How living in the city affects social behavior

Recent research and commentators have suggested that cities are greener and more innovative. This post from The Infrastructurist summarizes recent research on another possible outcome of interest for city residents: prosocial behavior.

Using census data, Samuel Arbesman and Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School examined urban populations for their tendencies to display several prosocial behaviors, including voting, organ donation, and political contribution. As they report in the journal Physica A (in press), Arbesman and Christakis believed this positive social behavior would indeed be superlinear, in part to offset the less desirable elements of a city, such as crime:

If larger networks … fostered increases in violence more rapidly than, say, increases in kindness, city growth would be constrained in a fundamental way.

What they found, however, was that prosocial behaviors “do not obey a clear pattern.” People in cities aren’t more likely to vote or to donate a living organ, though they’re much more likely to give a deceased organ or a political contribution. Taken together, these positive behaviors do not scale the same way that innovation and economic growth typically scale within cities. In short, conclude Arbesman and Christakis, “prosocial behavior is not a single category when it comes to understanding urban scaling with respect to population.”

The mixed results harmonize with previous findings. Some studies have found that people in cities are more likely to return a lost letter than those in both suburbs and small towns. Others have found that willingness to trust strangers declines as a region’s population grows.

The unexpected findings might be explained, in part, by which behaviors the researchers chose to define as “prosocial.” Political contributions, particularly the sizable sort found in cities, could rightfully be considered a selfish endeavor, as opposed to a positive social one. (At the same time, it seems likely that Arbesman and Christakis were limited by available data sets.)

These results are interesting for several reasons. First, there are methodological questions: do we have data in which researchers in the city were specifically looking at prosocial behaviors? A common approach to looking at social behavior and networks these days asks respondents to name their five closest friends and then how closely their personal beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes align with the respondent. But if this study is based on Census data, these social network questions are not present. I’m not quite sure why political contributions would not be considered prosocial – participating in the civic process would seem to be part of being prosocial.

Second, these questions about prosocial behavior are not new. Some of the earliest sociologists developed the discipline for exactly these reasons: what would happen to relationships and society with more and more people moving from small, rural communities to large, anonymous cities? Durkheim and Tönnies developed typologies to explain this: mechanical and organic solidarity and gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, respectively. Simmel, in particular, seemed worried about the effect that the city would have on individuals. He talked about how urban individuals would need to develop blasé attitudes in order to cope with all of the commotion and people they would meet. Simmel continued on to ask whether the individual could maintain their individuality amidst the life of the big city.

It would be interesting to look at data over the years about American perceptions about whether city or suburban dwellers are more prosocial (if such data is available). On one hand, the suburbs are supposed to be the place where kids run free and families know each other yet we talk about how people just drive in and out of their garages without ever knowing their neighbors. On the other hand, we see reports all the time about crime and disorder in the city even as we occasionally hear stories of vibrant neighborhood and storefront life. My guess would be that the suburbs win out easily in this battle of perceptions – even as the research data is mixed on whether city or suburban residents actually exhibit more prosocial behavior.

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