In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Suburbanism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Development of the Suburbs
  • Social and Cultural Life in the Suburbs
  • Types of Suburbs
  • Social Class in the Suburbs
  • Gender in the Suburbs
  • Economic Activity in the Suburbs
  • Religion in the Suburbs
  • The Suburbs in Popular Culture

Sociology Suburbanism
Brian J. Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0212


From the beginning of research on suburbs, scholars have highlighted differences between suburbs and cities, contrasts between suburbs, and how influential social forces, like race, class, and gender, have influenced and been influenced by suburban life. Even as more than 50 percent of Americans now live in suburbs, the field in which the sociological study of suburbs often occurs, urban sociology, pays more attention to cities than suburbs. With suburbs in the United States first founded in the mid-1800s, sociologists began to devote more attention to them in the early 1900s as well as in the decades after World War II with the emergence of mass suburbia. In sociological studies of suburbs, these places are often defined in two ways: (1) geographically positioned between central cities and rural areas with certain population densities and consistent connections to big cities and (2) as having a particular way of life involving single-family homes, driving, and middle-class lifestyles. Regarding differences between cities and suburbs, the emerging suburban life involved escaping the rapidly growing big cities with their industrialization, increasing densities, and changing populations and pursuing nuclear family life and the successful raising of children in single-family homes in less dense and more homogeneous—in terms of race and class—settings. In terms of differentiating suburbs, while, on the one hand, many suburbs were wealthier and whiter than urban neighborhoods and often excluded non-white residents, suburban life also included some small communities of working-class and black residents. In addition, mid-20th century media and cultural depictions of white nuclear families (radio, film, television, advertisements) missed numerous important parts of suburban life (including the changing roles of women). Furthermore, suburbs from the early decades have included a variety of types ranging from bedroom suburbs to industrial suburbs. Recent studies of suburbs highlight two significant changes that affect both metropolitan regions and the nation: the increasing percentage of non-white suburban residents since the 1970s (even if these new suburban residents are not evenly distributed across suburbs) and the economic activity in suburbs that countered images of suburbs and commuting residents as dependent on the economic activity of urban cores.

General Overviews

Even as the suburbs are accepted as an important feature of American society and scholars recognized the significant changes taking place in early mass suburbanization, exemplified by Douglass 1925, overviews of the suburbs as a whole are limited in sociology. Common urban sociology texts may devote sections to the suburbs, particularly highlighting the interplay between large cities and their surrounding communities, but they rarely spend extended time discussing the spaces where a majority of Americans live. Hobbs and Stoops 2002 is a helpful overview of significant demographic trends, including suburbanization. Palen 1995 is a comprehensive summary of suburban life addressing themes including racial change, the historical development of suburbs, and current challenges for suburbs. Teaford 2008 covers similar ground while also emphasizing the diversity of current suburbs, how the suburbs illustrate the desires of Americans for freedom, and how current suburban residents may be the biggest obstacles to further suburbanization. Two Annual Review of Sociology articles from recent decades involve suburbs: Baldassare 1992 includes similar material to the books cited in this section while also drawing attention to important social issues facing suburbs, and Lacy 2016 discusses three recent trends that are likely to transform suburban communities.

  • Baldassare, Mark. 1992. Suburban communities. Annual Review of Sociology 18:475–494.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Baldassare suggests suburbs are an understudied topic in sociology and then discusses what research has been done. Sociological theories of suburbanization were based on urban theories, and thus biased toward cities, and sociologists had examined different types of suburbs and different suburban populations. Baldassare discusses four unique suburban challenges: political fragmentation, a revolt against new development, maintaining perceptions of a high quality of life, and affordable housing.

  • Douglass, Harlan Paul. 1925. The suburban trend. New York: The Century.

    Based on empirical analysis of the New York City region and other regions, Douglass presciently addresses a number of topics: considering suburbs of smaller cities as well as the suburban-rural edges, the variety of suburban communities, the costs keeping some Americans out of suburbs, suburbs lack community since social institutions are organized around similar interests, and the suburbs are attractive because they offer access to both cities and small towns.

  • Hobbs, Frank, and Nicole Stoops. 2002. Demographic trends in the 20th century. US Census Bureau, Census 2000 Special Reports, Series CENSR-4. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

    In a discussion of major demographic changes over one hundred years, the Census Bureau discusses the changing geography of American life. In 1910, 7.1 percent of Americans lived in suburbs and 21.2 percent lived in central cities. By 2000, 50 percent lived in suburbs and 30.3 percent lived in central cities. The percent of Americans living in suburbs passed that of those living in central cities in the 1960s.

  • Lacy, Karyn. 2016. The new sociology of suburbs: A research agenda for analysis of emerging trends. Annual Review of Sociology 42:369–384.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145657

    Lacy emphasizes research involving three notable demographic changes in American suburbs. The first is more suburban residents below the poverty line and these communities have limited resources and social services. The second is increasing numbers of immigrants who now often make suburbs their first and final destination. The third is the return of blacks to the South—specifically suburbs of southern cities—and the creation of middle-class black suburbs.

  • Palen, J. John. 1995. The suburbs. New York: McGraw Hill.

    Few books in sociology provide an overview of suburban development and life. With an opening page that declares that a suburban revolution has occurred, Palen summarizes many topics covered in this article, including suburban development, portrayals of and myths regarding the suburbs, minorities in suburbs (including non-whites and women), issues facing suburbs, and new urban planning and development techniques.

  • Teaford, Jon C. 2008. American suburb: The basics. New York: Routledge.

    Teaford emphasizes the diversity within suburban communities and experiences contra decades-old critiques of suburban homogeneity and blandness. After providing an overview of suburban development, the author highlights the variety of suburban communities, changes in suburban government, multiple housing options, and unique approaches to planning. Additionally, Teaford argues the suburbs are a manifestation of American freedom and those posing the largest threat to American suburbs are suburbanites opposed to growth.

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