.e., loneliness, depression, and anxiety) (Hall 1966; Galle et al. 1972). The diversity of cities and greater division of labor (i.e., heterogeneity) was believed to heighten competition among interest groups, make moral consensus and a sense of community difficult to achieve, and weaken interpersonal ties and social controls. So, the traditional determinist view was that social conditions of the city undermine social relationships, leading to the adoption of non traditional values and deviant behaviors.

Proponents of the compositional theory of urbanism, however, argued that even in large, dense, heterogeneous areas, people find their own social worlds that insulate them from the effects of the urban environment. For example, Herbert Gans (1962b: 65–6) suggests that ‘‘[the city] population consists mainly of relatively homogeneous groups, with social and cultural moorings that shield it fairly effectively from the suggested consequences of number, density, and heterogeneity.’’ That is, people can achieve a sense of community within their neighborhoods whether they live in large cities or small towns. City dwellers, like others, create and sustain personal networks that lend emotional and social support and provide stakes in conformity. These intimate social circles may be based on kinship, ethnicity, neighborhood, occupation, or lifestyle, but basic group dynamics and the quality and extent of social relationships are unaffected by the urban environment.

Compositional theorists critiqued determinists for failing to recognize the ‘‘mosaic of social worlds’’ that exist in the city and, instead, concentrating on the social problems located in certain segments of the city. By selectively examining highly transient, impoverished (inner city) areas, determinists mistakenly attributed anemic social bonds among people, higher levels of mental health issues, and social problems to city life when these outcomes are more likely attributable to high population turnover – a feature in some com munities that made it difficult to build and sustain social relationships. Transience was responsible for anonymity and detachment from mainstream society and social relationships. In other areas of the city not characterized by such high population mobility, social life was taking place in relatively small groups (e.g., families, neighborhoods) just as in smaller communities across the country.

Early qualitative evidence supports compositionalist claims of the endurance and vitality of social ties in urban settings. In The Urban Villagers, Gans (1962a) presents a picture of organized, cohesive ethnic communities in Boston. In her work The Urban Neighborhood, Keller (1968) concludes that urban neighboring exists, but the strength of neighborhood ties varies by the composition of the neighborhood, for example by social class or family structure. Others also demonstrate across various urban contexts that people in cities are not lonely or isolated and have strong family, peer, and neighborhood networks (Suttles 1968; Howell 1973; Fischer et al. 1977). More recent quantitative work has gone beyond documenting the existence of social ties in urban settings and focuses on empirically assessing how the extent/size, type, and use of social networks differ across settings as well as among city dwellers (e.g., by race/ethnicity, life cycle). Further, compositionalist work has provided a basis for the development of more nuanced theoretical approaches to studying social net works in urban (and non urban) settings, such as Claude Fischer’s subcultural theory of urbanism.

Compositional theorists do not deny that there are aggregate level behavioral differences along the urban–rural continuum. However, they attribute these differences primarily to the different kinds of people found in urban areas compared to suburban and rural areas rather than to effects of urbanism itself. People’s characteristics – social class, age/life cycle, family status, race/ethnicity – largely shape their behaviors and define their ways of life. The concentration in urban settings of individuals with certain traits accounts for the greater unconventionality of cities. For example, the effect of being married on the likelihood of engaging in crime is the same in an urban context as in a suburban or rural context. If there is more crime in the city, it is, in good part, due to more crime prone, unmarried people living in the city than in other types of areas. Further, the city selectively attracts certain kinds of people who are more amenable to nontraditional lifestyles – the young, the deviant, the unmarried – accounting for urban–rural differences. Compositional theorists explain lifestyle differences between urban dwellers and others as being due to demo graphic differences, not social breakdown. So, they would expect that once demographic differences are taken into account, urban/non urban differences should disappear.

Urban populations do tend to be younger, less often married, and more heterogeneous in terms of race/ethnicity, religion, and social class. Some studies show that much of the relationship between population density (a measure of how urban a place is) and pathology (e.g., delinquency, welfare, hospitalization for mental illness) disappears once demographic factors are taken into account. For example, higher urban crime rates may be due to greater poverty levels in urban areas: social class affects both living arrangements (i.e., density) and the likelihood of engaging in crime. However, though the relationship is lessened considerably, most empirical research shows that urban/non urban differences in unconventionality and rates of social problems remain, even after taking into account demographic features of place. It would be an overstatement to conclude that living in an urban environment has no effect on people, but compositionalists are likely correct that much of the effects of the urban environment operate through social net works and vary according to social characteristics of residents.

Compositional theorists recognize that demographic characteristics associated with urban–rural differences do not explain these differences. They emphasize that demographic characteristics shape roles, opportunities, and behavioral expectations, so attention should be directed toward the social, economic, and political forces that shape expectations, opportunities, and roles available to various groups. For example, compositionalists would point to the need to examine how job availability attracts certain kinds of workers to a given place or how housing market practices (including discrimination, but also pricing and lending practices) shape residential ‘‘choice’’ such that certain kinds of people are attracted to certain kinds of neighborhoods. They also emphasize the need to examine the larger social systems in which cities are embedded. Urban economies are shaped by national and international forces; the economic demands placed on cities influence the kind of workers drawn to an area. For example, city economies based on the production of technology (e.g., Silicon Valley) may attract a relatively educated workforce; a labor market rich in construction jobs may attract a greater than average share of men.

At the heart of urban sociology is the question: what are the consequences of urban life? According to compositional theorists, there are no negative consequences of living in dense, urban environments. Social networks are alive and well in cities, if you know where to look. These social networks insulate people from the stress and strains of daily urban living. Compositionalists attribute urban/non urban differences to the social characteristics of people who live in urban settings, not to the urban environment itself. Though this premise is only partially accurate, compositionalist theory represents one of the first serious statements that ran counter to the popular turn of the century premise that cities were divisive and alienating. The major tenets of the theory have contributed to the development of more sophisticated analytic models that take into account demographic differences across place and self selection factors. Compositionalist theory has also provided a firm grounding for more current theoretical approaches to understanding urban dynamics and differences across urban and non urban settings.


  1. Fischer, C. S. (1975) Toward a Subcultural Theory of Urbanism. American Journal of Sociology 80: 1319-41.
  2. Fischer, C. S. (1982) To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  3. Fischer, C. S. (1984) The Urban Experience. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
  4. Fischer, C. S., Jackson, R. M., Steuve, C. A., Gerson, K., & Jones, L. M. (1977) Networks and Places. Free Press, New York.
  5. Galle, O. R., Gove, W. R., & McPherson, J. M. (1972) Population Density and Pathology: What are the Relations for Man? Science 176: 23-30.
  6. Gans, H. J. (1962a) The Urban Villagers. Free Press, New York.
  7. Gans, H. J. (1962b) Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life: A Reevaluation of Definitions. In: Rose, A. (Ed.), Human Behavior and Social Processes. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, pp. 625-48.
  8. Hall, E. (1966) The Hidden Dimensions. Doubleday, Garden City, NY, ch. 13.
  9. Howell, J. T. (1973) Hard Living on Clay Street. Anchor, Garden City, NY.
  10. Keller, S. (1968) The Urban Neighborhood. Random House, New York.
  11. Simmel, G. (1964 [1902]) The Metropolis and Mental Life. In: Wolff, K. (Ed.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Free Press, New York, pp. 409-24.
  12. Suttles, G. (1968) The Social Order of the Slum. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  13. Wirth, L. (1938) Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44: 1-25.

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