The Common Characteristics of Urban Social Organization

Social relations in multicultural cities are not only organized around the shared ethno-racial identities and interests, but are also embedded in the economic and social order and contemporary modes of urban living. The latter affects the quality and forms of interactions in communities. To clarify the influence of urbanity, I will briefly recount the common elements of modern urban institutions.

Identifying urban ways of life, which include both social relations and cultural patterns, has been critical to the concerns of modern social theorists such as Emile Durkheim (1893), George Simmel (1902), Louis Wirth (1938), and, recently, Harvey Cox (1965), Manuel Castells (1983), David Harvey (1985), and Henri Lefebvre (2003), among others.3 A discussion of their respective arguments and conclusions would not only be too long, but also tangential to the point that we are pursuing here, namely, how ethno-racial differences play out in multicultural cities. The following is a summary of the defining features of urban social organization as deduced from these theorists.

  • 1. Social relations in a city are organized around institutions and activities. They are segmented, secondary (partial involvement), driven by interests more than personal ties, purposive and largely impersonal, and embedded in organizational norms and institutional mores, except for primary groups. Mike Savage, Alan Warde, and Kevin Ward, in reappraising Louis Wirth's theory of urbanism conclude that "although settlement type does not directly generate particular types of social relations, the frequency, density and context of personal contacts does have an effect on socialization."4
  • 2. Heterogeneity of social backgrounds and roles is a defining condition of urban living. It produces individualism and interest-based groups. Ethno-racial differences add another layer in this edifice of heterogeneity.
  • 3. Urban social structure is primarily based on class, in which social status is tied to economic standing and power more than to clan or family background. Class has a pervasive influence in determining how one lives, what life chances one has, with whom one associates, and what one's standing in society is. In modern times, class is defined by income, occupation, and consumption-lifestyle. Now there is a talk of knowledge and creativity as the determinants of class.5 Social class permeates into ethnic and racial communities, defining status differences within such groups.
  • 4. Collective goods are the wirings of a city. In their pure form, they are indivisible and in-appropriable, that is, they cannot be produced and consumed on an individual basis. Instead, they serve a whole community and thus have common behavioural norms and values. Manuel Castells, a Marxist sociologist, explains the urban problematic as the inequality of collective consumption, defined as "accessibility and use of certain collective services," among various classes and their neighbourhoods.6 Norms and values of collective consumption constrain ethnic behaviours and build a civic culture.
  • 5. Finally, the social life in a city is divided between the public and private spheres. Public activities are contractual, involving little investment of emotion and memory, and are regulated by common laws, norms, and ethics with considerable situational improvisa- tion.7 Private activities largely take place with people one knows in a closed system of personal ties and reciprocal obligations.

This sphere of social relations, with its norms and values, lays the ground for subcultures to flourish in families and communities, but it functions within the bounds set by the public sphere.

These are the structural conditions that underlie ethno-racial communities and groups. They colour social relations within ethnic and racial communities. Multiracial and multi-ethnic urban areas are affected by various processes of social differentiation, ranging from stratification, clustering, and concentration and to the structures of inequality, namely, segregation and polarization, ghettoization, and gentrification.8 Cities differ in terms of the prevalence and scope of these processes.

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