Urban Sociology: An Overview


Definition: Urban sociology is a branch of sociology that seeks to study life in cities and their impact on society’s development (“Concepts of Urban” n.d.). The scope of urban sociology includes research on urban ecology, urban organization and the mode of living of urban populations.

Introduction: Urban, Urbanism and Urbanization

An urban area can be defined in two ways: demographically and sociologically. The demographic method refers to the size and density of the population in addition to the nature of work taken up by the majority of the adult population. On the other hand, the sociological method focuses on heterogeneity, interdependence and quality of life. For example, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies differentiated between rural (gemeinschaft) and urban (gesellschaft) communities on the basis of social relationships and values. According to him, rural communities consisted of close kinship ties and emphasized tradition and informality while urban communities were dominated by secondary relationships and operated in an impersonal and formal manner (“Unit-25” 2017).

The term urbanism is descriptive of a way of life found in modern cities. The American sociologist Louis Wirth proposed that urbanism was characterized by an impersonal and contractual way of life but at the same time fluid since it varies according to places and times (Anderson 1959).

Another American sociologist Kingsley Davis defined urbanization as the migration of people from agricultural to industrial employment that led to urban living. Urbanization can be measured as the movement of people into cities as well as the outward expansion of urban life (Anderson 1959).

Origin of Urban Sociology

Urban sociology emerged as a distinct sociological discipline in the early 20th century. Social scientists were prompted to make cities a subject matter of study due to the social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution. The scope of the discipline has significantly expanded over the years (“Unit-25” 2017).

Chicago School

The Chicago School of Sociology comprised a group of theorists and sociologists at the University of Chicago who conducted a series of urban sociological studies between 1915 and 1940. The pioneers of the Chicago School were Louis Wirth, Robert E Park, Ernest W Burgess and R D McKenzie. As a discipline, urban sociology expanded along with the city of Chicago. Between the years of 1898 and 1930, the population of Chicago doubled. Unlike other metropolitan areas, the city did not merely expand outwards but also within the existing space. This resulted in an uneven distribution of Chicago’s population. The urban sociologists studied two significant aspects of the city, the spatial pattern and the cultural life. As the city grew, so did its social problems such as homelessness, crime and suicide. By mapping these problems of urban neighbourhoods, resource management became possible and the authorities were able to direct and concentrate services where the issues were most intense (“Unit-25” 2017; “Concepts of Urban” n.d.).

Perspectives of Urban Sociology

Urban Ecology

Urban ecology also called human ecology may be referred to as the first systematic urban sociological theory. Robert E. Park proposed this theory which was concerned with how the human population adapted to their urban environment. Park was influenced by Durkheim’s theory of division of labor and also Darwin’s theory of evolution. According to the human ecological theory, an increase in population along with an expansion of transport networks resulted in the greater specialization of functions within an urban environment. The differentiation of functions would lead to the distribution of economic groups to different spots in the city hence fostering competition. The competition could further result in the formation of a communal equilibrium thus leading to the development of urban communities in a cyclic fashion (“Unit-25” 2017).

Political Economy

There was a paradigm shift in the 1970s when the urban political economy emerged in response to the urban ecological perspective. This new perspective focused on conflict instead of equilibrium as the centre of social order. The political economists used the backdrop of the Marxist historical materialism theory as they studied capitalism, the relations of social classes and the role played by the state in establishing a stable social order. Manuel Castells was a major proponent of the political economy perspective. He published an article asking, “Is there an urban sociology?” in Paris in 1968. Castells critiqued urban ecology by comparing it to modernization and westernization since it was primarily the cultural expression of capitalism. In contrast, he viewed the urban space as the physical expression of capitalism. He was able to explain the division and expansion of cities in terms of economic factors such as class conflict and capital accumulation. David Harvey contributed to Castell’s ideas in 1973 by devoting his attention to the concentration of capital. He argued that the urban space was the rational product of capital accumulation (Walton 1993; “Unit-25” 2017).

New Urban Sociology

During the 1980s, the focus shifted from Marxism to the role of public policy and the state within the urban political economy. Gottdiener, Lefebvre and Castells all argued that greater importance needed to be given to the people residing within a city and their actions while studying an urban environment. Moreover, urban social change ought to be analyzed through gender relationships and ethnic, national and citizen movements (“Unit-25” 2017).

Key Sociologists

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist who is widely considered the Father of Urban Sociology. He chose to study urbanism instead of urbanization. He authored the essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ which detailed his interpretation of life in the urban areas. Simmel also introduced the concept of social distance from which the Bogardus Social Distance Scale was developed (“Urban Sociology” n.d.).

Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher who is considered an essential figure in urban studies. He pioneered the critique of everyday life, which argued that people’s contemporary experiences comprise of an everydayness that has been present since the industrial revolution. Lefebvre posited that this everydayness was a sum of the exploitation, passivity and segregation of activities of urban life and must be battled through awareness and critical thinking (Riano 2020).

Mark Gottdiener is a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo, USA, with a specialization in urban sociology. He has authored two major works, ‘The Social Production of Urban Space’ and ‘The New Urban Sociology’, through which he contributed to the socio-spatial approach to urbanization. This approach talks about the interaction of political, cultural, economic and social forces in urban life (Orum & Gottdeiner 2020).

Third World Urbanization

The Third World experienced an urban explosion between 1950 and 1985. The number of inhabitants in urban spaces in developing countries jumped from 285 million to 1.2 billion people within 35 years (Kasarda & Crenshaw 1991). This is a problematic feature of Third World countries due to their limited assets, high rates of poverty and the enormity of urban growth in a short time period. There are three major approaches to the issue of underdevelopment within these third world countries. Firstly, the modernization theory proposes that developing nations need to adopt the political and economic values of the rich nations. Cities are viewed as instruments of change through international cultural diffusion. Thus, rapid urbanization is seen as a solution to underdevelopment. Secondly, the dependency theory regards the underdeveloped economies at a systematic disadvantage to their industrialized counterparts. According to this theory, the developing nations belonged to a neocolonial arrangement that supplied labor and raw materials to the international community at minimal rates, while the rich countries expanded their profits. Finally, Immanuel Wallerstein proposed the world system theory in 1974. This model offered a semi-periphery in addition to the core (developed) and the periphery (underdeveloped). Wallerstein’s theory was an essential step for the theories of urbanization since it suggested a connection between structural changes in cities all over the world (“Unit-25” 2017).

Urban Problems  


Suburbanization refers to a shift in power and affluence away from the cities. This occurs in the form of suburbs that are areas of development on the fringes of major cities. The causes of suburbanization can be classified into push and pull ones. Push factors are those that encourage people to move out of their original residences from cities to the suburbs. These are related to individuals’ perception that urban spaces are overpopulated and dirty. Furthermore, the United States of America experienced “white flight” after World War Two. This refers to the migration of the majority of white citizens from racially mixed urban areas to more racially homogenous suburban regions. Pull factors are those that invited people to the suburbs. These included more open spaces close to nature and decreased house prices and property taxes as compared to cities. Suburbanization brought with it a significant economic impact in the form of changes in industry, infrastructure and real estate costs. This led to a rise in the risk of urban decline as more and more industries and corporations left urban areas in favour of suburban zones (Boyce 2004; “Urban Problems” n.d.).


Gentrification refers to attempts to convert working-class neighbourhoods into more affluent ones. This is done when wealthier people buy and convert the low-income property into luxury apartments. In the United States of America, the process of gentrification began earnestly in the 1950s and has continued into the new millennium. While this process helps drive up property value and rent, it fails to benefit the lower classes. Pre-gentrification residents are unable to afford the higher rents and property taxes. Thus, gentrification helps create a brand-new boundary of settlement that leads to the loss of culture and heterogeneity (Boyce 2004; “Urban Problems” n.d.).

Urban Poverty

Urban poverty refers to people living in urban areas experiencing some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Insubstantial household income could result in consumption inequalities within a household among men and women and men and children.
  • Finite asset base for both individuals and communities could include material assets like housing non-material assets like social networks
  • Lack of public services such as clean drinking water, sanitation, education and health care
  • Powerlessness may be experienced within the bureaucratic system which refers to receiving no entitlements or not getting a fair response
  • Exploitation and discrimination on the basis of caste, class, age, gender and ethnicity (“How much urban” n.d.).

Movements and Settlements


Migration may be defined as the demographic measure that connects rural regions to urban ones by increasing the growth of cities. This process may have negative consequences. Firstly, migration leads to urbanization which is held responsible for land consumption and pollution. Hence, migration may also be held guilty of environmental degradation. Additionally, migrants may struggle to adapt to the new community and thus may never get absorbed entirely into the receiving society (“Migration” n.d.).


Barry Wellman is a Canadian-American sociologist who proposed three urban community theories that are essential in the study of urban sociology. Firstly, the community lost theory originated in the late 19th century. Rapid industrialization caused the urban population to lose strong ties and be left with impersonal and transitory ties in many social networks. Secondly, the community saved theory developed in the 1960s. It suggested that over some time, urban communities transform to urban villages, where individuals form ties with few individuals who protect each other in the face of structural changes. Finally, the community liberated theory suggests that the urban population is incapable of maintaining strong ties in many communities. However, they have a higher chance of maintaining strong secondary ties since their access to resources is dependent on the quality of ties they observe (“Concepts of Urban” n.d.).

Urban Sociology in India

The evolution of urban sociology within the Indian subcontinent was a prolonged process. The main reason for this was that geographically, the majority of Indian population lived in rural rather than urban areas. Patrick Geddes, a British sociologist, initiated urban studies in India by establishing a department of Sociology at the University of Bombay in 1920. Ever since, G. S. Ghurye, A. R Desai, D. N. Majumdar and a few other scholars displayed immense interest in urban sociology within India. Ghurye studied the historical aspects of urbanization by focusing on the political, ecological and cultural aspects of medieval cities in the 1950s. In the next decade, Max Weber argued that the caste system prevented Indian cities from evolving into locations of fraternization, autonomy and social and legal equality. The 1971 census was an important milestone of urban sociology in India since it revealed a high growth rate of the Indian population. Many vital studies were conducted during this decade revolving around social problems such as beggary, prostitution, slums and juvenile delinquency. The 1980s and 1990s brought with them significant government initiatives on urban studies. This included the publication of a five-volume report by the National Commission on Urbanization, highlighting problems related to urbanization. Furthermore, the National Urban Observatory promoted urban databases at the city level. All of these efforts provided a suitable environment for the growth of urban sociology within India (“Unit-25” 2017).


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