A Theory of Scenes
A Theory of Scenes - Click to display or download

A Theory of Scenes*


Daniel Silver, Terry Nichols Clark, and Lawrence Rothfield

The University of Chicago







Music, art, and theater critics have long invoked “scenes,” but social scientists have barely addressed the concept (Blum began). This paper outlines a theory of scenes as elements of urban/neighborhood life. Scenes have risen in salience as analysts recognize that jobs and distance explain less, and amenities and lifestyle are critical elements driving economic development and migration. We thus build on recent work by Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, Terry Clark, Richard Lloyd, Sharon Zukin, and Harvey Molotch which take consumption seriously.

Our theory of scenes is more than 1. neighborhood 2. physical structures 3. persons labeled by race, class, gender, education, etc. We include these but stress 4. the specific combinations of these and activities (like attending a concert) which join them. These four components are in turn defined by 5. the values people pursue in a scene. General values are legitimacy, defining a right or wrong way to live; theatricality, a way of seeing and being seen by others; and authenticity, as a meaningful sense of identity. We add sub-dimensions, like egalitarianism, traditionalism, exhibitionism, localism, ethnicity, transgression, corporateness, and more. All the dimensions combine in specific ideal-types of scenes like Disney Heaven, Beaudelaire’s River Styx, and Bobo’s Paradise.


Simultaneous with our theorizing, we have assembled over 700 indicators of amenities from Starbucks to public schools for every zip code in the US. We code the indicators using the above analytical dimensions of scenes, to model the processes that lead neighborhoods to develop or decline. All the above components join in our models. We stress not a single process like gay tolerance or Veblenesque conspicuousness, but how multiple subcultures support distinct scenes and development patterns.