Do Cities Tear Us Apart?

Part One: When Sociologists Feared Cities

If you live in an urban setting, your relationships with others may be entirely impersonal, superficial, and transitory.

Or so sociologists thought in the early twentieth century.

City markets like this one in Seattle have united neighborhoods in ways that early urban theorists might not have predicted.


At that time, most sociologists were grappling with how modern, highly-differentiated societies would maintain their social order. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists like Émile Durkheim, Charles Cooley, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Robert E. Park all examined particular dimensions of social life in modern contexts. Drawing on the work of German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, several scholars traced out a transformation from gemeinschaft (community) to gesellschaft (society). In gemeinschaft settings, people were united by personal and intimate relationships, many were interrelated by blood or marriage, and most felt a permanent connection to the land and group. In contrast, more modern gesellschaft settings were an “artificial construction” of humans merely coexisting together, interacting primarily out of calculated self-interest.

Tönnies believed modern societies would simultaneously feature both types of groups and settings. Early urban sociologists, however, saw modern cities as almost entirely gesellschaft-ordered social worlds. What emerged was a theory of “urbanism determinism”: a belief that urban settings necessarily produce outcomes of social disorganization, interpersonal estrangement, and personality disorders. Writing in 1903, Georg Simmel described modern cities as full of “impersonal contents and offerings” which overwhelmed the individual psyche, requiring an intentional distancing and withdrawal to survive. Chicago sociologist Robert Park, who studied with Simmel in Berlin, concluded that American urban environments undermined face-to-face relationships and local ties, thereby removing structures necessary for personal restraint and inhibition. Park developed an “ecological theory” of urban human behavior: modern cities were impressing a harmful moral order upon their inhabitants that generated higher crime and instability.

The urbanism-determinist view was further developed in a 1938 article written by Louis Wirth, a student of Park. The distinctive features of urban life for Wirth are the “weakening bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of the neighborhood, and the undermining of the traditional basis of social solidarity.” The result was the loss of “spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society…essentially the state of anomie or the social void.”

Nearly all social historians and urban sociologists now recognize that this uni-linear notion of social change lacks supporting evidence. In a comprehensive critique of the “loss of community” myth, historian Thomas Bender argues counter-evidence to the urbanism determinist view was already mounting when Wirth wrote his article, and even Park recognized that some groups—particularly enclaves of inner-city immigrants—seemed able to maintain strong senses of gemeinschaft within urban settings. Drawing on both national and placed-based survey data, Claude Fischer has argued for nearly five decades that urban environments play host to all sorts of dense networks, strong subcultures, and meaningful interpersonal relationships. Urban ethnographies like William F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society reveal no shortage of connectedness, shared values, and common life even in poorer inner-city areas. The death of gemeinschaft, it seems, had been greatly exaggerated.

So why did early urban sociologists mistakenly overstate this sharp dichotomy? Was it merely a conservative romanticism for pre-modern and rural societies? While scholars are not immune to such tendencies, there may be another reason: disciplinary legitimation.

The “dangers of urbanization” myth served sociologists in providing a “social problem” which only sociology, as a newly emerging discipline, could solve. Sociologist Robert Meier argues in a 1982 American Journal of Sociology article that the “theoretical problem of social order” in cities allowed sociologists to take up the task of uncovering mechanisms that could “assume the nurturing influence” once held by families and face-to-face relationships. Meier argues that alongside sociology’s scientific aspiration was a particular moralizing impulse: urban sociologists tended to contrast the “natural” social control of rural, more homogenous settings with the social pathologies that needed corrected in cities. Sociology then legitimates itself as the study of social control and its threats.

Despite these early sociologists overstating the effects of urbanization, what can we learn from them today? First, as Richard Sennett observes, early urban studies theorists were all working against purely economic explanations of modern social life that ignored the complex and creative dimensions of the human experience. As they rightly observed, the spatial, cultural, social, and institutional arrangements of cities all hold irreducible causal power that should be accounted for in evaluating urban settings.

Second, as Fischer affirms throughout his work, these theorists were not mistaken in seeing immediate social relations­—one’s “primary group” or “reference group”—as extremely central in shaping an individual’s sense of reality and ability to integrate into wider society. Decades of sociological research have confirmed Park’s observation that people of similar tastes and temperaments frequently associate together, providing “not merely a stimulus but a moral support for the traits they have in common.” This “homophily” tendency—the likeness of those like ourselves—continues to shape urban life today.

Finally, early urban sociologists, in their most moralizing moments, worked from a particular philosophical anthropology that recognized human development as an irreducibly social process. Their moralizing impulses were largely driven by an assumption that an individual’s wellbeing and flourishing hinged on particular social configurations in which the individual is embedded. It logically followed that, if a transformative phenomenon like urbanization drastically reordered or eradicated that arrangement, the viability of moral order and a shared moral life becomes a crucial area of sociological exploration.

Today, as sociologists and urban planners work within even more diverse and globalized settings, the challenge of evaluating rapidly changing social arrangements will likely persist for the foreseeable future. Perhaps a central shortcoming of the urbanism-determinist thesis was an imaginative shortsightedness regarding the variety of social configurations capable of producing vibrant and flourishing urban life. What was needed then—and is still needed today—is a robust, multidisciplinary approach to urban studies that gives attention to basic human needs, the primacy of social connectedness, and the recurring conditions of human flourishing.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture. 

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