This essay discusses the rise of the modern city against the backdrop of the English Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beginning with a discussion of the concept of the city, the essay continues with an overview of the premodern city, a discussion of the relationship between the "industrious revolution" and the Industrial Revolution, the development of modern cities, and the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. The essay pays particular attention to Karl Marx's influential criticisms of the Industrial Revolution, and his belief that the capitalist economic system born from industrialization would soon give way to a communist system that eliminated the alienation and exploitation of the working classes. A closing section discusses the enduring relevance of the city as a research topic in sociology.
Keywords Alienation; Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; City; Communism; Industrial Revolution; Industrialization; Industrious Revolution; Marx, Karl; Proletariat
The "Industrial Revolution" is a term used to describe a period in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the centuries-old practice of using human and animal labor was supplemented, and in many cases supplanted, by machines. As a result of this influx of machine power, England underwent a significant transformation in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation that led to significant social, political, and economic changes.
The Birth of Sociology
Nisbet (1966) presented the significant changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that led to the birth of sociology in an effort to better understand five "themes of industrialism," namely, "the condition of labor, the transformation of property, the industrial city, technology and the factory system" (p. 24). Karp, Stone and Yoels (1991) described the emergence of sociology after the events of the nineteenth century.
Indeed, from its earliest beginnings sociology was simultaneously a response to and critique of the emergence of a secular urban industrial order in nineteenth-century Western civilization. The rapid development of urban industrial centers throughout the nineteenth century precipitated an ongoing conversation about the nature of the social bond. Foremost in the minds of individuals writing about society during the nineteenth century is the contrast between forms of social life seen as rooted in a small agrarian or feudal order and the kinds of social relations viewed as characterizing an urban industrial order (Karp, Stone, & Yoels, 1991, p. 3).
Though there are many useful ways to understand the impact of the Industrial Revolution, this essay will look at the Industrial Revolution from the vantage point of the city. It will begin with a discussion of the preindustrial city, and then discuss the Industrial Revolution and how it gave rise to the modern cities that are now scattered across the globe. It will conclude with a discussion of city life during the Industrial Revolution in England and some of the questions that have drawn successive generations of sociologists to the city as an area of research.
For most of recorded history, cities have been the exception to human habitation, and not the rule, as most humans who lived before urbanization had been farmers. Although there isn't an entirely clear-cut definition of a city (see the discussion in Maunier, 1910), it is commonly distinguished from towns and other settlements by virtue of its larger population size. Cities, which initially sprung up near bodies of water or along important trade routes, have existed since shortly after the Agricultural Revolution, though many cities preceded agriculture. These early cities were key trading centers and their wealth invited attacks from regional warlords and kings. By 9000 BCE, 10,000 people were living in Catalhöyük in modern-day Turkey (Balter, 1998). Other ancient cities included Jericho (9000 BCE), Damascus (4300 BCE), Ur (about 4200 BCE) and Beirut (3000 BCE).
Sociologists have identified some common characteristics of preindustrial cities. These preindustrial cities drew food and raw materials from the countryside, making them commercial centers. This commercial role is in addition to the other religious, political and education roles of premodern cities. Typically up to one-tenth of the population in a region was located in the city, with the remainder comprised of rural settlers engaged in various economic, cultural and even military exchanges with city dwellers (Sjoberg, 1955).
Premodern cities had poor sanitation, lower buildings (in an age before the elevator), and their residents were often packed together, making cities effective vectors for the spread of disease. Members of certain trades were located close together. Typically religious institutions, such as churches or mosques, served as the focal point of the community, and not centralized shopping areas or markets. These early cities used human and animal power rather than machine power. There was little division of labor, few middlemen, and few fixed prices.
In terms of social structure, there existed what Sjoberg (1955) called a "literate elite" controlling the rest and whose "position … is legitimated by sacred writings" such as the Qur'an or the Bible (Sjoberg, 1955, p. 441). Overall the division between the have and the have-nots was quite pronounced — there was little opportunity for social mobility and a virtually nonexistent middle class. While not overlooking the possibility of revolts from within — such as the Peasants' Revolt which occurred in England in 1381 — the elites were more concerned about external threats from other clans, tribes, or, eventually nation-states. Slaves and other undesirables were called upon to do menial tasks, and outsiders were variously shunned, ghettoized or attacked.
Children were married young and this was seen as a passage to adulthood. Women were typically subordinate to men, focusing on raising children, who in turn often would not have the opportunity for a substantial education, if any at all, and literacy rates were low. Males were more valued and often acquired the family property if such existed. There was no open public square (Neuhaus, 1984/1986) because religion permeated all aspects of private and civic life in the premodern city.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the nature of the city had changed, and social, political, economic and culture structures were forever transformed:
At the very least, extensive industrialization required a rational, centralized, extra-community economic organization in which recruitment is based more upon universalisms than on particularism, a class system which stresses achievement rather than ascription, a small and flexible kinship systems, a system of mass education which emphasized universalistic rather than particularistic criteria, and mass communication (Sjoberg, 1955, p. 444).
Though it began in England, the Industrial Revolution eventually spread across continental Europe and North America, transforming those societies as well. Many experts rank the Industrial Revolution as one of the major milestones in human history, alongside the rise of agriculture and the development of writing. The new workers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British cities were part of an increasingly global marketplace of goods and services. British factory workers in London, Manchester and Liverpool were making textiles, pottery and metal goods for domestic and foreign markets, fueling a global trade that led to the rise of modern capitalism in the United States (Blumin, 2006) and elsewhere around the world. As sociologists, perhaps led by the non-sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883), have pointed out ever since, the rise of modern capitalism and the displacement of traditional patterns of economic and social life has not been an unalloyed success.
Machines, powered by steam and coal, made such mass production of goods possible. Observers were taken aback by the pace of economic change. English writer Patrick Colquhoun wrote in 1814, "It is impossible to contemplate the progress of manufactures in Great Britain within the last thirty years without wonder and astonishment. It's rapidity, particularly since the commencement of the French revolutionary war, exceeds all credibility" (as cited in Berg & Hudson, 1992, p. 26).
Revolution or Evolution?
Historians are not in agreement about several aspects of the Industrial Revolution. For example, there is no agreement as to when the Industrial Revolution actually began, and there is no agreement as to whether it's proper to call industrialization in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England a revolution or an evolution (Berg & Hudson, 1992). Some historians prefer to say that the Industrial Revolution began in the 1760s with the introduction of Watt's steam engine, and others, such as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-), argue that while the Industrial Revolution began in the 1780s, it wasn't until the 1830s or 1840s before it became diffused throughout England (Hobsbawm, 1968).
There are also those historians who question whether the Industrial Revolution was much of a revolution at all. Citing books and articles from several of his colleagues, one...
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