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The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life

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“[Sennett] has ended up writing the best available contemporary defense of anarchism. . . . The issues [he] raises are fundamental and profound. His book is utopian in the best sense―it tries to define a radically different future and to show that it could be constructed from the materials at hand.” –Kenneth Keniston, New York Times Book Review The distinguished social critic Richard Sennett here shows how the excessively ordered community freezes adults―both the young idealists and their security-oriented parents―into rigid attitudes that stifle personal growth. He argues that the accepted ideal of order generates patterns of behavior among the urban middle classes that are stultifying, narrow, and violence-prone. And he proposes a functioning city that can incorporate anarchy, diversity, and creative disorder to bring into being adults who can openly respond to and deal with the challenges of life.

220 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1970

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About the author

Richard Sennett

79 books421 followers
Richard Sennett has explored how individuals and groups make social and cultural sense of material facts -- about the cities in which they live and about the labour they do. He focuses on how people can become competent interpreters of their own experience, despite the obstacles society may put in their way. His research entails ethnography, history, and social theory. As a social analyst, Mr. Sennett continues the pragmatist tradition begun by William James and John Dewey.

His first book, The Uses of Disorder, [1970] looked at how personal identity takes form in the modern city. He then studied how working-class identities are shaped in modern society, in The Hidden Injuries of Class, written with Jonathan Cobb. [1972] A study of the public realm of cities, The Fall of Public Man, appeared in 1977; at the end of this decade of writing, Mr. Sennett sought to account the philosophic implications of this work in Authority [1980].

At this point he took a break from sociology, composing three novels: The Frog who Dared to Croak [1982], An Evening of Brahms [1984] and Palais Royal [1987]. He then returned to urban studies with two books, The Conscience of the Eye, [1990], a work focusing on urban design, and Flesh and Stone [1992], a general historical study of how bodily experience has been shaped by the evolution of cities.

In the mid 1990s, as the work-world of modern capitalism began to alter quickly and radically, Mr. Sennett began a project charting its personal consequences for workers, a project which has carried him up to the present day. The first of these studies, The Corrosion of Character, [1998] is an ethnographic account of how middle-level employees make sense of the “new economy.” The second in the series, Respect in a World of Inequality, [2002} charts the effects of new ways of working on the welfare state; a third, The Culture of the New Capitalism, [2006] provides an over-view of change. Most recently, Mr. Sennett has explored more positive aspects of labor in The Craftsman [2008], and in Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation [2012].

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5 stars
47 (27%)
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74 (43%)
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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for DRM.
79 reviews3 followers
June 8, 2015
Without question, one of the most important books I have ever read. The fact that it's been virtually ignored over the past 40 years is a shame given its incredible social revalence in our current political climate. Essential reading.
Profile Image for Vidz.
63 reviews
October 6, 2020
This is genuinely one of the best books I've ever read. Despite the language being slightly outdated at times (referring to all people as 'men' all the time gets annoying after a while) the concepts have changed my worldview so much. (Sennett has an amazing brain!)

By combining analysis of the psychology of people, and the uses of a city, Sennett makes a convincing case for 'disorder' (anarchy?) in a way that seems intuitive and not at all radical - it seems like a city constructed on disorder and the merging of different groups *is* the only option for the society we live in.

I've learnt so much from this book and highly recommend it to everyone, and it's definitely one that I'm going to have to revisit and re read soon and take notes from, because it links into so many aspects of life. (I found it hard to get into and read at the start, because the concepts were new and the language was very essayistic - but once you get used to the language, it's so worth it!)
Profile Image for Leif.
1,653 reviews89 followers
December 20, 2021
Short, interesting, and definitely of its time. (I don't think I've seen that much psychology in an urban planning book for quite a while!) Intense on reflection given the age of its author at the time - Sennett definitely profited from the academic era of assumed authority! I didn't know much about the context of this book before diving in, but you can see the conversation with other luminaries such as Jane Jacobs.
Profile Image for Micah.
Author 6 books177 followers
May 12, 2022
I don't think I've ever had an experience of disagreeing so strongly with so many of the basic points a book is making while simultaneously finding that that book just reshaped many of the basic ways I look at the world around me.

If you've got other suggestions for classic texts in the stoner-anarcho-psychoanalytic-urban planning sub-field, please send them my way.
December 25, 2022
El último libro de este año. La verdad que un libro interesante en sus ideas, pero hay muchas cosas que me cuesta ver. Esta va a ser mi reseña super cutre del libro.
Que viva el caos y que reine el contacto social diverso.
Profile Image for Stéphanie.
94 reviews11 followers
February 26, 2023
J'admets que l'anarchisme ne m'appelle pas particulièrement, mais j'étais intriguée par la prémisse de ce bouquin paru en 1970, qui mélange anarchisme, urbanisme et psychologie. En gros, l'auteur y argue que la planification urbaine minutieuse est contraire à l'intérêt des populations car, justement, les planifications à moyen-long terme sont rarement adaptées à l'évolution réelle d'une communauté et à ses besoins actuels, qui seront toujours imprévisibles. Aussi, Sennett expose sa théorie des bienfaits du désordre pour le développement humain à son plein potentiel, le chaos et l'obligation de remédier soi-même à ses problèmes au lieu de les confier à la bureaucratie/machine politique/police permet d'éradiquer la peur de l'échec ou d'émotions désagréables. Aussi, la confrontation et proximité forcée propre au milieu urbain multiplie les occurrences de contacts sociaux avec toute sortes de personnes différentes de soi, mais avec qui au final nous n'avons pas trop le choix de trouver des compromis et des espaces d'entente pour notre intérêt mutuel.

Bon, j'ai trouvé l'idée bien intéressante, mais l'oeuvre fait excessivement appel à la psychologie pour un livre d'urbanisme et je suis loin d'être convaincue par certains pans de l'argumentaire de l'auteur. Aussi, est-ce juste moi ou l'anarchisme c'est vraiment une idéologie for the boys? J'avais bien du mal à imaginer la place réelle des femmes et/ou des personnes plus vulnérables au sein de la société décrite par Sennett, mais bon, c'est peut-être juste mon sentiment pour toute idéologie qui se targue de placer la liberté individuelle au sommet de ses priorités. Wow, est-ce que l'anarchisme me fait redevenir une féministe exaspérante?
Bref, bien contente de ma lecture, mais avec des réserves assez importantes sur la proposition de l'auteur!
Profile Image for David Sasaki.
244 reviews346 followers
December 23, 2013
It's difficult to believe that Sennett published this book when he was just 27-years-old. The book, written during the aftermath of the urban race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the summer of 1968, examines how the residents of cities form their identities amid so much chaos and and diversity. The book was also written at the beginning of what journalist Bill Bishop has termed "The Big Sort," when urban centers of the US became increasingly diverse and White middle class families fled that diversity by moving to the suburbs.

But even while post-war, middle class families fled to the suburbs, the Beats and flower children of the 1960s were already giving up on the dream of rural, communal living and turning their attention to the city. "For they have sensed in dense city life some possibility of fraternity, some new kind of warmth, that is now understood in the vague term 'community.'"

The 1960s is usually remembered for the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war protests, student mobilizations, and the countercultural moment. But we focus less of our attention on the incredible economic growth during the 1950s and 60s that led to a larger middle class and more affluence than any other country had ever achieved. Few intellectuals of the time, including Sennett, predicted what Timothy Noah has called "The Great Divergence;" that the US middle class would once again begin to contract in 1973 after decades of sustained growth. Rather, the intellectuals of the day assumed that we were moving from a society of scarcity to a society of abundance. And so Sennett asks this central question: "What does one do with community life when freedom from what has been achieved?"

Sennett paints two archetypical paths that the American middle class took at the end of the 1960s to achieve community life and individual identity: the suburbs and the cities. The suburbs offered their residents predictability, order, homogeneity, a sense of control over one's life. "Live with people you like," read a billboard I recently passed on the outskirts of Guadalajara. Cities, on the other hand, offered their residents little predictability, order, homogeneity, or control. To enter a suburb is to enter a comfortable house party with your closest friends, your favorite music, the kids playing in the pool, everything under control. It's easy to understand why this was a compelling vision of the good life for returning soldiers from World War II.

But Sennett is unapologetic in his celebration of the chaotic city over the orderly suburb:

This kind of family living in the suburbs surely is a little strange. Isn't this preference for suburbia as a setting for family life in reality an admission, tacit and unspoken to be sure, that the parents do not feel confident of their own human strengths to guide the child in the midst of an environment richer and more difficult than that of the neat lawns and tidy supermarkets of the suburbs?

And then: "Suburbanites are people who are afraid to live in a world they cannot control."

Sennett is compelling in his celebration of chaos and the city life. Foreshadowing his later book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation (written some 40 years later), he notes that city life forces us to develop the social aptitude to negotiate uncomfortable situations, to make them comfortable. Ultimately, the city makes us more mature. He laments the mid-century relocation of "gambling dens and whorehouses from the city centers to the peripheries, and ultimately to Las Vegas. He prefers a world that recognizes, rather than outsources, its vice and depravity. Today our vices are outsources even further, to online gambling and porn sites, always accessible, but never real.

Cities offer us a path to the greatest reaches of social maturity. We form communities that aren't fixed or homogeneous, but rather that constantly shift, teetering on chaos and serendipity. We must become strong, and confident in ourselves, to engage in such diversity and dynamism.

I read this book in October, just after I read Anthony Townsend's Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia . The smart city is our new impulse to bring order and control to the chaos of the urban landscape. The Uses of Disorder gives us reason to pause and celebrate the serendipity of the city.
Profile Image for cassady.
21 reviews
December 30, 2021
wonderful, total game-changer. grateful to have read this at 22 while faced with the pressure of mimicking purified adulthood. instead, it’s clear that embracing discomfort as opportunity is necessary to move towards socioeconomic equality. adopting an anarchic approach to other people and the world creates avenues toward police abolition, modes of interpersonal conflict resolution, and a reversal of “us” vs “them” attitudes.

Remarkably relevant 51 years after publication. i wanna be smart enough to write like this when im 27
Profile Image for John Jr..
Author 1 book58 followers
May 29, 2014
To put it simply, Richard Sennett in this book argues that cities are good for people precisely because of the unexpected encounters that tend to happen in cities. To put it another way, Sennett proposes that unpredictable experiences are good for people and that cities, with all their diversity, randomness, and disorder, are where such experiences occur. This makes his book something of a corollary to Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities, which had argued some 10 years earlier that variety is good for cities themselves. In 1970, when it was first published, The Uses of Disorder was part of an ongoing discussion of the value of suburbs; a Kirkus review from 1970 mentions that, as does a 2008 Guardian review of a new edition. But Sennett's views are important beyond that particular question—which, in any case, seems still to be unsettled.

The book has an indirect political implication, for instance. As the phrase "family values" reminds us, a certain variety of conservative regards the family as essentially the only social unit larger than the individual, or at least the only one worth talking about. Sennett clearly disagrees. And unless I'm much mistaken, he responds in this book to the notion that big cities degrade families in a statement like this: "Families have done more harm to cities than cities have ever done to families."

Though analogies are always questionable to some extent, it's worth pointing out that Sennett's position here is analogous to what's called the hygiene hypothesis. The argument of that hypothesis is that the human immune system requires contact with pathogens in order to develop and maintain its strength, which means that obsessive attempts to eliminate bacteria from the home can be bad, at least for children. Likewise, to quote from a description on Sennett's website, this book proposes that cities characterized by "anarchy, diversity, and creative disorder" can "bring into being adults who can openly respond to and deal with the challenges of life."

I notice in passing that a similar argument can be made about one's use of the Internet: it'd be better for us to seek out viewpoints other than those we already hold.

(Like almost all of my other reviews, this one is based on my memory of the book at hand. I read The Uses of Disorder roughly 15 years ago.)
Profile Image for Chris.
56 reviews2 followers
September 2, 2019
Full disclosure: I did not finish this book.

For me, this book was more interesting as a historical document, and (perhaps) as a reminder of how embarrassing our young selves can be when viewed through older, wiser eyes. I believe those are the eyes through which the author, Richard Sennet, viewed his own work years later when he wrote the preface to my edition in 2008, some 40 years after it was originally published. He points out that this is a book that was written when he was 25, and that it belongs to a particular time and place, a time when the radical left believed that America was on the cusp of revolutionary change.

Viewed in that light, it is an interesting read, but I found the lack of intellectual rigour, and the dubious connections drawn from one point to the next, to be frustrating. Ultimately I realised that I wasn't going to get what I hoped for when I first picked it up: A coherent, interesting argument as to the value of cities, and the disorder inherent therein, in forming human personalities and societies.
Profile Image for David Bjelland.
150 reviews42 followers
August 15, 2022
One of those very special sorts of books so dense with clearly-stated ideas that I eventually just give up on highlighting passages to save myself the trouble of figuring out what *not* to highlight.

Sennet advances a critique of and re-imagining of the city along anarchist lines, drawing from the fields of psychoanalysis and emerging sociological research as he goes, but incredibly, does it in the unfussy, persuasive style of a top-notch letter to the editor. While the thinkers he references are sometimes academic or clinical, his topic is unwaveringly material and familiar: bars, apartments, schools; neighborhood meetings, commutes, strikes; the black working class, wealthy suburbanites, idealistic university graduates, and city planners.

Absolute book club banger.
Profile Image for Cris Stanciu.
15 reviews11 followers
February 19, 2022
Amazing! One of the best books I've read so far!

Some key points tackled that I loved:

The power of disorganisation in a city that can bring more meaning in individuals lives and in shaping healthy self identities.

The importance of open agression in a city to decrease bursts of violence.

How purified neighbourhoods, lack of diversity, can keep adults in an adolescent mindset and approach to life.

And many many other good points and topics!
Profile Image for Ashley Clubb.
64 reviews
March 14, 2022
Read this because it was recommended it to me, it was ok. Sennett argues that cities are good for people because of the unexpected encounters that tend to happen in cities that make diversity, randomness, and disorder common themes rather than curated experiences. His writing either went over my head or was just superfluous, he could have made his points in 3 pages versus a drawn out chapter, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Charlie.
585 reviews45 followers
May 28, 2020
3.5 stars. What Sennett has to say here about the structuring of cities, of the necessity of indeterminate structures that leads to creative combinations of people and positive conflict, is all great and very valuable insight. That he uses a bunch of psychoanalytic gobbledegook that trades in overly simplistic understandings of human development and maturation to get there is a bit unnecessary.
Profile Image for Biaru.
3 reviews
September 16, 2022
Great book with great ideas with great writing style matched with a terrible conclusion
Profile Image for Aya Nassar.
74 reviews16 followers
October 5, 2013

Fresh. as could be expected by a 25 year old Sennett, fresh from an incomplete revolution. Always makes me fall in love with the strains a city like Cairo put on its inhabitants.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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