How Far Is Urbanisation a Way of Life?

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  • Topic: Sociology, Georg Simmel, Urban decay
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Cities: Explorations in Urban Geography

How far is Urbanisation a way of life?

The notion of a rural-urban dichotomy and a distinctive disparity between the utopian perception of ‘rural’ and the ‘anomie’ (Phillips and LeGates, 1981) of the city are ubiquitous themes throughout the urban sociological school of thought. Conflicting views between scholars concerning the reality of life in the city in addition to the correlation between ecological aspects of the city and sociological behaviour subsist, however none deny that the urban way of life contains distinctive characteristics that differentiate from that of the rural. The question of urbanisation as a way of life is a multi-faceted one; one must consider how far do the characteristics which define a place as being urban influence life within it (the determinist approach) as Wirth described in his critically acclaimed paper “Urbanism as a way of life” (1938). In the postmodern world is this way of living confined to the urban spatiality or has globalisation spelt the end of the idyllic traditional lifestyle affiliated with rural living? Also the definition of urban itself is one thrown into question. Herbert Gans’ theories on urban sociology; the compositional approach question the concept of urban itself, exploring the idea of suburbia and the inner-city as being two aspects of the same entity (Gans, 1962). Fisher’s subcultural theory also questions the validity of claims made by Wirth and in Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) offering an alternative view of life within urban spaces. To begin with a quote from Lewis Mumford should in effect formulate a context through which to view the question of urbanisation and the potential for it to shape and direct the way in which people live and interact within the city: “The difference is not merely one of magnitude, density or economic resources. For the active agent is any factor that creates a common underlying pattern of conduct for the different family and occupational groups that constitute a city” (Mumford, 1938). In Urbanism as a way of life (1938), Wirth outlines three ecological factors of urban space that would influence the behaviour of the individual; size, density and heterogeneity. He states “increasing the number of inhabitants in a settlement beyond a certain limit will affect the relationships between them and the character of the city”. Wirth argues that an increase in the number of inhabitants will lead to a greater number of people interacting and therefore greater “potential differentiation” between them. With increasingly varied jobs, lifestyles, moral consensus, values and beliefs, common ground upon which people can associate with one another is less likely to exist and Wirth argues effectively loosens social ties (Bridge and Watson, 2006). He continues, a larger population “is bound to limit the possibility of each member of the community knowing all the others personally”. Although published in 1938, arguably Wirth’s depiction of the alternative to the city is of a distorted nature grounded in a utopian ideal (Stevenson, 2003). Increase in population inevitably effects urban life as it isn’t possible to know everyone. Wirth portrays this negatively asserting that contacts in the city are secondary with individuals dependent on a greater number of people leading to “impersonal, superficial and segmental” relationships, exclaiming that social relationships break down or never initially form. With regards to size, Claude Fisher’s subcultural theory offers an alternative to Wirth’s. Fisher’s theory on “critical mass” suggests that a larger population supports the emergence and vitality of distinctive subcultures, generating a variety of social worlds otherwise unfeasible. Fisher’s theory is evident though-out contemporary urban society with cities harbouring a variety of specialised organisations supported by a larger population (Macionis and Parrillo, 2003)....
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