Urbanism as a way of life

 

By Louis Wirth

 

 

The City and Contemporary Civilisation

 

Just as the beginning of Western civilization is marked by the permanent settlement of formerly nomadic peoples in the Mediterranean basin, so the beginning of what is distinctively modern in our civilization is best signalized by the growth of great cities...

 

Because the city is the product of growth rather than of instantaneous creation, it is to be expected that the influences which it exerts upon the modes of life should not be able to wipe out completely the previously dominant modes of human association. To a greater or lesser degree, therefore, our social life bares the imprint of an earlier folk society, the characteristic modes of settlement of which were the farm, the manor, and the village. This historic influence is reinforced by the circumstances that the population of the city itself is in large measure recruited from the countryside, where a mode of life reminiscent of this earlier form of existence persists. Hence we should not expect to find abrupt and discontinuous variation between urban and rural types of personality. The city and the country may be regarded as two poles in reference to one or the other of which all human settlements tend to arrange themselves. In viewing urban-industrial and rural-folk society as ideal types of communities, we may obtain a perspective for the analysis of the basic models of human association as they appear in contemporary civilization.

 

 

A sociological definition of the city

 

...A sociologically significant definition(1) of the city seeks to select those elements of urbanism which mark it as a distinctive mode of human group life.

 

The characterization of a community as urban on the basis of size alone is obviously arbitrary...

 

As long as we identify urbanism with the physical entity of the city, viewing it merely as rigidly delimited in space, and proceed as if urban attributes abruptly ceased to be manifested beyond an arbitrary boundary line, we are not likely to arrive at any adequate conception of urbanism as a mode of life. The technological developments in transportation and communication which virtually mark a new epoch in human history have accentuated the role of cities as dominant elements in our civilization and have enormously extended the urban mode of living beyond the confines of the city itself. The dominance of the city, especially of the great city, may be regarded as a consequence of the concentration in cities of industrial, commercial, financial, and administrative facilities and actvities, transportation and communication lines, and cultural and recreational equipment such as the press, radio stations, theaters, libraries, museums, concert halls, operas, hospitals, colleges, research and publishing centers, professional organizations, and religious and welfare institutions. Were it not for the attraction and suggestions that the city exerts through these instrumentalities upon the rural population, the differences between the rural and the urban modes of life2 would he even greater than they are. Urbanization no longer denotes merely the process by which persons are attracted to a place called the city and incorporated into its system of life. It refers also to that cumulative accentuation of the characteristics distinctive of the mode of life which is associated with the growth of cities, and finally to the changes in the direction of modes of life recognized as urban which are apparent among people, wherever they may be, who have come under the spell of the influences which the city exerts by virtue of the power of its institutions and personalities operating through the means of communication and transportation.

 

The shortcomings which attach to number of inhabitants as a criterion of urbanism apply for the most part to density of population as well... Since our census enumerates the night rather than the day population of an area, the locale of the most intensive urban life the city center generally has low population density, and the industrial and commercial areas of the city, which contain the most characteristic economic activities underlying urban society, would scarcely anywhere be truly urban if density were literally interpreted as a mark of urbanism. The fact that the urban community is distinguished by a large aggregation and relatively3 dense concentration of population can scarcely be left out of account in a definition of the city; nevertheless these criteria must be seen as relative to the general cultural context in which cities arise and exist...

 

A sociological definition must obviously be inclusive enough to comprise whatever essential characteristics these different types of cities have in common as social entities, but it obviously cannot be so detailed as to take account of all the variations implicit in the manifold classes sketched above. Presumably some of the characteristics of cities are more significant in conditioning the nature of urban life than others, and we may expect the outstanding features of the urban-social scene to vary in accordance with size, density, and differences in the functional type of cities. Moreover, we may infer that rural life will bear the imprint of urbanism in the measure that through contact and communication it comes under the influence of cities...

 

It is particularly important to call attention to the danger of confusing urbanism with industrialism and modern capitalism. The rise of cities in the modern world is undoubtedly not independent of the emergence of modern power-driven machine technology, mass production, and capitalistic enterprise; but different as the cities of earlier epochs may have been by virtue of their development in a preindustrial and precapitalistic order from the great cities of today, they were also cities.

 

For sociological purposes a city may be defined as a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals. On the basis of the postulates which this minimal definition suggests, a theory of urbanism may be formulated in the light of existing knowledge concerning social groups.

 

 

 

A Theory of Urbanism...

The central problem of the sociologist of the city is to discover the forms of social action and organization that typically emerge in relatively permanent, compact settlements of large numbers of heterogeneous individuals. We must also infer that urbanism will assume its most characteristic and extreme form in the measure in which the conditions with which it is congruent are present. Thus the larger, the more densely populated, and the more heterogeneous a community, the more accentuated the characteristics associated with urbanism will be. It should be recognized, however, that social institutions and practices may be accepted and continued for reasons other than those that originally brought them into existence, and that accordingly the urban mode of life may be perpetuated under conditions quite foreign to those necessary for its origin...

 

The city has thus historically been the melting-pot of races4, peoples, and cultures, and a most favorable breeding-ground of new biological and cultural hybrids. It has not only tolerated but rewarded individual differences. It has brought together people from the ends of the earth because they are different and thus useful to one another, rather than because they are homogeneous and like-minded.

 

A number of sociological propositions concerning the relationship between (A) numbers of population, (B) density of settlement, (C) heterogeneity of inhabitants and group life can be formulated on the basis of observation and research.

 

 

Size of the population aggregate

 

Ever since Aristotle's politics, it has been recognized that increasing the number of inhabitants in a settlement beyond a certain limit will affect the relationships between them and the character of the city. Large numbers involve, as has been pointed out, a greater range of individual variation. Furthermore, the greater the number of individuals participating in a process of interaction, the greater is the potential differentiation between them. The personal traits, the occupations, the cultural life, and the ideas of the members of an urban community may, therefore, be expected to range between more widely separated poles than those of rural inhabitants.

 

That such variations should give rise to the spatial segregation of individuals according to color, ethnic heritage, economic and social status, tastes and preferences, may readily be inferred. The bonds of kinship, of neighborliness, and the sentiments arising out of living together for generations under a common folk tradition5 are likely to be absent or, at best, relatively weak in an aggregate the members of which have such diverse origins and backgrounds. Under such circumstances competition and formal control mechanisms furnish the substitutes for the bonds of solidarity that are relied upon to hold a folk society together...

 

Characteristically, urbanites meet one another in highly segmental roles. They are, to be sure, dependent upon more people for the satisfactions of their life-needs than are rural people and thus are associated with a greater number of organized groups, but they are less dependent upon particular persons, and their dependence upon others is confined to a highly fractionalized aspect of the other's round of activity. This is essentially what is meant by saying that the city is characterized by secondary rather than primary contacts6. The contacts of the city may indeed be face to face, but they are nevertheless impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental. The reserve, the indifference, and the blasť outlook which urbanites manifest in their relationships may thus be regarded as devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others.

 

The superficiality, the anonymity7, and the transitory character of urban social relations make intelligible, also, the sophistication and the rationality generally ascribed to city-dwellers. Our acquaintances tend to stand in a relationship of utility to us in the sense that the role which each one plays in our life is overwhelmingly regarded as a means for the achievement of our own ends. Whereas the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontancous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society. This constitutes essentially the state of anomia, or the social void, to which Durkheim alludes in attempting to account for the various forms of social disorganization in technological society.

 

The segmental character and utilitarian accent of interpersonal relations in the city find their institutional expression in the proliferation of specialized tasks which we see in their most developed form in the professions. The operations of the pecuniary nexus lead to predatory relationships, which tend to obstruct the efficient functioning of the social order unless checked by professional codes and occupational etiquette. The premium put upon utility and efficiency suggests the adaptability of the corporate device for the organization of enterprises in which individuals can engage only in groups. The advantage that the corporation has over the individual entrepreneur and the partnership in the urban-industrial world derives not only from the possibility it affords of centralizing the resources of thousands of individuals or from the legal privilege of limited liability and perpetual succession, but from the fact that the corporation has no soul.

 

The specialization of individuals, particularly in their occupations, can proceed only, as Adam Smith pointed out, upon the basis of an enlarged market, which in turn accentuates the division of labor. This enlarged market is only in part supplied by the city's hinterland; in large measure it is found among the large numbers that the city itself contains. The dominance of the city over the surrounding hinterland becomes explicable in terms of the division of labor which urban life occasions and promotes. The extreme degree of interdependence and the unstable equilibrium of urban life are closely associated with the division of labor and the specialization of occupations. This interdependence and this instability are increased by the tendency of each city to specialize in those functions in which it has the greatest advantage.

 

In a community composed of a larger number of individuals than can know one another intimately and can be assembled in one spot, it becomes necessary to communicate through indirect media and to articulate individual interests by a process of delegation. Typically in the city, interests are made effective through representation. The individual counts for little, but the voice of the representative is heard with a deference roughly proportional to the numbers for whom he speaks...

 

Density as in the case of numbers, so in the case of concentration in limited space certain consequences of relevance in sociological analysis of the city emerge. Of these only a few can he indicated.

 

As Darwin pointed out for flora and fauna and as Durkheim noted in the case of human societies, an increase in numbers when area is held constant (i.e., an increase in density) tends to produce differentiation and specialization, since only in this way can the area support increased numbers8. Density thus reinforces the effect of numbers in diversifying men and their activities and in increasing the complexity of the social structure.

 

On the subjective side, as Simmel has suggested, the close physical contact of numerous individuals necessarily produces a shift in the media through which we orient ourselves to the urban milieu, especially to our fellow-men. Typically, our physical contacts are close but our social contacts are distant. The urban world puts a premium on visual recognition. We see the uniform which denotes the role of the functionaries, and are oblivious to the personal eccentricities hidden behind the uniform. We tend to acquire and develop a sensitivity to a world of artifacts, and become progressively farther removed from the world of nature.

 

We are exposed to glaring contrasts between splendor and squalor, between riches and poverty, intelligence and ignorance, order and chaos. The competition for space is great, so that each area generally tends to be put to the use which yields the greatest economic return. Place of work tends to become dissociated from place of residence, for the proximity of industrial and commercial establishments makes an area both economicany and socially undesirable for residential purposes.

 

Density, land values, rentals, accessibility, healthfulness, prestige, aesthetic consideration, absence of nuisances such as noise, smoke, and dirt determine the desirability of various areas of the city as places of settlement for different sections of the population. Place and nature of work, income, racial and ethnic characteristics, social status, custom, habit, taste, preference, and prejudice are among the significant factors in accordance with which the urban population is selected and distributed into more or less distinct settlements. Diverse population elements inhabiting a compact settlement thus become segregated from one another in the degree in which their requirements and modes of life are incompatible and in the measure in which they are antagonistic. Similarly, persons of homogeneous status and needs unwittingly drift into, consciously select, or are forced by circumstances into the same area. The different parts of the city acquire specialized functions, and the city consequently comes to resemble a mosaic of social worlds in which the transition from one to the other is abrupt. The juxtaposition of divergent personalities and modes of life tends to produce a relativistic perspective and a sense of toleration of differences which may be regarded as prerequisites for rationality and which lead toward the secularization of life.

 

The close living together and working together of individuals who have no sentimental and emotional ties foster a spirit of competition, aggrandizement, and mutual exploitation. Formal controls are instituted to counteract irresponsibility and potential disorder. Without rigid adherence to predictable routines a large compact society would scarcely be able to maintain itself. The clock and the traffic signal are symbolic of the basis of our social order in the urban world. Frequent close physical contact, coupled with great social distance, accentuates the reserve of unattached individuals toward one another and, unless compensated by other opportunities for response, gives rise to loneliness. The necessary frequent movement of great numbers of individuals in a congested habitat causes friction and irritation. Nervous tensions which derive from such personal frustrations are increased by the rapid tempo and the complicated technology under which life in dense areas must be lived.

 

Heterogeneity the social interaction among such a variety of personality types in the urban milieu tends to break down the rigidity of caste lines and to complicate the class structure; it thus induces a more ramified and differentiated framework of social stratification than is found in more integrated societies. The heightened mobility of the individual, which brings him within the range of stimulation by a great number of diverse individuals and subjects him to fluctuating status in the differentiated social groups that compose the social structure of the city, brings him toward the acceptance of instability and insecurity in the world at large as a norm. This fact helps to account too, for the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of the urbanite. No single group has the undivided allegiance of the individual. The groups with which he is affiliated do not lend themselves readily to a simple hierarchical arrangement. By virtue of his different interests arising out of different aspects of social life, the individual acquires membership in widely divergent groups, each of which functions only with reference to a single segment of his personality. Nor do these groups easily permit of a concentric arrangement so that the narrower ones fall within the circumference of the more inclusive ones, as is more likely to be the case in the rural community or in primitive societies. Rather the groups with which the person typically is affiliated are tangential to each other or intersect in highly variable fashion.

 

On the basis of the three variables, number, density of settlement, and degree of heterogenity, of the urban population, it appears possible to explain the characteristics of urban life and to account for the differences between cities of various sizes and types.

 

Urbanism as a characteristic mode of life may be approached empirically from three interrelated perspectives: (1) as a physical structure comprising a population base, a technology, and an ecological order; 9 (2) as a system of social organization involving a characteristic social structure, a series of social institutions, and a typical pattern of social relationships; and (3) as a set of attitudes and ideas, and a constellation of personalities engaging in typical forms of collective behavior and subject to characteristic mechanisms of social control.

 

 

Urbanism as a form of Social Organisation.

 

The distinctive features of the urban mode of life have often been described sociologically as consisting of the substitution of secondary for primary contacts, the weakening of bonds of kinship, and the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of the neighborhood, and the undermining of the traditional basis of social solidarity. All these phenomena can be substantially verified through objective indices. Thus, for instance, the low and declining urban-reproduction rates suggest that the city is not conducive to the traditional type of family life, including the rearing of children and the maintenance of the home as the locus of a whole round of vital activities. The transfer of industrial, educational, and recreational activities to specialized institutions outside the home has deprived the family of some of its most characteristic historical functions. In cities mothers are more likely to be employed, lodgers are more frequently part of the household, marriage tends to be postponed, and the proportion of single and unattached people is greater. Families are smaller and more frequently without children than in the country. The family as a unit of social life is emancipated from the larger kinship group characteristic of the country, and the individual members pursue their own diverging interests in their vocational, educational, religious, recreational, and political life.

 

Such functions as the maintenance of health, the methods of alleviating the hardships associated with personal and social insecurity, the provisions for education, recreation, and cultural advancement have given rise to highly specialized institutions on a community-wide, statewide, or even national basis. The same factors which have brought about greater personal insecurity also underlie the wider contrasts between individuals to be found in the urban world. While the city has broken down the rigid caste lines of preindustrial society, it has sharpened and differentiated income and status groups. Generally, a larger proportion of the adult-urban population is gainfully employed than is the case with the adult-rural population. The white-collar class, comprising those employed in trade, in clerical, and in professional work, are proportionately more numerous in large cities and in metropolitan centers and in smaller towns than in the country...

 

Reduced to a stage of virtual impotence as an individual, the urbanite is bound to exert himself by joining with others of similar interest into groups organized to obtain his ends. This results in the enormous multiplication of voluntary organizations10 directed toward as great a variety of objectives as there are human needs and interests. While, on the one hand, the traditional ties of human association are weakened, urban existence involves a much greater degree of interdependence between man and man and a more complicated, fragile, and volatile form of mutual interrelations over many phases of which the individual as such can exert scarcely any control. Frequently there is only the most tenuous relationship between the economic position or other basic factors that determine the individual's existence in the urban world and the voluntary groups11 with which he is affiliated. In a primitive and in a rural society it is generally possible to predict on the basis of a few known factors who will belong to what and who will associate with whom in almost every relationship of life, but in the city we can only project the general pattern of group formation and affiliation, and this pattern will display many incongruities and contradictions.

 

Urban Personality and collective behaviour It is largely through the activities of the voluntary groups, be their objectives economic, political, educational, religious, recreational, or cultural, that the urbanite expresses and develops his personality, acquires status, and is able to carry on the round of activities that constitute his life career. It may easily be inferred, however, that the organizational framework which these highly differentiated functions call into being does not of itself insure the consistency and integrity of the personalities whose interests it enlists. Personal disorganization, mental breakdown, suicide, delinquency, crime, corruption, and disorder might be expected under these circumstances to be more prevalent in the urban than in the rural community. This has been confirmed in so far as comparable indexes are available, but the mechanisms underlying these phenomena require further analysis.

 

Since for most group purposes it is impossible in the city to appeal individually to the large number of discrete and differentiated citizens, and since it is only through the organizations to which men belong that their interests and resources can be enlisted for a collective cause, it may be inferred that social control in the city should typically proceed through formally organized groups. It follows, too, that the masses of men in the city are subject to manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes through their control of the instruments of communication. Self-government either in the economic, or political, or the cultural realm is under these circumstances reduced to a mere figure of speech, or, at best, is subject to the unstable equilibrium of pressure groups. In view of the ineffectiveness of actual kinship ties, we create fictional kinship groups. In the face of the disappearance of the territorial unit as a basis of social solidarity, we create interest units. Meanwhile the city as a community resolves itself into a series of tenuous segmental relationships superimposed upon a territorial base with a definite center but without a definite periphery, and upon a division of labor which far transcends the immediate locality and is world-wide in scope. The larger the number of persons in a state of interaction with another, the lower is the level of communication and the greater is the tendency for communication to proceed on an elementary level, i.e., on the basis of those things which are assumed to be common or to be of interest to all.

 

 

 

 

1 - At one level Wirth definition of urban in terms of size, density and heterogeneity is simply a statement of how he is going to use a word or concept. The concept of the urban way of life becomes more controversial when the features of size, density and heterogeneity are used to explain or to infer. It is this which attracts the criticism of Abrams and others (link to Abrams)

 

As he himself suggests at several points, the notion of size, density and heterogeneity is much more helpful if we include the word 'relative' in the definition.

 

2 - Wirth presents this contrast in several ways - as a dichotomy with two sharply differentiated types of situation. - as a continuum with extremes such as inner Chicago and Indian 'folk' society and intermediate situations such as the residential suburb and small agricultural market town. - as a relationship between town and country in which the urban influence is dominant.

 

3 - At one level Wirth definition of urban in terms of size, density and heterogeneity is simply a statement of how he is going to use a word or concept. The concept of the urban way of life becomes more controversial when the features of size, density and heterogeneity are used to explain or to infer. It is this which attracts the criticism of Abrams and others (link to Abrams)

 

As he himself suggests at several points, the notion of size, density and heterogeneity is much more helpful if we include the word 'relative' in the definition.

 

4 - Wirth refers here to an important aspect of the ideology or self image of the United States, namely that its culture and above all its cities were able to merge and integrate a wide variety of European immigrant cultures. The work of urban historians has shown that this was a myth and ethnic and racial groups sustained their distinctive spatial and cultural identities.

 

see Theodore Hershberg (editor), Philadelphia. Work, Space, Family and Group Experience in the 19th century, Oxford University Press 1981

 

5 - There was a tendency in the 1930s, which still exists to some extent, to define and understand the city by contrast with what it was not. The concept of 'folk society' arose from studies of Indian communities in Latin America. Urban people were seen as less isolated, less dependent on kin, influenced by science and professionals rather than by the sacred and priests. They experienced more division of labour and more individual freedom. The danger here was the tendency to confuse "urban" with other features of social organization such as the expansion of the capitalist market, industrialization, the growth of scientific knowledge and of improved communications. Wirth later modifies this by suggesting that actual urban societies can be organized on a continuum in which they experience the features of these ideal types to different degrees .

 

see below Primary and Secondary Relationships

 

see also 'anonymity' for literature which challenges this view of urban society

 

6 - This was another contrast devised early in the 20th century to help understand the nature of urban industrial society. Primary relationships involved the total person. They entailed commitment, face to face relationships and emotional intensity. They were often prescriptive such as the family and most involved the individual in a variety of overlapping social roles, such as situations in which family, work and neighbourhood relationships overlapped with each other. Secondary relationships involved the individual in one or maybe two social roles. They were partial and often indirect and ephemeral. The folk society was held to be one of primary relationships. The increased dominance of secondary relationships was believed to be a feature of urbanization.

 

7 - The belief in urban anonymity has been widely challenged. Studies made in the 1950s in Britain and North America suggested that urban populations developed close social networks based upon family, neighbourhood and work. Historical studies made of Britain in the 1890s supported this view and emphasised that women played a central role in the creation and support of these informal networks.

 

8 - Wirth was part of the Chicago school of sociology of the 1930s led by Robert Park. They studied the city in terms of changing patterns of spatial arrangements of population and institutions. They saw these patterns in terms of the struggle for survival against impersonal forces. The analogy with the Darwinian biological model of survival of the fittest was very strong and led to the search for 'natural' processes of urbanisation. This tended to ignore individual human motivation and the autonomy of human cultural influences. Although Wirth's thinking originated in this ecological tradition, he is in this extract going beyond it and trying to achieve a balance of 'ecological' with individual and cultural factors.

 

9 - Wirth was part of the Chicago school of sociology of the 1930s led by Robert Park. They studied the city in terms of changing patterns of spatial arrangements of population and institutions. They saw these patterns in terms of the struggle for survival against impersonal forces. The analogy with the Darwinian biological model of survival of the fittest was very strong and led to the search for 'natural' processes of urbanisation. This tended to ignore individual human motivation and the autonomy of human cultural influences. Although Wirth's thinking originated in this ecological tradition, he is in this extract going beyond it and trying to achieve a balance of 'ecological' with individual and cultural factors.

 

10 - Many theorists saw voluntary associations as a key element of urban society which integrated the individual with the wider social group. Such associations have been identified as a means by which individuals and groups negotiated with each other and experimented with and developed new values and sets of social relationships. Thus they can be linked with the problems of anomie. In recent years the associational culture of towns has been related to the notion of civil society, - that is the area of social behaviour which mediates between the individual and the prescriptive agencies of state and family.

 

11 - Many theorists saw voluntary associations as a key element of urban society which integrated the individual with the wider social group. Such associations have been identified as a means by which individuals and groups negotiated with each other and experimented with and developed new values and sets of social relationships. Thus they can be linked with the problems of anomie. In recent years the associational culture of towns has been related to the notion of civil society, - that is the area of social behaviour which mediates between the individual and the prescriptive agencies of state and family.

 

 

 

 

Wirth, Louis. 1964. Urbanism as a Way of Life (Chicago: Chicago University Press), pp 60-83