Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: social order revisited

Dave Clements | 25 October 2008

This event at the LSE was billed as a ‘look at classic urban themes as they are manifested in the contemporary city, focusing on social reproduction of inequality, the meanings of disorder, and the link between the two’. Such scholarly intercourse between sociological heavyweights might have promised much, but it delivered little in the way of insight. Indeed, the indecipherable verboseness of the respondent only confirmed this reviewer in his prejudices against the ‘mainstream sociology’ against which this esteemed figure claimed to be railing.

Paul Gilroy, Anthony Giddens Professor in Social Theory at LSE, was responding to the annual British Sociological Society lecture given by Professor Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of sociology at Harvard University. Sampson’s empiricism was apparently beyond the pale for a man who has invested so much in the cultural turn that lead him to conclude decades ago that There is no black in the Union Jack.

Far more intriguing for Sampson was the colour-coding of the streets of Victorian London, that featured in Charles Booth’s poverty maps. Booth describes some of the city’s streets in the 1880s as filled with the ‘Lowest class. Viscious, semi-criminal’. In one case, he says the ‘appearance of the neighbourhood has changed more than its character’ as their remain ‘pockets of filth and squalor, with rowdy residents and broken windows’. With reference to examples like this, Sampson convincingly demonstrated that the poorest areas tend to be spatially distributed today much as they were then, and that this suggests the persistence of poverty over time.

And yet I found his drawing of parallels with today’s politics of ‘broken windows’ and ‘rowdy residents’ a bit of a stretch. Similarly when he asked, rhetorically, which ‘mechanisms sustain the heirarchy of places’ his account of why the experience of poverty is particularly persistent amongst minority populations was less than convincing. Sampson’s argument that ‘socially perceived disorder strongly predicts later poverty’ is a peculiar distortion of the observation that minority groups tend to live disproportionately in poorer areas.

He is effectively saying that personal prejudice now, rather than the consequences of systematic discrimination in the past and the continuation of the conditions of poverty in the present, are responsible for this material inequity. While it is no doubt the case that people ‘act on their perceptions of order’ and that ‘social perception forms a meaningful aspect of neighbourhood relations’, interpersonal perceptions do not determine the distribution of poverty. Likewise, Sampson’s research may help enrich understanding of the racialised patterning of poverty across the city, and how ‘collective meanings of place’ deem certain neighbourhoods as ‘morally liable’, but these observations do not point to an ‘under-appreciated cause’ of urban decline in the US, as he claims.

Though Sampson’s analysis was flawed he at least sought to engage with the problem under discussion. The frustration of listening to Gilroy was his refusal to ackowledge that there might exist ‘social facts’ (as Emile Durkheim once called them) beyond the particularlities of time and place. He insisted, for instance, that Sampson could only tell us anything meaningful about the ‘particularlities of US city life’ implying that his was a wasted journey. While sweeping generalisations about ‘universal patterns’ should not be made ligthly, Gilroy seemed to be constitutionally averse to the very notion of making any generalisations at all. Whether you’re talking about Chicago or London, the late 19th or the early 21st century, whatever their ‘surface manifestations’, countered Sampson, ‘certain mechanisms and processes are the same’.

And yet for all Gilroy’s faux-radicalism and militant methodological parochialism, it was Sampson’s failure to interrogate the bigger political picture that made his explanation, in the end, so unsatisfactory. Indeed his self-imposed confinement to theorizing at the level of ‘intersubjectivity’ rendered his indifference to the the integrity of the human subject, acting on the world rather than being shaped by the negative ‘perceptions’ of others, all the more striking. His focus on the psycho-geography of ‘race and place’ was to ignore the profound impact of the promotion of the idea of multiculturalism, and its role in the promotion of the social divisions, and in the ‘colouring’ of the intersubjectivities, that so concerned him.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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