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Definition: segregation from Philip's Encyclopedia

Separation of a specific group from the rest of society on such grounds as race, religion, or sex. Such separation might be enshrined in law, as in the Southern states of the USA before the civil rights movement or in South Africa in the era of apartheid.

Summary Article: segregation
from The Dictionary of Human Geography

The phenomenon of segregation is said to occur when two or more groups occupy different spaces within the same city, region or even state. The types of patterns identified as segregated go back to the beginnings of concentrated human settlement. Even ancient cities, for example, were usually divided internally into quarters associated with particular groups, and also characterized by a sharp separation between urban (inside the wall) and suburban (outside) groups. Human settlements have always been socially stratified and those designated as ‘others’ – whether based upon religion, culture, economic status or any other social division – have been relegated to specific, usually environmentally poor, places (see also other/otherness). That is, social marginalization is almost always associated with spatial segregation.

The degree of segregation, or separation between groups, varies. A group may be more prevalent in one area than another: for example, people of a particular religion may have a tendency to live near their place of worship but still live among people of other faiths, so that the degree of segregation is low. At the other end of the spectrum, groups may be pushed into separate areas and have their mobility curtailed, as in the Jewish ghettos created by the Nazis during the holocaust or the segregated districts imposed by the apartheid regime in South Africa. The process is not merely historical: at the end of 2006, for example, several local authorities in Italy decided to designate separate spaces for Roma (Gypsy) people, complete with fences and gates regulating movement in and out.

These examples highlight another crucial element: segregation can arise from discriminatory forces outside a group and/or from the social organization and predilections of the group itself. The internal side of this dynamic was first theorized by the chicago school of urban sociologists, as they tried to understand the nature of immigrant settlement in early-twentieth-century cities in the USA. They believed that newcomers gravitated into enclaves specific to their cultural group and that these segregated areas helped people to come to terms with their new society. Gradually, as individuals adapted to American culture by learning English, upgrading their education and obtaining better jobs, they would move to multi-ethnic (non-segregated) neighbourhoods, typically in suburbs (see suburb/anization). Subsequent critics charged that the Chicago School ignored powerful forces of racialization involved in the creation and maintenance of enclaves generally, and that they particularly downplayed the racism that forced African-Americans into ghettos. A helpful intervention distinguished between slums, neighbourhoods of poverty, and ghettos, places where racialized groups are trapped in poverty, which is transmitted intergenerationally (Philpott, 1979). Recent social geographers have been far more attentive to the ‘constraint’ side of segregation, perhaps to the detriment of understanding the degree of social organization within marginalized communities.

The consequences of urban ethnic segregation have been discussed at length by geographers and sociologists. In early statements by the Chicago School, enclaves were deemed beneficial as long as individuals only resided in them temporarily. Further, those who remained in enclaves were seen as insufficiently assimilated (see assimilation) and therefore at fault. Since then, assessments have been more complex, with several basic strands of thought. Some continue to see segregation as indicative of a reluctance to assimilate, and believe that enclaves and ghettos reproduce social exclusion because their inhabitants adopt a ‘culture of poverty’ associated with laziness, reliance on welfare, and crime (cf. Lewis, 1969a). Another, more critical, interpretation focuses on the institutional practices that perpetuate segregation and therefore the harm that it causes (Massey and Denton, 1993). From this point of view, segregated landscapes are both the result of inequality and also a mechanism for the reproduction of inequality. Other scholars have sought to reconcile the classic view of the Chicago School, that residents of segregated areas gain certain benefits, with these later critical perspectives, arguing that segregation can have both beneficial and deleterious effects (Peach, 1996; Logan, Alba and Zhang, 2002). Moreover, planned dispersion of marginalized residents of segregated neighbourhoods does not necessarily raise their level of opportunity or standard of living (Musterd, 2003).

The issue of segregation has become particularly charged in europe, where prominent commentators have linked race riots in the UK and France to the effects of segregated urban environments (cf. Amin, 2003; Haddad and Balz, 2006). Those affiliated with the political right see concentrated minority/immigrant neighbourhoods as the result of a deliberate choice made by their inhabitants to embrace cultural isolation, an attempt to lead lives separate from mainstream society (for which the term ‘parallel lives’ is invoked: Amin, 2002a), while progressive critics believe that segregation is a response to racism and economic marginalization. Regardless, socio-spatial segregation is seen as an ingredient in social unrest.

The link between racialization and class division, which is so obvious in the riots just discussed, is generally under-theorized in the literature on segregation. To a large degree, this omission reflects another legacy of the Chicago School. Over the past century, in geography at least, studies of segregation have been dominated by a concern for cultural forms of segregation rather than class. However, socio-spatial divisions based on class have been equally pervasive, and were first theorized in the mid-nineteenth century, as this famous statement by Friedrich Engels testifies:

Every great city has one or more slums, where the working-class is crowded together.... And the finest part of the arrangement is this, that the members of [the] money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left.

(Engels, 1987 [1845], pp. 70, 86)
Arguably, the situation is exactly the opposite in contemporary cities: poverty is exposed, but affluence is hidden behind walls in gated communities, protected by private security systems and electronic surveillance (le Goix, 2005). As in the past, the privileged protect themselves, though the mechanisms of this process, and the detailed spatial patterns that are generated, vary.

Recently, scholars have explored the relationship between different forms of segregation, such as socio-economic class and ethnic origin (Clark and Blue, 2004). Research has also shown the relationship between residential segregation and the educational system (Burgess, Wilson and Lupton, 2005; Denton, 1996), and the fact that children raised in highly segregated neighbourhoods experience lasting difficulty as students, even when they are in universities outside their home city (Massey and Fischer, 2006).

Suggested reading

Full bibliography is available here.

Kaplan (2005)

Massey and Denton (1993)

Peach (1996c).

Dan Hiebert
Professor of Geography
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

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