City Size and Human Behavior
Review by George H. Conklin
Background: Many journals have book reviews. However, in the sciences the most common form of communication is not books, which are out of date when published, but articles. Many books are based on articles and enlarged often beyond what is required. However, the opposite is also true: there are many important articles which address basic issues in the social sciences that have not been made into books, but perhaps should be. In order to draw attention to important articles which address basic issues which sociologists are interested in, Sociation Today will review articles rather than books.
Our first review article deals with the core concept of size of organization and its effects on human behavior. The author of the article concludes as city size goes up, civic participation goes down.
City Size and Civic Involvement in Metropolitan America by J. Eric Oliver in American Political Science Review Vol. 94, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 361-373.
Urban density in the United States has been declining at least since 1910 when the electric street car made it possible for people to commute up to about 12 miles in one hour. Using census data, Oliver shows that Americans today live in small to medium-size cities or ‘places’ within larger or more densely settled urban areas. "Since 1950, the proportion living in metropolitan areas has risen from 57% to 75%. Yet, proportionally, fewer Americans reside in large cities: Less than 19% currently live in cities of more than 250,000, compared to 23% in 1950; 56% now live in metropolitan places smaller than 250,000, compared to 34% in 1950. (p. 361)." Dahl and Tufte (1973) have gone so far as to ask if there is not an optimal city size in the modern world: not too big and not too small, maybe somewhere between 50,000 and 250,000.
The movement of the American population to smaller units of course has been widely condemned by traditional elites in the United States. The charge is frequently made that the suburbanization of the population has resulted in fragmentation and boredom of the population, turning us into mindless conformers too weak not to be swayed developers and the mass media. They say we lack choice, and Americans would prefer to live in the largest cities if given something called 'choice.'
On the other side of the debate, early sociologists such as Louis Wirth (1969) have argued that large cities result in loss of bonds that exist between neighbors in smaller communities. For Wirth, size, density and heterogenity overwhelm the individual, causing people to withdraw from each other. Experiments done in the 1970s, for example, do show that urbanites are in fact less likely to get involved when someone needs help, be that help minor, such as asking directions, or major, such as calls for help when one is being attacked in public.
Oliver joins this debate by asking about civic involvement in modern America by measuring four aspects of civic life and looking at their relationship to community size. The four measures are:
Despite all the controls, the findings are quite clear: "Controlling for other individual and city-level characteristics does not alter the generally negative relationship between civic participation and city size (p. 366)." Comparing the differences between the largest and smallest places, Oliver finds that "…the likelihood of contacting local officials drops by 16 percentage points, attending organizational meetings by 8 percentage points, attending community board meetings by 18 percentage points, and voting in local elections by .14 points on a five-point frequency scale…. (p. 366)."
Even more interesting, however, is the lack of association between community size and the size of the metropolitan area in which it is located. Suburban residents of New York City are just as likely to participate in civic life as are those of a small city in Texas, not near a very large city. "Despite the fact that boundaries in many metropolitan areas are invisible amid a continuous urban sprawl, they nevertheless influence the behavior of the behavior of the residents within them (p. 371)."
Tom Hayden (1996), Los Angeles mayoral candidate, wrote that "To end the alienation from government that is so prevalent in society today…the answer is not busting up a big city into a lot of small cities. You slice baloney, you get baloney." Oliver finds this quote ironic, because small places do have fewer signs of alienation. But in other work, Oliver has also found that economically segregated places are less likely to engage in civic activities. Since ‘busting up’ cities is not an option in the real world, Oliver does not pursue this point.
In conclusion, even though the patterns are fairly complex, the effect of city size on civic participation still remains clear: as city size goes up, civic participation goes down. While classic theory did not make specific references to what aspects of city life would change as size increases, Oliver has shown that in general the old theories hold quite well in predicting that city size has an important influence on human behavior.
Dahl, Robert and Edward Tufte. 1973. Size and Democracy. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hayden, Tom. 1996. Quoted in the New York Times, May 29, 1996, page A10. Cited by Oliver (p. 361).
Wirth, Louis  1969. "Urbanism as a Way of Life." In Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, ed. Richard Sennett. New York: Appleton-Centry-Crofts: Pp. 67-83.
Sociation Today. Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 2003.
rating: 3.75 from 4 votes | updated on: 29 Sep 2007 | views: 2315 |