Urban Community Studies

Urban community studies consist of a range of case studies, comparisons, and local analyses that explore the local cultures, relationships, interactions and identities. As cities in the US experienced rapid growth during the early twentieth century, sociologists speculated about how the interactions and relationships in these urban settings would be influenced by a swelling population, advanced technology, and a mounting flow of immigrants. With the population of urban centers like Chicago approaching a population of 2 million in the early 1900s, urban centers provided sociologists with an opportunity to examine how inhabitants would adjust to the growing populations and the diversity within these spaces. The result of these early inquiries would be the establishment of a premier American school of urban sociology and a long tradition of urban community studies in the field of sociology.

The intellectual roots of urban community studies can be traced to Tonnies’s Community and Society (1887) and Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society (1893). Tonnies contrasted the types of human interactions present in pre industrial societies to interactions in industrialized societies. He argued the Gemeinschaft world is characterized by close knit ties among family, kin, and neighbors. In these cohesive societies, individuals are very familiar with one another. However, in the modern Gesellschaft world of the city, relationships are based on self interest, and close knit relationships are replaced by work based and interest based relationships. Continuing this line of thought, Durkheim discussed the type of relationships in societies with a complex division of labor. He argued that in areas characterized by large populations and a highly specialized form of division of labor, solidarity was no longer based on common values, but rather dependence and a reliance on each other’s skills. Durkheim described this type of solidarity as organic solidarity. In a society with organic solidarity, it becomes harder for individuals to create bonds with each other. As a result, individuals in these societies experienced feelings of alienation.

Tonnies and Durkheim’s classic generalizations about the interactions in industrialized societies can be identified in our definitions and perceptions of urban communities today. While community can be viewed as a particular geographic location, the concept of community also assumes that certain types of relationships and social ties exist. With this in mind, scholars typically agree that social ties, interaction, and geographic location are the three essential components for defining community (Hillary 1955).

Over the course of time, Tonnies and Durkheim’s ideas on the social relations in urban areas would influence American sociology. Sociologists from the Chicago School were responsible for some of the most prominent studies on urban community life in the US. Com paring the city to an ecological system, studies out of the Chicago School viewed the neighborhood as part of a larger system. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess’s The City (1929) used concentric circle models to demonstrate the growth of urban areas. The concentric model illustrates the outward expansion of the city from the core or the central business district. Within the zones of urban growth are local districts or communities and these in turn are subdivided into smaller areas called neighborhoods. According to the concentric model, neighborhoods tend to develop according to the growth and development of the city.

Prominent works out of the Chicago School tradition like Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and Slum (1929) suggested that the term community could only be loosely applied to several of the neighborhoods. He argued that in respect to some of the subdivisions of this area, community only served as a geographical expression. Neighborhoods within the area lacked common traditions and feelings associated with traditional societies. Although the studies out of the Chicago tradition made great contributions to sociology, the school’s heavy emphasis on the city and larger ecological forces minimized the role of individuals in creating solidarity or a sense of community within their own neighborhoods.

Years later, Herbert Gans’s The Urban Villagers (1962) found that a close set of relationships could exist in so called urban slum neighbor hoods. In a slum neighborhood in Boston, Gans observed the interconnectedness of peer groups (or the peer group society), institutions (community), and the out group or outside world of the residents. The area Gans described had a sense of cohesion or solidarity that was fostered through interactions with peer groups that included not only family or relatives but neighbors as well. Gerald Suttles’s The Social Order of the Slum (1968) also depicted a form of community solidarity in an urban slum district. Suttles’s observations of a Chicago neighborhood found that various ethnic groups were able to share social spaces and connect over the sense of shared space despite intergroup tensions. The sense of belonging to the same place allowed the residents to unite in response to outside threats from other neighborhoods.

Over the past two decades, urban community scholars have focused on the concentration of poverty in metropolitan areas. There is a growing body of literature that seeks to examine the role of neighborhood poverty on individual life chances. The neighborhood poverty literature attempts to understand the connection between neighborhood poverty and unemployment, crime, high school completion, and out of wedlock births. While neighborhood effect studies represent a growing concern in the field of urban community work, one of the challenges for those who study neighborhood effects revolves around the conceptualization and measurement of neighborhood.

A neighborhood is more than just a physical location or geographic space. Urban scholars are usually interested in the interactions and social networks that take place within a particular geographic space, hence the interchangeable use of the terms neighborhood and community. Small and Newman (2001) suggest there are various dimensions to neighborhood, such as a set of institutions, cultures, social spaces, and networks that should all be taken into consideration when designing research on neighborhood effects. Without considering the multiple layers of the concept of neighborhood, it becomes increasingly hard to determine the effects of neighborhoods on individuals.

Researchers who study the effects of neighborhoods also have to consider how neighbor hoods are measured in their studies. Census tracts do not always provide an adequate operational definition of neighborhood. One limitation of using census tracts to operationalize neighborhoods is that it does not account for residents’ perceptions of neighborhood boundaries. Small and Newman (2001) argue a resident’s perception of the neighborhood boundaries can act as a determinant of how a neighborhood affects a resident. One alternative to using census tract data in neighborhood research is to use neighborhood clusters or boundaries drawn by the research for the purpose of studying neighborhood effects.

While contributions of the neighborhood effect literature delineate a range of social problems associated with urban community life, other scholars have attempted to highlight the agency of residents in urban communities. Instead of viewing communities as simply ‘‘containers of poverty,’’ this vein of work attempts to demonstrate how residents assign meaning to their communities and how they negotiate the use of public spaces in neighborhoods. In the text Streetwise (1990), Anderson argues that the social life in the inner city community consists of various rules and strategies for various interactions. He examines how residents in an urban community negotiate the use of public spaces. Anderson argues that individuals who are streetwise understand the rules of interaction for specific places within the community. Streetwise individuals know how to interpret gestures and body comportment of those within the community. The mutual respect and understanding of the rules of interaction ultimately contribute to a social order of community life. Anderson emphasizes that although negotiating public space in the community helps to maintain a certain order, it does not totally alleviate the social problems in the urban communities.

Gotham and Brumley (2002) examined how public housing residents ‘‘use space’’ in order both to create and reject identities. While the physical spaces in the neighborhood did influence the actions of the residents, the authors also argue that residents actively create safe spaces, and hot spaces (dangerous spots in the community), through their interactions and actions with one another. Using safe spaces allows residents to create respectable identities and to disavow the negative identities associated with public housing residents.

One of the oldest and most preferred methods used to study urban communities is ethno graphic field research. In order to study certain urban communities, sociologists may move into a neighborhood or participate in various neighborhood meetings and organizations. The use of this method can also be traced to the early days of the Chicago School. Park and his colleagues produced a number of ethnographic case studies of neighborhoods. Some of the ethnographic studies out of the Chicago School tradition include William Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943) – which focused on life in an Italian American slum district in Boston – and Drake and Clayton’s Black Metropolis (1945), a study of Chicago’s black residential neighborhoods.

Contemporary urban community studies continue to draw on the Chicago School sociological tradition of ethnographic case studies of communities. Recent sociological works from Mary Pattillo McCoy and Maria Kefalas (2003) provide ethnographic accounts of life in urban communities. Pattillo McCoy’s Black Picket Fences (1999) examines the social organization of a black middle class neighborhood in Chicago. Over a 3 year period, she embedded herself in neighborhood life by coaching cheerleading, participating in church and neighborhood meetings, and working on local campaigns. Kefalas’s Working Class Heroes (2003) is based on her observations and extensive field notes of meetings and events in a Chicago working class community. She uses ethnographic accounts to demonstrate how race and class shape residents’ attachment to place.

Ethnographic studies have been useful in understanding the organization of certain neighborhoods and the interactions among the residents in urban communities. However, urban ethnographers face a range of challenges while conducting field research. Although a researcher may reside in a neighborhood with the hopes of carrying out research, there is still the issue of gaining access to the community. In many cases, urban ethnographies require the assistance of a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers are individuals who can assist researchers in navigating the community and gaining additional contact within the community (Whyte 1997). In Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943) his key informant, Doc, was responsible for introducing him to other contacts in the community and helping him to learn the ropes in the community. Kefalas (2003) also indicates that her gate keepers introduced her to other members of the community and served as unofficial tour guides. She also acknowledges that information from her informants provided a ‘‘foundation’’ for her work. In addition to gaining access to the field, researchers who study urban communities are also challenged with the task of connecting their work to larger social scientific questions and concerns. Ethnographic studies of urban communities offer audiences vivid depictions of the lives of inhabitants, but thick descriptions and narratives alone will not advance the field of sociology. The data from these ethnographies should advance sociological knowledge by either generating theory or expanding existing theory.

Urban community scholars also rely on survey methods to test models of community participation and residents’ attachment to place. For instance, one of the most common models used to explain social interaction in communities is the systemic model put forth by Kasarda and Janowitz (1974). The systemic model suggests that length of residence is more important in predicting attachment to community than variables such as community size and density. Using survey data, the scholars provided support for the systemic model and rejected the linear development model that suggests that size and density are the primary factors that influence attachment to community. Guest (2000) addresses some of the limitations of the systemic model by considering the role of extra community relations in community attachment.

In addition to testing the models that explain the level of interaction within communities, researchers have used survey studies to test the social disorganization of inner city neighbor hoods. For example, Rankin and Quane (2000) use survey research to test the social isolation thesis by examining the importance of neighborhood characteristics on the networks and community participation of residents. Although survey research has been useful in developing and supporting community models, it can be difficult to find data sets that contain information on a variety of neighborhoods and information on both neighborhood characteristics and individuals (Ainsworth 2002).

Future community research will have to address a range of issues. Sociologists have already recast the community lost debate, or the argument that the tight knit associations and interactions among people in a geographic location are gradually eroding. As virtual communities become more prevalent feature of our society, urban community scholars will have to consider how urban communities will be affected by the occurrence of virtual communities. While virtual communities and cyberspace represent a new set of challenges for urban scholarship, some issues linger from previous decades. Urban community scholars are still faced with some of the similar issues that Park and his colleagues addressed over 60 years ago. Issues like immigration, swelling urban areas, and residential segregation are still features of the urban landscape. However, unlike their predecessors, urban scholars now have to tackle these issues in the context of globalization.


  1. Ainsworth, J. (2002) Why Does It Take a Village? The Mediation of Neighborhood Effects on Educational Achievement. Social Forces 81(1): 117-52.
  2. Flanagan, W. (1993) Contemporary Urban Sociology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Gotham, K. & Brumley, K. (2002) Using Space: Agency and Identity in a Public Housing Development. City and Community 1(3): 267-89.
  4. Guest, A. (2000) The Mediate Community. Urban Affairs Review 35: 603-27.
  5. Hillary, G. (1955) Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement. Rural Sociology 20: 111-23.
  6. Kasarda, J. & Janowitz, M. (1974) Community Attachment in Mass Society. American Sociological Review 39: 328-39.
  7. Kefalas, M. (2003) Working Class Heroes: Protecting Home, Community and Nation in a Chicago Neighborhood. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  8. Rankin, B. & Quane, J. (2000) Neighborhood Poverty and the Social Isolation of Inner-City African American Families. Social Forces 79(1): 139-64.
  9. Small, M. & Newman, K. (2001) Urban Poverty after the Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood and Culture. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 23-45.
  10. Whyte, W. (1997) Creative Problem Solving in the Field. Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

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