Dynamics of medieval cities

 

Cities provide a good illustration of the ontology of the theory of assemblage (link). Many forms of association, production, logistics, governance, and population processes came together from independent origins and with different causal properties. So one might imagine that unexpected dynamics of change are likely to be found in all urban settings.

The medieval period is not known for its propensity for innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, or dynamic tendencies towards change. One thinks rather of the placid, continuing social relations of the English countryside, the French village, or the Italian town. There is the idea that a stultifying social order made innovation and change difficult. However, studies of medieval cities over the past century have cast some doubt on this stereotype. Henri Pirenne’s lectures on the medieval city in 1923 were collected in Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, and there are numerous clues indicating that Pirenne found ample features of dynamic change in the medieval city from the eleventh century forward. Here are a few examples:

The eleventh century, in fact, brings us face to face with a real commercial revival. This revival received its impetus from two centers of activity, one located in the south and the other in the north: Venice on one side and the Flemish coast on the other. (82) 

Trade was thus forced upon them [Venice] by the very conditions under which they lived. And they had the energy and the genius to turn to profit the unlimited possibilities which trade offered them. (83)

 Constantinople, even in the eleventh century, appears not only as a great city, but as the greatest city of the whole Mediterranean basin. Her population was not far from reaching the figure of a million inhabitants, and that population was singularly active. She was not content, as had been the population of Rome under the Republic and the Empire, to consume without producing. She gave herself over, with a zeal which the fiscal system shackled but did not choke, not only to trading but to industry. (84)

The geographical situation of Flanders, indeed, put her in a splendid position to become the western focus for the commerce of the seas of the north. It formed the natural terminus of the voyage for ships arriving from Northern England or which, having crossed the Sound after coming out of the Baltic, were on their way to the south. (97)

It was only in the twelfth century that, gradually but definitely, Western Europe was transformed. The economic development freed her from the traditional immobility to which a social organization, depending solely on the relations of man to the soil, had condemned her. Commerce and industry did not merely find a place alongside of agriculture; they reacted upon it…. The rigid confines of the demesnial system, which had up to now hemmed in all economic activity, were broken down and the whole social order was patterned along more flexible, more active and more varied lines. (101-102)

Large or small, [cities] were to be met everywhere; one was to be found, on the average, in every twenty-five square leagues of land. They had, in fact, become indispensable to society. They had introduced into it a division of labor which it could no longer do without. Between them and the country was established a reciprocal exchange of services. (102)

So trade, finance, manufacturing, and flexible labor led to a dynamic of change that resulted in real economic and urban development in medieval European cities. Pirenne emphatically does not give a rendering of the medieval city that features a rigid social order impeding social and economic change.

A recent study provides modern evidence that the stereotyped impression of social stasis in the urban world of the middle ages is incorrect (link). Rudolf Ceseretti and his co-authors of “Population-Area Relationship for Medieval European Cities” provide a strikingly novel view of the medieval city (link). Their key finding is that there is an unexpected similarity of behavior with modern urban centers that can be observed in the population and spatial characteristics of medieval cities. They have collected data on 173 medieval cities across Western Europe:

Here is how they frame their finding in the Introduction:

This research suggests that, at a fundamental level, cities consist of overlapping social and physical networks that are self-consistently bounded by settled physical space [55–57]. Here, we investigate whether the relationships between settlement population and settled land area predicted by scaling theory—and observed in contemporary cities—also characterized medieval European cities.

In this paper, we analyze the relationship between the extent of built-up area and resident populations of 173 settlements located in present-day Belgium, France, England, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, ca. AD 1300. Previous scholarship has produced population estimates for a large number medieval European cities [58,59]. We build on this work by linking population estimates with estimates for the built-up area compiled from historical and archaeological sources.

The authors focus on a common belief about medieval cities — the idea that social interactions among residents are structured by powerful social institutions. Guilds, ethnicities, family groups, and religion provide examples of such institutions. If the net effect of social institutions like these is to reduce the likelihood of interaction of pairs of individuals, then medieval cities should display different patterns of spatial distribution of population and growth; if this effect is not significant, then medieval cities should resemble modern cities in these respects. This study finds the latter to be the case. Fundamentally they are interested in the topic of “scaling of settlement area with population size”. Here is a plot of area and population for the cities they studied, separated by region:

Their central finding is that the data about population density and spatial distribution do not support the hypothesis that medieval social institutions substantially inhibited social interactions to an extent that hindered urban growth and development. Rather, medieval cities look in their population and spatial structures to be very similar to modern cities.

Table 1 shows that the point estimates of the scaling coefficients for all four regional groups and for the pooled dataset fall within the 2/3 ≥

a

≥ 5/6 range predicted by the social reactor model… Thus, medieval cities across Western Europe exhibit, on average, economies of scale with respect to spatial agglomeration such that larger cities were denser on average. This pattern is similar to that observed for modern cities. 

Even though medieval cities were structured by hierarchical institutions that are ostensibly not so dominant today, we interpret this finding as excluding a strongly segregating role for medieval social institutions. This would suggest that the institutions of Western European urban systems ca. 1300 did not substantially constrain social mixing, economic integration, or the free flow of people, ideas, and information. We take these findings as an indication that the underlying micro-level social dynamics of medieval cities were fundamentally similar to those of contemporary cities. (discussion)

This study presents a fascinating contemporary test of a thesis that would surely have interested Pirenne almost a century ago: did medieval cities develop spatially in ways that reflect a reasonable degree of freedom of choice among residents about where they lived and worked? And the data seem to confirm a “yes” for this question.

(I haven’t attempted to summarize the methods used in this study, and the full article bears reading for anyone interested in the question of interpreting urban history from a quantitative point of view.)

Making change happen

 
 

There are many large social ills that we would collectively like to change. We would like to see an end to debilitating poverty; we would like to end the systematic disparities by race that exist in our society, in health, education, or income; we would like to see gun violence rates drop to levels found in other advanced countries; we would like to see a dramatic reduction in the smoking rate among young people. And we would like to see crucial public institutions like public schools function at a superlative level. How feasible is it to deliberately bring about change in these kinds of social realities? In particular, how much real leverage do change agents like mayors, governors, presidents, or corporate or foundation leaders have in bringing about these kinds of social progress? How about community activists and community-based organizations?

There are a few considerations that make it clear that reforms leading to large social change in a short time will be very difficult. The example of the War on Poverty discussed in the prior post is instructive (link). On the one hand this case demonstrates that determined political leadership can succeed in focusing large amounts of resources in deliberate policy packages aimed at solving big problems. On the other hand detailed review of the WoP shows that there are very hard questions about causation and policy effectiveness that are still hard to answer (Bailey and Danzinger, Legacies of the War on Poverty).

One reason for the difficulty of large interventions is that these social problems are “wicked problems” with densely interconnected sets of causes (link). John Kolko defines a wicked problem in these terms:

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. (link)

The interconnected nature of these difficult social problems means that attacking one component of causes may inadvertently worsen another source of causation, making the original problem worse. This is one of the discoveries that emerged from the effort to invoke systems engineering and the expertise of the aerospace industry to address urban problems in the 1960s (Hughes and Hughes, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After).

Another source of difficulty in addressing large system social problems is the question of scale of the resources that any actor can bring to bear on a large social problem. Private organizations have limited resources, and governments are increasingly constrained in their use of public resources by anti-tax activism. Cities are chronically caught in fiscal crises that make long-term investments difficult or impossible. And Federal funding since the Reagan revolution has been subject to intense opposition by the right. Finally, it is almost always true that a given strategy of change produces winners and losers, and groups that stand to lose something of value through the exercise of a strategy have many means of resisting change — through lobbying, through strategic use of the legal system, or through exit. It is often difficult to build a sustainable consensus of political support for a large strategy of transformation or to overcome self-interested opposition.

That said, change sometimes occurs, and it sometimes occurs as a result of determined and intelligent strategic work by one or more agents of change. Recent examples in Michigan include the “Grand Bargain” that resolved the Detroit bankruptcy; the substantial progress achieved by a new Detroit mayor on delivering city services; substantial economic recovery in the state of Michigan since the 2007 recession; and the success of the Affordable Care Act in bringing health coverage to tens of millions of previously uninsured Americans (including about 600,000 in Michigan alone).

So it is possible for important social change to occur through deliberate political and policy action. But notice the limits of each of the examples cited here. Each involves taking a fairly simple policy step and maintaining political support for carrying out that policy. Too many uninsured people? Design a way of expanding an existing program to make health insurance more available to poor and middle-income individuals and families. The politics were horrendously difficult for President Obama, but the mechanics were clear. Need to save pensions and a world-class art collection from the  Detroit bankruptcy process? Do some fundraising on a very large scale to allow an acceptable resolution of the bankruptcy process that preserves these two core things. Again, the task of maintaining the coalition was enormously difficult, but the mechanics of the strategy were not very different from other kinds of fundraising efforts in support of collective goods.

Let’s think about the problem from another angle. What needs to happen in order for large social change to occur? Here are a couple of categories of change: change of law and policy; change of widespread social values; change of widespread patterns of behavior and disposition (smoking, racism, education); change of distribution of outcomes across a diverse population (health, income, residence). These examples fall in a couple of large types: setting legal and bureaucratic structures (Civil Rights Act, Department of Housing and Urban Development), influencing behavior, and changing values and attitudes.

What are the levers of change for these different kinds of social reality? Consider first structures. Law, policy, and taxation are the result of political and legislative competition. So legislative agendas by politicians and advocacy by interest groups and lobbyists are the main variables in determining the success or failure of a given initiative. The War on Poverty is a good example; the Johnson administration sought to create a number of large funding programs affecting housing, education, and employment, and it succeeded in part in many of these initiatives because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. (Though recall the frustration expressed by President Johnson at Congressional underfunding of many of these initiatives, expressed in his message to Congress on cities; link.)

Governments can address problems like these from two broad avenues: anti-discrimination law and policy initiatives aimed at addressing the obstacles that stand in the way of economic opportunity. Civil rights legislation supporting voting rights and legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination represent the first lever. Using federal funds to improve urban transportation and housing illustrates the latter.

Using the power of the state to raise revenues for initiatives like these through taxation is crucial. The War on Poverty was not chiefly an effort at persuasion; it was a determined political effort to direct Federal resources at enormously important national problems.

Policy change is hard. But achieving behavioral, attitudinal, and cultural change is even harder, it would appear. There is a lot of uncertainty about the causal mechanisms that might drive culture and behavioral change on a large scale. Further, there is often deep conflict about the content of culture change: what is a favorable attitude change for one group is anathema for another. Both considerations point in the direction of privileging non-governmental organization and community-based organization strategies over governmental strategies. Government and law must pay attention to behavior, not attitudes. So the burden of striving to change attitudes and values seems to belong to private initiatives within civil society. So the non-profit Michigan-based social service organization ACCESS can create and promote the “Take on Hate” program for young people as a way of addressing anti/Muslim bigotry, whereas the Department of Education probably couldn’t. The national movement aimed at changing the public’s attitudes towards same-sex marriage is a good example of a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations and groups successfully bringing about substantial change in public attitudes over a relatively short time.

In order to achieve lasting solutions to major social problems, it seems that all the avenues mentioned here will be needed: legislative action providing for real equality of opportunity and access for poor people to society’s positions and advantages; public investment in factors like improved transportation, education, internet access, and green spaces; and private and collaborative efforts at generating public support for change of policy and behavior on a short list of particularly important social problems.

LBJ’s commitment to cities

In the United States we have been in the desert for decades when it comes to big, transformative policy reforms aimed at addressing our most serious social issues. But the 1960s marked a decade of vigorous national effort to address some of our most serious and difficult social problems — racial discrimination, war, poverty, education, and the quality of life of poor children and the elderly. It is worth thinking back to the large ambitions and strategies that were adopted between 1960 and 1968, the election of Richard Nixon.

A very interesting place to begin is Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and especially his 1968 Special Message to the Congress on Urban Problems: “The Crisis of the Cities.” (link). Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger’s volume Legacies of the War on Poverty provides a rigorous specialist assessment of the achievements (and shortcomings) of the war on poverty. Johnson’s message is powerful in each of its rhetorical components — aspiration, diagnosis, and policy recommendations.

 
The document paints a high-level picture of the way in which cities had developed in the United States in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. And the narrative for the 20th century builds to a sense of deepening urban crisis.  

We see the results dramatically in the great urban centers where millions live amid decaying buildingswith streets clogged with traffic; with air and water polluted by the soot and waste of industry which finds it much less expensive to move outside the city than to modernize within it; with crime rates rising so rapidly each year that more and more miles of city streets become unsafe after dark; with increasingly inadequate public services and a smaller and smaller tax base from which to raise the funds to improve them.

The document identifies a host of key problems in American cities: inner-city youth with limited education and opportunity; violent crime; deep penetration of prejudice and discrimination in the normal workings of social life; poor public health levels; and disaffection among inner city citizens, both young and old.

The city will not be transformed until the lives of the least among its dwellers are changed as well. Until men whose days are empty and despairing can see better days ahead, until they can stand proud and know their children’s lives will be better than their own — until that day comes, the city will not truly be rebuilt.

The document emphasizes both material and psychological factors — poor housing and “empty and despairing” lives. Johnson links the crisis of cities with the goals and achievements of the fundamental Civil Rights legislation of the recent past. 
 
Johnson’s urban policy recommendations focus on several key city-centered crises: poor housing, inadequate public mass transit, extensive urban blight, high unemployment for young people, and institutions supporting lending and insurance for urban homeowners. The document also recommends increased support for urban-centered social-science research. 
 
What is most noteworthy is the overall ambition of Johnson’s agenda: the goal of devoting substantial organizational effort at the federal level (through the establishment of new agencies like HUD) and billions of dollars to implement effective solutions for these awesomely difficult and important social problems. It is striking that we have not had national leaders since LBJ with the courage and vision to set such an ambitious agenda for progressive social change. The persistent problems of poverty, race, and educational failure will be amenable to nothing less. 
 
There is one other aspect of Johnson’s message that is of interest here — the sociology of knowledge implications of the document. This is a good example of a place where an STS approach would be helpful. There is probably an existing literature on the policy expertise that underlay Johnson’s reasoning in this document, but I haven’t been able to identify the person who drafted this message on Johnson’s behalf. But there is obviously a high level of expertise and judgment implicit in this document — and this certainly doesn’t derive from the president himself. What is the paradigm of urban theory and policy that drives the reasoning of the document and the associated policy proposals? And what are the blindspots associated with that historically situated research framework? Causes, outcomes, and levers of change for urban decline are all identified. Are these still credible as empirical theories of urban realities?

The global city — Saskia Sassen

London financial district

Saskia Sassen is the leading urban theorist of the global world. (Here are several prior posts that intersect with her work.) Her The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (1991) has shaped the concepts and methods that other theorists have used to analyze the role of cities and their networks in the contemporary world. The core ideas in her theory of the global city are presented in a 2005 article, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept” (link). This article is a convenient place to gain an understanding of her basic approach to the subject.

Key to Sassen’s concept of the global city is an emphasis on the flow of information and capital. Cities are major nodes in the interconnected systems of information and money, and the wealth that they capture is intimately related to the specialized businesses that facilitate those flows — financial institutions, consulting firms, accounting firms, law firms, and media organizations. Sassen points out that these flows are no longer tightly bound to national boundaries and systems of regulation; so the dynamics of the global city are dramatically different than those of the great cities of the nineteenth century.

Sassen emphasizes the importance of creating new conceptual resources for making sense of urban systems and their global networks — a new conceptual architecture, as she calls it (28). She argues for seven fundamental hypotheses about the modern global city:

  1. The geographic dispersal of economic activities that marks globalization, along with the simultaneous integration of such geographically dispersed activities, is a key factor feeding the growth and importance of central corporate functions.
  2. These central functions become so complex that increasingly the headquarters of large global firms outsource them: they buy a share of their central functions from highly specialized service firms.
  3. Those specialized service firms engaged in the most complex and globalized markets are subject to agglomeration economies.
  4. The more headquarters outsource their most complex, unstandardized functions, particularly those subject to uncertain and changing markets, the freer they are to opt for any location.
  5. These specialized service firms need to provide a global service which has meant a global network of affiliates … and a strengthening of cross border city-to-city transactions and networks.
  6. The economic fortunes of these cities become increasingly disconnected from their broader hinterlands or even their national economies.
  7. One result of the dynamics described in hypothesis six, is the growing informalization of a range of economic activities which find their effective demand in these cities, yet have profit rates that do not allow them to compete for various resources with the high-profit making firms at the top of the system. (28-30)

Three key tendencies seem to follow from these structural facts about global cities.  One is a concentration of wealth in the hands of owners, partners, and professionals associated with the high-end firms in this system. Second is a growing disconnection between the city and its region. And third is the growth of a large marginalized population that has a very hard time earning a living in the marketplace defined by these high-end activities. Rather than constituting an economic engine that gradually elevates the income and welfare of the whole population, the modern global city funnels global surpluses into the hands of a global elite dispersed over a few dozen global cities.

These tendencies seem to line up well with several observable features of modern urban life throughout much of the world: a widening separation in quality of life between a relatively small elite and a much larger marginalized population; a growth of high-security gated communities and shopping areas; and dramatically different graphs of median income for different socioeconomic groups. New York, London, and Hong Kong/Shanghai represent a huge concentration of financial and business networks, and the concentration of wealth that these produce is manifest:

Inside countries, the leading financial centers today concentrate a greater share of national financial activity than even ten years ago, and internationally, cities in the global North concentrate well over half of the global capital market. (33)

This mode of global business creates a tight network of supporting specialist firms that are likewise positioned to capture a significant level of wealth and income:

By central functions I do not only mean top level headquarters; I am referring to all the top level financial, legal, accounting, managerial, executive, planning functions necessary to run a corporate organization operating in more than one country. (34)

These features of the global city economic system imply a widening set of inequalities between elite professionals and specialists and the larger urban population of service and industrial workers. They also imply a widening set of inequalities between North and South. Sassen believes that communications and Internet technologies have the effect of accelerating these widening inequalities:

Besides their impact on the spatial correlates of centrality, the new communication technologies can also be expected to have an impact on inequality between cities and inside cities. (37)

Sassen’s conceptual architecture maintains a place for location and space: global cities are not disembodied, and the functioning of their global firms depends on a network of activities and lesser firms within the spatial scope of the city and its environs. So Sassen believes there is space for political contest between parties over the division of the global surplus.

If we consider that global cities concentrate both the leading sectors of global capital and a growing share of disadvantaged populations (immigrants, many of the disadvantaged women, people of color generally, and, in the megacities of developing countries, masses of shanty dwellers) then we can see that cities have become a strategic terrain for a whole series of conflicts and contradictions. (39)

But this strategic contest seems badly tilted against the disadvantaged populations she mentions. So the outcomes of these contests over power and wealth are likely to lead, it would seem, to even deeper marginalization, along the lines of what Loic Wacquant describes in Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (link).

This is a hugely important subject for everyone who wants to understand the dynamics and future directions of the globe’s mega-cities and their interconnections. What seems pressingly important for urbanists and economists alike, is to envision economic mechanisms that can be established that do a better job of sharing the fruits of economic progress with the whole of society, not just the elite and professional end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The street and the ring

Loïc Wacquant offers a fascinating piece of urban ethnography in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. It is his account of his three-year experience while a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago of participating in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club, a boxing club for young men who are serious about the sport of boxing on the South Side of Chicago. Wacquant takes the “participant-observer” method seriously — he trains for a Chicago Golden Gloves match, while developing intense relationships with the young black men who do their training at the club and the older experts like DeeDee who coach them.

One thing that is interesting about the book is that it brings together two fairly separate subjects of sociological interest — the social lives of underclass black men, and the “sociology of the body” that focuses on the ways in which skill, dexterity, and persistence interweave with the sport of boxing.  There is an alliance  in both topics with the thinking of Bourdieu.

Here is something of the project of understanding marginalized black Chicago through participation:

Could I grasp and explain social relations in the black ghetto based on my embeddedness in that particular location? My long-term immersion in that little boxing gym and my intensive participation in the exchanges it supported day-to-day have allowed me — in my eyes at least, but the reader can judge for herself on the evidence — to reconstruct root and branch my understanding of what a ghetto is in general, and my analysis of the structure and functioning of Chicago’s black ghetto in post-Fordist and post-Keynesian America at the end of the twentieth century in particular, as well as to better discern what distinguishes this terra non grata from the neighborhoods of relegation of other advanced societies. (x-xi)

Here is how Wacquant thinks about the task of making sociological sense of the sport:

[A sociology of boxing] must instead grasp boxing through its least known and least spectacular side: the drab and obsessive routine of the gym workout, of the endless and thankless preparation, inseparably physical and moral, that preludes the all-too-brief appearances in the limelight, the minute and mundane rites of daily life in the gym that produce and reproduce the belief feeding this very peculiar corporeal, material, and symbolic economy that is the pugilistic world. (6)

And here is a bit of the sociology of the body that Wacquant offers — the phenomenology of being a boxer in training.

To work on the bag is to craft a product, as you would on a lathe, with the crude tools that are gloved as weapon, shield, and target. Finding your distance, breathing, feinting (with your eyes, your shoulders, your hands, your feet), sliding one step to the side to let the bag swing by, catching it again on the fly with a left hook right to the midsection. Not too high and not too wide, so the move can’t be seen coming. Double it up, to the head, with a short, sharp movement. Follow up with a straight right, taking care to turn the wrist over like a screwdriver in order to align your knuckles horizontally at the precise moment of impact. (237-238)

Wacquant finds that immersion in the fight club allowed entry into the social world of marginalized Chicago that is otherwise highly racialized: white observers do not cross easily into the world of marginalized black men.

Being the only white member in the club … could have constituted a serious obstacle to my integration and thus amputated my capacity to penetrate the social world of the boxer, if not for the conjugated action of three compensating factors. First of all, the egalitarian ethos and pronounced color-blindness of pugilistic culture are such that everyone is fully accepted into it so long as he submits to the common discipline and “pays his dues” in the ring. Next, my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structures of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual mistrust that oppose blacks and whites in America…. Finally, my total “surrender” to the exigencies of the field, and especially the fact that I regularly put the gloves on with them, earned me the esteem of my club-mates, as attested by the term of address “brother Louis” and the collection of affectionate nicknames they bestowed upo me over the months: “Busy Louis,” my ring moniker, but also “Bad Dude,” “The French Bomber,” “The French Hammer” …, and “The Black Frenchman.” (10-11)

The gym is a haven for the young black men who work out there — a place where the dangers and disorder of the surrounding neighborhood are kept at bay.

In this cutthroat neighborhood, where handguns and other weapons are commonplace and “everyone” — according to DeeDee, the club’s head trainer — is walking around with a can of Mace in their pocket for self-defense, purse-snatchings, muggings, battery, homicides, and lesser crimes of all kinds are part of the everyday routine and create a climate of pervasive fear, if not terror, that undermines interpersonal relationships and distorts all the activities of daily life. (22)

Here is a bit of ethnographic description that captures one incident on one day in September, 1990:

Today Tony called the gym from the hospital. Two members of a rival gang shot him on the street not far from here, on the other side of Cottage Grove. Luckily he saw them coming and took off running, but a bullet pierced his calf. He hobbled behind an abandoned building, pulled out his own gun from his gym bag, and opened fire on his two attackers, forcing them to retreat. He says he’d better get out of the hospital real quick because they’re probably out looking for him now. I ask DeeDee if they shot him in the leg as a warning. “Shiit, Louie.! They don’ shoot to injure no leg, they shoot to kill you. If Tony don’ have his gun with him and pull it, they’dave track him down an’ kill him, yeah: he be dead now.” (25)

This could be a scene in The Wire — for example, an ambush planned by two of Avon’s gang members but foiled by Omar:

Two things seem particularly noteworthy in reading Body and Soul. First, the experiences of the three years that Wacquant spent in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club clearly helped to develop his own knowledge of the social reality of marginalized Chicago. There is a world of difference between reading theoretical and empirical studies of urban life, and finding ways of seriously immersing oneself in an urban environment. Wacquant is a better urban sociologist and theorist for the experiences he describes here.

Second, it seems clear that some specific insights into daily life in marginalized black neighborhoods in Chicago emerge from this experience. The prevalence of violence on the street, the strategies people arrive at to avoid being victims of violence, the social distance that exists between 63rd Street and Michigan Avenue — these are all valuable insights that contribute to a better sociological understanding of the city.

Levels of the social

 

We can examine social life at many levels of granularity — from ordinary individual social behavior to small groups to cities and regions to the global system of communication and extraction. Is there any basis for thinking one level is better than another for the social sciences?

There are two kinds of considerations that might be used as grounds for answering this question. One is about scientific feasibility and the other is about explanatory scope.

The feasibility line goes this way. It might be that higher level social phenomena are substantially less orderly than lower level phenomena. This means that we might be able to arrive at more confident and comprehensible analysis at the lower level than the higher level. Features of indeterminacy, contingency, and complexity might mean that we can’t expect to have strong and empirically well supported analyses of ensembles like cities or trading systems. And we might find that studies of individual-level social behavior are more tractable and empirically defensible.

The explanatory scope consideration cuts in the opposite direction. We would like to be able to explain processes like urbanization, ethnic conflict, and the social role of religion. These processes are very interesting, and they are consequential as well. So we would like to have some reliable hypotheses about some of the causal dynamics that animate them. And studies that focus on individual-level processes may not shed much light on these higher-level processes.

So tractability perhaps pushes us towards the lower level, while an appetite for explanatory scope pushes us towards theorizing and investigating higher levels.

There is something appealing about a definition of the social sciences that tries to answer the actor-level kind of question: what are the drivers of real social behavior, in a variety of settings? What are the springs of individual action? How do environment and experience influence people’s actions? This approach would fall within the sociological theory of the actor; it would largely overlap with social and developmental psychology, with a scoop of ethnomethodology on the side.

And this approach wouldn’t be wholly limited to the individual. Some of the learning we do about cooperation, aggression, and social cognition might well provide a basis for explanation of high-level social phenomena such as ethnic conflict or the spread of agricultural practices.

But it also seems credible that we can learn some important things about the higher-level processes and structures as well. Political scientists have some robust ideas about how institutions work. Economists have succeeded in identifying some of the dynamics of trading systems and technology change. Urban sociologists are able to discern some of the processes of neighborhood transformation. So it is clear that there are higher level social processes, structures, and systems that are amenable to empirical and theoretical study.

A nice conjunction of research projects that illustrate this point can be found in the study of modern cities. Al Young (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances) and Loic Wacquant (Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality) provide ground-level studies of the actors who make up the inner city. Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect offers a meso-level account of how neighborhoods work, and some of the causal relations that can be discerned at the level of the neighborhood. Thomas Hughes’ Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 demonstrates how a major technology like electric power is both structured and structuring within the urban systems in which it is introduced. And Saskia Sassen’s The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo provides an account of systematic interrelations among cities in a global network. Each of these studies sheds light on how cities work; they do so at different levels of granularity; and each study brings with it an admirable degree of empirical and theoretical rigor.  Each of them tells us something novel and non-trivial about how cities function. (There are prior postings on each of these authors: Young, Wacquant, Hughes, Sassen.)

This suggests something pretty moderate and pluralistic: that there is valid and important social research to be done at many levels of social organization. We won’t find a unifying science of everything. But we can do social science research at many levels in ways that respect the heterogeneity of the social world while also shedding light on the workings of some important social and causal processes. There is no privileged level of research to which we should limit our social-science gaze.

Urban marginality

If you live within the reach of a major American city — and most Americans do — then you know what “marginality” is. It is the sizable sub-population of metropolitan America of young men and women who have been locked out of what we think of as the indispensable mechanisms of social mobility: decent education, healthcare resources, job opportunities, and safe neighborhoods. It is the young people of inner-city Baltimore depicted by The Wire. (Take a look at Richard Florida’s detailed analysis of the spatial class structure of Detroit and a number of other cities; link.) The facts of compacted poverty and lack of opportunity, and the disaffection of young people that goes along with these absences, represent one of the most pressing social problems we face.

How should we go about studying and changing this appalling social reality? Alford Young’s The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is one striking approach, using extended interviews to gain insight into the minds, worldviews, and social realities of some of these young people. (Here is an earlier discussion of Young’s work; link.) Another approach is the large body of mainstream poverty research in the social sciences and policy studies. (Here is a penetrating critique of some of the assumptions of this research by Alice O’Connor; Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History.) But an important and original voice on these issues is that of Loïc Wacquant, and particularly important is Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008).

Wacquant’s Ph.D. work was done at the University of Chicago (like Young’s), and he too immersed himself in the street-level realities of segregated, impoverished Chicago. Wacquant’s approach was a novel one: he took up boxing in an inner city boxing club to gain access to the ordinary lives of the young men of the neighborhoods. His ethnography of this experience was published in the fascinating book, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.

Wacquant is French and comparativist; he is interested in investigating the experience of marginality in the United States and comparing it with equally marginalized neighborhoods in France, the banlieue of Paris. (Here is an earlier post on the banlieue and the sociological research of Didier Lapeyronnie’s Ghetto urbain; ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui.) In each instance modern cities are found to have large populations of apparently permanently marginalized under-class people. Here is how Wacquant frames the issue in “The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implications” (link) (1996):

The resurgence of extreme poverty and destitution, ethnoracial divisions (linked to the colonial past) and public violence, and their accumulation in the same distressed urban areas, suggest that the metropolis is the site and fount of novel forms of exclusionary social closure in advanced societies. (121)

But Wacquant’s summary finding is perhaps a surprising one: he finds that the “Black Belt” in Chicago and the “Red Belt” of Paris are substantially different social phenomena. Rather than a homogeneous social reality of “ghetto” extending from Chicago to London to Amsterdam to Paris, he finds a differentiated social reality:

A paired comparison between neighborhoods of relegation in Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and the Parisian ‘Red Belt’ shows that the declining French metropolitan periphery and the Afro-American ghetto remain two sharply distinct sociospatial constellations. And for good reason: they are heirs to different urban legacies, produced by different logics of segregation and aggregation, and inserted in different welfare state and market frameworks, all of which result in markedly higher levels of blight, segregation, isolation, and distress in the US ghetto. (122)

Wacquant introduces the idea of “advanced marginality” to describe the social reality of isolation and deprivation created by advanced capitalism in the rich cities of the North. Here are the criteria he offers for a social system embedding advanced marginality:

  • the growing internal heterogeneity and desocialization of labor,
  • the functional disconnection of neighborhood conditions from macro-economic trends;
  • territorial fixation and stigmatization; spatial alienation and the dissolution of place;
  • the loss of a viable hinterland; and
  • the symbolic fragmentation of marginalized population (121)

An element that Wacquant finds to be in common across advanced marginality in modern cities is what he calls “territorial fixation” — the confinement of the marginal in specific neighborhoods of the city.

Rather than being diffused throughout working class areas, advanced marginality tends to concentrate in well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell. (125)

In Urban Outcasts Wacquant provides a much more developed comparative sociology of marginalized urban populations. It is significant that he begins his treatment of marginality with the topic of riot and uprising — a recurring social reality in the United States (Chicago, Watts, Detroit, …), London, Strasbourg, and Paris. This seems significant, because it seems like a logical correlate with the deprivation and stigmatization associated with advanced marginality.

Most of the disorders, big and small, that have shaken up the French working-class banlieues, the British inner city and adjacent barrios of North American have involved chiefly the youths of impoverished, segregated and often dilapidated urban neighbourhoods caught in a spiral of decline; they appear to have been fuelled by growing ethnoracial tensions in and around those areas. (20)

And Wacquant thinks these uprisings stem from three large social causes: mass unemployment, relegation to decaying neighbourhoods, and heightened stigmatization in daily life of the marginalized young people (25). He quotes a young man from Bristol:

I don’t have a job and I’ll never have one. Nobody wants to help us get out of this shit. If the government can spend so much money to build a nuclear submarine, why not for the inner cities? If fighting cops is the only way to get heard, then we’ll fight them. (31)

This is a superb piece of sociology, making use of multiple means of inquiry (ethnographic, comparison, statistical) to arrive at credible theories of the causes of urban marginality. And, contrary to the critique offered by O’Connor of mainstream poverty studies, there is not an ounce of “blaming the poor” in this study. Wacquant wants to understand the social processes that create and reproduce the urban spatial reality of marginality. And in doing this, he aims to provide some of the understanding we will need to begin to take this system apart.

Excerpt The Wire

Neighborhood effects

 

In Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect Robert Sampson provides a very different perspective on the “micro-macro” debate. He rejects the methodologies associated both poles of the debate: methodological individualism (“derive important social outcomes from the choices of rational individuals”) and methodological structuralism (“derive important social outcomes from the features of large-scale structures like globalization”). Instead, he argues for the causal importance of a particular kind of “meso” — the neighborhood. He takes the view that neither “bottom-up” or “top-down” sociology will suffice. Instead, we need to look at processes at the level of socially situated individuals.

In this book I proposed an alternative to these two perspectives by offering a unified framework on neighborhood effects, the larger social organization of urban life, and social causality in general…. Contrary to much received wisdom, the evidence presented in this book demands attention to life in the neighborhoods that shape it. (357)

I argue that we need to treat social context as an important unit of analysis in its own right.  This calls for new measurement strategies as well as a theoretical framework that do not treat the neighborhood simply as a “trait” of the individual. (60)

Sampson offers his own instantiation of Coleman’s Boat to illustrate his thinking:

But unlike Coleman (and like the argument I offered in an earlier post about meso-level explanation; link), Sampson allows for the validity of type-4 causal mechanisms, from “neighborhood structure and culture” to “rates of social behavior”. So neighborhoods are not simply outcomes of individual choices and behavior; they are social ensembles that exert their own causal powers.

Sampson offers an articulated methodology for the study of the social life of a city, in the form of ten principles. These include:

  1. Focus on social context
  2. Study contextual variations in their own right
  3. focus on social-interactional, social psychological, organizational, and cultural mechanisms of social life
  4. integrate a life-course focus on neighborhood change
  5. look for processes and mechanisms that explain stability
  6. embed in the study of neighborhood dynamics the role of individual selection decisions
  7. go beyond the local
  8. incorporate macro processes 
  9. pay attention to human concerns with public affairs 
  10. emphasize the integrative theme of theoretically interpretive empirical research while maintaining methodological pluralism (67-68)

The heart of “neighborhood sociology” can be summarized, Sampson asserts, in a few simple themes:

First, there is considerable social inequality between neighborhoods, especially in terms of socioeconomic position and racial/ethnic segregation.  

Second, these factors are connected in that concentrated disadvantage often coincides with the geographic isolation of racial minority and immigrant groups.  

Third, a number of crime- and health-related problems tend to come bundled together at the neighborhood level and are predicted by neighborhood characteristics such as the concentration of poverty, racial isolation, single-parent families, and to a lesser extent rates of residential and housing instability.  

Fourth, a number of social indicators at the upper end of what many would consider progress, such as affluence, computer literacy, and elite occupational attainment, are also clustered geographically. (46)

This set of themes asserts a series of important correlations between neighborhood features and social outcomes. The hard question is to identify the social mechanisms that underlie these correlations. “It is from this idea that in recent decades we have witnessed another turning point in the form of a renewed commitment to uncovering the social processes and mechanisms that account for neighborhood (or concentration) effects. Social mechanisms provide theoretically plausible accounts of how neighborhoods bring about change in a given phenomenon” (46).

This is a fascinating and methodologically innovative piece of urban sociology. Sampson’s use of large data sets to establish some of the intriguing neighborhood patterns he identifies is highly proficient, and his efforts to place his reasoning within a more theoretically sophisticated framework of multi-level social mechanisms is admirable. In an interesting twist, Sampson shows how it is possible to expand on the very costly video-based methodology of the original PHDCN study by making use of Google Street View to do systematic observations of neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities (361).

(Here is an earlier post on Sampson’s ideas about neighborhood effects.)

Woodward Avenue

How does a rust belt city relaunch itself? How can the stakeholders of Detroit, Cleveland, or Milwaukee begin to reinvent their cities and get on a track that leads to greater prosperity, health, and educational attainment that can eventually result in opportunity and quality of life for the urban majority? 

The factors that led to Detroit’s crisis were extended and multiple — loss of manufacturing jobs, white flight, collapsing city revenues, sudden decline in the public school system, city government mismanagement and corruption, and state and federal neglect, to name several. And the crisis has extended over many decades. Tom Sugrue documents that the seeds of decline began earlier than the standard narrative — white flight was well underway in the 1950s (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit). The 1967 uprising was a major punctuation mark in the process, but it was an effect as much as a cause of the decline.

So what can be done today? A key part of the puzzle is bringing good jobs back into the city. This is why there has been so much excitement about the decisions by Compuware, Quicken Loans, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield to relocate their headquarters back into the city. The impact is substantial — something like 10,000 jobs have been brought back into the city, with more to come. Along with the jobs comes a flurry of collateral developments — student interns who come to love the city, demand for housing, new restaurants and cafes along Woodward, and a significant multiplier of jobs associated with these new service businesses.

There is a lot of purposiveness in these business developments, with a good portion of civic-mindedness in the mix. These business leaders wanted to make a difference in the city of Detroit, and their decisions about where to locate their companies help to carry this out. There is a deliberate effort on the part of this group of new-economy business leaders to attract innovative companies to the corridor. Detroit has a long tradition of creativity and the arts. Business leaders want to extend this tradition in the direction of innovative high-tech startups that can take root in Detroit. The goals for the Madison Building restortation illustrate this goal — beautiful open-design space for innovative companies that should strike synergies in the coming years. Twitter opened a Detroit office in the building in the spring.

It’s not simply Michigan chauvinism to say that Detroiters are resourceful. This is an important resource for the future for the city. But the people of the city need some concrete things in order to turn their talents into success — jobs, healthcare, decent education, and better urban transportation.

A leading land use planner for one of the auto companies offered a theory about Detroit’s eventual recovery to me about ten years ago. His theory was that the key to success is the recovery of tens of thousands of professional jobs in the core of the city. At its peak in the 1950s he estimated that there were perhaps 150,000 such jobs in the city of Detroit, and this constituted an economic engine for the city through direct and indirect economic effects. At the low point in the 1990s he estimated that this number had fallen to perhaps 20-30,000 jobs — not enough to support the development the city needed. He projected that if the city could return to 80-90,000 well-paying professional jobs, almost all its other problems would be solvable.

The steps taken by major and small companies in the past five years to locate their operations downtown are a very significant step towards that goal. It seems likely that the three major relocations into the city have resulted in 8-10,000 jobs in the city, and these workers are adding a lot to the vitality of the city as well.

So that’s part of the reason why Woodward Avenue is a happening place today. There are appealing cafes along the street serving lunch to workers in the Compuware Building, there is Motown music blasting from an informal market across the street, and there is a sense of a lively urban environment. What will it look like in ten years?

Thinking poverty in the inner city

I find the question of how other people think to be one of the most interesting angles we can raise about the social world. By “thinking” I mean breaking down the world of experience into useful categories, reasoning about cause and effect among these items, and organizing one’s activities around how he/she understands the world.  What are the mental frameworks through which people conceptualize and organize their daily social experiences? This is pertinent to the notion of an actor-centered sociology, and it is resonant as well with the social-ethnographic research done by people like Erving Goffman. (Here is an earlier post on the topic of social cognition, and here is a thread of posts on Goffman.)

This set of questions is particularly important across the lines of division that separate us in modern US society. The question of how poor Appalachian women think about America, or young black inner city men do, or how white suburban teenagers think about their futures, are all deeply interesting questions. And I fully expect that there are interesting and profound differences across and within the mental frameworks of these various groups.

A sociologist who breaks new ground on this kind of question is Alford Young, a sociologist at the University of Michigan.  His work falls within the field of “cultural sociology”, and he works on issues of race and poverty in urban America. His recent book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is a brilliant effort to get inside the mental frameworks of poor young black men in Chicago.  As he points out, most of American society has a pretty simple theory of the consciousness of inner city young men, and it fears what it sees.  Violence, drugs, and disaffection are the main correlates.  And Young demonstrates that these ideas are wrong in a number of important ways.

Rather, this work aims to show that research that focuses on these men’s anger and hostility hinders a more complex exploration of how they take stock of themselves and the world in which they live. (8)

Young’s book builds a case on the basis of twenty-six interviews he conducted in 1993 and 1994 in the West side of Chicago. Young emphasizes the value of conversation:

What stayed with me over the years, especially as I went to the University of Chicago for graduate studies, was that a great deal could be learned about other people from extended conversations about mundane, everyday matters. (preface)

This is, obviously, a work of qualitative research. It is based on interviews with a relatively small number of individuals. Young’s research hypothesis is that these individuals, while not statistically representative, can shed a great deal of light on the lived experience of young black men in their circumstances and the ways in which these individuals come to think about those circumstances.

Young wants to probe the worldviews of these young men; and he also wants to develop some theories about how they acquired these worldviews.  What were the factors — structural, cultural, familial — that led to these fairly different bundles of assumptions, frameworks, and beliefs about how society works?  And he is particularly interested in probing how these young men conceptualize stratification, inequality, racism, and discrimination.  If there is one major surprise in the book, it is the fact that for many of Young’s respondents, these topics are not important and not much thought about.

Young argues at length that the mentalities he discovers through these conversations defy stereotypes. He rejects the idea of a “lower-class sub-culture” with a distinctive set of ideas about consumption and favors instead the idea that there are significant and interesting variations within the population of young black urban men.

Thus, it is important to pay attention to what people articulate as their own understanding of how social processes work and how they as individuals might negotiate the complex social terrain, rather than simply looking at their actions…. In order to advance this type of understanding, this study seeks to elucidate these men’s worldviews about a particular range of issues and concerns related to socioeconomic mobility. (10)

One thing that is particularly interesting that emerges from Young’s analysis is the fact that these men turn out to have fairly different ideas about their own possibilities for mobility and a better life. And Young finds that these differences correspond to the extent of experience the individual has had outside the neighborhood. 

The degree of exposure that the men have had to the world beyond the Near West Side emerges as key to understanding the differences in the breadth and depth of their worldviews. Such exposure might have come about for some through a few months of work in a downtown fast food restaurant, for others, through incarceration in a penal institution. Whatever the circumstances, such exposure provided opportunities for these men to interact across racial and class lines. Overall, interaction with other worlds led to the acquisition of a more profound understanding of the inequities in social power and influence, and how these forces can affect individual lives. Quite often it led to intimate encounters with racism. (14)

In addition to the inherent ethnographic importance of better understanding of this segment of our society, Young believes that this kind of inquiry can shed light on important social mechanisms that influence mentality.  He singles out social isolation and poverty concentration.

Social isolation refers to the lack of contact or sustained interaction with individuals or institutions that represent mainstream society…. Poverty concentration refers to the social outcomes resulting from large numbers of impoverished people living in great proximity to each other…. The introduction of the concepts of social isolation and poverty concentration created an analytical space for including and assessing the effects of an enduring lack of social and geographic connection between the urban poor and other, more affluent people. (31-32)

This connects to Young’s other recurring theme, the idea of the importance of social capital and social networks for the formation of one’s cognitive frameworks and for the horizon of opportunity that presents itself.

Cultural capital is the knowledge of how to function or operate in specific social settings in order to mobilize, generate responses from, or affect others such as social elites. Finally, social capital has a twofold definition. On one hand, social capital depends on the degree to which an individual is embedded in social networks that can bring about the rewards and benefits that enhance his or her life. In this way, social capital is seen as a precursor to the acquisition of other forms of capital (money, information, social standing, etc.). On the other hand, social capital has been identified as the package of norms and sanctions maintained by groups so that positive or desired outcomes occur for all members, especially those that no single member could achieve on his or her own. (59)

The extracts from interviews that Young provides — on home life, school, work, life in the streets, and other topics — are superb, and you feel like you’ve had a rare opportunity yourself to talk with these young men. 

There are many surprises in Young’s findings; for example, the less contact residents of the Henry Horner Homes had with the rest of Chicago, the less concerned they seemed to be about racial discrimination and injustice. Here is an exchange with Barry:

When I asked him “Do you think you are treated fairly in society?” he paused for a moment and then said, “I guess so. I guess I’m treated fairly, I guess.” I waited to see what else he might say, but nothing was forthcoming. After some gentle prodding Barry told me that he “just didn’t know no white people,” and that was why it was so hard for him to say more in this part of our discussion. (113)

Here is how Young understands Barry’s responses about race:

Barry’s life history involved extreme social isolation not only from labor markets and other institutions relevant to upward mobility, but also from some of the most mobile and connected people in his own neighborhood, such as gang members, college-bound athletes and other students, and other individuals who maintained social ties beyond neighborhood boundaries. Barry’s lack of social ties denied him much-needed experience with people in different positions along the social hierarchy of American life. Barry’s social world included few people other than the low-income residents of the Near West Side. These are the same people he went to school with, sold drugs to, and lived amongst. The scantiness of Barry’s social networks paralleled the narrowness of his views on mobility and opportunity. (115)

Barry was highly isolated, but Devin was not. And here is how Devin answers similar questions:

Devin amplified his earlier remarks by making the following point about black-white relations in America:

I think they [white people] look at me as the, not my people, but to the racists, they look at me like the enemy. They feel that we all blacks is out to get them. Which I believe like this here, I’m is out to get them. . . . Yes. . . . Because they getting too much money. We fight for, we fought for the United States, not them. We went to war. We got to stand up for our rights. We not getting treated right. We’re not even getting equal rights.

Having lived lives that involved either the most interpersonal conflict or the most intimacy with people of high social status and wealth, it is not surprising that Ted, Casey, Peter, and Devin had the most conflict-oriented worldviews about stratification and inequality in American life. (131)

How does this research help with the practical challenges of moving forward in a more just way?  Young addresses this question too:

If a better day is to come for poor black men, then researchers and other parties who are sensitive to their plight must commit themselves to a new perspective on these men. In order for their lives to truly improve, increased employment and job-training opportunities need to be brought into their lives. These men certainly would benefit from an expanded and more secure labor market, but, as we have seen, there is much more that must occur for them to improve their lives. As the men’s testimonies about work make clear, however, increased employment opportunities alone will not deliver them from socioeconomic disadvantage. Information about municipal labor market opportunities, including the options and possibilities in the modern urban world of work and the means and mechanisms for accessing better employment, are as important as the jobs themselves.

Of course, this is the utopian vision of change. The current public view of these men is perhaps best conveyed by the “three-strikes and you’re out” rationale of recent governmental initiatives on crime and delinquency, increased incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders, and other law enforcement initiatives that have resulted in the removal of many low-income black men from the public landscape. This approach goes hand in hand with the public reaction to notions of the underclass, which centers on control and containment of an apparently troubling constituency. (202)

Economic development is of course needed in our cities.  But Young makes a crucial point that I would paraphrase in different terms. The extreme residential segregation that most American cities contain is itself a major obstacle to social mobility — not only in terms of economic opportunities, but in the very fabric of how different groups understand the social world around them. Segregation is epistemic as well as economic.

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