Sociology Small Cities
Ervin Kosta
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0267


While cities have existed for millennia, it wasn’t until the advent of industrialization in the late eighteenth century that the world entered a process of mass urbanization. Sociology has been preoccupied with understanding the nature of urban life since then. Yet since the turn of the twenty-first century, sociologists, geographers, and urban studies scholars have begun noting that the voluminous literature on cities and urban life produced over a century of research and theorizing is almost exclusively based on the metropolitan experience of big cities in the Global North. Emerging literature on small cities has identified several trends that have rendered them nearly invisible to urban sociology. In their search for generalizable knowledge, sociologists have prioritized big cities as the best indicators of urbanity, creating seemingly universal categories of urban analysis that often hide, instead of illuminate, the urban dynamics of small cities. This focus has also created a false sense that most urban dwellers live in the metropolis. In the United States, the majority of the urban population lives in cities with less than 250,000 inhabitants, making them the modal form of urban life, while big cities like NYC, LA, and Chicago are the exception. That said, while drawing attention to small cities as a distinct category of urban research, sociologists have nonetheless struggled to define what constitutes a “small city.” One difficulty stems from sizeism, or the inability to draw clear boundaries based on population size. While “incorporated areas with less than 100,000 residents” is often used as a shorthand, urban characteristics do not suddenly change once such an arbitrary population number is surpassed. Another difficulty is the relativeness of “small” in global context: a Chinese city of 700,000 could be considered small in that context, but not elsewhere. Despite these definitional challenges, this scholarship maintains that renewed attention to small cities should bring tangible benefits to urban sociology at large. Small cities do not represent a lack of, deviant, or antagonistic forms of urbanity; they constitute an important node within the diverse modes of urbanity. Their urban problems may be recognizable to big cities, but often operate through a different set of variables within the small city context. This encyclopedia entry summarizes this corrective turn to the big city bias, outlines existing research on small(er) cities, and underscores growing calls for giving small cities their due attention.

Why Small Cities?

The “small cities” turn in sociology emerged as part of a larger trend within urban studies at the turn of the twenty-first century. This trend represented efforts to extricate urban studies from the hold of a hegemonic and biased notion of city-ness based on the metropolitan experience, which has rendered more cosmopolitan versions of urbanity invisible or unworthy of attention. Perhaps the clearest statement of this intervention came from Robinson 2002, which critiqued both the global city literature as “fashionable” but narrow in its conceptual bandwidth, and the developmentalist outlook, whose “problem” approach to cities of the Global South essentially marked them as deviant. Several scholars responded to the call of Robinson 2002 for a more cosmopolitan urban theory by highlighting the persistence of small cities as the enduring demographic norm of urban life. The important edited volume Bell and Jayne 2006 provided a conceptualization of small cities as a distinct site within the urban continuum, definitional challenges notwithstanding. They singled out the particular attention that small cities in the United States have received from an urban growth perspective. A subsequent journal article, Bell and Jayne 2009, theorized that the historical pursuit for “generalizable” models of urbanism, as well as the articulation of various urban hierarchies, might have led to the normalization of the big city experience. They conclude renewing their call for a more heterogenous urban studies that includes small cities. Around the same time, the introduction to Ofori-Amoah 2007 echoed calls for urban geography to recognize small cities as distinct from the metropolitan experience. Ofori-Amoah suggested a comprehensive research agenda that tied together the sporadic attention such cities had received to date. More recently, several new interventions have reaffirmed the need for continued attention to small cities. While not focusing on small cities per se, Oakley 2015 heeds the same call from Robinson 2002, making the case for the theoretical benefits of taking regional urban variation more seriously. And lastly, Ocejo, et al. 2020 is a special journal issue on small cities, highlighting the need for a continuum of (multiple) urbanisms to replace the old urban/non-urban binary.

  • Bell, David, and Mark Jayne. 2009. Small cities? Towards a research agenda. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33.3: 683–699.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2009.00886.x

    Urban theorists have pursued generalizable models of archetypal urbanisms such as epochal cities (the “Fordist” city), different kinds of urban hierarchies, world/global cities, or global city-regions. Select big cities in the Global North have dominated most of this research, creating theory non-reflective of most of urban experience marked by heterogeneity. Authors call for a research agenda focusing on small cities in order to rectify this bias in urban studies.

  • Bell, David, and Mark Jayne, eds. 2006. Small cities: Urban experience beyond the metropolis. New York: Routledge.

    In this edited volume, authors conceptualize small cities in an introduction, and divide chapter contributions into parts on the political economy of cities, the urban hierarchy and competitive advantage, the cultural economy of small cities, and identity, lifestyle, and forms of sociability. Despite being the norm, and hardships in defining “smallness,” small cities have suffered woeful neglect in urban studies. Authors highlight “Smallville, USA” as one site of small city research specifically focused on growth.

  • Oakley, Deirdre. 2015. Broadening our focus: Regional cities as a new frontier of urban sociology. City & Community 14.3: 249–253.

    DOI: 10.1111/cico.12128

    Argues for broadening the scope of urban cases, highlighting regional variation, or the unique regional contexts within which cities are embedded that shape their local, national, and global roles and positions. Regional variation impacts, and helps explain, differences in local definitions of neighborhood, spatial dynamics of public housing, and patterns of residential segregation. Despite difficulties in defining a “regional” city in the global era, urban scholars must broaden their focus on regional cities.

  • Ocejo, Richard E., Ervin B. Kosta, and Alexis Mann. 2020. Centering small cities for urban sociology in the 21st century. In Special issue: Symposium: Centering small cities. Edited by Richard Ocejo and Ervin Kosta. City & Community 19.1: 3–15.

    DOI: 10.1177/1535684121993453

    Authors join recent calls in drawing attention to “the absence of small-ness” in urban sociology, noting that small cities are “important sites for uncovering the complexity of the urban experience.” They review small cities in Chicago School research, discuss definitional considerations and challenges raised by recent literature on the subject, and draw attention to the theoretical promise of focusing on small cities with regard to research areas such as inequality, growth, and gentrification. They call for a continuum of (multiple) urbanisms, instead of an urban/non-urban binary, in urban studies.

  • Ofori-Amoah, Benjamin, ed. 2007. Beyond the metropolis: Urban geography as if small cities mattered. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    This edited volume aims to overcome the neglect within urban studies (and geography) of small cities (population 20,000 to 100,000) that are not small or big enough to have drawn scholarly attention. Sporadic research on population growth, manufacturing employment, and downtown revitalization indicates distinctively different trends and effects compared to larger cities. Author proposes three broad topic areas (evolution; internal structure; change) and approaches (neoclassical; behavioral; ecological; political economy), as well as newer critical approaches, be explored regarding smaller cities.

  • Robinson, Jennifer. 2002. Global and world cities: A view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26.3: 531–554.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.00397

    Shows that the field of urban studies has been divided between the “world/global city” literature, on one end, and development studies on the other. While the former centers the “stylish” sectors of global financial flows, the latter focuses on “problem” sectors of poorer cities as deviant from the Western experience. Both rest on unwarranted hegemonic categories of city-ness that restrict our view of the actual dynamism of urban life. Calls for a more cosmopolitan urban theory that focuses on “ordinary cities” with distinct forms of city-ness.

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