If you live within the reach of a major American city — and most Americans do — then you know what “marginality” is. It is the sizable sub-population of metropolitan America of young men and women who have been locked out of what we think of as the indispensable mechanisms of social mobility: decent education, healthcare resources, job opportunities, and safe neighborhoods. It is the young people of inner-city Baltimore depicted by The Wire. (Take a look at Richard Florida’s detailed analysis of the spatial class structure of Detroit and a number of other cities; link.) The facts of compacted poverty and lack of opportunity, and the disaffection of young people that goes along with these absences, represent one of the most pressing social problems we face.
How should we go about studying and changing this appalling social reality? Alford Young’s The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is one striking approach, using extended interviews to gain insight into the minds, worldviews, and social realities of some of these young people. (Here is an earlier discussion of Young’s work; link.) Another approach is the large body of mainstream poverty research in the social sciences and policy studies. (Here is a penetrating critique of some of the assumptions of this research by Alice O’Connor; Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History.) But an important and original voice on these issues is that of Loïc Wacquant, and particularly important is Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008).
Wacquant’s Ph.D. work was done at the University of Chicago (like Young’s), and he too immersed himself in the street-level realities of segregated, impoverished Chicago. Wacquant’s approach was a novel one: he took up boxing in an inner city boxing club to gain access to the ordinary lives of the young men of the neighborhoods. His ethnography of this experience was published in the fascinating book, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.
Wacquant is French and comparativist; he is interested in investigating the experience of marginality in the United States and comparing it with equally marginalized neighborhoods in France, the banlieue of Paris. (Here is an earlier post on the banlieue and the sociological research of Didier Lapeyronnie’s Ghetto urbain; ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui.) In each instance modern cities are found to have large populations of apparently permanently marginalized under-class people. Here is how Wacquant frames the issue in “The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implications” (link) (1996):
The resurgence of extreme poverty and destitution, ethnoracial divisions (linked to the colonial past) and public violence, and their accumulation in the same distressed urban areas, suggest that the metropolis is the site and fount of novel forms of exclusionary social closure in advanced societies. (121)
But Wacquant’s summary finding is perhaps a surprising one: he finds that the “Black Belt” in Chicago and the “Red Belt” of Paris are substantially different social phenomena. Rather than a homogeneous social reality of “ghetto” extending from Chicago to London to Amsterdam to Paris, he finds a differentiated social reality:
A paired comparison between neighborhoods of relegation in Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and the Parisian ‘Red Belt’ shows that the declining French metropolitan periphery and the Afro-American ghetto remain two sharply distinct sociospatial constellations. And for good reason: they are heirs to different urban legacies, produced by different logics of segregation and aggregation, and inserted in different welfare state and market frameworks, all of which result in markedly higher levels of blight, segregation, isolation, and distress in the US ghetto. (122)
Wacquant introduces the idea of “advanced marginality” to describe the social reality of isolation and deprivation created by advanced capitalism in the rich cities of the North. Here are the criteria he offers for a social system embedding advanced marginality:
- the growing internal heterogeneity and desocialization of labor,
- the functional disconnection of neighborhood conditions from macro-economic trends;
- territorial fixation and stigmatization; spatial alienation and the dissolution of place;
- the loss of a viable hinterland; and
- the symbolic fragmentation of marginalized population (121)
An element that Wacquant finds to be in common across advanced marginality in modern cities is what he calls “territorial fixation” — the confinement of the marginal in specific neighborhoods of the city.
Rather than being diffused throughout working class areas, advanced marginality tends to concentrate in well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell. (125)
In Urban Outcasts Wacquant provides a much more developed comparative sociology of marginalized urban populations. It is significant that he begins his treatment of marginality with the topic of riot and uprising — a recurring social reality in the United States (Chicago, Watts, Detroit, …), London, Strasbourg, and Paris. This seems significant, because it seems like a logical correlate with the deprivation and stigmatization associated with advanced marginality.
Most of the disorders, big and small, that have shaken up the French working-class banlieues, the British inner city and adjacent barrios of North American have involved chiefly the youths of impoverished, segregated and often dilapidated urban neighbourhoods caught in a spiral of decline; they appear to have been fuelled by growing ethnoracial tensions in and around those areas. (20)
And Wacquant thinks these uprisings stem from three large social causes: mass unemployment, relegation to decaying neighbourhoods, and heightened stigmatization in daily life of the marginalized young people (25). He quotes a young man from Bristol:
I don’t have a job and I’ll never have one. Nobody wants to help us get out of this shit. If the government can spend so much money to build a nuclear submarine, why not for the inner cities? If fighting cops is the only way to get heard, then we’ll fight them. (31)
This is a superb piece of sociology, making use of multiple means of inquiry (ethnographic, comparison, statistical) to arrive at credible theories of the causes of urban marginality. And, contrary to the critique offered by O’Connor of mainstream poverty studies, there is not an ounce of “blaming the poor” in this study. Wacquant wants to understand the social processes that create and reproduce the urban spatial reality of marginality. And in doing this, he aims to provide some of the understanding we will need to begin to take this system apart.