Neighbourhoods of relegation

John Flint and Ryan Powell, editors, Class, Ethnicity and State in the Polarized Metropolis: putting Wacquant to work, Palgrave Macmillan / Springer Nature Switzerland AG, 2019, pp.xiv and 345.

In June 2016, the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University co-hosted an event to ‘take stock of Loïc Wacquant’s recent work and assess its value as a theoretical and empirical springboard for rethinking urban inequality in contemporary, polarizing times’. Initially planned on a small scale, it quickly attracted significant interest, and had to be recast as a major international conference.

This extremely interesting edited volume now collects varied critical responses to Wacquant’s work, most resulting from the papers given in Sheffield. These range across many issues and locales: housing projects in the USA; parenting classes for impoverished mothers, fathers and grandparents in England; segregation faced by Roma people in Italy; homelessness in San Francisco. It also includes a useful keynote chapter by Wacquant himself, and his succinct and thoughtful responses to the arguments and questions raised by the book’s contributors.

Wacquant grew up in Southern France, and studied economics and sociology there and in the United States, working closely with key figures from an older generation, including Pierre Bourdieu and William Julius Wilson. He is currently a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a researcher at the Centre de Sociologie Européenne in Paris.

Wacquant’s ground-breaking analyses of contemporary urban social reality apply a ‘triangular nexus’ combining ‘class transformation, ethno-racial division and the revamping of the state in the era of neoliberal hegemony’. The editors praise Wacquant for integrating ‘theoretical perspectives and methodologies from both “above and below”’, thus contributing to ‘a clarification and understanding of polarizing dynamics within the contemporary city, while also offering an empirically grounded critique of the pernicious “folk concepts” that inform urban policy’, such as ‘ghetto’, ‘no-go areas’, and ‘underclass’.

More rigorous concepts have been advanced by Wacquant: some are already established reference points in analysis of urban dynamics. He talks of ‘advanced marginality’, the condition of many impoverished and deindustrialised areas in the United States and Europe: this is the ‘product of the fragmentation of wage labour, the functional disconnection between neighbourhoods of relegation and the national and global economy … and the retraction of the protections traditionally afforded by the social state’. Such locations are subject to ‘territorial stigmatisation’ – here Wacquant applies and updates Erving Goffman’s influential concepts around stigma and ‘spoiled identity’.

A chapter by Ryan Powell and David Robinson provides a good example of how contributors develop and adapt Wacquant’s concepts through applying them to policy areas which Wacquant himself has not studied. Powell and Robinson ‘deploy Wacquant’s triadic nexus of class, state and ethnicity’ to show how current policy debates in the UK about both social housing provision and about migration are shaped by political perspectives and popular understandings which do not correspond to social reality – and how this ‘obscuring of shared realities at the margins of the housing system serves to dissolve the scope for collective responses, solidarities and mutual identification’.

They also suggest that ‘the specificity and complexity of national housing systems is a neglected aspect in the understanding of advanced urban marginality’. To illustrate this, Powell and Robinson detail ‘key shifts in the English housing system from the 1980s onwards, locating the origins of increased housing polarization within complex processes of economic deregulation, welfare revamping, housing commodification and financialization’. They conclude by arguing that ‘the vilification of migrants within representations of the English housing crisis is but one of many examples whereby national and ethnic disidentifications are being mobilized for political ends across the cities of advanced capitalist societies’.

Emily Ball draws on Wacquant’s ‘ideas of statecraft and the carceral-assistential net’ in her study of the Family Intervention Projects and the Troubled Families Programme set up by David Cameron’s government in 2012. Ball states that these initiatives ‘appear to support Wacquant’s theories’ about state practice in ‘advanced marginality’, which combines partly supportive ‘interventions challenging families classed as problematic, in addition to an increase in the role of the police and governing agencies and punitive welfare reform’.

Ball is one of the contributors who offers some explicit – if debatable – criticisms of Wacquant, who she says ‘often assumes that the UK welfare state mirrors the residual welfare state in the US. However … there has not been a direct mapping of neoliberal policy frameworks from the US. For example, although there have been many policies rolled out that might be argued to encourage poorly paid labour (e.g. Minimum Wage, Working Tax Credits, New Deal) … initiatives such as Sure Start children’s centres, the New Deal for Communities programme and the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal did embed the ambition to help communities and areas of decline rather than the abject disinvestment and abandonment of marginalised urban neighbourhoods in the US, as theorised in Urban Outcasts [Wacquant’s influential 2008 book].

Such passages confirm the editors’ declaration that their volume is neither ‘a defence of Wacquant … nor is it a book in praise or celebration of Wacquant’. The material that Flint and Powell have brought together does, though, confirm the importance and significance of Loïc Wacquant’s ongoing contribution to understanding the divisions, conflicts and problems which are shaping and misshaping peoples’ lives in the urban spaces of Western Europe and the USA.

Review published October 2019