Urban sociology

Urban sociology is the sociological study of life and human interaction in metropolitan areas. It is a normative discipline of sociology seeking to study the structures, environmental processes, changes and problems of an urban area and by doing so provide inputs for urban planning and policy making. In other words, it is the sociological study of cities and their role in the development of society.[1]Like most areas of sociology, urban sociologists use statistical analysis, observation, social theory, interviews, and other methods to study a range of topics, including migration and demographic trends, economics, poverty, race relations and economic trends. Urban sociology is one of the oldest sub-disciplines of sociology dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.[2]

The philosophical foundations of modern urban sociology originate from the work of sociologists such as Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber and Georg Simmel who studied and theorized the economic, social and cultural processes of urbanization and its effects on social alienation, class formation, and the production or destruction of collective and individual identities.

These theoretical foundations were further expanded upon and analyzed by a group of sociologists and researchers who worked at the University of Chicago in the early twentieth century. In what became known as the Chicago School of sociology the work of Robert Park, Louis Wirth and Ernest Burgess on the inner city of Chicago revolutionized not only the purpose of urban research in sociology, but also the development of human geography through its use of quantitative and ethnographic research methods. The importance of the theories developed by the Chicago School within urban sociology have been critically sustained and critiqued but still remain one of the most significant historical advancements in understanding urbanization and the city within the social sciences.[3]

Development and rise of urban sociology

Urban sociology rose to prominence within North American academics through a group of sociologists and theorists at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1940 in what became known as the Chicago School of Sociology. The Chicago School of Sociology combined sociological and anthropological theory with ethnographic fieldwork in order to understand how individuals interact within urban social systems.[4][5] Unlike the primarily macro-based sociology that had marked earlier subfields, members of the Chicago School placed greater emphasis on micro-scale social interactions that sought to provide subjective meaning to how humans interact under structural, cultural and social conditions. The theory of symbolic interaction, the basis through which many methodologically-groundbreaking ethnographies were framed in this period, took primitive shape alongside urban sociology and shaped its early methodological leanings. Symbolic interaction was forged out of the writings of early micro-sociologists George Mead and Max Weber, and sought to frame how individuals interpret symbols in everyday interactions. With early urban sociologists framing the city as a 'superorganism', the concept of symbolic interaction aided in parsing out how individual communities contribute to the seamless functioning of the city itself.[6]

Scholars of the Chicago School originally sought to answer a single question: how did an increase in urbanism during the time of the Industrial Revolution contribute to the magnification of contemporary social problems? Sociologists centered on Chicago due to its 'tabula rasa' state, having expanded from a small town of 10,000 in 1860 to an urban metropolis of over two million in the next half-century. Along with this expansion came many of the era's emerging social problems - ranging from issues with concentrated homelessness and harsh living conditions to the low wages and long hours that characterized the work of the many newly arrived European immigrants. Furthermore, unlike many other metropolitan areas, Chicago did not expand outward at the edges as predicted by early expansionist theorists, but instead 'reformatted' the space available in a concentric ring pattern.[7] As with many modern cities the business district occupied the city center and was surrounded by slum and blighted neighborhoods, which were further surrounded by workingmens' homes and the early forms of the modern suburbs. Urban theorists suggested that these spatially distinct regions helped to solidify and isolate class relations within the modern city, moving the middle class away from the urban core and into the privatized environment of the outer suburbs.[8]

Due to the high concentration of first-generation immigrant families in the inner city of Chicago during the early 20th century, many prominent early studies in urban sociology focused upon the transmission of immigrants' native culture roles and norms into new and developing environments. Political participation and the rise in inter-community organizations were also frequently covered in this period, with many metropolitan areas adopting census techniques that allowed for information to be stored and easily accessed by participating institutions such as the University of Chicago. Park, Burgess and McKenzie, professors at the University of Chicago and three of the earliest proponents of urban sociology, developed the Subculture Theories, which helped to explain the often-positive role of local institutions on the formation of community acceptance and social ties.[9] When race relations break down and expansion renders one's community members anonymous, as was proposed to be occurring in this period, the inner city becomes marked by high levels of social disorganization that prevent local ties from being established and maintained in local political arenas.

The rise of urban sociology coincided with the expansion of statistical inference in the behavioural sciences, which helped ease its transition and acceptance in educational institutions along with other burgeoning social sciences. Micro-sociology courses at the University of Chicago were among the earliest and most prominent courses on urban sociological research in the United States.