Metropolis and mental life

The Neurosocial City

by Des Fitzgerald & Nikolas Rose

What are sociologists and urbanists to make of the characteristic patterns of mental disorder that have been observed in cities since the nineteenth century? What are planners and policy-makers to make of them? Do such patterns emerge because those with degenerate constitutions migrate to certain parts of the city where they feel comfortable or where they might indulge their vices? Do they come from the stresses and strains of the urban itself – the hubbub, the noise, the enforced proximity to strangers, the unnatural and frenzied atmosphere? Are they embedded in family structures that cluster in urban areas – whether small, single parent families, large, conjoined families, or loose strings of isolated men and women, seemingly cut free of the traditional bonds of affiliation? Is it that those who live in certain parts of the city are simply poor, deprived, excluded, and made repeatedly subject to the ongoing violence of race and class? Or should we focus more on environmental factors such as housing density, exposure to fumes from vehicles – even the weather? And how, in the middle of all of this, should we think about the differences between psychiatric diagnoses?

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However critical one may be about current categories, diagnosed depression and anxiety have one pattern across city life, and diagnosed psychoses quite another; from diagnoses ranging from suicidality to eating disorders, we find repeated differences across urban geography (Jarvis 1852; Faris and Dunham 1939; Schroeder 1942; Pasamanick 1966; Giggs 1973; Torrey and Bowler 1990; Marcelis, et al. 1998; Kirkbride, et al. 2007; March, et al. 2008; Andrade, et al. 2012). It thus seems that whether we are talking about European capitals that interested scholars in the nineteenth century (London, Paris, Berlin), the post-industrial Euro-American heartlands that are the focus of much policy attention today (Coventry, Detroit), or emergent megacities in which renewed intensifications of capital and cosmopolitanism are now taking place (São Paulo, Shanghai, Mumbai, to name only a few of the more charismatic)– urban mental pathologies seem, inescapably, both neurobiological and social.

The question of the metropolis and mental life emerged at the very start of sociological and cultural analyses of ‘the city’. In this paper, we argue that insofar as a sociology of the city still considers such a question to be central, then it cannot proceed in isolation from research that is developing hypotheses and methodologies that may yet describe – even explain – some of the ways in which human biology and neurobiology are shaped, modulated and impacted by different dimensions of urban existence. We will be frank here: our hope is for a sociology that has an impact – even a measurable impact – on the problems and potentials of urban existence. For present purposes, we will set aside the fraught debate around this term; of course there are many ways in which the social and cultural sciences may have impact, and doubtless many will read what follows as a wilful narrowing of sociology’s urban imaginary, founded on a naïve belief in empirical research on the benign and malign characteristics that flow through the biological sequelae of urbanicity. We do not dismiss this objection. But it also seems to us that we need to recognise that the classic themes of urban sociology – multiplicity and difference, the coexistence of crowds and isolation, concentrations of racism and political violence, the spatialisation of segregation and stratification, the intersections of conviviality and resilience in the heart of towns and cities, the effects of neighbourhood characteristics, the political economy of urbanization as a process– are lived in bodies and brains too. And if they are inscribed in the corporeality of those who inhabit these spaces and relations, then it is time to expand our understanding of what an urban sociology might be – and what it could do. The classical sociologists of urban existence explicitly or tacitly drew upon the conceptions of the human being of their own times: how can a serious contemporary sociological imagination of the city proceed otherwise? How, in other words, can sociologists not engage with knowledge that their colleagues from the life sciences and biomedicine are generating about the ways in which urban experiences, exposures and insults might be traced in the very molecular make up of bodies and brains?

Of course, today, we have many sociologies of ‘the body.’ But most, albeit not all, proceed without much reference to the ways in which human and (other) animal corporeality is actually conceptualised, analysed, and treated in the life sciences and biomedicine. There are many reasons, some of them good, for the distance that developed in the second half of twentieth century between the two major branches of the sciences of the living – the social sciences and the life sciences. This is not the place to analyse those reasons in any detail (see Fitzgerald, et al. 2015 for more on this). But beyond the basic hermeneutics of suspicion that suffuses the social sciences when confronted with biological accounts of human social life, there are valid concerns about reductionism, determinism, individualism, depoliticisation, and much more: critical interrogation, both of scientific truth claims within the life sciences, and of their political mobilisation, remains crucial. Nonetheless, important developments across those sciences (from environmental epigenetics to neuroplasticity) are creating new possibilities for relations with the social sciences: at least some life scientists increasingly think in terms of the inseparability of organism and milieu, as well as the multiple transactions and interpenetrations that constitute the physical and mental characteristics (normal and pathological) of organisms (including humans) across their life course. Our claim, then, is that it is possible to imagine a sociology of the city that is deeply entangled in biological arguments – a sociology of living human beings, in urban space, that proceeds in deep collaboration with the life sciences, and which not only leaves critical languages intact, but in fact offers radical new possibilities for critical sociology.

Writing in 1925, Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, provocatively argued that ‘the city is not merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it’ (Park and Burgess [1925] 1984: 1). This proposal, washed away in the determined anti-positivism of subsequent decades and little lamented since, was Park and Burgess’s way of rendering sociological and empirical a question that had concerned intellectuals since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, viz. what was the impact, for mental life, of living in the metropolis? For those who wrote in this early period, from Charles Baudelaire to Georg Simmel, from Walter Benjamin to WEB Du Bois, the city was lived as much in the mind as on the streets. It would be too much to say that this attention to the mentalities of urban dwellers in different milieux has been entirely lost from urban studies – not only in urban epidemiology, but also in urban ethnography, a subtle attention to the mental life of the city is still visible. But a conceptual and empirical gulf has opened between those whose metier is to describe such distributions at various levels of abstraction, and those who address their consequences in the bodies and souls of those who live them. Among the many invidious outcome of this gulf is that while we sometimes seem inundated with psychiatric investigations of the pathologies of the urban, we still have few scientific studies – whether from the biological or social sciences – of the protective, even enhancing, dimensions of modes of urban existence.

This situation is changing. Riding roughshod over a great deal of complexity and difference, we can say that conceptual developments in the life sciences – driven in part by empirical findings – have shifted understandings of organisms from enclosed systems bounded by their membranes of cell, organ and skin, to open, permeable beings, developing and transforming over time, in constant transaction with their milieu, at scales ranging from gene, to molecule, to connectome, to organ, to the whole organism and its behaviour. There are some within the social and cultural sciences who have recognized the potential of these developments for recasting the relations between the social and the biological sciences, notably in their reception of epigenetics and of recent developments in neuroscience (Malabou 2008; Meloni 2014; Papadopoulos 2011). And yet there is reason to be cautious. If the epigenome shows the marks of environmental exposure from conception, if not before, this does not mean that all previous genetic arguments about the role of inherited DNA are wrong, or that the genome is infinitely plastic. Indeed, those who research epigenetics either experimentally at the molecular level, or at the level of life course studies, are usually quite modest and careful in their claims (Bird 2007; see Landecker and Panofsky 2013 for a nuanced sociological review). We remain wary of arguments that could yet wrench selected findings from their experimental context, using them to support claims in the social and cultural sciences, without due attention to the problems of evidence and analysis.[1]

Our work on the neurosocial city is certainly liked to these developments in the social sciences, but with some significant differences in orientation. First, as we have argued elsewhere, we suggest that such a breaking down of the boundaries between the social and the life sciences will have transformative consequences for each – that we need both a ‘new biology’ and a ‘new sociology’ for our now not-so-new century (Fitzgerald et al. 2015). The relationship we seek is neither one of breathless enthusiasm for the new developments in the life sciences, nor one of ‘hit and run,’ where a few concepts or findings are pulled out of their epistemological and methodological contexts and used to support pre-existing commitments. The relationship with the life sciences that we seek is one that we have termed ‘critical friendship’ – which, to be optimistic, we hope will not just have an impact on the social and human sciences, but may also inform interventions in contemporary biology itself. Second, we want to move beyond broad gestures towards the ‘biosocial,’ and to start formulating specific hypotheses about particular problems. We have chosen the ailments of urban existence – life in ‘the neurosocial city’ – as one of those sites. By this term, we mean to focus on the multiple ways in which urban existence interpenetrates the mental and neural life of urban inhabitants. Perhaps, as Georg Simmel taught us, this relationship develops through a certain demeanour and way of relating to the world, certain ways of managing one’s relations with strangers and friends in crowds and on the street (Simmel [1903] 2002). Perhaps, following Kevin Lynch and Stanley Milgram, it emerges though socially-inflected cognitive maps of the city (Lynch 1960; Milgram 197). Maybe, as Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg proposes, it comes from certain patterns of neurobiological stress processing (Lederbogen, et al. 2011). The critical thing that we can draw from all these approaches is the ability to formulate hypotheses about how specific, variable urban milieux get inscribed neurally, and how, in its turn, the city gets mapped, experienced, negotiated, and lived, as much in the brain as on the street.

Milieu and Environment

This new relationship between the social and biological sciences is made possible by a renewed attentiveness, in some areas of the life sciences, to the active biological role of ‘the environment.’ But what do these researchers mean when they refer to ‘environment’? Of course, we have already generalised far too much in speaking of ‘the life sciences’ – no such generality exists. Even within one area, such as environmental epigenetics or computational neuroscience, we find many different approaches, and a diversity of epistemological cultures and styles, with their own professional associations, meetings and conferences, journals and so forth, often with limited interaction or inter-citation. Thus, we must go beyond generalized claims that a reconceptualization of ‘the environment’ might hold ‘the biological’ and ‘the social’ together, and instead try to explore these imbrications more specifically, through some recent neurobiological and genetic work on urban mental pathologies. We will take briefly four examples from this literature: gene-environment interactions; epigenetics; neuroplasticity and neurogenesis; and stress processing.

In their much publicised (and much criticised) research on the Dunedin Health and Development Study – which has followed the lives of 1037 babies born between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, since their birth – Avshalom Caspi and Terri Moffitt begin by recognising that, while we know that environmental adversity is linked to mental disorder, we don’t know why, or how, adversity impacts on some people, or some kinds of people, more than others (see e.g. Caspi et al. 2002; Caspi and Moffitt 2006). ‘The gene–environment interaction approach,’ they point out, ‘has grown out of two observations…

first, that mental disorders have environmental causes; second, that people show heterogeneity in their response to those causes … [collaboration on these interactions] can solve the biggest mystery of human psychopathology: how does an environmental factor, external to the person, get inside the nervous system and alter its elements to generate the symptoms of a disordered mind? (Caspi and Moffitt 2006: 583).

Caspi and Moffitt’s work came to public notice as a result of papers published in 2002 and 2003, in which they argued that whether or not childhood maltreatment led to later anti-social behaviour, or stressful life events led to later depression, depended on whether individuals carried particular genetic variants affecting the neurotransmitter system – in this case, the activity level of the neurotransmitter serotonin, or of the enzyme monoamine A (MAOA), which metabolizes a number of neurotransmitters (Caspi et al. 2002; Caspi et al. 2003). In the 2002 paper, maltreatment was classified, according to unspecified criteria, into ‘severe,’ ‘probable’ and ‘no’ maltreatment, and the numbers of such events were correlated with the level of MAOA activity – they claimed that ‘maltreated children with a genotype conferring high levels of MAOA expression were less likely to develop antisocial problems’ (Caspi et al. 2002: 851). In the 2003 paper, researchers counted the number of stressful life events, taken from a group of 14 possibilities – including employment, financial, housing, health, and relationship stressors – and plotted these against depression outcomes associated with the 5-HTT genotype (Caspi et al. 2003: 387). But what we find striking is that the key thing, in each case, was the number of these events as such, not the specificities of different kinds of events. As scientifically rich and imaginative as these papers are, one gets little sense of what is actually going on within the social lives of these children and their families – nor any sense of the complex assemblages of familial, historical, political and economic circumstances that have shaped the way in which phenomena like ‘maltreatment,’ or ‘stress,’ come to matter.

It is certainly true that, for many neuroscientists, the ‘envirome’ is thought in terms of the translation of the stresses of social life into a quantified variable, which can then enter a calculation of statistical association. But, of course, such an approach, virtuous as its intentions may be, is much too thin for most social scientists. Hence the wider interest in an environmental epigenetics. Epigenetic research also focuses on the interactions of genes and environment, but attends to the processes though which genetic sequences are activated or deactivated at different times in an individual’s life (through biological processes, such as methylation, that need not detain us here). Many epigenetic process are under the control of environmental inputs: what is of concern for such epigenetic analysis is not simply a number of black-boxed events, but the incorporation of an experience of some feature or aspect of social life.

Consider the work of Sandro Galea and his group, who have studied the prevalence and distribution of diagnosed psychiatric disorder in Detroit (Galea et al. 2011a; Galea et al. 2011b; Goldmann et al. 2011). Galea and colleagues point out that if ‘epidemiologic research has documented that associations between particular features of the urban environment, such as concentrated disadvantage, residential segregation and social norms, contribute to the risk of mental illness,’ then ‘the epidemiologic data provides evidence for the effect of macro-social features of the urban environment on mental illness over and above the effect of individual-level adversity’ (Galea et al. 2011b: 402). But rather than simply enumerating such features, they ask: ‘how does exposure to social environmental stressors, such as concentrated disadvantage, experienced by all individuals living in that particular urban environment, manifest as individual-level psychopathology?’ (ibid., our emphasis). Associating experiences of assault with criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD and depression. Galea and his colleagues have shown, for example, some of the ways in which ‘cumulative traumatic burden may leave a molecular footprint in those with [PTSD]’ (ibid; see also Fitzgerald et al., 2015, on which our discussion here partly draws).

Of course, such ‘trauma’ is not the only environmental exposure linked to epigenetic change (see, for example, the widely-cited studies of Michael Meaney and his group on the epigenetic effects of the relationship between a rodent mother and her pup [Weaver et al. 2004]). The key here is plasticity, or the malleability of the animal (including human) brain to environmental exposures via the modulation of gene expression. References to brain plasticity or neuroplasticity are plentiful these days: from the long recognised changes in synaptic connectivity, which are thought to be the basis of learning, through the increasing evidence of significant changes and reorganizations of brain structure and function, not just in early development but also at puberty, to evidence of brain repair and ‘rewiring’ after stroke or injury, the brain is now construed as an organ exquisitely shaped across the life course by its engagement with its milieu – by which is meant both its engagement with the bodily processes that surround it, and the sensory and other inputs from the world outside (Bach-y-Rita 1967; Merzenich et al. 1988). Elizabeth Gould’s elegant research has led to the discovery that, counter to the prevailing dogma, new neurons could be created in the adult mammalian brain, and that such neurogenesis might be stimulated by certain kinds of inputs, as well as inhibited by others (Gould et al. 1999; Mirescu et al. 2004; Stranahan et al. 2006). This soon led to extrapolation to human affairs, including, in the work of Gould and her colleagues, and interest in the relationship between parenting, brain development, and later capacities for mood regulation (Leuner et al. 2010). Thus, from this perspective, if stimulation has a beneficial effect on brain development, the lack of stimulation, or the wrong kind of stimulation, can potentially be pathogenic. Here, again, we might be concerned by a form of reduction – not to a process of counting events this time, but to one very potent and (in the psychological literature) time-honoured ‘factor’ – the quality of the relationship between parent and child. We have already seen such ideas have consequences for social policy proposals in the UK (Wastell and White 2012).

Let us take this research more directly into the city. In a much cited paper published in Nature in 2011, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and his group reported the results of three experiments that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity when participants brought up in cities, or currently living in cities, were subjected to stress (Lederbogen et al. 2011; again, see Fitzgerald et al, 2015, for a longer discussion). Dividing their research participants into those who had or had not grown up in, or did or did not then currently live in, a conurbation with a population greater than 10,000, the researchers were able to show that the urban group experienced elevated responses in specific brain regions when exposed to stressful stimuli. This, they suggested, demonstrated a neurobiological mechanism through which urban environments get encoded in brains. And stress (‘pollution, toxins, crowding, noise, or [other] demographic factors’) was the mechanism that translated the outside into the inside, with social-stress-processing as the environmental risk that links city life to mental ill-health (Lederbogen et al. 2011: 500). The authors concluded:

A new generation of field studies is warranted that combine the acquisition of neuroimaging and biomarker data with experience-based assessment, mobile neuropsychological testing and tracking of subjects in spatially and socially well-defined real-life contexts… a new translational research agenda in social neuropsychiatry that combines molecular genetics, epidemiology, social psychology and neuroscience (Lederbogen, et al. 2011).

Whatever the merits (and they are many) of epidemiology and social psychology, it is striking that sociology, anthropology, and urban studies more generally, are absent from the list of contributors to these new field studies.

We have probably said more than enough, at least for this short position paper, to have made the point: new ways of attending to the relations between the environment and neurobiology, with particular focus on ‘the city,’ should provoke social science intervention in these spaces. But how are those from the social sciences to characterise that environment? We have been speaking freely here of towns, villages, cities, and megacities – but of course these terms only loosely designate forms of human collective habitation, and certainly do not individuate homogeneous ‘environments,’ however we might think of that term. More importantly, in the studies we have been referring to, the city is almost always experimentally encoded through measures of very particular kinds of factors – density, type of dwelling, household income, poverty, ethnic diversity, index of deprivation, family type, employment status, crime rate, migration status, levels of alcohol and drug use, social mobility, social cohesion and so on – with those factors indexed in metabolic pathways that lead to good and bad mental health (see e.g. Kirkbride et al. 2008). How might we intervene, here, without descending into banalities about the complexity of ‘the urban’? More specifically: how could a sociological imagination be mobilized around these potent, compelling questions, and the carefully coded environmental factors that they rest upon, in a way that does not simply berate those accounts as reductive or simplistic – but actually helps to weave some extra layers of urban experience through the pathologies, and the pathways, and the problems, that these investigators are, in fact, working very hard to understand?

One approach might be to think in terms of an ecology of risk, as Kevin Fitzpatrick and Mark LaGory did some years ago, in arguing for more attention to the relations between place and health in urban sociology (Fitzpatrick and LaGory 2002). They suggested the need to chart hazard and risk across social space – including not only chemical and bacterial qualities of the environment, but also psychological and social risks. For Fitzpatrick and LaGory, some places

are decidedly more stressful, with too much noise, too many people, or other sources that may produce a stimuli overload. Other places expose individuals to strangers where interactions are less secure and predictable, or to situations where hostile, aggressive interactions are possible (Fitzpatrick and LaGory 2003: 36)

All of these are concentrated among populations who, because of weaknesses in what Fitzpatrick and LaGory call ‘the topography of protection’ (not just poverty but also such factors as weak social networks, limited feelings of personal responsibility for neighbors, low levels of surveillance, and limited participation in the institutional network of the community) are least able to cope with them (Fitzpatrick and LaGory 2003: 37).

Or are we still in danger here of merely proliferating and enumerating endless factors of small effect without any real sense of how they translate into the experience of living in all these different places we call cities? Some years ago, Ricardo Araya and colleagues examined the proposition that residential environment can affect mental health (Skapinakis et al. 2005). But in their study in south Wales, examining 28 environmental characteristics that included property vandalism, stray dogs, presence of hedges and fences, garden and property maintenance, presence of recreational space, the predominant outlook (green space or buildings), and density of housing, they found no evidence that contextual measures of residential environmental quality and geographical accessibility were associated with symptoms of common mental disorder; in fact, mental disorders were clustered in households rather than associated with such environmental variables (ibid.). However, similar research in Santiago, Chile, did find an association between mental disorder and the quality of the built environment – with the researchers suggesting that such effects may be more marked in non-Western settings where there is more homogeneity in households in small geographical sectors (Araya et al. 2007). Complexity abounds; simplicity is hard to find. Stephani Hatch and her colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, have insisted on the complex interaction of individual, group and social factors in accounting for the variations in, for example, the risk of psychosis, and the difficulty of untangling the effects of early risk exposure from those of proximate risk at the time of the research: the point, for these researchers, is to understand how social processes at various levels of organization create the conditions in a given place that shape individual-level exposures, whether physical or social (e.g. March et al. 2008: 97). We are much in agreement such a perspective – and yet we cannot help recall previous attempts to go beyond attention to simple social factors and map this complexity – and which foundered precisely on that complexity (Cantor and Ramsden 2014).

An Urban Vitalism

What if we were to conceptualize the urban environment differently? What if we took this environment not as an objective given, nor as a subjective experience, nor as an irreducible conjuncture of politics and history, but as something actively created, and re-created, in the transactional dynamics of an emplaced, living organism? As George Canguilhem reminds us in his reflections on Kurt Goldstein, a living organism extracted from the place where its living occurs is – or should be – biologically inconceivable (Canguilhem [1965] 2008). Canguilhem and Goldstein share what one might term a minimal vitalism – a constant insistence that when it comes to living organisms, one has to attend not to their individual constituent parts, whose properties can be isolated and studied in the artificial environment of the laboratory, but to the active dynamic temporal relation between the whole living organism and its milieu. This insistence on the need, perhaps even the obligation, to go beyond an account of ‘individual parts,’ should be taken, not only as a stricture against reading too much into measures of brain activation purified through laboratory techniques, but also as a demand to go beyond simplicities vis-à-vis the interactions ‘between’ enclosed, bounded and delimited organisms and their given external environment. Living organisms, from this perspective, are not machines, whose operations are exhausted by the mechanical properties of their components, but must be understood as complex vital wholes with emergent properties, inseparable from their milieu, which, in turn, they actively shape and reshape as they live: to account for the properties of the living, one needs to recognize their liveliness. As Canguilhem writes, it is characteristic of the living that it makes its milieu for itself, that it composes its milieu: to speak of interaction does not account for the difference between a relation of the physical type and a relation of the biological type. There is thus no ‘environment’ as Jacob von Uexküll has pointed out – each organism inhabits its own perceptual and sensory universe, and the individuality of the living does not stop at its ectodermic borders any more than it begins at the cell (von Uexküll [1934] 2010). Canguilhem describes this well:

The Umwelt of the animal is nothing other than a milieu centered in relation to that subject of vital values in which the living essentially consists. We must see at the root of this organization of the animal Umwelt a subjectivity analogous to the one we are bound to see at the root of the human Umwelt… The relation between the living and the milieu establishes itself as a debate (Auseinandersetzung), to which the living brings its own proper norms of appreciating situations, both dominating the milieu and accommodating itself to it (Canguilhem [1965] 2008: 112)

Such a vitalism is hardly fashionable today – and yet it reminds us how a ‘neurosociality’ forces a confrontation with conventional sociological ontologies (including the increasing conventionalism of the current ‘turn to ontology’ itself).

Lately, many urbanists, inspired by the works of Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, among others, have turned to theories of assemblage, in order to draw attention to what they take to be ‘the constitutive human-nonhuman multiplicity of relations’ that make up the city (McFarlane 2011: 651). Such works insist, beyond the territorial spectacle of global world-city-networks, on the ongoing, generative sets of relations that actively produce urban emergence. As Colin McFarlane points out, what is at stake in such a notion is less an endless swirling muddle of hybrids, and more a way of attending, ‘[a]t particular moments and for certain durations,’ to specific ‘processes of gathering, dispersion, and change’ – through which different ‘urban alignments’ come in and out of shape (McFarlane 2011: 654). While, as Jane W. Jacobs reminds us, different relational geographies proceed, through the same terminology, quite at odds with one another, we are interested here in the city as an ‘ontology of movement…as something emergent,’ that ‘collapses the separation of humans and objects” (Jacobs 2012: 415–416). Dan Swanton, for example, has drawn on such perspectives to show how localized assemblages of flesh, metal, and road help us to understand how race can get done in a post-industrial English mill-town. Race emerges from Swanton’s ethnography as ‘a particular conjunction of material and immaterial elements in an encounter as swirling affects, memories, and images stick to particular assemblages of skin, car, and road’ (Swanton 2010: 448). Following the work of Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Swanton proposes that roads be understood through an ‘ontology of encounter’ – holding together a ‘radically open, endlessly novel and weightless’ sense of urban encounter, with the ‘the burden of memory, routine, and repetition’ that actually takes place on the ground (2010: 451). Tracing stories of racial encounter on the road moves Swanton beyond a discursive attention to racial formation, and allows him to attend to the emergent materialities through which race happens (2010: 461). But it also allows him to do so in alliance with a careful, empirical attention, to a specific problem, in a defined place

Our own work is affiliated with a different genealogy, even if there are affinities between our interest in the relationship between the organism and her environment and these broader attentions to relationality in the urban geography literature. But is not such recent turns to ‘assemblage’ that motivate us; rather it is a much older, rather less fashionable, concern with the psychic life of the urban subject. Our focus is on what many urban theorists may consider a very naïve matter, viz. what happens when that life enters a state that we might understand as ‘pathological.’ In a compelling short essay, Paul Harrison asks if we cannot still retain a ‘minimal humanism’ within the turn to assemblage (2011: 159). Or, in the least reactionary way possible, Harrison asks if we cannot still grasp some reminder of ‘the distinctly corporeal life that remains, that under-goes, that lives on, that survives, after all allies and activities, all worlds, have ebbed and fallen away’ – and that yet calls for justice (Harrison 2011: 160). If we ignore neither the tick nor the dog – von Uexküll’s examples – nor the car, as Dan Swanton suggests, we, too, are still trying to understand something about the human, both as a species, and as an individual within that species, each of us inhabiting, not an ‘objective’ space, but our own cognitive map of place and space, freighted with affects and memories, with its risks and hazards, its threats and lures, its familiarities and alien places, its locales of sanctity, solidarity, support, and much more. If there is an analogue to this notion in the theoretical literature, it is perhaps less in theories of assemblage, and much more in a recent attention to the ways in which organisms exist in different kinds of atmospheric suspension, not least in cities, in which the outside is always also inside, in which those things that are both good and bad for life, things that circulate and flow in and around urban existence, also infuse and saturate the vital interior. This is a form of thought that, as Timothy Choy and Jerry Zee put it:

looks up and around, at plumes, clouds, and sky. It looks inward through the vital interiors that render bodies channels, containers, and filters for airs and the things they hold. More significant than the directionality of its gaze, however, is its manner of atonement to the potentials of substances to shift from states of settlement or condensation to ones of airborne agitation, to settle again in time, or to activate a reaction, somewhere else (Choy and Zee 2015).

Let us turn to a final notion implicit in our minimal vitalism, and this is the role of the habitual in constituting a living and changing environment. Tony Bennett has begun this work, pointing to the potentially crucial role of habit – or the impossibility of forming habits – in managing the stresses and encounters of urban existence.[2] In particular, Bennett points to the possibility of convergence between the neural and the social literature on habit. There is a long-standing neuroscientific literature on habit formation, the building of neural pathways that transform conscious action and decision into a multitude of non-conscious capacities and aptitudes in the course of changing body-environment relations. Indeed humans would simply not be able to function in any environment, let alone an urban one, in the absence of such habitual ways of going forward. And we can go back to Simmel to find accounts that highlight the way that urban existence challenges ‘the steady rhythm of uninterrupted habituations’ and requires the formation of new habits to preserve the metropolitan citizen from the assaults of the city on the nerves. On this basis, Bennett suggests that the perspective of habit

might produce useful routes into the relations between stress, urban experience, mental health and the brain [focusing] on cities as sites for the interactions between a range of technological systems and infrastructures which operate in the relations between domestic and public life, between suburbs and city centres, between places of work and of entertainment, in ways that place mechanisms of habit formation and re-formation at the centre of the bodily and mental lives of individuals and groups (Bennett 2015).

To live in the city, then, perhaps requires one to establish a kind of habitual ‘second nature’ of dispositions and repetitions, which, once established, frees the urban citizen to pursue other more creative endeavours. But for those unable to establish such a second nature, constantly buffeted and battered by the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the constantly feared and dreaded – perhaps it is for them that the ‘stress’ of the city is most pathogenic.

New stresses; new scales

We started this research from a problem: the patterns of prevalence of mental disorders across urban space. But of course we – like so many others – are brought to ask whether the urban is merely an ideological figure. Is there any meaning to the notion of the urban, or any generalities about urbanicity that link the ‘experience’ of different territories or neighbourhoods in London, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Sao Paolo – to say nothing of their less charismatic satellites? Rather than being paralysed by this uncertainty, we suggest that incidences of psychiatric diagnoses – even as we do not take these as unproblematic – open pathways for exploration, for asking questions about particular places, and for operationalizing potentially answerable questions. The question then is: what methods might help us negotiate these complexities? Can we go beyond untangling multiple variables of small effect? Can we link those variables in some ways with what contemporary developments in neurobiology are suggesting to us? Can we trace this neurobiology, and these variables, through a more nuanced sociology of urban encounter? Could we begin to integrate by attending much carefully to the variable capacities of living organisms to reshape their milieu, to inhabit different modalities of density in urban space – corporeal, affective, intentional – and thus to incorporate that milieu neurobiologically, in memories, affects, and mental maps, negotiated by dispositions that are often as much habitual as they are conscious, but that sometimes respond in pathogenic ways to disruption and external constraint?

And how shall we research the question that is impossible to avoid when thinking of the city – that of stress? (Abbott 2012). As the inventor of stress theory, Hans Selye, famously said, everyone knows what stress is and no one knows what stress is (quoted in Jackson 2013: 268). In spite (or perhaps because) of this, stress appears to many to be the ideal mechanism for translating the outside into the inside – via physiological effects on the neural system, the sensory apparatus, the immune system and much more. For Selye, stress was a disruption of the natural homeostatic process of the organism: both too much stress and too little may be pathogenic in Selye’s view. For Blair Wheaton and colleagues, more recently, stress represents ‘conditions of threat, demands, or structural constraints that, by the very fact or their occurrence or existence, call into question the operating integrity of the organism’ (Wheaton et al. 2013).[3] But is stress an environmental fact, a reaction of an organism to objective characteristics of the environment, or a relation of organism and milieu? Is it stress itself that is important, or is it the means through which humans cope with stress: irritability and anger, drink, drugs, food, lack of sleep? Is stress in the present what is important, or is it stress in ‘critical periods’ of development, shaping ‘stress processing’ later in life? Can some live well (even excel) under high stress? Can some be ‘resilient,’ while others, for psychological or other reasons, experience high stress as invariably pathological? Is my stress the same as your stress, when my peaceful solitude may be your stressful isolation – my frenetic hubbub your calming conviviality? And are there different pathogenic consequences of each of these ‘events’, which are lumped together as stress?[4]

Perhaps we need to bracket the stress-concept altogether: research by Craig Morgan and his colleagues suggests that stress is far too general a term, at least when it comes to teasing out the effects of urbanicity on the risk of serious mental disorder – ‘psychosis risk.’ Rather, they suggest, one needs to focus on exposure to environments and experiences characterised by multiple, persistent, and severe threats and hostilities (Morgan and Kleinman 2010).[5] But this raises further questions: is stress the objective experience of trauma and violence, the subjective expectation of those states, the ineradicable memory of them, or the inability to so modify one’s milieu so as to be able to escape them? Should we talk of stress or of ‘stressors’? As Kwame McKenzie has pointed out, if we are encumbered with a concept that is both objective and subjective, is both individual and supra-individual, that works on each part of the relationship but also on the relationship itself, works in the here and now and across time, it is perhaps a concept that has reached its limits of usability.[6]

What if we stopped worrying about the stress of street-life in general, and learned to become more attentive to the specificities of the street itself? We are reminded, here, of the ‘ordinary street’ ethnography practiced by Suzi Hall – focusing, for example, on Rye Lane, in London’s Peckham, an intensely active retail strip appropriated by successive waves of immigrants, and shared with established residents.[7] If the question is one of the specificity of the relations of organism with milieu in the city, is it not the street where much of this relating takes place? ‘The street,’ we are reminded,

is emblematic of the ordinary city, a common urban currency that transmits direct forms of exchange and expression. As a space constituted by ‘ordinary’ citizens, it has a volatile and a convivial capacity: a register for explosive protests as well as quieter, sustained transformations.[8]

Life on the street is not just life in space; it is inescapably life lived in time. In his study of ‘Mediating Time’ in turn-of-the-century urban China, Zhang Zhen argues that a temporal anxiety permeates projects of modernization and globalization:

The June 1994 issue of the mainstream and semiofficial woman’s magazine, Chinese Woman, carried an interview article entitled “Chinese Modernization Needs a Sociology of Time.”… The time-honored capitalist motto “time is money” opens the article. The professor interviewed stresses that modern time has to be partitioned to minutes and seconds, and that this partitioning must replace the more cyclic and backward-looking time of agrarian society. He calls for a twenty-first-century time consciousness, one that is by definition futuristic or “pressing” and “imminent.” He relates that Chinese visitors to Japan and the United States are shocked by the walking speed of the pedestrians: “Even the young American women in high heels walk faster than Chinese young men”  (Zhen 2000: 99-100).

How, with a particular attention to the mental life of the city, we might begin to inventively grasp such aspects of the atmospheres, spaces, temporalities and milieu of the urban? Could we make use of our access to mobile devices and (big) data? We have, after all, multiple new tracking devices and applications to measure (at least in some way) our corporeal and mental states in real time. Could we imagine a programme of research that used mobile devices to monitor stress and other mental health-related psychological and neural conditions, in different urban environments, across space and time? (See for example Berson, 2014, on his ‘cartographies of rest’). Might such devices help us to measure exposure to the city more generally? Might these new technologies allow us to take the studies of earlier eras to another stage? Could we use them to track mobilities across urban space and link these to more precise specifiers of urban stress? Could one do mobile ethnographies at scale using these technologies? As work on the city sensorium reminds us (Rhys-Taylor 2013), sense-making devices, and their entanglement in sensory organs, are not only means of ‘tracking’ the neurosocial – they may well be transforming it. We recall the moral panic of 1980s, about how youths inhabited the streets with their ears attuned, not to the noise and bustle of the city, but to their Walkman. But who today turns a glance to the apparently subjectless chatter of the city dweller on their phone, the tube traveller using Candy Crush to navigate the downsides of ‘being in the present’ on a crowded train, or the countless tourists, whose experience of the city is intensely mediated by Google Maps, City Mapper, and other (no doubt soon to be outmoded) applications? Simmel famously spoke of the ‘blasé’ attitude required of the urban dweller: there remains a task of understanding how such devices intersect with the urban sensorium, even as, in the same turn, they may much better help us to understand, measure, and torque the sensory life of the city.

And what, finally, of urban pathogens themselves? In a rather different ‘big data’ project conducted by Christopher Mason and his team at Weill Cornell Medical College, researchers ‘gathered DNA from turnstiles, ticket kiosks, railings and benches in a transit system shared by 5.5 million riders every day’ (Hotz, 2015; see also Afshinnekoo et al. 2015).[9] They sequenced the genetic material they found at the subway’s 466 open stations—more than 10 billion fragments of biochemical code—and sorted it by supercomputer. They compared the results to genetic databases of known bacteria, viruses and other life-forms, to identify these all-but-invisible fellow travellers, making their own, quiet networks across urban infrastructures. What became clear, through this effort, was how commuters seed the city subways every day with bacteria from the food they eat, the pets or plants they keep, as well as their shoes, rubbish, sneezes and unwashed hands – and how, in turn, bacteria are able to mobilize the intense forms of human sociality that sometime make up urban life. As a journalist reporting on the study pointed out: ‘city living leaves its mark on people’ (Hotz 2015). That includes the sorts of microbes that collect inside them: ‘a city is like an organism,’ an IBM-employed computational biologist told the reporter – ‘it has a circulating system consisting of the movement of people’ (ibid.). The resonance between this proposal, at the cutting edge of urban data-science, and the image of the city that animated the very first sociological forays into such questions is, of course, striking. Perhaps such a move – ‘forward to the past’ – risks making us jaded. What does it mean, after all, to realise that the data-scientists of our day are learning more-or-less the same lessons that Robert Park and Ernest Burgess proposed, almost a century ago now? But perhaps, too, the temporal ripple of this referent reminds us that there was something worth hanging onto in those early ideas, ideas that have since been all-but-forgotten within the sociology of the city. This is the ‘position’ – necessarily tentative, living somewhat in hope, certainly not free of anxiety – that we want to propose in this paper.


The project that led to this paper was not, in fact, inaugurated with a concern for ‘the city,’ but rather came from a commitment to re-open the dialogue between the social, human or cultural sciences, and the life sciences – with an argument that a new relation was both possible and desirable if we were to grasp the consequences of the exposures that come with the inhabitation of different forms of human life. With our colleague, Ilina Singh, we saw this as a re-opening however, because the fracture between these different sciences of the living was relatively recent – emerging, most powerfully, in reflections on the dispiriting role played by biological rationales in understanding and governing human life, from the racial science of the eighteenth century, to twentieth-century eugenics, to contemporary biological explanations of inequality and poverty. But rather than resume this dialogue through yet another layer of commentary, the investigators on this project wanted to explore these issues through a specific empirical project – one that took up the broken threads of some lively, vital intellectual reflections on the consequences of rapidly-changing forms of urban life, characteristic of much social thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was an additional desire to link these with another broken thread in the sciences of life – the completely empirical, non-metaphysical, holism and neo-vitalism of such figures as Jacob von Uexküll, Kurt Goldstein and Georges Canguilhem, to see if it was possible to develop something like a vitalist sociology of our present; this would a conceptual sociology to be sure, but one that might take up the challenge of empirical analysis and indeed of policy development – a sociology that might have some measurable traction on the manifold problems that afflict so many of us today.

With so many commentators pointing to the fact that over half of the world’s population now lives in ‘urban’ areas, and that this proportion will increase dramatically over the next decades, to over six billion by 2045, with much of the growth in Africa, India and China,[10] it seemed to us that the question of mental life and mental pathology in urban settings might be a key experimental site to think through our claims. We were struck by the fact that even the most thoughtful contemporary urban theorists pay scant attention to such issues. We think here, for example, of the recent call from Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid for a ‘radical rethinking of inherited epistemological assumptions regarding the urban and urbanization’ (2015: 151). While we are all in favour of such a re-thinking, it strikes us that focusing on how the terrain of the urban has been impacted by the processes of ‘neoliberalized, market-oriented transnational rule,’ while pointing out, for example, the obvious fact that ‘urbanization mediates and transforms everyday life… [while] urban space is defined by the people who use, appropriate and transform it through their daily routines and practices,’ gives us few clues as to how one go might exploring, or intervening in, such issues – without even mentioning the consequences of new forms of life in the city for the mental lives of those who inhabit them (ibid.: 153.171). It may well be true, as Brenner and Schmid suggest, that the urban is a theoretical category rather than an empirical object (ibid.: 163); and yet it strikes us that this is a fact of small interest to those who actually migrate to, and live in, milieux to which they nonetheless give the name of a city. Consider, for example, the millions of individuals from rural China who, over the past decade, have moved to the habitat they call Shanghai – many living in that forest of tower blocks that fills the space between the Huangpu river and the international airport. According to the 2010 Census, this area has a population of 5,044,430 inhabitants, and has grown by almost 60% –around 2 million people – since 2000, mostly from those who have migrated from other areas of China. Might we not explore, with those migrants, the consequences of ‘the experience of living in cities’ in a very concrete way? If, as we have argued, there are unanswered questions around the relationship between mental health and the city, such a task is particularly acute. China has urbanized at an unprecedented rate in the last decade, and has now become a majority urban society; yet there has not yet been significant attention, intellectual or governmental, to the consequences for the mental lives of those caught up in these emergent forms of rural-to-urban inhabitation and marginalization. It is the mundane labour of method that needs attention here; not the ‘epistemology of the urban.’

Our aim, in our own current research, is to take this question as a test case for grasping the relationship between urban mental health and patterns of social life. With colleagues in China, we are now putting together a project to mix what we know about mental health in contemporary Shanghai with a new kind of close-up, street-level attention to what the daily experience of being a migrant in Shanghai is actually like – and how that particular instance of urbanicity is experienced in body, brain and mind. We are committed to the view that if we are going to understand mental health in Shanghai in relation to the social and political economy of rural-to-urban migration in China, then we need to combine epidemiological, survey, and up-close ethnographic methods, to thread the life of the migrant street through the mental life of Shanghai as such. Such work cannot be done by researchers from the outside, but we believe there is much to be gained from a two-way exchange between researchers in Shanghai and London, in order to parse the specificity of urban experience in these cities, as well as the continuities and differences in how that specificity gets felt in the mental lives of urban citizens: how does migration to Pudong ‘get under the skin’ and with what consequences?

The neural and the social are not always intertwined in pathological ways, of course. The piercing question raised by Ash Amin a decade ago – can we imagine the good city, and in what would it consist – remains vital to this enterprise (Amin 2006). Might we now rewrite Amin’s pragmatic and solidaristic urban utopianism, woven around the basics of collective life that he terms ‘repair’, ‘relatedness’, ‘rights’ and ‘re-enchantment, in ‘neurosocial’ terms? As action plans for healthy cities are being developed ab initio in response to the rapid urbanization of emergent megacities, this question retains a certain urgency. It is one to which we believe a new, revitalized neurosocial urbanism could – and should – make some contribution.


This paper arises out of a grant under the ESRC’s innovative ‘Transforming’ Social Science Transformative Research Scheme 2012/13, awarded to Nikolas Rose and Ilina Singh (with Des Fitzgerald as a postdoctoral researcher) for the project: A New Sociology for a New Century: Transforming the Relations between Sociology and Neuroscience, through a Study of Mental Life and The City (ES/L003074/1). In particular, this grant enabled us to hold two ‘Urban Brain’ workshops in London in September 2014 and February 2015, and we would like to thank Paola Bello for her organizational skills in making these workshops happen. We would like to thank all the participants in these two workshops for their contributions: we stress that they bear no responsibility for the interpretations we have made in this paper: Mazda Adli; Ash Amin; Laura Helena Andrade; Tony Bennett; George Davey Smith; Nicholas de Genova; Giovanni de Grandis; Monica Greco; James Kirkbride; Nicholas Manning; Kwame McKenzie; Craig Morgan; Thomas Osborne; Edmund Ramsden; Andreas Roepstorff; Ilina Singh: Fran Tonkiss; John Urry.

Des Fitzgerald’s work was also supported by the Wellcome Trust, via Hubbub [103817/Z/14/Z]

Thanks also to Michael Keith for encouraging and provoking us to write this discussion paper.


[1]   This tendency is visible, for example, the way in which some forms of ‘affect theory’ draw upon contemporary neuroscience to re-insert the neural in human social relations (see Papoulias and Callard 2010 for a critical discussion).

[2]   Between 2014 and 2015, supported by the ESRC (see acknowledgements), and with our colleague Ilina Singh, we held two Urban Brain workshops in London, which brought together a range of sociologists, geographers, epidemiologists, psychiatrists, and others, to think through the kinds of questions that we analyse here. See the acknowledgements for a full list of participants. Some of the perspectives outlined by named participants will be noted in what follows. Here, in particular, we draw on some of the perspectives presented by Tony Bennett at the first workshop. See Bennett 2015.

[3]   This definitions cited by Laura Andrade in her presentation at the first Urban Brain Workshop.

[4]   For this focus on stress, we are grateful to the presentation of George Davey Smith at the first Urban Brain Workshop.

[5]   As reported by Craig Morgan at the first Urban Brain Workshop

[6]   As analyzed by Kwame Mackenzie at the first Urban Brain workshop

[7]    We draw here from the description of some of Hall’s work at

[8]   ibid.

[9] The account that follws is derived from the report in the Wall Street Journal (Hotz, 2015). See:

[10] See, for example, the United Nations on ‘World Urbanization Prospects’:


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