‘On the Street Where you Live’: Bourdieusian analysis of socio-spatial hierarchy

On Tuesday 2nd of December 2014, the BSA Bourdieu Study Group hosted an event at the BSA meeting room in London exploring how Bourdieusian theory has been applied to empirical research on spatially generated class practices, social divisions and socio-cultural relationships.


The event was opened by Dr Michaela Benson’s (University of Goldsmith) keynote: ‘Place-making? Middle-class residential choice, trajectories and dynamics’ which focused on the concept of place-marking as a set of discursive practices. Drawing on her research on rural France, Benson showed how the symbolism of rural France was itself a product of middle-class cultural imaginings of rurality and rural life. This examined middle-class place-making beyond the metropolis and showed the ‘fit’ between habitus and place as a trajectory and not as fixed across a term of residence. Benson asserted that discursive practices are in action and ongoing in through which place and classed subjectivities intersect and are shaped. This repetitive action is directed at making places of residence simultaneously reconstruct classed identities

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Benson argued that we need to think about housing choice as constrained and full of compromise to have a more nuanced understanding. There is a generational shift in middle-class expectations around property ownership particularly in London. However, some of the middle-class participants in Benson’s research were concerned and ambivalent about their role in gentrification.

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Dr Tracey Jensen’s (University of East London) keynote talk: ‘A Good School and a Decent Cup of Coffee: connecting the mundane desires of parental gentrifiers to the politics of displacement’, examined the productive work involved in ‘making neighbourhood’ and in making zones of desirability. It explored the psycho-spatial dimensions of identity – the ways in which who one is are intimately bound with where one lives – and how, in the everyday processes of making our classed/‘raced’/gendered subjectivities, people are also engaged in the micro-political processes of making space.

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Jensen’s talk reflected upon classification processes and solidifying hierarchies of place in the fast-changing suburbs of South East London, where processes of gentrification and displacement have been initiated as part of the Thames Gateway development plan and as part of a broader austerity regime which aims to decant poorer London residents to cheaper parts of the UK. She explored how technologies of spatial sorting, social media and neighbourhood forums are used to initiate debate about belonging, (un)desirability, borders, zones and local change (Jensen, 2014).

Jensen was particularly interested in the mundane desires of parent residents and the part that these play in enmeshing the economic and cultural capitals of districts in what Bourdieu called the ‘field of cultural production’ and what others have termed the ‘game of gentrification’. Primary schools were significant sites in which East Dulwich parents felt they could expand/consolidate social capital. Her study found that middle-class parenting in East Dulwich draw ‘racialised’ boundaries between itself and Peckham. East Dulwich parenting practices were classed and ‘racialised’ and included choosing a school which had the ‘right mix’ – not too working-class or black. On gentrification, parenting & politics of displacement, Jensen asked ‘What does it mean to be an East Dulwich baby?’

Comparing these newly emerging ‘cognitive maps’ of the borderlands of suburban London to those of more established gentrified neighbourhoods, Jensen showed how ‘undesirable’ residents, lives and practices are erased, denied and obscured, making strategies of displacement seem commonsense. Such euphemised class-making/place-making serves the interests of developers extremely well and enables ‘undesirable’ areas to be steadily decanted and made congenial to the requirements of middle-class life (Jensen, 2014).  Jensen argued we must think about the social exclusion that takes place in the social reproduction of space. We need to understand who gets to engage with place-making and how place-making happens.

Comments from the floor included questions about male gentrifiers and whether ‘yummy mummies’ are responsible for the displacement of those like the E15 mothers? Another comment emphasised the need to understand who is authorised to do place-making, how some places are weighted and others weightless.

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Stephen Crossley, a PhD Student at Durham University, explored the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme. His presentation focused on ‘looking at family from the inside out’ using Bourdieu’s concepts of social space and symbolic power. Crossley spoke of the ‘troubled families’ process and the politics of condescension where ‘State Doxosophers’ create policy and base it on the ‘we are all in this together’ myth. Amusing images of George Osborne in high visibility jacket having tea with builders were used as an example of a ‘strategy of condescension’. Crossley argued that those strategies by which agents who occupy a higher position in one of the hierarchies of objective space symbolically deny the social distance between themselves and others – a distance which does not thereby cease to exist – reap the profits of the recognition granted a purely symbolic denegation of distance. The use of Bourdieu (1989, p.18) illustrated his point:

‘The power to impose and to inculcate a vision of division, that is, the power to make visible and explicit social division that are implicit, is political power par excellence. It is the power to make groups, to manipulate the objective structure of society.’

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Crossley reminded the audience of the long and troubled history of ‘troubled families’ and the use of eugenics. A timeline demonstrated who the ‘troubled families’ are, dating back to the Victorian era.  As such, the label of ‘troubled families’ has become a symbolic dumping ground for a whole host of problems in society and these families suffer symbolic violence that presupposes the interventionist schemes of entering families’ homes.

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Crossley ended the talk by suggesting we should ‘trouble the ‘troubled families’ agenda’! Quoting Bourdieu he showed how the family itself is a fiction:

‘The family is indeed a fiction, a social artefact, an illusion in the most ordinary sense of the word, but a well-founded illusion, because, being produced and reproduced with the guarantee of the state, it receives from the state at every moment the means to exist and persist’ (Bourdieu, 1996, p.25).


Dr Simon Harding’s talk: ‘The Street Casino: survival in the violent street gang’, applied Bourdieu’s gaming theory to gang hierarchy to explain the existence and dynamic of what he entitled ‘street casino’. According to Harding, gang members struggle for distinction and survival and become ‘players in the game’ in the ‘casino of life’. Their playing chips are ‘street capital’. Harding argued that gang life is in constant flux, where players jostle for positions, reputation, status and distinction. Harding’s presentation was met with mixed reviews from the audience.


From the floor, Dr Michaela Benson asked Dr Simon Harding whether he had thought about Bourdieu’s notion of reflexivity and how that may have impacted upon the research? Others argued his talk had over-determined and pathologized ‘gangs’ in Brixton.

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Dr Paul Watt’s brilliantly entitled keynote talk: ‘On the Street Where You Won’t Be Living Much Longer’ started off by arguing that Bourdieu reinvigorated the sociological imagination about class, yet there needs to be consideration on the differences in how Bourdieu is put to work in urban sociology in relation to middle-class and working-class. Bourdieusian analytical focus is often concentrated on middle-classes; primarily on multiple capitals and secondly on habitus. For the working-classes, it’s the other way round, focusing mainly on habitus. Watt critiqued Bourdieu’s account of the working-class as defined by lack of capital – an absence. He claimed that the problem with Bourdieu on working-class is that they are positioned, not positioning.

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Watt argued that researchers on gentrification need to go beyond questioning people ‘like us’ and talk to those ‘not like us’. Talking of Chris Allen’s (2008) book ‘Housing Market Renewal and Social Class’, Watts said it was difficult to come away without a sense of injustice after reading it. The site of urban injustice in the book portrayed a working-class ‘being in a world’ entirely ignored by ‘regeneration’. Whereas the middle-classes engage in ‘selective belonging’ and reside in an area, but consume education, material goods etc. elsewhere. There is now a post-regentrification situation of ‘social mixing’ where private tenants get tower flats with great views of the city and social housing tenants are surrounded by traffic islands.

Watt reasoned that understanding and explaining – for example the accelerating redevelopment of urban space – without reference to political economy and the working of neoliberal capitalism amounts to a form of ‘native nominalism’ which cannot account for the real forces of capital accumulation, state restructuring. The Focus E15 Newham mothers are an example of nomadic politics, of women who do not ‘know their place’. Identity politics is the politics of self vs. others. Drawing on Deleuze, Watt suggested that The E15 Campaign creates a political situation which is active experimentation since we do not know in advance which way a line is going to turn. Watt ended his talk leaving the last words to The Clash’s ‘Garageland’ (Strummer and Jones, 1977):

‘I don’t wanna hear about what the rich are doing
I don’t wanna go to where the rich are going
They think they’re so clever, they think they’re so right
But the truth is only known by guttersnipes’



  • Workshop One: Dr Paul Watt: ‘What Bourdieu can and cannot offer Urban Studies’ (theory-based workshop)
  • Workshop Two: Dr Michaela Benson and Dr Tracey Jensen: ‘Middle-class residential and school choices’ (forms and politics of distinctions)
  • Workshop Three: Stephen Crossley: ‘Crime’ and ‘deviance’ (symbolic power and social space)

The three workshops near the end of the day gave delegates a chance to discuss in more detail the themes and issues that had been raised in the keynote talks throughout the day. They also gave delegates the opportunity to consider their own research and a chance to ask questions about their own projects.


3 thoughts on “‘On the Street Where you Live’: Bourdieusian analysis of socio-spatial hierarchy

  1. OliverH December 23, 2014 at 7:39 pm Reply

    Many thanks, any chance you could give full references for the publications mentioned?

  2. […] over the years, including events on the use of Bourdieu in ethnicity and migration studies, urban studies, education, social class, social theory, gender, Bourdieu as a public sociologist and special […]

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