Geography Nightlife
Robert Shaw
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0214


The study of nightlife, or the “nighttime economy,” is the study of nocturnal leisure and entertainment. It is not a uniquely geographical theme; the emergent field of night studies also incorporates research from history, urban studies, sociology, cultural studies, anthropology, biomedical sciences, and other disciplines. Despite this range of interventions, when the word nightlife is used in both everyday and academic language, it almost always refers to a specific portion of nighttime activity, usually taking place in pubs, bars, and restaurants, incorporating alcohol drinking, dancing, eating, and socializing. This article both aims to introduce work that has studied this “dominant” nightlife, and also suggests examples of research and sites where different or alternative nightlives are present. Researchers have shown how nightlife has grown with the spread and extension of capitalism and the growth of the leisure society. In its contemporary form, nightlife has become associated with neoliberal capitalism, as reduced regulations on alcohol retail and consumption in many countries have encouraged the growth of nightlife. Through globalization, and in particular through the emergence of global cities that seek to compete for relatively footloose business people, the “creative class,” and tourists, Western-style nightlife has spread as a tick-box on the list of criteria for being a global city, with new forms of associated governance such as “night mayors.” Relatedly, research has been dominated by the European and Anglophone cities from which this nightlife has emerged, though the structural biases of academic practice have also contributed to this. This article inevitably reflects those biases, but examples of research from Asia, Africa, and South America are also included. Beyond the political and economic spread of neoliberal nighttime economy, nightlife also has important cultural resonances. Both mainstream and alternative nightlife cultures offer insights into everyday life, and included in the bibliography are some of the detailed and evocative ethnographies of different nightlife sites and communities. The experience of nightlife is inevitably differentiated according to commonly recognized grounds of intersecting social groupings: race, class, gender, religion, and so forth. Papers in this article introduce some of these differences, and the inclusions or exclusions associated with them.

General Overviews and History

Contemporary nightlife has evolved out of the changes in cities that took place with the expansion of capitalism, emergence of mass leisure, and development of technologies of lighting through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ekrich 2005 gives an account of European nights before this time, while Schivelbusch 1988 and Schlör 1998 explore the changes of the nineteenth century. More recent changes have come with contemporary neoliberal capitalism, and Hadfield 2006; van Liempt, et al. 2015; and Nofre and Eldridge 2018 all map the changes that have occurred in the night. Other accounts have sought to place nightlife into the story of the nighttime city more generally; Melbin 1987 is a landmark in attempting to do this, while Gwiazdzinski 2005 (available only in French) and Shaw 2018 develop these arguments in a contemporary context. Edensor 2017 approaches the night via the slightly different angle of light and dark, and their interplay, but this provides useful context in understanding how night differs from day.

  • Edensor, Tim. From Light to Dark. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

    Bringing together nearly a decade’s work on light and dark by Edensor, this book focuses as to how darkness, natural light, and artificial light together construct both urban and rural landscapes. Though not directly dealing with “nightlife” in terms of entertainment and the nighttime economy, Edensor’s work explores some of the conditions under which contemporary nightlife is possible.

  • Ekrich, A. Roger. At Day’s Close. New York: Norton, 2005.

    While not addressing nightlife directly, provides an innovative and surprising account of night in medieval Europe. Well known for its fascinating account of “second sleep,” using archival data to show how sleep patterns have changed since preindustrial times, Ekrich also provides context for the emergence of modern nightlife.

  • Gwiazdzinski, Luc. La nuit, dernière frontière de la ville. La Tour d’Aigues, France: Editions de l’Aube, 2005.

    Gwiazdzinski’s work is a conceptually sophisticated account of the urban night as a “frontier,” avoiding some of the more clichéd metaphors about frontier life that Melbin 1987 uses. What’s notable is the way in which Gwiazdzinski advocates an argument for the city at night in this book, as a space-time of culture and politics currently overlooked by urban governance.

  • Hadfield, Phil. Bar Wars: Contesting the Night in Contemporary British Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199297856.001.0001

    Writing from his position as both an academic and former disc jockey, Hadfield explores in detail the impacts of flawed neoliberalization of the nighttime economy in the United Kingdom through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hadfield offers detailed ethnographic reflections on both bar spaces internally, and their location (in relation to each other) in cities.

  • Melbin, Murray. Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World after Dark. New York: Free Press, 1987.

    Perhaps the first comprehensive attempts to theorize and explore the urban night. In this work Melbin develops the ideas of the nighttime as a “frontier society” in the “colonization” of time. Using an impressive range of examples, Melbin builds a detailed case. While conceptually Melbin’s work on space, time, and urban life appears slightly dated, this is an engaging and well-argued book.

  • Nofre, Jordi, and Adam Eldridge, eds. Exploring Nightlife: Space, Society and Governance. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018.

    Unlike many of the collections on the nighttime economy, this work offers a wide range of entries from across the world. The chapters reveal a world in which the nighttime economy has risen up the policy agenda, and the case studies explore a range of ways that nightlife has shaped cities across the world.

  • Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night. Oxford: Berg, 1988.

    One of two landmark books that charts the rise of nighttime leisure alongside the electrification of European and American cities in the nineteenth century. Schivelbusch argues that the city was transformed in this time from a dangerous “enchanted” space of darkness and monsters, to an enlightened space in which respectable citizens could seek leisure, and the state could propagate social control.

  • Schlör, Joachim. Nights in the Big City: Paris, Berlin, London 1840–1930. London: Reaktion, 1998.

    Schlör follows where Schivelbusch 1988 led, offering a detailed historical account, centering on three major cities in which nightlife emerged through the nineteenth century. Schlör offers an interesting discussion on some of the inequalities that emerged in this period, in particular with regard to gender.

  • Shaw, Robert. The Nocturnal City. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315560090

    Places the study of urban nightlife in the context of broader urban studies, and broader trends surrounding nighttime cities. Argues that city at night brings together sociocultural, biological, geographical, and economic forces in a unique way, and that a greater diversity in the topics of nocturnal study is needed.

  • van Liempt, Ilsa, Irina van Aalst, and Tim Schwanen. “Introduction.” In Special Issue: Geographies of the Urban Night. Edited by Ilsa van Liempt, Irina van Aalst, and Tim Schwanen. Urban Studies 52.3 (2015): 407–421.

    DOI: 10.1177/0042098014552933

    This introduction to a 2015 special issue of Urban Studies on the geographies of the urban night offers a useful conceptual and thematic overview of research into nightlife. The authors identify four key focal points for research on the night: first, the experiences of nights; second, the evolution of urban nightlife; third, the study of regulation; and fourth, approaches that conceive of going out in terms of practices.

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