Why Political Scientists Should Study Smaller Cities

By Tanu Kumar (Claremont Graduate University) and Matthew Stenberg (University of California, Berkeley)

The United Nations estimates more than half of the global population currently lives in cities, and 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050 (United Nations 2018). A large portion of this growing urban population lives outside of major metropolitan areas. Yet much of our knowledge about urban politics comes from studying the largest cities, and smaller cities are systematically understudied relative to their share of the population. In our article, “Why Political Scientists Should Study Smaller Cities,” we examine what an insufficient focus on small cities might lead scholars to miss. We explore many policy areas where we might expect smaller cities to be different than larger ones and we offer strategies to study smaller cities.

In Table 1 below, we show the populations of the ten countries with the largest urban populations in the world. In most cases, well over half of the urban population lives in cities outside of each of the countries’ ten largest urban agglomerations. We see similar trends when examining cities with fewer than 1 million residents.

Table 1. Percent of urban population outside of 10 largest urban agglomerations in countries with the largest urban populations, 2010.

CountryTotal urban population1% of urban population outside of top ten2% of urban population in cities smaller than 1 million2
United States249,849,72070.5646.42
1Source: The World Bank (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL)
2Source: The United Nations World Urbanizations Prospects, Population Division (https://population.un.org/wup/Download/). Full data on population totals for these countries is available in Table A1.

In spite of this large share of the population living in smaller cities, we do not see them making up a proportional share of academic research. We systematically examine all empirical studies of urban politics or studies taking place in cities in seven Political Science journals for 20 years, from 2000-2019. We find that small cities are not at all well-represented in in-depth case studies of one or a few cities. In fact, when we look at the 112 articles about cities in the disciplines top 3 general interest journals in this 20-year period, only four case studies of urban politics outside the U.S. include a single small city.

In this review article, we advocate for greater focus on smaller cities in Political Science and related disciplines for two key reasons. First, we believe it is normatively important to investigate the needs and behavior of hundreds of millions of underexamined citizens. Second, it is important for political scientists to include smaller cities in their empirical analyses because large cities and metro areas are not representative of patterns of politics in their smaller counterparts. Smaller cities and large metropolitan areas have different populations with respect to variables like race, gender, and age. These differences can affect citizens’ political preferences and behavior. Smaller cities also vary systematically in their access to resources, which shape political outcomes. Smaller cities have fundamentally different vertical and horizontal intergovernmental relationships. Finally, smaller cities exhibit different rules and patterns of electoral politics than large cities. We illustrate these points throughout the paper through numerous examples.

Throughout these illustrations, we highlight how studying smaller cities may change existing theories in political science. For example, we show that unlike large metropolises, small cities in South Asia sometimes have more women than men, suggesting that households here have different patterns of intra-household relationships, which has been found to affect women’s political participation. In another example, we examine the applicability of theories of participation to smaller cities, where there is greater participation in local politics and are fewer candidates affiliated with national parties. More importantly, we highlight how little is actually understood about the politics of smaller cities, which indicates that the largest theoretical contributions from studying them are still unknown.

We also have much to learn about the many political phenomena and policy problems that may be unique to smaller cities. Examples include strategies to navigate vertical relationships in a country with where one or two cities dominate the political landscape, the symbiotic relationship between cities and the surrounding areas, and the politics of a company town. We believe that these are new and promising directions of research on smaller cities, but many more themes are likely to emerge as smaller cities become better understood.

We also provide low-cost suggestions for researchers that can help them study smaller cities, particularly in developing contexts where access to administrative data can be scarce. Potential strategies include digital surveys and interviews, crowdsourced data, and remote-sensing applications.

Overall, we believe that studying smaller cities will improve our understanding of politics by better capturing the full diversity of political and policy outcomes in the cities in which a large portion of the world’s population live. We also believe that policymakers will benefit from our improved understanding problems or solutions that might be unique to smaller cities and thereby directly impact the lives of this considerable, yet underexamined, group of citizens.

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo by Abhishesh Sharma on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Tanu Kumar is an assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University. She received her PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focuses on political behavior, service delivery, and urbanization in low- and middle-income countries. In addition to Urban Affairs Review, her work has appeared in the Journal of Politics, the Journal of Development Economics, and World Development.

Matthew Stenberg is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Future of Higher Education program at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include local electoral politics, multilevel governance, and democratic decline. In addition to Urban Affairs Review, his work has appeared in GovernanceGovernment and OppositionGlobal Studies Quarterly, and European Security.