2 minute read

The City as Cultural Center

The City As An Integrated Political And Social Structure, The Industrial City, The Rise Of The Metropolis: Centers Of Experiment For Modern Social Life

In the modern conception of the word city—characterized by the size, the aggregation of housing, differentiated division of labor, and the density of interaction—the first cities appeared in Mesopotamia around 10,000 B.C.E. and most clearly by 3,000 B.C.E. The great city of Babylon marked the coming of age of civilization, characterized by an urban culture that highlighted sophisticated arts and crafts, rare products, a multiplicity of material objects introduced through trade, the emergence of new ideas and modes of domination, and a more complex social structure.

From the early days of urbanization, several often competing conceptions of cities were evident:

  • the material city of walls, squares, houses, roads, light, utilities, buildings, waste, and physical infrastructure;
  • the cultural city in terms of imaginations, differences, representations, ideas, symbols, arts, texts, senses, religion, aesthetics;
  • the politics and policies of the city in terms of domination, power, government, mobilization, public policies, welfare, education;
  • the social city of riots, ethnic, economic, or gender inequalities, everyday life, and social movements;
  • the economy of the city: division of labor, scale, production, consumption, and trade.

As a unit of analysis the city is often characterized through the emphasis on diversity, fragmentation, strangeness, encounters with strangers, the mosaic of variety, contingent interactions, moving borders, everyday life and events, and the multitude of interactions. However, another perspective focuses upon integration, domination, assimilation, social order, control, inequalities, unity, models, patterns of economic development, structures, and systems. From Babylon, Athens, Rome, and later Florence, to the present era's so-called global cities comes the idea that cities are places where culture flourishes, where civilization reaches its highest point of complexity and sophistication The density and diversity of interactions are supposed to stimulate innovations in all sorts of ways, to free urban inhabitants from traditional cultural constraint. Cities are therefore presented by social scientists, historians, and writers in a progressive way as centers of innovation and culture even if civilizations first developed without or beyond cities, as, for instance, in the case of Egypt. By contrast, the city is also portrayed as the place of darkness, chaos, violence, riots, exploitation, marginal life and deviance, destruction, and oppression.

Those categories were for the most part derived from the division of labor between disciplines put forward at the end of the nineteenth century. The study of the city as a cultural center evoked passionate debates at the start of the twentieth century when the German sociologists Max Weber, Werner Sombart, and Georg Simmel discussed the relationship between cities, culture, arts, technological developments, and domination. They asked questions about the influence of a particular set of structural social, economic, political, and cultural conditions such as capitalism on the effect of cities or on individual and collective behavior, modes of thinking, ways of life, cultural creation, and imagination.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to Cluster