Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: The City

Shiny Saha

The City by Max Weber

The City is divided into five chapters however, broadly, the book can be divided into two sections. The first section comprising of the first chapter discusses the nature of the city. Here, Weber argues that mostly a city is understood in terms of its size and density, which are not sufficient to define a city. Therefore, he characterizes the city in terms of economy, political-administrative and fortress or garrison. Economically, for Weber, the city is a settlement in which the citizens live off versatile trades and commerce, rather than agriculture, and satisfy the substantial part of their daily needs through the market. Politico-administratively Weber defines the city in terms of its unique land relations in which land ownership is not accessory to house ownership. In terms of the last characteristic he argues that in the past the city, although not universally, was a fortress. He adds that this characteristic of the city has been lost in the present but the fusion of the fortress and the market was important for the composition of the city in the past: the consumption power and protection of the fortress attracted merchants and at the same time the lord was interested in attracting them to earn revenue through taxation or investment.

He further adds that in addition to the above characteristics the city in order to constitute an urban community must also be partially autonomous with an elected administration, a court of its own with partially autonomous law and an association of urbanites. Weber points out that in this sense the city appeared as an urban community only in the Occident and occasionally in the Near East. The Orient, particularly India and China, was restricted by caste and guild relations, which overrode urban associationalism; city citizenship was not considered a special status of the urbanite.

The second section comprising of the remaining chapters is devoted to discussing how the Occidental city, its ancient and medieval forms, displayed a city with an urban community. In both the forms of the Occidental city, Weber argues that fraternization occurred. He also posits that religion in the Occident, unlike that in the Orient and even the Middle East, did not impose restrictions and taboos that limited the civic development of the city. This point can be related to Weber’s extensive work on religion and economy. Further, rights, whether demanded or bestowed, emerged in the Occident along with special law for the urbanites. 

The second section provides detailed account of the ancient and medieval forms of the Occidental city, taking Rome and Athens as the examples. The ancient city was a militaristic city, where increase in wealth signified ownership of slaves. The citizen was a soldier working towards enhancing the production and expansion of the State. The medieval city, on the other hand, was a guild based city aimed at economic interests; slavery had little importance here due to its conflicting role in the labour market. It was primarily a popolo city and its citizen pursued activities aimed at enhancing his own income. The medieval city, thus becomes evident, is the one from which present form of cities has emerged.

The book as a discussion on Occidental cities, how they evolved and what they entailed in their various stages, is very informative. However, the Occidental style of city formation is not the only and cannot be called the truest style. Cities of the Orient did not have similar characteristics but they were cities in their own distinct way. Weber, it appears, champions the Occident over the Orient. This can be attributed to the author’s value judgement, which ironically he himself has discussed in his research on methodology in Social Sciences.

 In addition to the five chapters written by Weber the book has a brilliant preface written by the Don Martindale, who has also translated and edited the book along with Gertud Neuwirth. Don Martindale provides a brief introduction to the various theories on the city and places Weber’s theory in the European urban theory section. The prefatory section in itself is very informative and is an excellent guide for anyone new to Sociology of cities.


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