Paper 2: Close Reading


In class, in the readings, and through films, we've explored different aspects of urban life—the ways that people in cities interact with each other and with public space; the challenges, opportunities, and contradictions confronted by city-dwellers; and even the possibility that the physical, social, and economic systems and structures of the city might be acting (either subtly or bluntly; either accidentally or by design) to shape, mold, model, constrain, enable, stratify, homogenize, or otherwise "urbanize" residents.

Looking closely at the scenes and themes in the films so far, we've found evidence of these aspects of the city in Berlin, New York, Rome, Los Angeles, and Neubabelsberg. For this assignment, you are asked to build on our discussions and conduct a close-reading of just two scenes or sequences to explore what they say about the experience of living in cities. Although you have free choice to explore any two scenes you choose from the first six films we've seen, I am asking you to ground your thinking and analysis in the arguments presented in Louis Wirth's article on "Urbanism as a Way of Life" (1938).

In this seminal work of urban sociology, Wirth attempts "to set forth a limited number of identifying characteristics of the city" (p. 8). The abstract provides a nice inventory of most of these features, which in the end represents a pretty impressive "limited number":

Large numbers account for individual variability, the relative absence of intimate personal acquaintanceship, the segmentalization of human relations which are largely anonymous, superficial, and transitory, and associated characteristics. Density involves diversification and specialization, the coincidence of close physical contact and distant social relations, glaring contrasts, a complex pattern of segregation, the predominance of formal social control, and accentuated friction, among other phenomena. Heterogeneity tends to break down rigid social structures and to produce increased mobility, instability, and insecurity, and the affiliation of the individuals with a variety of intersecting and tangential social groups with a high rate of membership turnover. The pecuniary nexus tends to displace personal relations, and institutions tend to cater to mass rather than to individual requirements. The individual thus becomes effective only as he acts through organized groups.

As you begin to organize your thoughts for this paper, re-read the Wirth article, as well as the readings from Corrigan, which are there to help you analyze and write about films. Reflect on whether you recall evidence of any of Wirth's "characteristics of urban life" in the movies we've seen, and select two scenes or sequences to compare and contrast. Note that these film segments may support Wirth's arguments, but they could also contradict his views: He was a pretty smart cookie, but does not need to be the final word on urbanization. Even more exciting, your argument may somehow complicate or complexify the question beyond what Wirth covers in his short article. (Check it out—we can break free from the constraints of binary thinking…)

You may (read: will) find it helpful (read: necessary) to re-watch your chosen scenes a few times, stopping the film as necessary to make notes and capture all the relevant details.



This is a short paper—please aim for a target of 2–3 pages (approximately 500–750 words). The goal is to present, analyze, and support a few keen, focused observations, not a comprehensive analysis of everything about the scenes or the urban experience. Decide what you want to say in advance, strive for tight writing, muster your evidence and weave it in to support your argument, and revise as necessary to make every word count.

Other Things to Include

  • Be sure you give your paper a title.
  • Number your pages and include your name on each one.
  • You don't need to include photos or diagrams, but you can if you want; both words and pictures can be useful when observing and describing cities (and films). For this particular assignment, you may find that including still images from the film can really help illustrate your points.

Deadline & Submission

This paper is due at the end of Week 7. 

Student Examples

The examples below appear courtesy of MIT students and are used with permission. Examples are published anonymously unless otherwise requested.

"You're All Thieves": The Individual vs the City in Bicycle Thieves (PDF)

The City as a System of Production (PDF)