City slickers, or the illusion of standardized social roles


I am developing on the topic which I signalled in the update entitled Stress-tested by a highly infectious micro-organism, i.e. on the role of cities in our human civilization. A big, sharp claim comes to my mind: technological change that has been going on in our civilisation at least since 1960 is oriented on increasing urbanization of humanity, and more specifically on effective, rigid partition between urban areas and rural ones.

Against the background of that claim, which I consider as a general working hypothesis of my research, I want to dig deep into its phenomenological foundations. An observation has really stricken me as odd: the spatial structure of land use. Since 1960 through 2018, the percentage of urban population in the total population of the Earth passed from 33,6% to 55,3%, and the absolute number of people living in cities has grown from around 1 billion up to some 4,2 billion. Yet, as astonishing as it seems, it is really unclear what exact surface of urban land those people inhabit, and many sources, including the World Bank, indicate that the surface in question has been fairly constant over the last 20 years, around 3,6 million km2

Yes, as strange as it might seem, we don’t know for sure what is the exact surface that we, humans, use for living, like around in the world. There is a bit more clarity as for agricultural land, although that one is far from being clear, too. Fog starts to sort of hang around already when we ask how much land in general do we have exactly. Estimates of this kind are made on the basis of satellite readings, and satellites are apparently not too good at recognizing land elevated close to the sea level. Apparently, a satellite has hard times to distinguish land in depression (i.e. below the sea level, such as a significant part of Netherlands, for example) from the neighbouring sea. As regards this topic, I recommend getting acquainted with the resources available with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), at the Columbia University

I found some readings which indicate that the total surface of urban land in the world has been growing for the last 20 years (e.g. Li et al. 2019[1]), yet it is unclear where exactly the data cited there comes from. We are facing a paradox, when truly serious scientific projections allow expecting, in the near future, a dramatic growth in the surface of urban land on Earth, at the expense of agriculture and wildlife, yet there is no tangible evidence of such growth in the recent past.

Thus, apparently, urban people live in a consistently growing number within a fairly constant space. As there is more and more of us, in cities, what we are becoming really good at is increasing our density of population. I am trying to represent that phenomenon in the graphs below. We have two concurrent trends: growing a percentage of humanity living in cities and increasing density of population in those cities. The latter seems to have been progressing faster than the former. The question is: why? Why do we keep cramming ourselves more and more in cities? After all, it is possible – and even quite simple in terms of basic spatial geometry – to take any big city we know, like Paris, Tokyo, or my hometown, Krakow (Poland) – and sort of spread its current population onto a much bigger area. The resulting structure of settlement would look like a giant residential suburb, with people living in medium-sized houses, located on medium-sized plots of land. It would be even possible to associate small-scale agriculture with each such medium-sized real estate and thus have a food base. It is technically possible, but we don’t do it. Why?  

We, humans, we can build incredibly complex social structures, yet we have at hand just a few building blocks for that complexity. We have the capacity to define social groups, and we define them by nailing down an appurtenance function. On the other hand, we define social roles inside the group. If we include into the definition of a social role the possible connections to other social roles in the group, then we have just two building blocks: groups and social roles. I am going to explore the connection between those basic building blocks, and the phenomenon of urbanization with growing a density of population in urban structures.

I have recently begun to develop on the intuition that each individual human being represents a distinct social role. In other words, we have as many social roles in a group as there are individual human beings. Now, it is arguable, even as an intuition. Logically, if I want to say that my social role is X, there must be a categorial set X and I should be inclusive into that set. In other words, the intuitive take on social roles is to see them as general categories rather than as individual instances. Yet, my experience with digital neural networks has taught me that the distinction between general categories and individual instances is much foggier than traditional logic would indicate. There is a category (hic!) of neural networks, designated as convolutional neural networks, used in deep learning, where not only does the network learn to optimize a variable, but also it learns to formulate the best function in the view of optimizing that variable.

I am mildly obsessed with the application of artificial intelligence to simulate the working of collective intelligence in human societies. In this specific case, the logic of AI suggests me that social roles in human societies are a good example of that foggy zone between general categories and individual instances. Instead of saying ‘my role in society belongs to category X’, I could rather say that ‘the category X is a generalisation drawn out of many different, individual social roles, mine included, and this generalisation is a purely cognitive construct’.        

If I adopt this stance, then at least one obvious conclusion forms: the more people are there around, the more different social roles are being played. Just to show you the fundamental difference, I will use an example strongly referring to the current situation: consulting a medical doctor. This is precisely what we use to say: ‘I go to see a doctor’. A doctor, not the doctor. Still, if you have ever had the misfortune of suffering from anything more serious than a common cold, you could have noticed that consulting different doctors is like consulting different artists. Each good doctor, with good credentials, builds his or her reputation on digging on their own, into a specific field of medicine, and figuring out idiosyncratic methods. You can also recognize a good doctor by their capacity to deal with atypical cases.

Interesting: an accomplished social role is a clearly idiosyncratic social role. You can climb the ladder of social hierarchy precisely by developing a unique mix of skills, thus by shaping a highly individualized social role.

Now, imagine that individuation among doctors is prevalently recognized. Imagine a world where, instead of expecting a standardized treatment, and standardized skillsets in all the medical profession, patients commonly expect each physician to approach them differently, and therapeutic idiosyncrasy is the norm. What would public healthcare systems look like if we assumed such a disparity? How to calculate a standard price for a medical procedure, if every medical professional is assumed, by default, to perform this very procedure it their artistically unique manner?   

As I occasionally delve into history books, an example of which you can read in my recent update entitled ‘Did they have a longer breath, those people in the 17th century?’, I discover that we are currently living an epoch of very pronounced social standardization. We have evolved those social systems – healthcare, pensions, police, adjudication – which, whilst being truly beneficial, require us to be very standardized and predictable in our personal demeanour. When I compare Europe today with Europe at the end of the 17th century, it is like comparing someone in a strict uniform with someone dressed in a theatrical outfit. It is uniformity against diversity.

We could be living in an illusion of widely standardized social roles, whence, e.g. the concept of ‘career path’ in life. This is a useful illusion, nevertheless an illusion. I am deeply convinced that what we, individual homo sapiens, commonly do, is individuation. The more we learn, the more idiosyncratic our accumulated learning becomes. Ergo, once again, the more humans are there around, the more distinct social roles are there around. What connection with cities and urban life? Here comes another intuition of mine, already hinted at in ‘Stress-tested by a highly infectious microorganism’, namely that urban environments are much more favourable than rural ones, as far as creating new social roles is concerned. In the rural environment, agricultural production is the name of the game, which requires a certain surface of arable land and pasturage. The more people in the finite habitable space of our planet, the more food we need, and the more stringent we need to be on shielding agricultural land from other uses. This is the spiral we are in: our growing human population needs more agricultural resources, and thus we need to be more and more particular about partitioning between agricultural land and urban space.       

I found an interesting passage in Arnold Toynbee’s ‘Study of History’ (abridged version: Somervell &Toynbee 1946[1]). In Section 3: The Growths of Civilizations, Chapter X: The Nature of the Growths of Civilizations, we can read: ‘We have found by observation that the most stimulating challenge is one of mean degree between an excess of severity and a deficiency of it, since a deficient challenge may fail to stimulate the challenged party at all, while an excessive challenge may break his spirit. […] The real optimum challenge is one which not only stimulates the challenged party but also stimulates him to acquire momentum that carries him a step farther […].

The single finite movement from a disturbance to a restoration of equilibrium is not enough if genesis is to be followed by growth. And, to convert the movement into a repetitive, recurrent rhythm, there must be an élan vital (to use Bergson’s term) which carries the challenged party through equilibrium into an overbalance which exposes him to a fresh challenge and thereby inspires him to make a fresh response in the form of a further equilibrium ending in a further overbalance, and so on in a progression which is potentially infinite.

This élan, working through a series of overbalances, can be detected in the course of the Hellenic Civilization from its genesis up to its zenith in the fifth century B.C. […] The disintegration of the apparented Minoan Society had left a welter of social debris – marooned Minoans and stranded Achaeans and Dorians. […] Would the rare patches of lowland in the Achaean landscape be dominated by the wilderness of highlands that ringed them round? Would the peaceful cultivators of the plains be at the mercy of the shepherds and brigands of the mountains?

This first challenge was victoriously met: it was decided that Hellas should be a world of cities and not of villages, of agriculture and not of pasturage, of order and not of anarchy. Yet the very success of their response to this first challenge exposed the victors to a second. For the victory which ensured the peaceful pursuit of agriculture in the lowlands gave a momentum to the growth of population, and this momentum did not come to a standstill when the population reached the maximum density which agriculture in the Hellenic homeland could support.

I frequently like reading my readings from the end backwards. In this case, it allows me to decipher the following logic: urbanization is a possible solution to the general problem of acceptably peaceful coexistence between mutually competing, and demographically expansive social groups, in a lowland environment. Makes sense. Virtually all the big cities of humanity are in lowlands, or in acceptably fertile plateaus (which the Greeks did not have). There are practically no big cities in the mountains.

When distinct social groups compete for territories in a relatively flat and fertile terrain, there are two possible games to play in such a competition. The game of constant war consists in delineating separate territories and consistently maintain control over them, possibly striving for expanding them. Another game, the game of influence, consists in creating cities, as markets and political centres, and then rival for influence in those cities.

When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, in the 5th century A.D., the ensuing partition of Western Europe into tribal states, constantly fighting against each other, illustrates the first type of game. Still, when we finally connected the dots as for highly efficient agriculture, in the 9th and the 10th centuries, the situation morphed progressively into the second type of game. I can find a trace of that logic in another favourite reading of mine, which I cite frequently, namely in Fernand Braudel’s ‘Civilisation and Capitalism’, Volume 1.  Section 8 of this book, entitled ‘Towns and Cities’, brings the following narrative: ‘Towns are like electric transformers. They increase tension, accelerate the rhythm of exchange and constantly recharge human life. They were born of the oldest and most revolutionary division of labour: between work in the fields on the one hand and the activities described as urban on the other. “The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilization, from tribe to State, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilization to the present day”, wrote the young Marx.

Towns, cities, are turning-points, watersheds of human history. When they first appeared, bringing with them the written word, they opened the door to what we now call history. Their revival in Europe in the eleventh century marked the beginning of the continent’s rise to eminence. When they flourished in Italy, they brought the age of Renaissance. So it has been since the city-states, the poleis of ancient Greece, the medinas of the Muslim conquest, to our own times. All major bursts of growth are expressed by an urban explosion. […] Towns generate expansion and are themselves generated by it.

[…] The town, an unusual concentration of people, of houses close together, often joined wall to all, is a demographic anomaly. […] There are some towns which have barely begun being towns and some villages that exceed them in numbers of inhabitants. Examples of this are enormous villages in Russia, past and present, the country towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno or the Andalusian south, or the loosely woven clusters of hamlets in Java […]. But these inflated villages, even when they were contiguous, were not necessarily destined to become towns.’

Interesting. Urban structures are a demographic anomaly, and once this anomaly emerges, it brings written culture, which, in turn, allows the development of technology. This anomaly allows demographic growth (thus biological expansion of the human species) in the context of group rivalry for lowland territory. The development of cities appears to be more productive as alternative to constant war. Once this alternative is chosen, cities allow the development of culture and technology. This is how they allow forming a rich palette of social roles. I think I understand. We, the human species, choose to be more and more crammed in cities, because such a demographic anomaly allows us to transmute growing population into a growing diversity of skills. Good example of collective intelligence.

This is the mechanism which allowed Adam Smith to observe, in his ‘Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes of The Wealth of Nations’, Book III, Of The Different Progress Of Opulence In Different Nations, Chapter I, Of The Natural Progress Of Opulence’: THE GREAT COMMERCE of every civilized society is that carried on between the inhabitants of the town and those of the country. It consists in the exchange of rude for manufactured produce, either immediately, or by the intervention of money, or of some sort of paper which represents money. The country supplies the town with the means of subsistence and the materials of manufacture. The town repays this supply, by sending back a part of the manufactured produce to the inhabitants of the country. The town, in which there neither is nor can be any reproduction of substances, may very properly be said to gain its whole wealth and subsistence from the country. We must not, however, upon this account, imagine that the gain of the town is the loss of the country. The gains of both are mutual and reciprocal, and the division of labour is in this, as in all other cases, advantageous to all the different persons employed in the various occupations into which it is subdivided. The inhabitants of the country purchase of the town a greater quantity of manufactured goods with the produce of a much smaller quantity of their own labour, than they must have employed had they attempted to pre- pare them themselves. The town affords a market for the surplus produce of the country, or what is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators; and it is there that the inhabitants of the country exchange it for something else which is in demand among them. The greater the number and revenue of the inhabitants of the town, the more extensive is the market which it affords to those of the country; and the more extensive that market, it is always the more advantageous to a great number’.   

It is worth noticing that urbanization is a workable solution to inter-group rivalry just in an ecosystem of fertile lowlands. In many places on Earth, e.g. large parts of Africa, there is rivalry for territories, there are tribal wars, and yet there is no citification, since there is not enough fertile agricultural land at hand. That brings the topic of climate change. If climate change, as it is now the most common prediction, brings a shortage of agricultural land, we could come to a point when cities will be no longer a viable condenser of social energy, and war can become more workable a path. Frightening, yet possible.

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[1] Royal Institute of International Affairs, Somervell, D. C., & Toynbee, A. (1946). A Study of History. By Arnold J. Toynbee… Abridgement of Volumes I-VI (VII-X.) by DC Somervell. Oxford University Press.,

[1] Li, X., Zhou, Y., Eom, J., Yu, S., & Asrar, G. R. (2019). Projecting global urban area growth through 2100 based on historical time series data and future Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. Earth’s Future, 7(4), 351-362.

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