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The City as Cultural Center - The City As An Integrated Political And Social Structure

cities local society europe

In the Western world, cities emerged at the turn of the first millennium, insinuating themselves into the gaps of the feudal system. In a section titled "The City" in his 1925 study, Economy and Society, Max Weber portrays the medieval Western city as having the following characteristic features: fortifications, a market, and a specifically urban economy of consumption, exchange, and production; a court of law and the ability to ordain a set of rules and laws; rules relating to landed property (since cities were not subject to the taxes and constraints of feudalism); a structure based on associations of guilds; and—at least partial—political autonomy, expressed in particular through the existence of an administrative body and the participation of the burghers in local government, and sometimes even through the existence of an army and an actual policy of foreign expansion; and a citizenship with relative freedom often associated with affiliation to a guild.

The medieval city was the crucible of European society, a place in which new cultural and political models developed, along with new social relations and cultural and organizational innovations, furthered by interactions between the various populations thus promoting mechanisms for learning a collective way of life, for innovation and spreading innovation, rapid accumulation, transformation of behaviors, interplay of competition and cooperation, and processes of social differentiation engendered by proximity. The Europe of cities was not just the Europe of early capitalism and of merchants, but also the Europe of intellectuals, universities, and culture that launched the Renaissance.

In analytical terms, this sketches out a research perspective in terms of local societies and governance that is crucial for the analysis of contemporary cities, in Europe in particular. The city is conceived as an integrated local society (most of the time, incomplete), and as a complex social formation, sometimes a local society. Cities may be more or less structured in their economic and cultural exchanges, and the different actors may be related to each other in the same local context with long-term strategies, investing their resources in a coordinated way and adding to the social capital riches. In this case the urban society appears as well structured and visible, and one can detect forms of (relative) integration. If not, the city reveals itself as less structured and as such no longer a significant subject for study: somewhere where decisions are made externally by separate actors. Such an analysis examines the interplay and conflicts of social groups, interests, and institutions, and the way in which, to some extent, regulations have been put in place through conflicts and the logics of integration. Cities do not develop solely according to interactions and contingencies: groups, actors, and organizations oppose one another, enter into conflict, coordinate, produce representations in order to institutionalize collective forms of action, implement policies, structure inequalities, and defend their interests. This perspective on cities highlights the informal economy, the dynamism of localized family relations, the interplay of associations, reciprocity, culture and ways of life, the density of localized horizontal relations, and local social formations.

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