5 Language, Immigration, and Geography

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Describe the process of urbanization in the United States and the growth of urban populations worldwide
  • Analyze the function of suburbs, exurbs, and concentric zones
  • Discuss urbanization from various sociological perspectives
The New York City skyline at night is shown here.
Figure 20.9 The lights of New York City are an iconic image of city life. (Credit: Jauher Ali Nasir/flickr)

Urbanization is the study of the social, political, and economic relationships in cities, and someone specializing in urban sociology studies those relationships. In some ways, cities can be microcosms of universal human behavior, while in others they provide a unique environment that yields its own brand of human behavior. There is no strict dividing line between rural and urban; rather, there is a continuum where one bleeds into the other. However, once a geographically concentrated population has reached approximately 100,000 people, it typically behaves like a city regardless of what its designation might be.

The Growth of Cities

According to sociologist Gideon Sjoberg (1965), there are three prerequisites for the development of a city: First, good environment with fresh water and a favorable climate; second, advanced technology, which will produce a food surplus to support nonfarmers; and third, strong social organization to ensure social stability and a stable economy. Most scholars agree that the first cities were developed somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, though there are disagreements about exactly where. Most early cities were small by today’s standards, and the largest was most likely Rome, with about 650,000 inhabitants (Chandler and Fox 1974). The factors limiting the size of ancient cities included lack of adequate sewage control, limited food supply, and immigration restrictions. For example, serfs were tied to the land, and transportation was limited and inefficient. Today, the primary influence on cities’ growth is economic forces. Since the recent economic recession reduced housing prices, researchers have been waiting to see what happens to urban migration patterns in response.

A chart illustrating the growing percentage of the U.S. population living in urban areas in comparison to rural areas from 1800 (roughly 10 percent) to (roughly 75 percent).
Figure 20.10 Percent of U.S. Population. As this chart illustrates, the shift from rural to urban living in the United States has been dramatic and continuous. (Credit: the U.S. Census Bureau)

Urbanization in the United States

Urbanization in the United States proceeded rapidly during the Industrial Era. As more and more opportunities for work appeared in factories, workers left farms (and the rural communities that housed them) to move to the cities. From mill towns in Massachusetts to tenements in New York, the industrial era saw an influx of poor workers into U.S. cities. At various times throughout the country’s history, certain demographic groups, from post-Civil War southern Black people to more recent immigrants, have made their way to urban centers to seek a better life in the city.


Managing Refugees and Asylum-Seekers in the Modern World

In 2013, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Half these people were children. A refugee is defined as an individual who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster, while asylum-seekers are those whose claim to refugee status has not been validated. An internally displaced person, on the other hand, is neither a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. Displaced persons have fled their homes while remaining inside their country’s borders.

The war in Syria caused most of the 2013 increase, forcing 2.5 million people to seek refugee status while internally displacing an additional 6.5 million. Violence in Central African Republic and South Sudan also contributed a large number of people to the total (The United Nations Refugee Agency 2014).

The refugees need help in the form of food, water, shelter, and medical care, which has worldwide implications for nations contributing foreign aid, the nations hosting the refugees, and the non-government organizations (NGOs) working with individuals and groups on site (The United Nations Refugee Agency 2014). Where will this large moving population, including sick, elderly, children, and people with very few possessions and no long-term plan, go?

Suburbs and Exurbs

As cities grew more crowded, and often more impoverished and costly, more and more people began to migrate back out of them. But instead of returning to rural small towns (like they’d resided in before moving to the city), these people needed close access to the cities for their jobs. In the 1850s, as the urban population greatly expanded and transportation options improved, suburbs developed. Suburbs are the communities surrounding cities, typically close enough for a daily commute in, but far enough away to allow for more space than city living affords. The bucolic suburban landscape of the early twentieth century has largely disappeared due to sprawl. Suburban sprawl contributes to traffic congestion, which in turn contributes to commuting time. And commuting times and distances have continued to increase as new suburbs developed farther and farther from city centers. Simultaneously, this dynamic contributed to an exponential increase in natural resource use, like petroleum, which sequentially increased pollution in the form of carbon emissions.

As the suburbs became more crowded and lost their charm, those who could afford it turned to the exurbs, communities that exist outside the ring of suburbs and are typically populated by even wealthier families who want more space and have the resources to lengthen their commute. Together, the suburbs, exurbs, and metropolitan areas all combine to form a metropolis. New York was the first U.S. megalopolis, a huge urban corridor encompassing multiple cities and their surrounding suburbs. These metropolises use vast quantities of natural resources and are a growing part of the U.S. landscape.

An aerial view of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. The entire span of the picture contains buildings covering a large area.
Figure 20.11 The sprawl in Los Angeles means long commutes and traffic congestion. (Credit: Doc Searles/flickr)


Suburbs Are Not All White Picket Fences: The Banlieues of Paris

What makes a suburb a suburb? Simply, a suburb is a community surrounding a city. But when you picture a suburb in your mind, your image may vary widely depending on which nation you call home. In the United States, most consider the suburbs home to upper— and middle—class people with private homes. In other countries, like France, the suburbs––or “banlieues”–– are synonymous with housing projects and impoverished communities. In fact, the banlieues of Paris are notorious for their ethnic violence and crime, with higher unemployment and more residents living in poverty than in the city center. Further, the banlieues have a much higher immigrant population, which in Paris is mostly Arabic and African immigrants. This contradicts the clichéd U.S. image of a typical white-picket-fence suburb.

In 2005, serious riots broke out in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois after two boys were electrocuted while hiding from the police. They were hiding, it is believed, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, near the scene of a break-in, and they were afraid the police would not believe in their innocence. Only a few days earlier, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy (who later became president), had given a speech touting new measures against urban violence and referring to the people of the banlieue as “rabble” (BBC 2005). After the deaths and subsequent riots, Sarkozy reiterated his zero-tolerance policy toward violence and sent in more police. Ultimately, the violence spread across more than thirty towns and cities in France. Thousands of cars were burned, many hundreds of people were arrested, and both police and protesters suffered serious injuries.

Then-President Jacques Chirac responded by pledging more money for housing programs, jobs programs, and education programs to help the banlieues solve the underlying problems that led to such disastrous unrest. But none of the newly launched programs were effective. Sarkozy ran for president on a platform of tough regulations toward young offenders, and in 2007 the country elected him. More riots ensued as a response to his election. In 2010, Sarkozy promised “war without mercy” against the crime in the banlieues (France24 2010). Six years after the Clichy-sous-Bois riot, circumstances are no better for those in the banlieues.

As the Social Policy & Debate feature illustrates, the suburbs also have their share of socio-economic problems. In the United States, White flight refers to the migration of economically secure White people from racially mixed urban areas and toward the suburbs. This occurred throughout the twentieth century, due to causes as diverse as the legal end of racial segregation established by Brown v. Board of Education to the Mariel boatlift of people fleeing Cuba for Miami. Current trends include middle-class African-American families following White flight patterns out of cities, while affluent White people return to cities that have historically had a majority of Black people. The result is that the issues of race, socio-economics, neighborhoods, and communities remain complicated and challenging.

Urbanization around the World

During the Industrial Era, there was a growth spurt worldwide. The development of factories brought people from rural to urban areas, and new technology increased the efficiency of transportation, food production, and food preservation. For example, from the mid-1670s to the early 1900s, London’s population increased from 550,000 to 7 million (Old Bailey Proceedings Online 2011). Global favorites like New York, London, and Tokyo are all examples of postindustrial cities. As cities evolve from manufacturing-based industrial to service- and information-based postindustrial societies, gentrification becomes more common. Gentrification occurs when members of the middle and upper classes enter and renovate city areas that have been historically less affluent while the poor urban underclass are forced by resulting price pressures to leave those neighborhoods for increasingly decaying portions of the city.

Globally, 55 percent of the world’s people currently reside in urban areas, with the most urbanized region being North America (82 percent), followed by Latin America/the Caribbean (81 percent), with Europe coming in third (74 percent). In comparison, Africa is only 40 percent urbanized, though one of its nations, Nigeria, is projected to significantly urbanize in the coming years. With 37 million people, Tokyo is the world’s largest city by population, and New Delhi is the second largest with 29 million. The world’s most densely populated cities are now largely concentrated in the global south, a marked change from several decades ago when the biggest cities were found in the global north. In the next forty years, the biggest global challenge for urbanized populations, particularly in less developed countries, will be to achieve development that occurs without depleting or damaging the natural environment, also called sustainable development (United Nations 2018).

Theoretical Perspectives on Urbanization

The issues of urbanization play significant roles in the study of sociology. Race, economics, and human behavior intersect in cities. Let’s look at urbanization through the sociological perspectives of functionalism and conflict theory. Functional perspectives on urbanization generally focus on the ecology of the city, while conflict perspective tends to focus on political economy.

Human ecology is a functionalist field of study that looks at the relationship between people and their built and natural physical environments (Park 1915). Generally speaking, urban land use and urban population distribution occur in a predictable pattern once we understand how people relate to their living environment. For example, in the United States, we have a transportation system geared to accommodate individuals and families in the form of interstate highways built for cars. In contrast, most parts of Europe emphasize public transportation such as high-speed rail and commuter lines, as well as walking and bicycling. The challenge for a human ecologist working in U.S. urban planning is to design landscapes and waterscapes with natural beauty, while also figuring out how to provide for free-flowing transport of innumerable vehicles, not to mention parking!

The concentric zone model (Burgess 1925) is perhaps the most famous example of human ecology. This model views a city as a series of concentric circular areas, expanding outward from the center of the city, with various “zones” invading adjacent zones (as new categories of people and businesses overrun the edges of nearby zones) and succeeding (then after invasion, the new inhabitants repurpose the areas they have invaded and push out the previous inhabitants). In this model, Zone A, in the heart of the city, is the center of the business and cultural district. Zone B, the concentric circle surrounding the city center, is composed of formerly wealthy homes split into cheap apartments for new immigrant populations; this zone also houses small manufacturers, pawn shops, and other marginal businesses. Zone C consists of the homes of the working class and established ethnic enclaves. Zone D holds wealthy homes, white-collar workers, and shopping centers. Zone E contains the estates of the upper class (in the exurbs) and the suburbs.

A model of the five zones is shown here.
Figure 20.12 This illustration depicts the zones that make up a city in the concentric zone model. (Credit: Zeimusu/Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast to the functionalist approach, theoretical models in the conflict perspective focus on the way urban areas change according to specific decisions made by political and economic leaders. These decisions generally benefit the middle and upper classes while exploiting the working and lower classes.

For example, sociologists Feagin and Parker (1990) suggested three factors by which political and economic leaders control urban growth. First, these leaders work alongside each other to influence urban growth and decline, determining where money flows and how land use is regulated. Second, exchange value and use value of land are balanced to favor the middle and upper classes so that, for example, public land in poor neighborhoods may be rezoned for use as industrial land. Finally, urban development is dependent on both structure (groups such as local government) and agency (individuals including businessmen and activists), and these groups engage in a push-pull dynamic that determines where and how land is actually used. For example, Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) movements are more likely to emerge in middle and upper-class neighborhoods as engaged citizens protest poor environmental practices they fear will affect them, so these groups have more control over the use of local land.


Section Summary

20.1 Demography and Population

Scholars understand demography through various analyses. Malthusian, zero population growth, cornucopian theory, and demographic transition theories all help sociologists study demography. The earth’s human population is growing quickly, especially in peripheral countries. Factors that impact population include birthrates, mortality rates, and migration, including immigration and emigration. There are numerous potential outcomes of the growing population, and sociological perspectives vary on the potential effect of these increased numbers. The growth will pressure the already taxed planet and its natural resources.

20.2 Urbanization

Cities provide numerous opportunities for their residents and offer significant benefits including access to goods to numerous job opportunities. At the same time, high population areas can lead to tensions between demographic groups, as well as environmental strain. While the population of urban dwellers is continuing to rise, sources of social strain are rising along with it. The ultimate challenge for today’s urbanites is finding an equitable way to share the city’s resources while reducing the pollution and energy use that negatively impacts the environment.


Additional Resources:

1] Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4092008/

2] Population, Migration, & Spatial Demography. https://viva.pressbooks.pub/humangeog/chapter/population-migration-spatial-demography/

3] Human Migration – https://www.britannica.com/print/article/275738

4] Geography of Language – https://viva.pressbooks.pub/humangeog/chapter/geography-of-language/

Geography of Language



Discussion / Reflection Activities

Discussion Prompt: Impressions of Immigration

Using a photo compilation application (like Pic Stitch or Pic Jointer, which are free apps to download), create a photo collage of a minimum of three pictures that represent things that shape your views of immigration.  These can be images that come to mind when you think of immigration or images that represent things that have helped form the way you consider immigration today. Upload your photo into a comment here, and then provide a three to four sentence description of the images you chose and why.


Discussion Prompt: Immigration Issues

You have read several articles discussing some of the challenges regarding immigration.  Hopefully you noticed in ‘Let Them In’ the significant wait times facing many groups who would like to immigrate to the U.S. legally, as well as some of the challenges presented by Jose’ Vargas in his story, ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant’.

Given all of this information, how do you think the U.S. sends mixed messages regarding the way we handle immigrants, and particularly students?  Describe one way you think immigration policy or practice could be improved and the biggest barriers to you see to implementing your recommendation.  Be sure to comment on your peers’ posts you think offer strong solutions.


Written Response: Reflection Paper Topic

Some activists have suggested that the languages of instruction should be in the dialect of students’ cultures. Others argue that Standard English should be the only acceptable language within the classroom. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? Do you think teachers should at least be familiar with the dialects used by students in the classroom? Why or why not? How do you plan to respond to different dialects in your classroom?


Discussion Prompt: Accents and Dialects

Review the language and dialects case study, and then respond to the following questions.  How does teacher evaluation based on language and pronunciation make you feel?  Is this something that should be evaluated in teachers?  How would you handle this situation?

External Readings & Resources

Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Chapter 2

While not unique to language and immigration issues, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, does speak to the role of education in offering freedom to those whose lack of education is a type of oppression. In this specific excerpt, Friere contrasts the banking-concept of education with problem-posing education as means of empowering all students in more effective learning environments.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York : Continuum, c2000.

‘What Should Teachers Do?’

Lisa Delpit asks the question, ‘What should teachers do?’ in the context of students speaking Ebonics in the classroom. She makes the case that there is a role for Ebonics and legitimizing the dialect, while simultaneously providing strategies for teachers working with students who speak in Ebonics but who need to learn standard English for testing and assessment requirements.

Vargas, J. (2011, June 22). My life as an undocumented immigrant. The New York Times.

Jose Vargas gives an honest account of his life story in this biographical piece about his undocumented entry into the United States as a child and subsequent challenges to remain and make a home in the face of discrimination and restrictive policies in the United States today.


Short Answer

20.1 Demography and Population


Given what we know about population growth, what do you think of China’s policy that limits the number of children a family can have? Do you agree with it? Why, or why not? What other ways might a country of over 1.3 billion people manage its population?


Describe the effect of immigration or emigration on your life or in a community you have seen. What are the positive effects? What are the negative effects?


What responsibility does the United States have toward underage asylum-seekers?

20.2 Urbanization


What are the differences between the suburbs and the exurbs, and who is most likely to live in each?


How will the growth in urban populations affect the world over the next ten years?


Considering the concentric zone model, what type of zone were you raised in? Is this the same or different as that of earlier generations in your family? What type of zone do you reside in now? Do you find that people from one zone stereotype those from another? If so, how?

20.3 The Environment and Society


After reading this section, will you change the way you treat your household waste? Explain.


How do you think the issue of e-waste should be dealt with? Should the responsibility fall to the companies that make the products or the consumer who buys them? Would your buying habits be different if you had to pay to recycle old electronics?


Can you think of a modern example of the tragedy of the commons, where public use without accountability has created a negative outcome?


NIMBY protests occur when concerned citizens band together to speak up against something that will impact them negatively. Is this a positive or negative trend? Give an example of a NIMBY protest and whether you support it or not.


Key Terms

sustainable development
development that occurs without depleting or damaging the natural environment
those whose claim to refugee status have not been validated
cancer cluster
a geographic area with high levels of cancer within its population
carrying capacity
the amount of people that can live in a given area considering the amount of available resources
climate change
long-term shifts in temperature and climate due to human activity
concentric zone model
a model of human ecology that views cities as a series of circular rings or zones
cornucopian theory
a theory that asserts human ingenuity will rise to the challenge of providing adequate resources for a growing population
demographic transition theory
a theory that describes four stages of population growth, following patterns that connect birth and death rates with stages of industrial development
the study of population
the disposal of broken, obsolete, and worn-out electronics
environmental racism
the burdening of economically and socially disadvantaged communities with a disproportionate share of environmental hazards
environmental sociology
the sociological subfield that addresses the relationship between humans and the environment
communities that arise farther out than the suburbs and are typically populated by residents of high socioeconomic status
fertility rate
a measure noting the actual number of children born
hydraulic fracturing, a method used to recover gas and oil from shale by drilling down into the earth and directing a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and proprietary chemicals into the rock
the entry of upper- and middle-class residents to city areas or communities that have been historically less affluent
human ecology
a functional perspective that looks at the relationship between people and their built and natural environment
internally displaced person
someone who fled his or her home while remaining inside the country’s borders
Malthusian theory
a theory asserting that population is controlled through positive checks (war, famine, disease) and preventive checks (measures to reduce fertility)
a large urban corridor that encompasses several cities and their surrounding suburbs and exurbs
the area that includes a city and its suburbs and exurbs
mortality rate
a measure of the number of people in a population who die
“Not In My Back Yard,” the tendency of people to protest poor environmental practices when those practices will affect them directly
the introduction of contaminants into an environment at levels that are damaging
population composition
a snapshot of the demographic profile of a population based on fertility, mortality, and migration rates
population pyramid
a graphic representation that depicts population distribution according to age and sex
an individual who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster
sex ratio
the ratio of men to women in a given population
the communities surrounding cities, typically close enough for a daily commute
urban sociology
the subfield of sociology that focuses on the study of urbanization
the study of the social, political, and economic relationships of cities
white flight
the migration of economically secure white people from racially mixed urban areas toward the suburbs
zero population growth
a theoretical goal in which the number of people entering a population through birth or immigration is equal to the number of people leaving it via death or emigration.

Further Research

20.1 Demography and Population

To learn more about population concerns, from the new-era ZPG advocates to the United Nations reports, check out the Population Connection web site.

Explore an interactive version of the population pyramid for each country, and to see updates and changes over time: at this website.

20.2 Urbanization

Interested in learning more about the latest research in the field of human ecology? Visit the Society for Human Ecology web site to discover what’s emerging in this field.

Getting from place to place in urban areas might be more complicated than you think. Read the latest on pedestrian-traffic concerns at the Streetsblog web site.



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