Subcultural Theory of Urbanism

Claude Fischer’s (1975, 1995) subcultural theory of urbanism is designed to explain how and why social relationships vary by size of population in settlements. According to the theory, urban life is bifurcated into public and private domains. In the public domain social relationships are typically superficial because people are usually interacting with others whom they do not know personally and may not see again. Such interactions are based mainly on the obvious roles people are playing at the time, such as bus rider, store clerk or customer, and pedestrian. Thus, the public domain, which varies directly with the size of the population, is characterized by anonymity, impersonality, tolerance, and lack of social bonding with others.

However, urbanites, even those in settlements with very large populations, have private lives characterized by interpersonal networks of friends, associates, and family, just as do people in smaller settlements. In addition, urbanites are more likely to be involved in other private net works with people who share interests that are somewhat uncommon and often unconventional. Through interaction concerning those peculiar interests, people within such networks develop distinct norms, a particular set of meanings and legitimations, status systems, and other social characteristics that distinguish them as subcultures. Thus, in their private worlds, urbanites are no less socially bonded interpersonally than people in other places and, in addition, they are more likely to be involved in subcultural networks.

Cities promote subcultural formation because their large populations make it more likely that a number of people will share a given interest even though it may be statistically rare or unconventional. Moreover, the freedom implied by an anonymous, impersonal, tolerant public domain permits urbanites with peculiar interests to locate each other and interact sufficiently to produce subcultures. Fischer uses the term critical mass to refer to a situation where there are enough people with similar but unusual interests to form a subculture. The larger the city, the greater the number of critical masses and the larger the likelihood of subcultures of many types.

Because so many and so many different kinds of subcultures blossom and grow in cities, urban dwellers become more tolerant of the peculiar behaviors or interests that various subcultural affiliates embrace. In addition, subcultural affiliation provides supportive networks, distinct normative expectations, and social controls to encourage those who participate in them to embrace the behaviors around which the subcultures are oriented. Since many of those subcultures are concerned with unconventional or unacceptable things from the point of view of the wider normative context, their participants are likely to exhibit enhanced rates of deviant behavior. As a result, the larger the settlement, the higher the rates of misbehavior, including criminal behavior.

Hence, in a rather straightforward way, subcultural theory also implies a connection between changes in population and crime rates. As the size of a population increases, the critical mass for any given specialized interest also goes up, as do the critical masses for larger numbers and varieties of interests. Growing populations will therefore have enhanced chances of developing criminal subcultures as well as elevated chances of greater diversity in kinds of subcultures, especially unusual ones. Urban sub cultures may facilitate innovation and diffusion of new ideas as well as promote unconventionality or unacceptable behavior, so they also help distinguish cities as inspirational places for cultural change.

Fischer’s theory has been especially important because it helped resolve contradictions between earlier urban theories. For example, Wirth (1969) portrayed the city as a place of social isolation with consequent ineffective social control and high likelihood of social pathologies. Additionally, Gans (1962) had con tended that urban social relationships and behavioral patterns were entirely the result of the socio demographic characteristics of their residents without urban contexts themselves having any causal effects. Fischer’s account borrows from each, but it also adds a unique subcultural element.

However, because part of the theory concerns supra individual, ecological level phenomena that are hard to measure with city wide data, the complete theory has not been thoroughly tested. The evidence does seem consistent with the notion that urban dwellers maintain inter personal and familial ties while simultaneously occupying a public world of relative (though not as extreme as earlier accounts suggest) indifference, that many kinds of subcultures do thrive in cities, and that those who are affiliated with such subcultures are more likely to engage in the peculiar behaviors they promote. However, it has not yet been established that cities are the birthplaces or the most nurturing contexts for all subcultures and it is not yet clear whether modern communication systems, particularly the Internet, render cities less relevant to sub cultural formation or the behaviors presumably generated by them.


  1. Fischer, C. S. (1975) Toward a Subcultural Theory of Urbanism. American Journal of Sociology 80: 1319-41.
  2. Fischer, C. S. (1995) The Subcultural Theory of Urbanism: A Twentieth-Year Assessment. Amer ican Journal of Sociology 101: 543-77.
  3. Gans, H. (1962) Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life: A Reevaluation of Definitions. In: Rose, A. M. (Ed.), Human Behavior and Social Process. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, pp. 625-48.
  4. Wirth, L. (1938 [1969]) Urbanism as a Way of Life. In: Sennett, R. (Ed.), Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.

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