Reconsidering theoretical traditions of China’s urban sociology

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-05-29

Urban landscape in Beijing Photo: TUCHONG

In China, urban sociology steadily developed in parallel with the establishment of sociology and related disciplines in the first half of the 20th century, particularly with the rapid growth and the accumulation of urbanization experience since the reform and opening up. Urban sociology in China is influenced by three theoretical traditions.

The first tradition, modernization theory, is a theoretical system developed by scholars from various fields to explain how modernization is achieved through the prism of economic growth, political changes, and social psychology. Modernization theory originated in the West, gained greater influence after World War II, and was introduced to China in the mid-1980s. It encompasses six major schools of thought.

Some Chinese scholars borrow from the structural-functionalist school and categorize Chinese cities into administrative centers, industrial and mining areas, coastal and riverine areas, and resource and transportation hubs. They examine the transition trajectories of these cities from traditional to modern forms and analyze their structures, scales, functions, and developmental drivers to identify key factors influencing urban transformation. Other scholars draw upon systems theory, considering urban societies as complex integrative systems to investigate their economy, population, culture, internal division of labor, trade relations, urban-rural relations, as well as social stratification and mobility.

Influenced by foreign intellectual trends, urban sociology in China has taken a microscopic approach and delved increasingly deeper into the minute facets of society, with its limitations revealed to a greater extent. The unilateral inherent logic of development and evolution implicit in modernization theory and the binary interpretive framework of “traditional vs. modern” are not only simplistic and one-sided but can also lead to redundant research efforts.

The second tradition is regional comparison. The regional comparison theory widely adopted in China’s urban sociology is largely based on theories of regional economic development, relationalism, theory of operation, and sociological type comparison. Regional comparison in Chinese urban sociology involves comparison between urban areas in China and other countries as well as comparison between different regions, between different types of cities, and between urban and rural communities.

Inter-city comparative studies can be divided into two groups. One group compares individual cities, the other group compares cities in different regions. Comparative studies of urban and rural societies in China have been conducted along multiple dimensions including urban-rural economic linkages, identity transition and identification. However, many concepts within regional comparison theories are not clearly differentiated and are characterized by a lack of distinction between generality and specificity. This can lead to overgeneralized comparisons, especially when attempting simplistic comparative analyses between cities of different regions and types.

The third tradition, spatial analysis, relies on geography and cognate disciplines to study spatial concepts, structures, and features. Central place theory, spatial network theory, and landscape spatial theory are commonly employed in Chinese urban sociology. In recent years, with advances in geography and its interaction with other disciplines, as well as the deployment of modern remote sensing, surveying, and mapping technologies, new trends have emerged in the application of spatial analysis theories in China’s urban sociology.

Firstly, there has been a philosophical inclination within urban sociology. Growing attention has been paid to the process and manifestation of social production of space as well as the underlying power dynamics. Secondly, urban sociology has become oriented towards geography, with growing interest in urban landscape, urban planning and design, living environment, and urban ecology. Thirdly, the use of modern information systems and spatial analysis technology is advocated due to its alignment with the “scientific” approach to the humanities and social sciences, which is specifically reflected in map-making, statistics and data analysis, and database construction.

While spatial analysis has contributed to the profundity, credibility, and scientific nature of urban sociology and provided urban sociologists with new insights, the ensuing tendency towards philosophical and technological abstraction should be brought to the attention of scholars.

Influenced by the aforementioned theoretical traditions, urban sociology in China has advanced considerably over the past decades. However, the constraints of these traditions on Chinese urban sociology call for reflection. Future research should overcome existing limitations and aim for more open, comprehensive, and robust development of the field with the goal of addressing practical problems in China’s urban development.


Guan Haochun is an associate research fellow from the School of Marxism at Huaqiao University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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