The Shape of Urban Life in the Eyes of Sociology

If you were born millions of years ago, you would probably find yourself a group of people who hunt animals for their livelihood, a group where all  the people have the same purpose in their lives. They all hunt animals, eat and collect whatever they need from the very same source.

How will be Urban Life

Now think, if  you are some 90’s or early 2000’s kid, where do you live now? If it is in an urban area, observe around, you can surely tell that people here do not have the same goals. Why and how is it different from the ancient ones’? How is it different from the rural ones? Sociology tried to find out all the answers.

Chicago School of Sociology has much contribution in developing urban sociology in between 1925-1940. It has applied an ethnographic research in order to understand the drives of urban interactions and symbolism [1]  

What is a Sociologically-Urban-Area?

Sociological view of urban life is quite deep. It has a great combination of various theories by different sociologists. Yet most of the sociologists find it difficult to define an urban area. Louis Wirth, in his article, Urbanism as a Way of Life gave a sociological definition of the city. He says, “For sociological purposes a city maybe defined as a relatively large, dense and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.” He also argued that sociology should emphasize on the cultural aspect rather than geographical aspect.

In 1903  Georg Simmel  wrote an article on urban life which has the headline ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’. It is the first sociological write-up on urbanisation. Therefore Georg Simmel is considered as the father of Urban Sociology.

There are some terms that are used to describe different type of urban areas according to their population density. In 1920, the term Metropolitan Region was first used by the U.S. Census to describe the growing cities and suburban areas. [2] A metropolitan area refers to a densely populated place having urban infrastructure surrounded by less populated area. [3]  It can also be called the urban core which is a part of Megalopolis.

A Short Flashback

Do you know which was the first city in the world? It is  Catalhoyuk  in Neolithic age emerged in approximately 7500 bc. Reasons behind emergence of cities varied time to time. In pre-industrial era cities played the role of centre of the certain empire of that time. In the era of industrialisation, highly industrial areas became cities. So it is easy to tell that cities are always the biggest representative place of an era. You can still see that urban areas are much progressive than rural areas and it changes keeping the pace with time.

The Melting Pot

Concerning urban sociology, there is popular theory by Louis  Wirth called Urbanism. There he used the metaphor melting pot for urban areas. [4] Are you wondering why?

In primitive society, like-minded people lived together, societies were all about homogenous groups. The same culture is still quite maintained in rural areas too. But in an urban area, it is a great combination of heterogeneous people. From profession to the prospect of life, almost everything is variable. Different people play different roles. This is how cities are built up, people are useful to each other. Everyone comes to the city to meet their needs and eventually they fulfil what a city needs. People do not think if they would find similar people like them. Rather it is the livelihood they seek for. No wonder a city is so densely populated. In the words of Louis Wirth “The city has thus historically melting-pot of races, peoples and cultures, and a most-favorable breeding ground of new biological and cultural hybrids.”

Here, if you can remember, the theory of Social Solidarity by Emile Durkheim can be applied to describe the urban environment. Cities definitely visualise the organic solidarity. A high division of labour is present here. As there is lying a wide diversification,  Louis Wirth thinks there is a big chance for Anomie to be created. Mental breakdown, suicide, personal disorder etc are much more like in the urban areas than in the rural ones.

The Social Mosaic

Multiple types of people from remote corners of a country gather in a city in search of livelihood. They are jobless poor people who try to fit in urban culture. Urban society much diverse than a rural one. This is why, Robert E. Park says, “The urban community turns out to be a mosaic of minor communities. Many of them strikingly different one from another, but all more or less typical.” [5] Urban area is a vast combination of subcultures indeed. Besides, an urban area build up its own eco system. A city has factories, educational institutions, charity organisations etc to function. Local communities play the biggest role here. There are slums and there are rich people areas. The neighbourhoods and the organisations represent that even having distinctive characteristics, people try to live here collectively.

You go to school, you meet your schoolmates and teacher. You play a role of a student, the other students are just schoolmates or friends to you, some aged people are the teachers to you. In your family you are the child, the aged woman who was your teacher in your school is a mother in her home. Thus in every organisation, from home to outside, everyone plays a certain role. In urban societies people meet each other through organisations. Most of the time it is not a real person-to-person interaction. Rather it is a role-to-role interaction. Louis Wirth in ‘urbanism’ theory, argued that urbanites meet one-another in highly segmental roles. Some go to school to have education, some  go to offices to maintain their jobs, some pull rickshaw to earn money etc. You barely know a rickshaw puller personally. You just play a role of passenger to reach a place. It is always a secondary level conduct!

Primary level of conducts are much common in rural areas which is almost absent in urban area. This distinguished urban society from the rural one. Louis Wirth believes that the interactions are superficial. It does not involve your heart. It is just about purposes!

The Urban Illusion

When you will finish studying what will you do for living? You will find a job, right? Yes, most of the urban people look for job instead of starting something of their own. Why is it so? Because urban life discourages self employment (according to Louis Wirth).

A city will provide you with higher income, will create an expectation of a better life. You will go to a city or town for better living, then you will find yourself actually in a mess. Expenses are higher, so higher income does not consist meaning that much. Social bonds are so weak that one cannot get social support most of the time.

Economic structure is way rigid that it affects on lifestyle all over. From the daily needs to the recreation sources, everything has to be bought with money. The realm of capitalistic system can clearly be seen here. Urban life creates an illusion by showing lots of social benefits, but most of the urbanites have to face a lot of barriers daily.

In Closing

A city or urban area in this era is basically a result of capitalism and therefore industrialization. The lives of urbanites reflect how capitalistic mechanism works. Cities are actually cultural basement of capitalism (weber, 1958) [6]  

Heterogeneous population of a city indicates their tolerance. They might behave selfish yet they know how to accept people with different ideologies. Thjil Sunier, a professor in VU University Amsterdam, claims that cities are being more and more tolerant nowadays. He gave example of Amsterdam city where people from different religions are welcome. Idea of secularism emerged recently and being widely accepted now. [7]

A city of people can create new ideas and even revolution. We saw how French Revolution was fueled by Paris. An urban life is colorful and has a deep story.

Also Read: Sociology of Slums


  1. Fannagan W., Contemporary Urban Sociology,  Cambridge, University of Cambridge, 1993
  2. U.S. Bureau of the Census
  3. Squirs, G.Ed. Urban Sprawl, Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses, the urban publication 2002
  4. Louis Wirth, Urbanism as a way of Life, American Journal of Sociology
  5. Park Dixton Goist, City and ‘community’: The Urban Theory by Robert Perk, American Quarterly. vol-23, spring-1971
  6. Mark Gottdiener, Ray Hutchinson, The New Urban Sociology, 4th edition, Westview Press
  7. Thjil Sunier, A tolerant Social Climate? Questioning the validity of an overly positive self-image, Amsterdam University Press
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Mahratun Samha, UG Student at Department of Sociology in University of Dhaka