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Social Sciences

The lights of New York City are an iconic image of city life. (Photo courtesy of Or Hiltch/flickr)

Urbanization is the study of the social, political, and economic relationships in cities, and someone specializing in urban sociology would study those relationships. In some ways, cities can be microcosms of universal human behavior, while in others they provide a unique environment that yields their own brand of human behavior. There is no strict dividing line between rural and urban; rather, there is a continuum where one bleeds into the other. However, once a geographically concentrated population has reached approximately 100,000 people, it typically behaves like a city regardless of what its designation might be.

The Growth of Cities

According to sociologist Gideon Sjoberg (1965), there are three prerequisites for the development of a city. First, good environment with fresh water and a favorable climate; second, advanced technology, which will produce a food surplus to support non-farmers; and third, strong social organization to ensure social stability and a stable economy. Most scholars agree that the first cities were developed somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, though there are disagreements about exactly where. Most early cities were small by today’s standards, and the largest city at the time was most likely Rome, with about 650,000 inhabitants (Chandler and Fox 1974). The factors limiting the size of ancient cities included lack of adequate sewage control, limited food supply, and immigration restrictions. For example, serfs were tied to the land, and transportation was limited and inefficient. Today, the primary influence on cities’ growth is economic forces. Since the recent economic recession has reduced housing prices, researchers are waiting to see what happens to urban migration patterns in response.

As this chart illustrates, the shift from rural to urban living in the United States has been dramatic and continuous. (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)

Urbanization in the United States

Urbanization in the United States proceeded rapidly during the Industrial Era. As more and more opportunities for work appeared in factories, workers left farms (and the rural communities that housed them) to move to the cities. From mill towns in Massachusetts to tenements in New York, the industrial era saw an influx of poor workers into America’s cities. At various times throughout the country’s history, certain demographic groups, from recent immigrants to post-Civil War southern Blacks, made their way to urban centers to seek a better life in the city.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) offers a snapshot of the rapid change taking place at the time. In the book, Sinclair explored the difficult living conditions and hideous and unsafe working conditions in a Chicago-area meatpacking plant. The book brought the plight of the urban working poor to the front and center of the public’s eye, as well as turning the stomachs of most modern readers with its graphic discussion of food preparation before the advent of government regulation.

Suburbs and Exurbs

As cities grew more crowded, and often more impoverished and costly, more and more people began to migrate back out of them. But instead of returning to rural small towns (like they’d resided in before moving to the city), these people needed close access to the cities for their jobs. In the 1850s, as the urban population greatly expanded and transportation options improved, suburbs developed. Suburbs are the communities surrounding cities, typically close enough for a daily commute in, but far enough away to allow for more space than city living affords. The bucolic suburban landscape of the early 20th century has largely disappeared due to sprawl. Suburban sprawl contributes to traffic congestion, which in turn contributes to commuting time. And commuting times and distances have continued to increase as new suburbs developed farther and farther from city centers. Simultaneously, this dynamic contributed to an exponential increase in natural resource use, like petroleum, which sequentially increased pollution in the form of carbon emissions.

As the suburbs became more crowded and lost their charm, those who could afford it turned to the exurbs, communities that exist outside the ring of suburbs and are typically populated by even wealthier families who want more space and have the resources to lengthen their commute. Together, the suburbs, exurbs, and metropolitan areas all combine to form a metropolis. New York was the first American megalopolis, a huge urban corridor encompassing multiple cities and their surrounding suburbs. These metropolises use vast quantities of natural resources and are a growing part of the U.S. landscape.

The suburban sprawl in Toronto means long commutes and traffic congestion. (Photo courtesy of Payon Chung/flickr)

As the above feature illustrates, the suburbs also have their share of socio-economic problems. In the U.S., the trend of white flight refers to the migration of economically secure white people from racially mixed urban areas toward the suburbs. This has happened throughout the 20th century—due to causes as diverse as the legal end of racial segregation established by Brown v. Board of Education to the Mariel boatlift of Cubans fleeing Cuba’s Mariel port for Miami. The issue only becomes more complex as time goes on. Current trends include middle-class African-American families following “white flight” patterns out of cities, while affluent whites return to cities that have historically had a black majority. The result is that the issues of race, socio-economics, neighborhoods, and communities remain complicated and challenging.

Urbanization around the World

As was the case in America, other coronations experienced a growth spurt during the Industrial Era. The development of factories brought people from rural to urban areas, and new technology increased the efficiency of transportation, food production, and food preservation. For example, from the mid-1670s to the early 1900s, London increased its population from 550,000 to 7 million (Old Bailey Proceedings Online 2011). The most recent phenomenon shaping urbanization around the world is the development of postindustrial cities whose economic base depends on service and information rather than the manufacturing of industry. The professional, educated class populates the postindustrial city, and they expect convenient access to culturally based entertainment (libraries, museums, historical downtowns, and the like) uncluttered by factories and the other features of an industrial city. Global favorites like New York, London, and Tokyo are all examples of postindustrial cities. As cities evolve from industrial to postindustrial, gentrification becomes more common. The practice of gentrification refers to members of the middle and upper classes entering city areas that have been historically less affluent and renovating properties while the poor urban underclass are forced by resulting price pressures to leave those neighborhoods. This practice is widespread and the lower class is pushed into increasingly decaying portions of the city.

Theoretical Perspectives on Urbanization

As the examples above illustrate, the issues of urbanization play significant roles in the study of sociology. Race, economics, and human behavior intersect in cities. Let’s look at urbanization through the sociological perspectives of functionalism and conflict theory. Functional perspectives on urbanization focus generally on the ecology of the city, while conflict perspective tends to focus on political economy.

Human ecology is a functionalist field of study that focuses on the relationship between people and their built and natural physical environments (Park 1915). Generally speaking, urban land use and urban population distribution occurs in a predictable pattern once we understand how people relate to their living environment. For example, in the United States, we have a transportation system geared to accommodate individuals and families in the form of interstate highways built for cars. In contrast, most parts of Europe emphasize public transportation such as high-speed rail and commuter lines, as well as walking and bicycling. The challenge for a human ecologist working in American urban planning would be to design landscapes and waterscapes with natural beauty, while also figuring out how to provide for free flowing transport of innumerable vehicles—not to mention parking!

The concentric zone model (Burgess 1925) is perhaps the most famous example of human ecology. This model views a city as a series of concentric circular areas, expanding outward from the center of the city, with various “zones” invading (new categories of people and businesses overrun the edges of nearby zones) and succeeding (after invasion, the new inhabitants repurpose the areas they have invaded and push out the previous inhabitants) adjacent zones. In this model, Zone A, in the heart of the city, is the center of the business and cultural district. Zone B, the concentric circle surrounding the city center, is composed of formerly wealthy homes split into cheap apartments for new immigrant populations; this zone also houses small manufacturers, pawn shops, and other marginal businesses. Zone C consists of the homes of the working class and established ethnic enclaves. Zone D consists of wealthy homes, white-collar workers, and shopping centers. Zone E contains the estates of the upper class (exurbs) and the suburbs.

This illustration depicts the concentric zones that make up a city. (Photo courtesy of Zeimusu/Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast to the functionalist approach, theoretical models in the conflict perspective focus on the way that urban areas change according to specific decisions made by political and economic leaders. These decisions generally benefit the middle and upper classes while exploiting the working and lower classes.

For example, sociologists Feagin and Parker (1990) suggested three aspects to understanding how political and economic leaders control urban growth. First, economic and political leaders work alongside each other to affect change in urban growth and decline, determining where money flows and how land use is regulated. Second, exchange value and use value are balanced to favor the middle and upper classes so that, for example, public land in poor neighborhoods may be rezoned for use as industrial land. Finally, urban development is dependent on both structure (groups such as local government) and agency (individuals including businessmen and activists), and these groups engage in a push-pull dynamic that determines where and how land is actually used. For example, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movements are more likely to emerge in middle and upper-class neighborhoods, so these groups have more control over the usage of local land.


Cities provide numerous opportunities for their residents and offer significant benefits including access to goods to numerous job opportunities. At the same time, high population areas can lead to tensions between demographic groups, as well as environmental strain. While the population of urban dwellers is continuing to rise, sources of social strain are rising along with it. The ultimate challenge for today’s urbanites is finding an equitable way to share the city’s resources while reducing the pollution and energy use that negatively impacts the environment.

Section Quiz

In the Concentric Zone model, Zone B is likely to house what?

  1. The city’s industrial center
  2. Wealthy commuter homes
  3. Formerly wealthy homes split into cheap apartments
  4. Rural outposts

What are the prerequisites for the existence of a city?

  1. Good environment with water and a favorable climate
  2. Advanced agricultural technology
  3. Strong social organization
  4. All of the above

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle examines the circumstances of the working poor people in what area?

  1. The jungles of Africa
  2. An American farm
  3. The Chicago meatpacking industry
  4. A New England mill town

What led to the creation of the exurbs?

  1. Urban sprawl and crowds moving into the city
  2. The high cost of suburban living
  3. The housing boom of the 1980s
  4. Gentrification

How are the suburbs of Paris different than those of most U.S. cities?

  1. They are connected by public transportation.
  2. There are more industrial and business opportunities there.
  3. They are synonymous with housing projects and urban poor.
  4. They are less populated.

How does gentrification affect cities?

  1. They become more crowded.
  2. Less affluent residents are pushed into less desirable areas.
  3. Traffic issues, including pollution, become worse.
  4. All of the above

What does human ecology theory address?

  1. The relationship between humans and their environments
  2. The way that humans impact technology
  3. How human population reduces the variety of nonhuman species
  4. The relationship between humans and other species

Urbanization includes the sociological study of what?

  1. Urban economics
  2. Urban politics
  3. Urban environments
  4. All of the above

Short Answer

What are the differences between the suburbs and the exurbs, and who is most likely to live in each?

Most major cities in core countries are postindustrial. Can you think of an example of a growing city that is still in its industrial phase? How is it different from most U.S. cities?

Considering the concentric zone model, what type of zone were you raised in? Is this the same or different as that of earlier generations in your family? What type of zone do you reside in now? Do you find that people from one zone stereotype those from another? If so, how?

Further Research

Interested in learning more about the latest research in the field of human ecology? Visit the Society for Human Ecology web site to discover what’s emerging in this field: http://www.societyforhumanecology.org

Getting from place to place in urban areas might be more complicated than you think. Read the latest on pedestrian-traffic concerns at the Urban Blog web site: http://www.streetsblog.org


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