Approaches to the Study of Politics

Date: 1958

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Individual Participation in Mass Society1

The participation of the individual in his community is of importance on two grounds. Theoretically, an understanding of such behavior aids in the clarification and extension of our picture of modern society as a system. And, from a normative point of view, the nature and degree of such participation sets the limits and indicates the possibilities of social control in a nonhierarchical society. The dissolution of traditional orders, reflected in our fluid class structure and the uncertain basis for legitimacy, presents a major problem for modern society. Further, if we assume that the solvents destroying these older forms of order emanate from the process of rational transformation and increase in scale in the society, we may be confident that the problems experienced in America and the West are potentially universal problems.

The general ideology identifying the problem and indicating its solution is for Westerners some variation of the democratic dogma. We assume that for the hierarchical order of the past we may substitute an order based on individual option, control through the consent of the governed. In making such normative decisions, however, we are also making certain empirical assumptions about the nature of modern society. We assume the existence, at some level, of subcommittees, in which the individual has interest, influence, and concerning which he has some realistic information. Such subcommittees are the necessary condition for individual participation in the vast totality of society (though they are not sufficient conditions), and whoever says "democracy" is, in effect, positing such groups.

However, the western societies in which modern democratic political systems were first devised have changed radically since their democratic birth. America, approximately five per cent urban at the time of the Revolution, is today over sixty per cent urban and this predominantly urban, centralized society differs radically from the nation assumed by the framers of the democratic constitutions. While the rural population and the smaller cities still have their importance, the social structure of the large urban complex is crucial for the study of social participation and democratic process in contemporary society. It is upon individual participation in very large cities that this paper is focused.

Many current interpretations of the large city sharply contradict the empirical assumptions implied in the democratic dogma. The analyses of Louis Wirth and Georg Simmel emphasize these aspects of the city: (a) its heterogeneity, (b) its impersonality, (c) its anonymity, and (d) the consequent social fragmentation of the individuals who make up the urban world. Such views are congruent with the long-run trends envisaged by Durkheim, Tonnies, Park, and others—trends from a simple homogeneous society possessing an automatic consensus universalis and resulting solidarity, towards a complex, heterogeneous society, in which order results from functional interdependence of differentiated groups, and solidarity within groups leads to dynamic relations between them. In this view … the primary-group structure of society is in a process of rapid dissolution. Kinship groups, neighborhood groups, the church, and the local community are losing their importance. Their strength in controlling individual behavior is shifted to formal, secondary groups, which organize work, religion and politics. Even play is controlled by the large commercial organization.

From such a position, the theorist who wishes to emphasize the viability of democratic structure and process must … accept the formal organization as the effective subcommunity—one which is capable of performing the function of organizing individuals in meaningful wholes which may then participate in the control of the larger society. The "Associational Society" is seen as the alternative to the hierarchical society of the past, based upon primary communities and hereditary strata.

These formulations concerning urban social structure are largely the result of keen observation and analysis, rather than large scale empirical studies. Their influence is largely due to two facts: (a) they are based upon observations available at random in any large city, and (b) they fill, neatly, a gap in the theoretical system of sociology. However, in the past decade, and even more in the last few years, a substantial body of work has been accumulated dealing with the specific area of participation in the urban community. It is possible, on the basis of this work, to sketch a tentative description of the modes of participation which occur among urbanites—a snapshot of the organizational topography of the modern city. Such a description serves as a test of earlier assumptions and the basis for new interpretation.


The studies to be summarized are focused upon participation in formal organizations.… The urban complexes included are: New York (Komarovsky), Chicago (Janowitz), Los Angeles (Greer), San Francisco (Bell), Detroit (Axelrod) and Rochester (Foley). The net is thus spread wide, and the results are remarkably consistent—so much so that the discussion of findings will emphasize common trends rather than variations. The following loci of participation will be discussed: kinship, the neighborhood, the local area, formal organizations, friends, work associates, and the mass media.

Some Empirical Findings. (A) Kinship. One of the most striking results of this research is the extreme importance of kin relations for the urban residents. The results, in Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, all indicate the same fact: kin relations, as measured by visiting patterns, are the most important social relations for all types of urban populations. Half of the urbanites visit their kin at least once a week, and large majorities visit them at least once a month. Even the extended family is important; one-third of the Los Angeles sample visited uncles, cousins, and the like at least monthly. The conjugal family is of basic importance; the urbanite, in any local area, is apt to spend most of his evenings in the bosom of his family; this is true even in Hollywood, and extremely so in the suburbs.

(B) The neighborhood. There is much more differentiation here—the range is from a substantial number of people who are intense neighbors to a substantial number who hardly neighbor at all. The degree of neighboring varies by local area, and within the city there is a wide range, but the average urban resident has some informal neighboring relationships.

(C) The local area. Much like their neighboring behavior, urban residents indicate wide variation in their degree of "local community" identification and participation. Janowitz found a majority of his Chicago samples to be identified with their local area as their "true home," and in Los Angeles this was true of some areas, but varied considerably between areas.

(D) Formal organizations. Although a majority of urban residents belong to churches, a minority which varies around forty per cent attend as frequently as once a month. Aside from church participation, most urban individuals belong to one organization or none. Low socio-economic rank individuals, and middle-rank individuals, usually belong to one organization at most, and it is usually work-connected for men, child- and church-connected for women. Only in the upper socioeconomic levels is the "joiner" to be found with any frequency. When attendance at organizations is studied, some twenty per cent of the memberships are usually "paper" memberships.

(E) Friendship. Informal participation in friendship relations, with individual friends or friendship circles, is an extremely frequent occurrence. Friendship, outside any organizational context, is a near-universal in the city. The urbanite is seldom isolated from this type of primary group.

(F) Work associates as friends. Here one of the important hypotheses of urban theory is in question. As the primary community and neighborhood decline, friendship was expected to be more closely related to work organization. However, studies by Axelrod, Bell, and Greer all indicate that work associates are a minor proportion of the individual’s primary relations when he is away from the job. Only in the upper socio-economic levels (where friendship is frequently instrumental for economic ends) is there a change. Work relations are usually insulated from free primary-group participation of the urban-dweller.

(G) Mass entertainment. Cultural participation in organized entertainment is relatively unimportant for urban adults. Most of the Los Angeles samples attended fewer than three events a month. One-third attended no event, one-third one or two, and a few attended as many as ten or more. Most attendance was at movies, but the real importance of the mass entertainment media was in the home—television and radio are extremely important, but it is in the context of family participation.

In summary, the urbanite’s individual "path" through social structure crosses these six areas of possible involvement and participation. According to one theory of urban society, his involvement should be increasingly intense with respect to formal organizations, work associates as his friends, and mass entertainment; it should be correspondingly weak with respect to kin, neighbors, the local community, and primary groups other than these. The studies cited indicate no such clear-cut development. Instead, the individual’s involvement in formal organizations and work-based friendship is weak; the mass media are most important in a family context; participation with kin and friendship circles is powerful, and with neighbors and the local community’s groups it varies immensely by area.

The picture that emerges is of a society in which the conjugal family is extremely powerful among all types of population. This small, primary group structure is the basic area of involvement; at the other pole is work, a massive absorber of time, but an activity which is rarely related to the family through "outside" friendship with on-the-job associates. Instead, the family-friendship group is relatively free-floating, within the world of large scale secondary associations. The family is usually identified, although weakly, with the local community; it "neighbors," but strictly "within bounds." By and large, the conjugal family group keeps itself to itself; outside is the world—formal organizations, work, and the communities.

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A Typology of Urban Populations. Such findings as these are important in two respects: first, in their sharp departures from what would be considered the conventional picture of metropolitan life; and, second, in their consistency. The agreement between the various American studies … leads us to suspect that such participation patterns are a result of powerful trends in modern Western society. In explaining the average, and variations from it, it is useful to base a description upon social trends.

The Shevky-Bell typology of urban subpopulations is one such method of describing and accounting for the varieties of urban areas. Based upon Colin Clark’s studies of economic history, and on analysis of the long-term changes in the nature of production, the organization of work, and the composition of the total society, the typology posits three dimensions along which urban subpopulations vary. These are: social rank (economic and occupational status), segregation (the proportion of segregated ethnic populations in a community), and urbanization. The latter refers to variations in life-styles; it ranges from the family-centered, home-centered life at the low-urbanization pole to an opposite pole where one finds many single individuals and couples without children. In this kind of subarea, among the highly urbanized populations, many women work outside the home, most people live in multiple dwelling units, and the market is of great importance as a center of cultural life.

Studies have indicated that the urbanization of an area is closely associated with the importance of the local area as a "social fact," as a community. And this, in turn, is associated with political participation.

The results of the Los Angeles study of four census-tract populations at middle social rank, without segregated populations, but varying from very highly urban to very low-urban areas, were summarized as follows:

In general, our findings indicate a growing importance of the local area as a social fact, as we go from the highly urbanized areas … to the low-urban areas. Neighboring, organizational location in the area, the residences of the members of organizations in the area, the location and composition of church congregations, all vary with urbanization and increase as urbanization decreases. Readership of the local community press also increases, as does the ability to name local leaders and intention to remain in the area indefinitely.

Thus the studies of the small community, with its local organizational structure and stratification system, may apply in the low-urban areas; they are not likely to fit in the highly urban area.…

A comparison was made between the political attitudes and behavior of the very highly urbanized population and the very low-urban population studied in Los Angeles. The latter were more involved in their local community (they could name more local leaders), had a more consistent voting record, were more certain of the social class position of their "community" (middle-class) and of their political preferences.

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The picture of participation in the metropolis must be qualified in these ways: the highly urbanized populations are atypical they are an extreme of a continuum. Their behavior deviates from the stereotype of the atomistic man in their great involvement in the family and their intensive participation in primary groups. However, the majority of the population in a great urban complex does not lie in the highly urbanized segments; instead, it is of middle to low urbanization, and middle social rank. At the extremely low-urban pole, the local area becomes a definite community—it is a social fact, as well as a geographical fact.

The galaxy of local residential areas which make up a great city may be seen as differing in their level of living (social rank) and their style of living (urbanization). At each level of social rank there are vast differences between areas of high and low urbanization. In general, the highly urban areas lie within the central city, and the low-urban areas lie towards the suburbs. One may keep in mind the image of the urban apartment house districts, on the one hand, and the tract developments and suburbs on the other. As one moves towards the latter, community participation in the local area increases, and political behavior in general changes.

However, even as few urban subareas approach the anonymity and fragmentation of the stereotype, fewer still approach the kind of subcommunity envisaged in the democratic ideology. Although more respondents can name local leaders in the suburbs than in the highly urbanized areas, less than forty per cent can do so anywhere. And the percentage who cannot even name one city-wide leader is considerable. With this qualification in mind, the differences between the polar extremes are sharp and suggestive. What is the meaning of this great variation in "normal life style"—what accounts for it, and what are its consequences?


The word community is an ambiguous one, with many theoretical meanings and varying empirical referents. Two core meanings, however, stand out in the theoretical and empirical uses of the term. In one, community connotes certain modes of relationship, in which the individual shares values, is understood and identifies with the aggregate. In the other meaning community indicates a spatially defined social unit having functional significance, reflecting the interdependence of individuals and groups. In the first sense, the modern metropolis is not a community; in the second, it must be by definition.

Rather than choose one meaning, it is preferable to indicate the empirical interrelation of the two aspects. For it is likely that, when we refer to community, we have in the back of our mind the picture of the primary community—preliterate society, feudal holding, or peasant village. Such communities fulfilled both definitions: they were extremely significant functionally, providing all or most of the conditions for individual and group life, and they had a high degree of consensus and communion. Such is manifestly not the case with the urban community today, and the reasons lie deep in the nature of modern society.

The chief difference between societies based upon primary communities and urban societies is one of scale—modern urban society is the result of a vast increase in scale. Wilson and Wilson2 have studied this process in Central Africa, tracing its nature and its effects upon three small village cultures. They noted the autonomy of the societies at the early stage—each small group had its own means of subsistence and order, and each was independent of the other. The process of increase in scale was one of increasing commitments to widespread social groups and dwindling dependence upon immediate associates. The wealthy Central African farmer, for example, became free of local economic coercion by the village head man at the same time he became dependent upon the international ground-nuts market. Thus, if one conceives of social organization as a network of mutually sustaining activities, based upon necessary functions, one may say that the radius of this network was short in the primary community of village society; with the increase of scale, there is a lengthening of these radii of functional interdependence.

Such extension of interdependence is not necessarily the result of rational undertaking, nor are the results all functional. However, once such interdependence exists, the human need for predictability (and the demand for predictability in ongoing organized groups) tends to result in a flow of communication and a mutual ordering of behavior.…

The process may be traced in the development of modern industry.… The need for a predictable market results in monopoly, oligopoly, and cartels; the need for predictable work-flow results in bureaucracy, and indirectly in some form of labor organization. The organization of one function acts as a catalyst producing further organization; thus industrial cartels produce national labor unions, and unions in turn force the further integration of management groups.

Returning now to the concept of the primary community, we note that in such communities the radii of many functional interdependencies were short, coinciding with the same aggregate of persons. The result was, for the individual, a complete dependence upon this community leaving him few choices; for the community, it was autonomy from outside groups. There was a coincidence of many organizational networks, based upon functional interdependence for various social products in the same small aggregate. The result was an extreme density of interaction. When such density of interaction occurs, a secondary function results: the social process. This may be defined as communication as an end in itself; it is identical with many meanings of communion, and it is the basis for that aspect of association which we call the primary group.

Interdependence based upon the need for the various social products (protection, economic production and consumption, etc.) and upon the need for the social process, or communion, thus creates an extremely strong social group coterminous with the spatially defined collective. Such a group satisfies both the meanings of community advanced earlier: it is both a mode of relationships and a spatially defined social unit having functional significance. In such a society the village is, to a large degree, one primary group.…

The process of increase in scale, however, results in both the lengthening of the radii of interdependence (spatially and socially) and the disjunction of the different radii, representing the organizations fulfilling different functions. Not only is the small local area no longer autonomous—the boundaries of the organizations upon which it is dependent no longer coincide. Work, government, education, religion—each is a congeries of organizations which include parts of the local area’s population in their various spans, while this area is thrown with many others into various society-wide networks.

In this sense of the word, America has never been to any large degree a society based upon primary community, for Western society was already large in scale and rapidly expanding when America became a colony; the very nature of colonialism insured dependence upon the imperial and international markets. There are, however, degrees and it is likely that, until the twentieth century, community existed in a widespread fashion in open-country neighborhoods, villages, and the country town. Such community, less complete than in the peasant village to be sure, was infinitely stronger than that to be found in any part of the modern metropolis. Scattered data from the novels celebrating the "revolt from the village," the criticisms by intellectuals like Thorstein Veblen, and studies of contemporary backwoods settlements in the Hispanola country and the southern Appalachians indicate that spatial isolation produced a marked degree of community.

Such community disappears under urban conditions; it has no hold over the individual, for its functions are preempted by large specialized organizations in the interest of rational control, while the individual is highly mobile and is isolated in the local area only when he chooses to be. As the functional bases for intense interaction disappear, communion goes with them.

As this occurs, the small conjugal family becomes increasingly important for the individual and, indirectly, for the total society. The reason is partly one of default; as the primary community leaves the spatially defined group, the conjugal family remains and is today probably the strongest basis for communion available to most people in the large city. At the same time, in a society of increasing scale, the family is relatively free from community norms (where there is little interaction there can be neither surveillance nor sanctions), and great individuation of family patterns is possible. With the surplus of freedom, of leisure, and of money, the individual can choose between family and nonfamily living—and the family can choose between community-oriented and noncommunity local areas to live.

Thus the variations in urbanization, and in local community participation, found in the various studies cited can be understood as part of the large-scale process which (a) destroys the primary community, (b) releases its individual components for duty in large segmental organizations, and (c) releases much time, expenditure, and behavior from community-enforced norms. The large scale society is, in this sense, one of emerging freedoms.

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1 From Roland Young, ed., , pp. 329–342. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1958. By permission.

2 Godfrey Wilson and Monica Wilson, The Analysis of Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1945.

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Chicago: Roland Young, trans., Approaches to the Study of Politics in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024,

MLA: . Approaches to the Study of Politics, translted by Roland Young, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: (trans.), Approaches to the Study of Politics. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from