Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Power of the Past: Classical Sociology and the Urban Present


Andy Zieleniec

We live in times that have been variously described as post-industrial, post-modern, post-ideological. Whilst there may be some veracity in these analyses as they are applied to western developed nations where the fruits, however bitter, of a neo-liberal politics and economics are vicariously distributed in unequal portions, it is less certain how well these epithets fit for nations and regions in the developing world. What can be said with certainty is that for the southern hemisphere it is certainly not a post-urbanising world.

In the Northern hemisphere the twin processes of modernity, urbanisation and industrialisation, have been experienced for some 150 years and may have reached their zenith. Evidence for de-industrialisation (the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, mineral extraction, etc.) and the development of a reliance on service sector employment and income generation is also marked by socio-spatial inequalities as some towns/cities or regions do better than others in the changed economic climate. Similarly cities in the northern hemisphere are experiencing a demographic change in which growth rates have declined or, as in many cases, are showing signs of a movement of people away from urban living as a return to the suburb or country marks a lifestyle choice in which commuting longer distances is an accepted part of everyday existence.

However, globalisation as expressed in the flows of power, finance and status (see Sassen, 1991, Castells 1996, etc.) has also been experienced as flows of people. Migration is an international phenomenon that has seen vast movements of people not only from country to country, region to region but also as a movement from the country to the town and city. Thus whilst Britain became the first predominantly urban nation in 1850 the rest of the world has inexorably been moving in the direction of urban growth.

The fastest rates of urban growth are now no longer in the developed world but in those parts of the world that has, so to speak, previously lagged behind. As UN figures indicate the population of the world that is living in towns and cities is still increasing and as the figures demonstrate (http://esa.un.org/unup/), in 2010, half the world’s population will be urban. What we can also determine is that the world is not only becoming increasingly and more dominantly urban but that the fastest growth rates are in developing countries.

The scale of urbanisation and the growth rate and size of 21st century mega-cities is much greater than that experienced in 19th century Europe and America. We also now see mega-cities of a demographic and geographical scale never before experienced in the history of human populations.

The prospect of growth for the worlds’ largest cities (See: United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision) demonstrates that in the 21st century there will be a radical change in the living conditions and experience of hundreds of millions of people as the shift from rural based populations to urban cities necessitates changes in ways of life and of cultures.

However, despite the differences of scale it can be argued that much of the social theory that developed as a means to explain the shift from feudalism to capitalism and from agrarian to urban societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries still has some pertinence when seeking to understand and analyse contemporary processes and experiences. I will provide a few examples below that emphasises both the development of sociology as an academic discipline and much of its foundational social theory as inspired and influenced by the transition to urban, industrial and capitalist societies and that these very insights still have relevance for understanding the modern world.

The founders fathers [sic] of sociology all considered in various ways how modern industrial and urban society had an impact on social relations. Karl Marx amongst other things, along side his collaborator Fredrick Engels, demonstrated how social (class) inequalities became much more clearly elaborated in industrial urban societies and this would, for them lead to the development of a revolutionary working class conscious of itself and its potential. Emile Durkheim also considered that the breakdown in traditional social norms was in part due to the increased moral and social densities that people in urban societies were increasingly subjected to. Max Weber, in his analysis of the historical development of ‘ideal types’ of city was also concerned about their bureaucratic organisation and administration as a means to mitigate revolutionary change.

In all of these one can see how such issues and concerns still have relevance in contemporary urban settings. The problem of continuing socio-spatial inequalities can be shown in the huge disparities between the wealthy and the rest in many cities that is expressed by amongst other things the rise of the favellas or shanty town existing alongside ‘gated communities’ or securitised residential enclaves for the rich. Weber’s assessment of the increasing role of administrative elites in attempting to organise and plan functions and services in urban centres, not least policing and law and order functions, is a concern in most urban areas. Similarly, Durkheim’s identification of changes in social norms and traditions as the result of increasing population densities and opportunities for new types and kinds of interactions is still a feature of societies today undergoing rapid urban growth.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th there was also a concern with how the changes wrought by technological and social developments was impacting not only on the structure of society but also on the experience of individuals and groups as they go about their lives in an increasingly urban world. Ferdinand Tonnies (1897) in his work on the differences between types of social organisation in predominantly rural settlements (Community) versus those found in the city (Association) points to changes in social structure and experience that is being felt in societies today as they move from agrarian dominated activities and arrangements versus those found in the city. One can look to the experience of China is recent years as rapid urban growth and industrialisation is changing the social fabric of Chinese society. Georg Simmel in his famous essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (original 1903) as well as in his other works on the city stressed the social and psychological consequences of an increasingly faster, more intense experience of life in modern cities. Simmel’s analysis of late 19th century European cities still has resonance and relevance for understanding and studying the consequences for individuals and groups who have migrated to the city and are faced with a multitude of new stimuli, experiences and opportunities (not all of them positive).

I could expand on these examples as well as to bring in other theories of urban change, structure and culture to develop my claim that there is a need for an understanding of past theoretical perspectives in order to understand the new world order of urbanisation in this era of globalisation. We need to know how the urban was understood and analysed in the past in order to be able to recognise and identify similarities as well as differences with the experience of urbanisation in an era of globalisation.

To paraphrase Karl Marx: “if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it” and we would do well to take heed of this warning lest we may end up re-inventing the wheel in 21st century urban studies. The past still has a power to illuminate the present.

Select Bibliography

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society Oxford: Blackwell Ch 6-7

Chadwick, E. (1842/1965) Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press

Durkheim, E. (1933) The Division of Labour in Society, New York, Free Press

Engels, F. (1848) “The Housing Question” reprint in Marx/Engels: Collected Works, Lawrence and Wishart

Engels, F. (1958) The Condition of the Working class in England. Oxford, Blackwell.

Mearns, A., (1883/1970) The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the London Poor, London

Park, Robert E., Ernest Burgess, Roderic McKenzie (1925). The City, University of Chicago Press.

Sassen, S. (1991) The Global City Chichester N.J: Princeton U.P.

Simmel, G. (1903) “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in Kasinitz, P. (ed.) (1995) Metropolis: Centre and Symbol of Our Times Basingstoke, Palgrave and Malcolm Miles and Tim Hall (eds.), (2004) The City Cultures Reader (2nd edition) London, Routledge

Simmel, G. (1997) ‘Sociology of Space’ and ‘Bridge and Door’ in D. Frisby & M. Featherstone (eds.) Simmel on Culture. London: Sage. pp.137-174.

Tönnies, F. (orig. 1887) Community and Society, any edition,

Weber, M. (1966) The City New York Free Press

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