Systems management and the War on Poverty


One of the important developments in engineering and management thinking since World War II is the value of approaching large problems as systems rather than simply as a sum of separable components. Designing a ballpoint pen is very different from designing an aircraft or a fire control system; in the latter cases there are multiple functionalities and components that need to be incorporated, each associated with specific engineering and material disciplines. It was recognized during World War II that it is much more effective to treat the product and the design and manufacturing efforts as systems so that it is possible to conform components to synergistic and mutually supportive inter-relationships.

Agatha Hughes and Thomas Hughes organized a group of leading researchers to reflect upon the history of systems engineering and management, and the chief results are included in their 2000 volume, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The contributors include experts (and participants) in the history of the development of complex military systems during World War II — for example, radar-controlled fire control systems for anti-aircraft use (David Mindell); experts like Donald MacKenzie on the incorporation of computing into the control of complex technologies (for example, the pathbreaking SABRE system for airline reservations); and experts on expertise such as Gabrielle Hecht, who provides an essay on post-war French technology management.

Here is how Hughes and Hughes describe the systems approach in their introduction to the volume:

Practitioners and proponents embrace a holistic vision. They focus on the interconnections among subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among the various parts. What is significant is that system builders include heterogeneous components, such as mechanical, electrical, and organizational parts, in a single system. Organizational parts might be managerial structures, such as a military command, or political entities, such as a government bureau. Organizational components not only interact with technical ones but often reflect their characteristics. For instance, a management organization for presiding over the development of an intercontinental missile system might be divided into divisions that mirror the parts of the missile being designed. (2)
Hughes and Hughes provide a narrative that is intended to show the origins of systems engineering in operations research during World War II, and in the rapid development of highly complex technology systems needed for weaponry during the war (automated fire control, for example). In their telling of the story, the development of the digital computer during and after the war was a critical component of the development of the systems approach and the increasingly complex technologies and systems that the approach stewarded into existence. (See earlier posts on the development of ENIAC; linklink.) Much of this research took place within government and military organizations such as OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development); but private companies like RAND and MITRE soon emerged to take on contracts from military agencies for large-scale systems projects (5). And the research and development process itself came to be treated as a “system”, with new software developed to support project planning and management. One important example was the PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) software system, developed by Booz, Allen & Hamilton (10).

Of particular interest here is the light the volume sheds on the efforts by the Johnson administration to apply systems thinking to the large social problems the country faced in the early 1960s, including especially poverty and urban problems (16) (link). David Jardini’s essay “Out of the blue yonder: The transfer of systems thinking from the Pentagon to the Great Society, 1961-1965” explores this effort to transfer these systems methods to the social field. “[The chapter] argues that the construction and implementation of the Great Society social welfare programs and their analytical methods can be found at the core of Great Society policy making” (312). 
It emerges that a central political and policy disagreement that determined the course of events was a fundamental disagreement about centralization versus community involvement in social welfare policy. Policy leaders like Robert McNamara preferred to see the nation’s social welfare policies to be managed and monitored centrally; affected communities, on the other hand, wanted to have greater control over the programs that would affect them. These disagreements converged on the question of the role of CAPs (Community Action Program) in the implementation and management of policy initiatives on the ground. Should CAPs serve as effective venues for local opinions and demands, or should they be sidelined in favor of a more top-down administrative organization?

The first CAP program guide, for example, suggested that local organizations provide “meaningful opportunities for residents, either as individuals or in groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a Community Action Program is being planned or undertaken.” In fact, protest and confrontation were viewed by many CAP organizers as at least therapeutic means for the poor to vent their frustrations. (339)

But Johnson’s administration was not interested in providing a venue for community advocacy and protest, and quickly sought to find ways of managing social welfare programs to reduce the level of activism they stimulated. The solution was the extension of the PPB (Planning-Programming-Budgeting) model from defense systems administration to the Great Society. But, as Jardini observes, this hierarchical system of control is poorly adapted to the problem of designing and administering programs that affect vast groups of people who can see its effects and can have very different ideas about the appropriateness of the policies being conveyed. “In this sense, the DOD is a poor model for the democratic ideal many Americans hold for their government institutions” (341).

This example illustrates an important tension that runs through many of the essays in the volume concerning the political significance of systems engineering and management. The volume gives support to the idea that systems management is an expert-driven and non-democratic way of organizing complicated human activities. What Robert McNamara brought to Ford Motor Company and the Department of Defense was a hierarchical, analytical, expert-driven system of management that sought to replace decentralized decision-makers with an orderly process driven from the top. For some purposes this may be a reasonably effective way of organizing a large effort involving thousands of agents. But for purposes like social reform it has a fatal flaw; it makes it almost impossible to create the level of buy-in at the local level that will be crucial for the success of a large project.

(I remember asking Tom Hughes in 1999 or so what he thought about the massive “Big Dig” project in Boston, then approaching completion and affecting many neighborhoods and thousands of residents. He commented that he felt that we should not judge the success of the project on the basis of whether it came in under budget; in fact, he suggested that this would show that the project designers and managers had not done enough to modify and adapt the project to gain support from the communities that the project affected.)

Revitalizing our cities

It is hard to think of an American city that is doing really well these days.  Dense urban poverty in the core, super-high rates of unemployment, failing schools for many urban children, high rates of crime, chronic and overwhelming fiscal crises resulting from too little public revenue for needed public services, and health outcome discrepancies that mark debilitating life disadvantages for urban people — these seem to be fairly widespread features of cities from Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles to Chicago to Detroit.

The most recent victim of the urban crisis in the area of publicly provided social services in my city, Detroit, is indicative; this week it was announced that Detroit’s Neighborhood Services Organization would lose 2/3 of its funding effective immediately (link).  This program reaches out to Detroit’s homeless people and provides transition assistance permitting 1000 people per year to return to housed status.  It is now forced to close down its operations entirely until October 1, since the program has already expended 1/3 of its budget for 2009-10.  No one disputes that NSO is doing great work and returning multiples of benefits relative to its budget; but the state’s fiscal crisis has been passed on to this effective, people-oriented program.  (CEO Sheilah Clay was featured as a guest on the Craig Fahle show on WDET today — one of the best parts of the urban Detroit dial.  Thanks, Craig!)

So cities are suffering from very significant structural disadvantages in the United States today.  And yet, as Richard Florida argues so persistently and so correctly, cities are crucial to the future of the United States and the rest of the world (link).  When they are healthy, they create a concentration of talent, innovation, and synergy that simply cannot be beaten.  So we need healthy cities and metropolitan regions if we are to thrive in the twenty-first century.

So what can be done, given that the deck seems to be stacked against our cities?  This evening Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, gave an important lecture on this subject at Wayne State University in its Van Dusen Forum on Urban Issues.  Rodin is an ideal speaker on this subject, because the University of Pennsylvania developed very strong urban renewal strategies aimed at West Philadelphia during her tenure, and because the Rockefeller Foundation has taken urban revitalization as one of its core goals for quite a few decades. Rodin is the author of an important book about the process that unfolded in Philadelphia around the University of Pennsylvania (The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets), and it is worth reading.  She estimates that there are roughly 50 “megaregions” in the United States — Detroit Metro, Chicago-Land, … — and that these megaregions represent 65% of the population and a higher percentage of all economic activity.  So healthy development of American cities is enormously important. But likewise, the institutions that find themselves deeply integrated into the geography of these cities urgently need a future in which their cities begin to grow more habitable, healthy, and equitable.  Here is a memorable line from the speech — “Blight of the city becomes the plight of the university.”

What actors and strategies can help attain a positive trajectory of urban revitalization?  Rodin’s central thrust is that universities and health systems can serve as “anchor” institutions in cities, and that they can design strategies that substantially improve the economic development and quality of life of the cities they inhabit.  (She calls these institutions “eds and meds“.)  They provide very significant employment opportunities and purchasing power in the city; and more important, they necessarily make significant investments in real estate and infrastructure in the city.  So in principle, it is credible that the resources of these institutions could be used in ways that leverage positive change in the cities in which they live.

But Rodin draws several very important lessons from the example of Penn and Philadelphia.  There needs to be a broad and sustained institutional commitment to making strategic decisions around the goal of enhancing the process of urban development.  The strategies can’t be “one-off” — they need to be sustained and thoughtful.  Strategies need to be coherent and comprehensive — not piecemeal and stop-and-go.  Third, she emphasizes that successful revitalization strategies require us to think innovatively.  Existing solutions haven’t worked; we need to bring fresh thinking to the situations we confront and the outcomes we want to achieve.  And, finally, she emphasizes over and over the need for partnership and community participation in the plans that the institution arrives at.  Full, uninhibited partnership is essential if any of these strategies are to work.  So communication, partnership, and genuine collaboration with all stakeholders is essential to a successful strategy. Another memorable line — “Urban revitalization can’t be done for the community or to the community; it must be done with the community.”

The examples that Rodin offered from Philadelphia largely had to do with neighborhood revitalization and investments by the university in stabilizing the neighborhoods surrounding it in West Philadelphia.  For example, the university bought dozens of homes and buildings in the neighborhoods, renovated them, and leased them back to residents and businesses; and, significantly, it did so at a loss.  The idea was to make attractive properties available to city residents and businesses, bringing housing, children, and consumers into once-blighted neighborhoods.  Another example — she highlighted crime and safety on the streets as a key issue; so the university organized a program for street lighting in a number of neighborhoods.  The new lighting system invited people back into the streets; but more people in the streets in turn reduced the prevalence of crime.  A third example — she talked about a mortgage incentive program the university offered to faculty and staff, to give them an incentive to live in the targeted neighborhoods.  In other words, through a targeted and sustained investment strategy in real estate and neighborhoods the university was able to help Philadelphia achieve meaningful change.

The upshot of these examples comes down to two basic causal ideas: invest in real estate in ways that invite people to live and work in the central city; and find ways of changing behaviors so that the neighborhoods will be increasingly attractive.  Crucially, Rodin suggests that the university’s investment is a sizable one; but it is a small fraction of the total investment in these neighborhoods that eventually comes about as residents, business owners, and investors acquire more confidence in the safety and stability of the neighborhoods.  So the change of behavior is really essential to the whole plan; unless people begin occupying homes, purchasing in grocery stores and other businesses, and enjoying parks and cinemas in these neighborhoods, nothing fundamental will change.  No single institution has the resources to turn West Philadelphia into Back Bay, but early investments by “anchor institutions” may pay off through their ability to leverage many times those resources through other sources.

What Rodin didn’t talk about so much in her lecture is how the research energies of the university can be a positive factor in urban revitalization.  But this aspect of the university’s ability to contribute is crucial.  The social problems that modern cities face are “wicked” problems — big, messy, complex, and multi-sectoral problems (link).  Everyone wants to improve the quality of urban schools.  But what interventions might actually work?  This requires a broad research effort, incorporating teacher training, pedagogy, curriculum, the cultural and social environments that poor children live in, school leadership, system bureaucracy and governance, and a host of other complex causal processes.  So 800-word editorials in the local newspaper won’t be able to provide a guide to policy reform.  The remedies won’t be simple.  Or take racial disparities in health outcomes.  Why are certain diseases so much more prevalent in poor neighborhoods?  Some of the answers are fairly simple; but overall, this is a complex phenomenon that requires careful, detailed applied research.  And schools of public health have exactly the right constellations of talent and expertise to help sort out the causal processes leading to these outcomes — and the kinds of policy interventions that can reverse them.  Here again, the research capacity of a university is crucial to the solution or amelioration of the problems our cities face.

Another major impact that a university can offer a city is in the form of an engaged student body.  If students are motivated to support community service organizations, they can have an immediate impact.  If they are encouraged to take service-learning courses that give them a better understanding of the city, this will deepen their ability to contribute.  And both these forms of engagement will produce something even more important: adults who are prepared to extend themselves in forms of community service throughout their lives.  Learning the habit of engagement can be a lifelong change.

Significantly, a number of urban and metropolitan universities are adopting institutional missions that highlight the kinds of partnership, engagement, and urban/metropolitan impact that is described here.  In particular, the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities represents a group of universities with precisely those commitments.  Here is the Declaration that members of the coalition endorse.  Another important recent development is the establishment of a new Carnegie classification of universities, the classification for Community Engagement (link).

What cities have in common

Images: Beijing (1900), Mexico City (2000), London (1600), Chicago (1930)

The “city” is a pretty heterogeneous category, encompassing human places that differ greatly with each other and possess a great deal of internal social heterogeneity as well. Size, population structure, economic or industrial specialization, forms of governance, and habitation and transportation structure all vary enormously across the population of cities. And so New York (2000), Chicago (1930), Rome (200), Mumbai (2008), Beijing (1800), Lagos (1970), London (1600), and Mexico City (1990) are all vastly different human agglomerations; and yet all are “cities”. Ancient, modern, medieval, developed, and underdeveloped — each of these places represents an urban concentration of population and habitation. (Here is an earlier posting that is relevant to the current topic.)

Given these many dimensions of difference, we can reasonably ask whether there are any shared urban characteristics or processes. Is there anything that a scientific or historical study of cities can discover? Is there a body of observation and discovery that might constitute the foundation for a sociology of cities?

Several points emerge quickly when we pose the question in these terms. First, a city is by definition a dense concentration of human inhabitants in a limited space. Human beings have material needs that must be satisfied daily: fresh water, food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, for example. Rural people can satisfy many of these needs directly through access to land, farms, and other natural resources. Urban populations are too dense to support individual or family self-sufficiency. So cities have this in common: they must have developed logistical systems for supplying residents with food, clean water, sanitation, and other basic necessities. This is the insight that motivated von Thünen in the development of central place theory (Isolated State: an English Edition of Der Isolierte Staat); equally it underlies William Cronon’s analysis of Chicago in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West and G. William Skinner’s analysis of urban hierarchies in China (link).

A second feature of cities is the unavoidable need for value-adding, non-agricultural production within the city. This means activities such as manufacturing, artisanal production, and the provision of services for pay. The residents of the city need to gain income in order to have “purchasing power” to acquire the necessities of life from the countryside. This implies a social organization that supports employment and occupations. So cities share this characteristic as well: they are grounded systems of production and exchange, permitting labor, production, circulation of commodities, and consumption. (Reasoning something like this underlay the analysis of Chicago into “ecological zones” pioneered by Chicago School sociologists Park and Burgess in The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment.)

Given that cities are inherently spatial, the economic characteristics just mentioned also imply a circulation of persons throughout the city. And this implies that cities must possess some organized system of transportation. This may be walking pathways, roads for carriages, streetcars, buses, or subways and railroads. But economic activity and production requires circulation of people, and this implies urban transportation. But, as Sam Bass Warner showed in Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900, transport systems in turn create new patterns of residence and work in their wake.

A third common urban characteristic has to do with inequalities of power, influence, and property. Human populations seem always to embody significant inequalities along these lines. But advantages of power and wealth can be almost automatically transformed into facts of urban geography by the nomenklatura, the elites. So cities are likely to bear the signature of the social inequalities of wealth and power that are interwoven in their histories. The attractive locations for homes and gardens, preferred access to amenities such as water and roads, even locations favored from the point of view of pest and disease — these locations are likely to be stratified by wealth and power. (Engels’ description of the habitation patterns of bourgeoisie and proletariat in Birmingham and Manchester are illustrative; The Condition of the Working Class in England. Here’s a more developed discussion of Engels’ sociology of the city.)

Fourth, cities require formal systems of governance and law. Village society may succeed in establishing stable social order based on informal norms and processes. But cities are too large and complex to function as informal arrangements. Instead, there need to be ordinances for public health and safety, maintenance of public facilities, land use processes, and rules of public safety. Absent such governance, it is inconceivable that a city of one hundred thousand or a million would succeed in maintaining the delicate patterns of coordination needed for the continuing wellbeing of the residents.

So cities can be predicted to possess a variety of forms of social, political, economic, and geographical organization. Cities are not formless concentrations of humanity; rather, they are functional systems that can be investigated in depth. And here is the historical reality that permits this analysis to escape the charge of functionalism; the social systems that cities currently possess are the result of designs and adaptations of intelligent, strategic actors in the past. This means that they may be markedly non-optimal; they are likely to be skewed towards the interests and comfort of elites; but they are likely to work at some level of success.

These observations don’t exactly answer the original question in a tidy way; they don’t establish specific forms or characteristics that all cities share. But they do define a set of existential circumstances that cities must satisfy, and they pose in turn a series of questions about social organization and function that are likely to shed light on every city. We might look at this discussion as suggesting a matrix of analysis for all cities, corresponding to the large social needs mentioned here. How does a given city handle logistics, provisioning, local economic activity, transportation, land use, governance, public order, sanitation and health, and inequalities? What are the organizations and systems through which these central and inevitable tasks are accomplished? And then, perhaps, we may find a basis for classifying cities into large groups, based on the similarities that exist at this level of structure and organization. (For example, reasoning something like this leads G. William Skinner to distinguish between administrative and commercial cities in late Imperial China.)

American urban unrest

photo: Newark, 1967

Several recent posts have focused on periods of civil unrest in other countries — France and Thailand most recently. The United States has its own history of civil unrest as well; and much of that history involves poverty, race, and cities. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the dynamics and causes of the major urban race riots that have occurred in the United States in the past seventy-five years. Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and Watts stand out as particularly dramatic moments in American urban history of the late 1960s, and it is useful to tease out some of the historical contingencies and large social conditions that produced these periods of strife.

At the crudest level, we can tell a pretty compelling story about why these riots occurred. The facts of racial segregation and intense poverty and restricted opportunities for African-Americans created an environment where urban African-American youth had seething grievances and a sense of little to lose; a dilapidated and depressing housing stock reinforced this sense of isolation, anger, and hopelessness; and specific incidents triggered an outburst of urban violence against property (the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; specific acts of police misconduct; etc.). So structural conditions (racism, segregation, economic inequality, poverty, and limited opportunities) led to a political psychology of grievance, anger, and hopelessness in a large part of the urban population; and it was only a matter of time before a spark would fall into this tinder. Riots were predictable given the structural conditions and the resulting psychology.

But this is a commonsense folk theory of unrest; what do the experts think? Janet Abu-Lughod provides a particularly thoughtful and probing history of this subject in Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Abu-Lughod is a noted urban sociologist (though notably not a student of social contention in the Tilly school), and her approach is comparative and spatial. She wants to identify the similarities and differences that exist across a small number of cases of major race riots. She picks out six riots in three cities (Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) over a period of about seventy-five years (1919-1992) and employs a method of paired comparisons. Her goal is to achieve three things:

First, I hope to illustrate the changing conditions of urban race relations over time, as these have been affected by internal and international patterns of migration, wars and wartime production demands for labor, legal changes governing housing segregation, and the civil rights movement.

Second, I hope to explain variations in riots in the three largest metropolitan regions by examining differences in their demographic compositions, the spatial distributions of racial and ethnic groups within each city, and the degree and patterns of racial segregation in their unique physical settings.

Third, I hope to demonstrate differences in the ways relevant city government regimes have responded to sequential outbreaks — ways that reflect the distinctive power structures of each city and the prior “social learning” relevant to race relations that evolved in each place. (8)

One of the things that is most original in Abu-Lughod’s treatment is the primacy she gives to the spatial features of urban geography and the geography of racial segregation in the various cities. She believes that spatial characteristics of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles explain important aspects of the six riots. But another original contribution is the emphasis she places on sequence and learning: an uprising later in time takes a somewhat different shape because of things that insurgents and authorities have learned from earlier uprisings. Both insurgents and authorities have “repertoires” of tactics that are updated by prior experiences.

Spatial considerations come into Abu-Lughod’s analysis in several ways: as a source of conflict (over de facto borders between racially defined areas), and a source of logistical difficulties for the authorities when it comes to the challenge of deploying forces to suppress rioters (in Los Angeles, for example). Urban development plans that intrude into black neighborhoods — for example, the expansion of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago — are also identified as a spatial process that provokes racial conflict.

Abu-Lughod draws several general conclusions based on the pairwise comparisons that she has made. One important conclusion concerns policing. She argues that a well-trained, restrained, and disciplined police force is more likely to sustain peace in tumultuous times and less likely to worsen conflicts when they arise (270); whereas undisciplined and violent police forces greatly worsen the degree and duration of conflict. And second, she argues that the cases suggest that cities in which the city administration has taken steps to enhance trust and collaboration with the organizations of disadvantaged populations will be least likely to suffer major race riots. “Where there is ongoing interaction between well-organized protest movements, with leaders capable of articulating specific demands for change, and a responsive local government, the more quickly hostilities can be brought to an end” (270). So there are specific steps that cities can take to attempt to reduce the likelihood of prolonged major race riots.

But these points don’t address the most basic causes of race riots: poverty, segregation, and severe inequalities of opportunity across racial lines. As she points out, the Kerner Commission in 1968 urged the nation to address these inequalities; the Johnson administration undertook to do so; and very, very little progress has been made in the intervening forty years towards greater social justice along these lines. So perhaps her most sweeping and penetrating conclusion has to do with the depth and severity of the problems of race, poverty, and segregation we continue to face in American cities, and the likelihood this creates for future major disturbances.

Given the obdurate persistence of racism in American culture, and the widening divides in the racial/ethnic/class system over the past three decades (attributable to changes in the international division of labor that have reshaped labor demands in the United States, coupled with massive immigration and a generation of neoliberal national policies that have shred the welfare safety net woven in the Great Depression), I am amazed that major urban rebellions have thus far been so constrained. (269)

One thing that this account has not addressed is the element of organizations and leadership. Abu-Lughod presents the riots she treats as if they were simply wholesale reactions of the mass populations of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, to a pressing set of structures and grievances. And this appears to make these periods of strife as being non-strategic — reactive rather than purposive, expressive rather than political. But it is a key insight of the resource mobilization approach that we need to spend particular effort at discovering the organizational resources that were available to insurgents; the background thought is that uprisings require mobilization and coordination, and that this is impossible without some sort of organization. So were there organizational resources that helped to sustain and spread the urban riots of the 1960s?

Abu-Lughod doesn’t ignore urban activist organizations altogether; for example, she talks about the role of the NAACP and the Urban League in organizing and negotiating skillfully in support of the economic and political interests of African-Americans in New York during periods between major riots. And she refers to the organizational capacity of the Congress of Racial Equality in New York as a substantial asset in the ability of the black community to organize and sustain protests against police brutality in 1964 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the periods of strife themselves seem to be largely disorganized, in her narrative, and CORE organizers exerted themselves to damp down the violence rather than sustain it. Generally the civil rights organizations appear to have played the role of peace makers rather than insurgents.

A good complement to Abu-Lughod’s analysis is Tom Sugrue’s recent book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. This is a very careful and detailed treatment of the sustained activism and achievements of major civil rights organizations in the North that were aimed at achieving greater equality for African-Americans. And it gives a very nuanced appreciation of the degree of political sophistication and activism that existed in the urban African-American communities of the north throughout the 1960s. Sugrue documents in great detail the strategies and commitment of organizations such as CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League. But I think Sugrue agrees with the basic view that the rioting itself was not the result of insurgent organization: “There is little evidence that the urban rebellions of the 1960s were planned, coordinated, and controlled. What was most striking about the long hot summers was not their coordination or coherence. Their very spontaneity convinced many leftists that they were manifestations of a popular — if still undeveloped — revolutionary consciousness” (334-35).

If this interpretation is correct (spontaneous rioting without organization through such vehicles as street gangs, underground groups, etc.), then the spatial considerations that Abu-Lughod focuses on really are crucial; our explanations of the spread and persistence of violence in these cities depend on neighborhood-level mobilization alone. And it suggests that American urban riots were somewhat different from insurgency movements in other countries; they are more spontaneous and less organized than the campaigns of the aggrieved mentioned in prior postings (1848 Paris workers, Thai red shirts, student protests in France).

Regional interconnectedness

Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit are part of a large economic region in the upper Midwest of the United States, which is sometimes referred to as the Great Lakes Region. There are hundreds of lesser cities within this regional system — Erie, Toledo, Rockford, Grand Rapids, …. What are the economic interdependencies that exist among these cities? How important are these relationships in the overall pattern of economic development that each city demonstrates? And of critical practical importance, how much leverage exists for development planners in these major cities to enhance their city’s progress through adroit use of these relationships? Is there a possible gain for Milwaukee in virtue of the net effect of its relationships to Detroit? Or is each metropolitan region mostly autarkic with respect to the other?

There seem to be several theoretical possibilities. One is that there are in fact major point-to-point economic interdependencies among cities within a large economic region and that these are significantly different across different pairs of cities. It might be that the growth or contraction of auto manufacturing in Detroit is tightly enough linked to supplier companies in Milwaukee that what helps Detroit also helps Milwaukee.

Another possibility is that the regional impact is systemic rather than point-to-point. Here the idea is that the great metropolitan regions within a regional economy contribute to the macroeconomic environment for the region — labor demand, growth, consumer demand, and fiscal shares. The region sets the basic parameters — transport cost, commodity prices, and the current distribution of population and talent. But the impact of, say, Milwaukee on Toledo is entirely mediated through the macroeconomic environment of the region. And to the extent that there are correlations of advance and decline, this is the result of regional “pulsing” of macroeconomic factors rather than specific city-to-city interactions.

A third possibility is that each metropolitan region is largely independent within the larger region, so that regional economic performance is simply the aggregation of the performance of the component metropolitan regions (cities). And if this is the case, then we would expect a low degree of correlation on economic development across the cities of a region. (But in this case it is more difficult to explain why we refer to the set of cities as an economic “region” at all, since this term implies a degree of economic similarity and interdependence.)

Let’s look at the first possibility more closely. Logically, the possibility of this kind of interdependency appears to depend on the existence of directed flows of activities between the places that do not extend to other places. There must be some network reality to the region within which A and B are proximate nodes. What else could provide the mechanism of mutual causal influence upon which the postulated interdependence depends?

So what are the inter-city connections that might support tight point-to-point linkages? The direct industry-to-industry dependencies mentioned above are most obvious. More furniture manufacturing in Grand Rapids might stimulate a surge in business for the plastic mesh producers in Rockford, to complete those great Aeron chairs. The input-output tables measuring exchange activity between the two cities might be extensive or minimal.

Here is another possible connection — the talent needs in some cities might lead to the growth of universities in cities in other parts of the region. In a hypothetical history of the Midwest, Chicago might extend its current concentration of research universities and become a “knowledge center” for the region, supplying the inventors, architects, accountants, and lawyers for the region. In fact, specialized education and research is more diffused than this; but isn’t this essentially the role that Boston played for a century or so for the northeast?

A third possibility — two cities might be tightly linked through the existence of particularly efficient transportation or communication systems between them. Are Seattle and San Francisco more tightly linked economically because they are both Pacific Ocean ports with low-cost transport between them? What about Minneapolis, St. Louis, and New Orleans, linked by the barges of the Mississippi River?

Historically there are fairly good measures of economic interconnectedness between places. We can examine the correlation of time series of prices, wages, and profits to measure the degree of economic integration that exists among A, B, and C. Likewise, we can examine the patterns of growth or contraction of employment over time; do Milwaukee, Toledo, and Detroit demonstrate synchronized patterns of growth and contraction in business activity and overall employment over long periods of time? And the transport links mentioned here are a particularly fundamental source of economic integration in 19th-century studies of China, France, or the United States. (It’s possible that contemporary data would suggest that all U.S. cities are equally integrated by these measures, since market integration has increased dramatically through transport and communications improvements.)

The most compact basis for studies of regional integration derives from the original insights of central place theory — William Cronon’s analysis of Chicago and its hinterlands, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, is an outstanding example of this approach. And G. William Skinner’s analysis of the urban hierarchies of late imperial China falls in this general approach. What these examples do not permit, though, is analysis of inter-city dependencies across a region. At a very different level, these are the kinds of questions Saskia Sassen is asking about “world” cities. She attempts to identify the linkages that exist among major cities with respect to financial flows, internet traffic, and telephone calls. See earlier posts on each of these approaches (post, post, post).

Segregation in France

The mix of race, poverty, and urban space has created intractable social issues in many American cities in the past sixty years. Residential segregation creates a terrible fabric of self-reproducing inequalities between the segregated group and the larger society — inequalities of education, health, employment, and culture. As intractable as this social system of segregation appears to be in the cities of the United States, it may be that the situation in France is even worse. Sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie is interviewed in a recent issue of the Nouvel Obs on the key findings of his recent book, Ghetto urbain: Segregation, violence, pauvrete en France aujourd’hui. The interview makes for absorbing reading.

Lapeyronnie is an expert on urban sociology, poverty, and immigration in France and a frequent observer of the rising urban crisis in France. (I’m deliberately evoking here the title of Tom Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) Lapeyronnie’s view is grim: the isolation and despair characteristic of French ghetto and banlieue communities are worsening year after year, and the French state’s promises after the disturbances of 2005 have not been fulfilled. Unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and poverty create an environment in which young people have neither the resources nor the opportunities to improve their social position, and they are largely excluded from the larger French society.

Lapeyronnie offers several important observations. These ghettos are largely populated by immigrant communities — first, second, or third-generation immigrants from North Africa and former French colonies. Racism is a crucial element in the development and evolution of these segregated spaces. As he puts it:

The ghetto is the product of two mechanisms: social and racial segregation and poverty, which enclose people in their neighborhoods, leading to the formation of a veritable counter-society with its own norms, its economy (what one calls the black economy), and even its own political system. … Poor and segregated, feeling ostracized by the Republic and plunged into a veritable political vacuum, they have organized a counter-society which protects them even as they are disadvantaged in relation to the exterior world.

Lapeyronnie makes the point that the development of segregated ghettos is more advanced and more harmful in the smaller cities of France. He describes the situation in these smaller cities as creating an almost total barrier between the ghetto and the surrounding city — an environment where the possibility of economic or social interaction has all but disappeared.

Lapeyronnie notes the role that gender plays in the segregation system. Women of the ghetto can move back and forth — if they accept the “dominant norms” of dress and behavior. And this means the head scarf, in particular. In order to pass across the boundary of ghetto and city, women must adopt the dress of non-Muslim French society. But, as Lapeyronnie points out, this creates a deeply ambiguous position for women, because modest dress and head scarf are all but mandatory within the space of the ghetto. “The veil is interpreted as a sexual symbol, affirmation of a sexual solidarity with Muslim men. It often engenders hostility outside the ghetto while providing protection within the ghetto.” “Here one finds one of the central explanations of the formation of the ghetto … which is organized around the articulation of the race of the men and the sex of the women.”

Another interesting sociological observation concerns the nature of the social networks within and without the ghetto. Lapeyronnie distinguishes between “strong network ties” (liens forts) and weak network ties (liens faibles), and he asserts that social relationships in the ghetto fall in the first category: everyone knows everyone. As a network diagram, this would result in a dense network in which every node is connected to every other node. But Lapeyronnie makes the point that weak networks are a source of strength and innovation in the larger society that is lacking in the ghetto; people can “network” to strangers through a series of connections. So opportunities are widely available — finding a job by passing one’s CV through a series of people, for example. “Strong networks protect people, they are like a cocoon … But they are also a handicap and a weight on each person. Not only is the individual deprived of resources, but many people don’t know a single person outside the neighborhood.” Moreover, this strong network characteristic is very effective at enforcing a group morality (along the lines of Durkheim): “There is a morality and set of norms in the strong network: don’t betray, be faithful to one’s friends, stay together.”

Lapeyronnie concludes the interview with these words:

When a population is placed in a situation of poverty and lives within racial segregation, it returns to very traditional definitions of social roles, notably the roles of family, and on a rigid and often bigoted morality. This is what permits building the strong network.

This is a pretty powerful analysis of the social transformations that are created by segregation, racism, isolation, and poverty — and it doesn’t bode well for social peace in France. Lapeyronnie is describing the development of an extensive “counter-society” that may be more and more important in coming years. The social networks and social relationships that Lapeyronnie describes are a potent basis for social mobilization and new social movements, and there don’t seem to be many pathways towards social progress to which such movements might be directed.

Engels’ sociology of the city

Friedrich Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was one of the earliest “sociological” descriptions of the emerging working class in industrial Europe. Engels is a good subject for this blog, because this book is a very interesting effort to “understand society” at a time when the changes that Britain was undergoing were perplexing and rapid. Like other nineteenth century thinkers — such as Thomas Carlyle, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Alexander Herzen — Engels was trying to find language, concepts, theories, and metaphors in terms of which to comprehend the rapid processes of urbanization and industrialization that he observed. This is a place where the “sociological imagination” is most critical — the ability of talented observers to begin to make sense of the complex social reality surrounding them, and to find language and theory adequate to expressing that reality.

Published in German in 1845, Conditions represents Engels’ attempt to offer a detailed and systematic description of the emerging industrial system in England, largely based on his experience as a young man in the textile firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. (Steven Marcus’s book, Engels, Manchester & the Working Class, provides a good description.) The book is one of the classics of radical thought in the nineteenth century, and substantiates Engels’ stature as a thinker whose perceptions and critiques developed independently from Marx’s, in his early years anyway.

My question here is, what are some of the characteristics of this book as a work of social science? To what extent does the book serve to provide one of the founding sources of modern sociology? And, of course, we need to avoid anachronism when we ask this question; the book was published only two years later than John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (1843) — one of the earliest efforts to frame an answer to the question of “social science”, and the question of how best to understand the emerging world of industrial capitalism was a profoundly challenging one.

The book has several key features. First, Engels gives a great deal of effort to the task of observing and describing the facts of urban industrial life in the 1840s in Manchester and Birmingham. He is interested in recording the conditions of life that workers experienced; the nature and cost of their daily subsistence; the conditions of health and safety that they experienced; and the nature and size of the population of the towns, neighborhoods, and cities that he describes. Engels relies upon his own observations, but he also makes extensive use of the growing body of official reports that were being produced by English governmental agencies as well as travelers’ reports, coroners’ reports, and newspapers. He refers especially to investigations by the health authorities following the cholera epidemic of 1831-32.

Second, Engels does not attempt to assume the posture of a disinterested observer. He is plainly on the side of the worker and a radical critic of the bourgeois owner; he is making a case about exploitation and indifference against the emerging class of owners whose factories he describes.

Third, he is interested in resistance and mobilization, and he devotes chapters to strikes and other forms of organized efforts by workers and their families to improve their conditions. This is especially true in Chapter IX (Working-Class Movements), but these topics recur in many places in the book.

Fourth, quite a bit of the book might be classified as “ethnography” today: detailed, first-person description of conditions of life of a particular group of people, based on direct interaction with them by the observer.

Fifth, the book certainly falls in the category of descriptive urban sociology. Engels is very interested in describing living conditions, including crowding, squalor, and deprivation. He offers detailed description of the state of the environment — rivers, waterways, roads, and buildings — in the cities he describes, including the famous River Irk in Manchester. And there are numerous drawings of the layout of streets and neighborhoods, so that Engels can document his points about crowding and squalor. Here is a quick description of a neighborhood in Manchester:

Some four thousand people, mostly Irish, inhabit this slum. The cottages are very small, old and dirty, while the streets are uneven, partly unpaved, not properly drained and full of ruts. Heaps of refuse, offal and sickening filth are everywhere interspersed with pools of stagnant liquid. The atmosphere is polluted by the stench and is darkened by the thick smoke of a dozen factory chimneys. … The creatures who inhabit these dwellings and even their dark, wet cellars, and who live confined amidst all this filth and foul air — which cannot be dissipated because of the surrounding lofty buildings — must surely have sunk to the lowest leel of humanity. (71)

The organization of the book reveals an effort by Engels to engage in sociological classification. For example, he distinguishes among several groups of proletarians: industrial workers, miners, farm laborers, and the Irish workers (chapter II). Within industrial workers he further distinguishes workers by sector and division of labor. And he believes that the classification is explanatory: “the closer the wage earners are associated with industry the more advanced they are”.

There are several large sociological processes that Engels articulates. The book puts forward an account of the dynamics of class formation through the development of the industrial system — the process of centralization and increase of scale of production leading to the consolidation of a class of owners and a large class of proletarians. But the book also advances an analysis of urbanization and the growth of towns and cities, based on the dynamics of factory production and the need for larger volumes of labor. “Industry and commerce attain their highest stage of development in the big towns, so that it is here that the effects of industrialisation on the wage earners can be most clearly seen” (28). Consider his description of the slums of London:

It is only when [the observer] has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilisation with which their city teems. The vast majority of Londoners have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them. (30)

And consider his commentary on the effects that slum life has:

In the circumstances it is to be expected that it is in this region that the inevitable consequences of industrialisation in so far as they affect the working classes are most strikingly evident. Nowhere else can the life and conditions of the industrial proletariat be studied in all their aspects as in South Lanacashire. Here can be seen most clearly the degradation into which the worker sinks owing to the introduction of steam power, machinery and the division of labour. Here, too, can be seen most the strenuous efforts of the proletariat to raise themselves from their degraded situation. (50)

And Engels makes some astute observations about the design of industrial towns:

Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter r coming into contact with an artisan. He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct. (54)

These descriptions offer two things: a hypothesis about urban growth and the creation of slums, and an ethnographic interpretation of the lived experience of people who find themselves trapped in modern cities. (Notice how similar this description of the slum dweller’s life is to the description that Marx offers in his elaboration of the theory of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.)

Finally, there is plainly an effort to provide an explanation of the phenomena Engels describes, based on an analysis of an underlying causal process: the rapid development of a capitalist system of property ownership and factory production. Engels brings almost every aspect of the degrading social circumstances that he chronicles back to exploitation and the insatiable appetite of capital for profits at the expense of workers. This is a single-factor explanation of a process that was surely multi-dimensional. But it illustrates an important aspect of sociological explanation: the need to discover some of the underlying processes that give rise to the phenomena that have been discovered.

So — is it sociology or is it radical propaganda? It’s a mix of both. The sociology is of course only partially formed; the next century still had a lot of work to do in conceptualizing how a scientific perspective might be brought to the analysis of society. (And of course that work isn’t finished yet.) But Engels’ efforts here are noteworthy. And of course it is also a document of political advocacy, in line with writings of liberal and radical reformers elsewhere in Britain and Europe. It is also very interesting to me that the book is written by Engels largely prior to his substantial collaboration with Marx. And this goes some ways towards validating the idea that Engels himself was an important thinker and theorist of society.

(The documentary photography of the slums of New York by Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York) seems to have much of the same motivation as Engels’ in Condition of the Working Class in England when it comes to a morally inspired desire to reveal the social reality of slums. See Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom’s Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The Reformer, His Journalism, and His Photographs for a book that is getting some justified attention.)


Cities are fascinating — individually and in the aggregate. Are there distinct types of cities? Are there specific social processes that are associated with the development of cities in different countries or civilizations? Are there regularities across cities in different settings?

Two authors I’ve particularly admired in their analysis of cities — at very different historical and spatial scales — are G. William Skinner and Saskia Sassen. Skinner’s historical treatment of Chinese cities is innovative and original (The City in Late Imperial China and The Chinese City Between Two Worlds; both edited books, the first including two major essays by Skinner). And Sassen’s treatment of the global city in the twenty-first century sets the standard for bold new thinking about the social processes that are transforming the contemporary world (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo and Global Networks, Linked Cities).

Skinner is fascinated with the spatial arrangement of cities across historical China, and the hierarchies of economic, political, and social relationships that exist among them. And he is interested in the extended historical processes through which great and small cities took their shape. A crucial discovery — regions rather than nations are the appropriate unit of analysis. “Fairly early in my research on Chinese cities it became clear that in late imperial times they formed not a single integrated urban system but several regional systems, each only tenuously connected with its neighbors” (CLIC 211). Transport systems were the primary integrative mechanism that Skinner identifies, and in China, transport was largely defined by navigable river systems.

In “Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China” Skinner is interested in explaining regional differences in urbanization rates across macroregions, and he isolates a handful of causal factors: population density of the region, division of labor, application of technology, commercialization/interregional trade, extraregional trade, administration. He finds that these variables do a pretty good job of explaining the urbanization rates for the eight macroregions he identifies (CLIC 235). A second interesting finding has to do with rank-size relationships of cities by region for late imperial China. Referring to a statistical regularity postulated by G. K. Zipf, according to which the rank-size distribution for a country or region is expected to be approximately linear when plotted with double-log scales, Skinner examines the rank-size distribution for the eight macroregions. And in a panel of graphs for the eight regions (CLIC 238-39) he demonstrates that the distributions conform remarkably well to this prediction, with a few interesting outliers (Canton, Kweiyang, Middle and Upper Yangtze regions).

Skinner’s other essay in the volume is just as interesting, “Cities and the Hierarchy of Local Systems.” In this paper Skinner focuses on the hierarchies within which Chinese cities fall — one having to do with imperial administration and the other having to do with economic interaction. These hierarchies are both determined by the nature of the social interactions (and social functions) that are focused on various cities. And they are distinct. For the economic hierarchy of cities and towns Skinner’s starting point is central place theory; according to this approach, cities and towns are ranked according to the volume of products and services that they provide and the nature of trade that exists between the city and other places in the hinterlands. The central analytical ideas here are “the demand threshold of the supplier and the range of a good” (277). These concepts work out, with appropriate simplifying assumptions, into a hexagonal array of places, containing nested hexagons of lesser places in a descending sequence. Skinner analyzes the location (spatial and hierarchy) of cities and towns in the Upper Yangzi region and finds that the analytical assumptions are born out.

The administrative hierarchy of cities is defined by different criteria — location within the imperial system and a characteristic set of administrative functions. Skinner lays out this hierarchical system and then classifies cities and towns accordingly; and he finds, once again, a set of highly interesting regularities. In this case he finds that the distribution of administrative functions across cities and towns reflects intelligent administrative design. “These findings effectively dispose of the notion that cities in imperial China were but microcosms of empire, more or less uniform creations of an omnipotent state. Rather, they give evidence of skilled husbanding and deployment of the limited bureaucratic power that a premodern court could effectively control” (345).

Now let’s swing forward a century and look quickly at Saskia Sassen’s analysis of global cities New York, London, and Tokyo). Sassen takes a different cut on the dynamics and structure of modern cities. She places the great cities of the late twentieth century into networks that are global rather than national or regional. She looks at networks of exchange that include financial transactions, information flows, and movements of expertise and knowledge-based services. And global cities are those cities that serve as dense hubs of these kinds of exchanges on a global basis. (The map at right doesn’t come from Sassen, but it appeals to me in the context because it uses the connectedness of cities to rewrite the geography of the globe. See a ContinentalDrift posting for some discussion.)

Sassen singles out seven hypotheses (quoting from the preface to Global Cities):

  1. the geographic dispersal of economic activities that marks globalization … 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
  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 … 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
  6. the growing numbers of high level professionals and high-profit making specialized firms have the effect of raising the degree of spatial and socioeeconomic inequality evident in these cities
  7. the dynamics described in hypothesis six lead to 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

And, in a single sentence, her conclusion is:

Economic globalization and telecommunications have contributed to produce a spatiality for the urban which pivots both on cross-border networks and on territorial locations with massive concentrations of resources (xxii).

The book attempts to document and explore these points through a huge range of evidence about flows: flows of investment, flows of telephone calls, flows of scientists and specialists. And global cities are the places where these flows concentrate and originate; they are nodes in the global system of exchange that constitutes the modern knowledge-intensive economy. Like Skinner, she is very interested in networks and hierarchies; unlike Skinner, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in spatial patterns (and their graphical expression, maps).

These points just scratch the surface of the insights that these two social scientists have provided as we try to understand cities in relation to larger social networks. But perhaps it’s enough to illustrate the crucial point: there is ample room in social science and history for innovative perspectives on old questions.

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