Architectural Sociology Research Paper Starter

Architectural Sociology

(Research Starters)

Architectural sociology, the sociology of architecture, a little known discipline, studies how our physical environment influences how we live together and behave toward one another in social situations such as housing, work, school, health care, and entertainment. The article examines how sociological theories (e.g., symbolic interaction, structural functionalism, conflict theory, and postmodern theory) and sociological research methods can be applied to architecture from predesign through postoccupancy evaluation. Various sociological subfields, such as sociology of culture, community and urban sociology, environmental sociology, and sociology of space and place also have close connections to architectural sociology. Architectural sociology focuses on how architecture influences and is influenced by society and its organizations, as well as by human behavior.

Keywords Architecture; Culture; Environmental Sociology; Hawthorne Effect; Hyperreality; Material Culture; Nonmaterial Culture; Organization; Physical Environment; Predesign; Sociocultural; Sociology of Architecture; Symbols; Urban Sociology


Sociology of Architecture


What Is Sociology

Sociology had its beginnings in nineteenth century Europe at a time when the Industrial Revolution was causing major changes in the way people lived and worked. In the United States, in the early twentieth century, the Chicago School of Sociology was born, with early researchers interested in how industrialization was creating and structuring the burgeoning city of Chicago. Today, sociologists study almost any type of social behavior and the social structure of society. One branch of sociology closely related to urban sociology is the sociology of architecture.

The Four Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Sociological theory falls into four main perspectives:

  • Structural Functionalism
  • Social Conflict
  • Symbolic Interactionism, and
  • Postmodernism

Structural functionalism and social conflict study social topics at the macro level where research methods focus on large number of people such as census data. Symbolic interactionism studies society at the micro level, where researchers study social behavior on a smaller scale, sometimes as small as a case study. Finally, postmodernism falls between the macro and micro levels and into a somewhat unique category of its own, taking into consideration aspects such as globalism and new technologies that can affect how society functions.

Structural Functionalism

One of two primary macro level perspectives in sociology is the functionalist perspective, which focuses on those aspects of society that contribute to its smooth functioning. All the parts of society should contribute to its order and stability. Because consensus among members of a society is necessary for its ability to function well, people generally tend to agree on the values, beliefs, and rules of that society. Students of the sociology of architecture might study, for example, how the smaller structures of today's typical housing development, do not allow for the extended family to live together as in agrarian times when grandparents, parents, and even aunts and uncles lived together.

Social Conflict

A second macro level perspective in sociology is the social conflict perspective, which focuses on the struggle for control of the wealth, power, and prestige of a society. Karl Marx was perhaps the first conflict theorist when he identified the class struggle between the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) and thus, the more powerful members of society, and the proletariat (everyone else who sold their labor for a paycheck and had a much weaker social position). In order to maintain the status quo and their privileged position, the bourgeoisie ruling class, or the elite would tend to define culture in terms that allow them to maintain their power. Conflict theorists contend that unequal groupings around such things as race, gender, religion, politics, age, and social class usually have these types of conflicting values and agendas, causing a ubiquitous struggle between them. The sociology of architecture from this perspective might look at the often-substandard housing of the poor in segregated areas of a city, or town.

Symbolic Interactionism

As its name implies, the symbolic interactionism perspective focuses on how people interact with each other and make subjective interpretations of meanings for themselves. Symbols, including language, can be interpreted differently in a variety of social situations, even though within a particular culture, subculture, or counterculture, the meanings have the same, or a similar meaning.

But symbolic interactionists are interested in studying how we shape and reshape our reality through an ongoing interaction among social objects, self, and others.

Culture is made up of material objects such as buildings, desks, computers, and books. It is also comprised of social identities such as being a physician, a mother, or a sales clerk. And culture is also comprised of nonmaterial things such as values, ideas, rules, and symbols, including language.

Researchers interested in the study of designing environments within organizations such as companies, hospitals, or schools, often use symbolic interactionism. This allows them to see how physical environments contain cues that communicate messages to people reminding them of their expected roles, who they are within the organization, and what is expected of them. For example, a receptionist, who is expected to greet visitors to the organization, would necessarily be placed in an open area just inside the main door. He or she would act as a barrier to the offices within the organization to which a visitor must receive permission to enter. The receptionist would also have several means of communication available at his or her station: a computer with internet access, telephones for communicating with the outside world, and perhaps a system of contacting other members of the organization through an intercom or similar device.

Some researchers argue that material items, such as a desk, can perform a significant role in the construction and development of self. The desk may represent many years of working for the same company, and may even have been handed down in a family whose members performed the same work. Consider the desk of the President of the United States, a desk that has been used for over two centuries by historic figures who came before. The desk represents that history, and the challenges, along with the respect, that the office demanded.

Others have discovered that workers who receive the interest of the management in the form of experimenting with differing work environments, will often increase their production and efficiency, not so much because of a design change, like better lighting, but because of the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect is named for the Hawthorne Experiments in the 1920s and 30s at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant, outside of Chicago. Management did want to try different lighting to see if it would affect worker production. But what they found was that because the workers were being observed by management, their production increased, whether the lighting was lowered, or increased. The Hawthorne Effect is still an important consideration when sociologists design research, because when people are being interviewed or observed, their behavior is likely to change from their behavior when not being observed, thus skewing research results.

But this was a serendipitous finding within the Hawthorne experiments, which concluded ultimately, that physical design of space strongly influences the behavior of its occupants. In the 1960s, with the advent of the civil rights movement, came the birth of social design, the relationship between the design of physical space and how it aligned with how people viewed themselves, based perhaps on Cooley's looking glass self concept, which suggests that we learn a self-concept by observing how others perceive us. Because our notions of self are intricately bound up in our everyday interaction with physical objects, sociologists began to be included in the physical space design process and the sociology of architecture had its beginnings (Bugni & Smith, 2002/03).


Architectural sociology examines how architectural forms can both cause and have an effect on social phenomena. An example is the city of Las Vegas, considered to be the most postmodern city in the world, perhaps because it defies traditional notions about what we know of architecture, and how people want to be entertained. Las Vegas is considered postmodern because of its capacity to change and reinvent itself continually, in response to cultural and market changes.

Since 1990, the population of Las Vegas has risen sharply to 1.4 million people, with an additional 35 million tourists visiting there annually. Postmodern characteristics of Las Vegas include:

  • Its ability to be a spectacle, where visitors experience everything from scenes of Paris to a pirate raid.
  • The hyperreal atmosphere of Las Vegas, using technologies that enhance experiences so that for some, they may be more desirable than the original (Eco, 1990). People wanting to experience floating in a Venetian gondola, can go to Las Vegas and have the same experience without the difficulty of actually making a trip to Venice in Italy.
  • Thematization, which offers more choices than one single identity. An example is the design of a new Las Vegas resort to be called The Reve, a dreamlike atmosphere where the imagination can run free.
  • The concept of simulacra, a representation of a place that does not actually exist. For example, there might be a desert oasis with trees and plants that would not actually exist in a real desert. At the Mirage in Las Vegas, a volcano erupts every hour, where a real volcano is non-existent. These simulacra depend upon effective architectural design.
  • The notion of commodification, where anything has a price and can be bought or sold. In Las Vegas, many things are free from food and drinks to scenery and the theatrical, but attractions take tourists by gambling stations where they can lose money, or win it.
  • Fragmentation rather than a consistent theme (other than gambling) from casino to casino. Each casino-resort offers a different theme that lures tourists in, particularly into the center of the resort to the gaming tables and machines.

Using this postmodern perspective, the city of Las Vegas can be viewed as a good example of how architecture is key to promoting that city's primary industry of entertainment and gambling (Smith & Bugni, 2002).


The Connection between Sociology

There is a relationship between people and their designed environments or social settings: where they live, work, and play. The converse is also true, that there is a relationship between an entire organization and the building where the organization's activities take place. Architectural sociology examines how architectural and design both influence, and are influenced in return, by social phenomena, particularly with a certain culture like the United States, or Spain, or Iran. A large proportion of our human experience and social interaction occurs in the buildings in which we live and work. Therefore, architectural sociologists use sociological perspective to enhance building design (Beaman, 2002).

We can define architectural sociology as the study of how designed physical environment influences and is influenced by society and human behavior. Major sociological perspectives play a part in explaining and interpreting architectural design (Smith & Bugni, 2002).

Sociologists can also study the profession of architecture: who becomes an architect, how do women fare in the profession, how does the profession control its education and credentials, and more.

Physical Space

Physical space affects people by providing safety from the elements, a place where people can gather to perform specific tasks. The space can mean different things to the people who occupy it, and how they learn to define it and themselves becomes impatient (Smith & Bugni, 2006).

For example, think of a person's home as such a physical space. It can provide safety from natural occurrences like storms and from human made elements such as violence. It is a place where members of a family gather to perform the task of everyday living: eating together, raising children, perhaps even working for a company as a telecommuter. There may be rooms set aside for pleasure, or for intellectual growth such as a family room, or a library, or music room. The home's physical address, its size and grandeur, or lack of it, all have symbolic meaning both for its inhabitants and for those outside of the house, who have also added to its social meaning. If it's a grand house in a beautiful part of town, certain attributes such as wealth and power may be bestowed on its inhabitants. If the home is shabby and in a poor section of town, the inhabitants can be viewed as lazy, uncaring, and undesirable. Certainly these social attitudes toward the inhabitants, whether positive or negative, become internalized and the people in the house can often feel the same about themselves, mirroring the way society views them.

These considerations are within the field of architectural sociology. Architectural sociology is different from the related field of environmental sociology, which studies the relationships between humans and their natural environments as opposed to their designed environments. But there is some overlap with the two disciplines, as we begin to be concerned about the ecological damage associated with some urban design (Smith & Bugni, 2006).

Architects and sociologists use similar research methods in their work. Sociologists collect research data through surveying, interviewing, and...

(The entire section is 6257 words.)