This question of the “metropolis and mental life” occupied many who tried to make sense of the last great period of urbanisation – that enormous rural-to-urban migration that took place in industrialising Europe and North America during the 19th century. ... Despite detailed demographic, epidemiological and sociological work, this question remains unresolved: no consensus has been formed about the relations between mental life and the metropolis. Given the rise of megacities, and the challenges of planning mental health services, that question is even more urgent than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In a new paper, written for the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Urban Transformations portfolio, and arising out of a series of interdisciplinary workshops funded by the ESRC we argue that answering this question requires us to bridge the gulf between the social sciences and the biological sciences.

Recent developments in the biological sciences have shifted our understanding of organisms and their relations with their physical and social milieu. Organisms, including human organisms, can no longer adequately be understood as enclosed systems bounded by membranes of cell, organ and skin. The findings of research in biology – from genetics to neuroscience – require us to conceive of human beings as open and permeable, developing and transforming over time, in ongoing dynamic interactions at the level of molecules, genes, cells and brains with their physical and their social environments.


We could combine approaches from biological and social sciences to understand how the precarious social lives of rural migrants in contemporary Shanghai are implicated in the development of psychiatric disorders in that rapidly expanding urban environment.

It might mean combining decades of detailed epidemiological data from the streets and housing estates of south-east London with current research on the neuroscience of stress – and with anthropological work that zooms in on the micro-interactions of street-life.

The task for researchers is challenging. Are the same processes at work in cities as different as Shanghai and London?