September 12, 2011

City, Country, or Exurb?

imageBy Sally Raskoff

In sociology, we have many ways of depicting different types of societies, mostly using rural-urban criteria. We may describe the physical culture of big cities and small towns or the social bonds that tie people together in these very different types of communities.

I have just returned from a sojourn to the countryside, visiting the American Southwest to visit friends and spend time in their beautiful community. This trip made me wonder if many of these societal typologies are now too dated to be as useful as they had been in the past.

Ferdinand Tönnies gave us Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to depict the two interactional types common in small and large groupings, respectively. Gemeinschaft, roughly translated as community, is when common beliefs and norms bind people together; in this type of system status is primarily ascribed at birth. People are very much alike and there is not a very complex division of labor. Gesellschaft, roughly translated as society, is when there is more heterogeneity thus less sharing of beliefs and norms. Status can be earned or achieved rather than ascribed and the division of labor is more developed and complex.

Published a few short years after Tönnies, Emile Durkheim gave us the concepts mechanical and organic solidarity. A society with mechanical solidarity is held together by homogeneity and its commonalities, and tends to occur in small societies. A society with organic solidarity is held together not by its tremendous heterogeneity but by a complex division of labor and the interdependence it creates in the rather large scale societies in which it exists.

You will notice some common themes across these two theories. Homogeneity and heterogeneity is important, as is size of the grouping. Homogeneity and demographic similarity exists in small settings while heterogeneity and difference exist in large scale societies. A large-scale society has a developed and complex division of labor and small societies have a simpler division of labor.

While this may have been somewhat accurate historically in some places, does it ring true for small country towns versus large cities? File:Small town on the Danube.jpg

In my recent visit, I spent time in a town with a population under 100,000 and with an agricultural history. While there are still many ranches and farms, their economy now includes tourism and is home to a few large corporate headquarters. A lot of people work virtually, over the internet, so while this town is their home base they are working all over the nation or the world.

This town has a lot of homogeneity as the majority of the population (over 80%) belong to the same religious organization, are overwhelmingly white (over 90%), and most households are headed by heterosexual married couples (over 60%).

The town has both homogeneity (demographically) and heterogeneity (division of labor), so is it structured by gemeinschaft or gesellschaft? By mechanical or organic solidarity?

And how can we apply these typologies to suburbs (the area outside an urban area) or even the exurbs (the areas outside the suburbs)? Life can be very different in these remote areas, although they are intricately connected to the urban center from which they grew.

Both of these typologies are “ideal types” as suggested by Max Weber. An ideal type is a tool to measure or compare reality with a concept or theory. Both of these typologies allow us to see the ”ideal” or perfect model of what life in small homogeneous societies is versus that in large heterogeneous societies. “Ideal” is not meant as good or bad, by the way, it just signified all possible features of that type.

That said, the theory of “this versus that” isn’t proven wrong when we see something that doesn’t match up perfectly. This town gives us a picture of a setting in which there are elements of both types. The theories let us see how those elements play out and affect life for the people in that setting.

In my travels, to the town mentioned above and to others, I have noticed something that the theories mentioned above did not include. In the smaller towns, there is a very strong relationship to the natural environment.

It may be friendly and respectful or full of conflict and competition but it s a strong connection than most have in large urban areas. Control is a major aspect whether it’s attempting to control nature or an awareness of nature controlling human lives. In multiple trips to Alaska, every day I was impressed at how people banded together with a sense that nature was in charge – stories of how to keep living amongst bears were common.

This is a very different sense about the physical environment that exists in the city where we don’t notice bugs as much and where some have never seen land without concrete covering it.

How do you see the usefulness of these theories? How do they apply to the places in which you have lived or visited? And what ideas do you have for updating these theories?


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I like it

Intriguing article. I found it interesting that in a lot of US areas, different things--such as technology--has shaped and deemed some places as being heterogeneous with homogeneous included, when it just used to be one or the other. Population dynamics can be altered by things such as technology..depending on what somebidy might be looking for. Wonderful post!

One of the best articles that i have read.

Though the article is nicely written but its like a movie without an ending. I mean you left questions unanswered in the last few lines.
How do you see the usefulness of these theories....for updating these theories?
I am asking from an exam point of view as i m a student.
What can be the possible answers?
Please reply... :-)

Nice Piece!

thank you for the post

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