The Symbolic Violence of Gentrification, Part III
Understanding and reframing gentrification debates today
Below is the third segment of an essay in five parts by University of Virginia student Stefano Rumi, written for Sociology of Power and Authority course taught by Isaac Reed. Part two discussed the nature of third-wave gentrification, and why it has evolved from a relatively small, localized phenomenon into a global pattern of disruptive capital investment. In this segment, Rumi explores the sociological debates around gentrification and suggests a new pathway of understanding gentrification, to be elaborated in the next piece.
Thus far, cultural theory has been used in gentrification studies to explain the tastes of gentrifiers through consumption-side theories of why gentrifiers gentrify. Urban theorists use Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus in order to explain the consumption trends of the new middle class (Zukin 1989; Carpenter and Lees 1995; Bridge 2001a). Scholars propose that rather than just taking advantage of cheaper housing, gentrifiers are specifically looking for certain cultural accommodations in their choice of residential neighborhood. John Caulfield’s (1994) ethnographic work, for example, found that gentrifiers sought to escape suburban banality in favor of urban grit and glamour. Most often, gentrifiers are conceived of as young urban professionals who want to live near the workplace and have cultural amenities, such as historic sites, museums, and “bourgeoisie bohemian” spaces of leisure and consumption nearby. Urban decay is glorified as “hip” and authentic, and moreover celebrated as countercultural. Tom Slater notes “something of an obsession” among consumption scholars in creating “middle-class metropolitan ‘habituses’ (sic).” (Slater 2006: 743) in order to explain gentrification. He notes that any discussion of the gentrified working class is still woefully gentrifier-centric.
The incorporation of Bourdieu’s habitus into consumption-side gentrification studies poses several theoretical issues. Such theories of cultural capital do not explain the logic of third-wave gentrification. While early versions of gentrification involved individual actors and private entities actively seeking out and curating areas of high cultural capital to settle, new waves of state-sponsored neoliberal gentrification as a means of urban restructuring do not capture any cultural capital in the built environment (Shaw 2005: 183). Neither can the individual actions of gentrifiers explain the dominance of global capital in restructuring gentrifying cities. In this case, production-side explanations of gentrification are actually more relevant, as it is clear that developers are merely taking advantage of cheap land and obliterating any trace of culture in the process. New-build gentrification in particular, in which new housing is built on formerly abandoned industrial wasteland, is the most prescient example of the “culturelessness” of third-wave gentrification. Unlike traditional manifestations of gentrification, where middle class individuals move into historic or already extant housing, new-build gentrification involves the creation of not only new housing, but an entire neighborhood and community from scratch for consumption by newcomers. Middle class individuals are not choosing specific neighborhoods because of a habitus for authentic urban grit, but are making logical market choices to live in affordable spots close to work. Gentrifier-based explorations of gentrification also ignore the role of the state in formulating space that meets the cultural consumption needs of newcomers. Almost always, “gentrifier-led” gentrification is preempted or rapidly supported through active state intervention to facilitate the settling of new urban space. In addition, fixations on habitus fail to explore the greater societal forces that shape these habitus to begin with.
Most importantly, conceptions of habitus are still overtly gentrifier-centric. Arguments that gentrification is simply “what they do” are apologist and dismissive, excusing gentrifiers from any responsibility for their destructive and invasive actions and contributing to winner-take-all narratives of urban development. In addition, such arguments dismiss the state from any responsibility for the social upheaval and marginalization of the poor that occurs through state-sanctioned processes of urban revitalization, and contributes to its normalization. Equitable re-conceptualizations of gentrification must account for the asymmetrical relations of power involved in the gentrifying process (encouraged in part by the state) through a unifying social theory. Current discourses on gentrification have indeed shifted in recent years from agnostic debate over the merits of gentrification and nature of gentrifiers into a recognition of the upheaval it incurs on existing populations. However, all discourse on gentrification thus far has focused on the material, or economic, violence of gentrification. Analyses of displacement and rising housing prices demonstrate the displacement and domination of communities through the free market. Even cultural studies of gentrification’s neighborhood effects (such as Zukin 2008 and Sullivan and Shaw 2011) focus on the material exclusion of gentrified residents from the consumption process taking place in new public spaces. Others focus on the economic value and nature of re-appropriation of culture to “sell” an image of a place, rather than the symbolic significance of re-appropriation itself (Kearns and Philo 1993).
In the segment to follow, I will incorporate Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of symbolic power as laid out in Distinction(Bourdieu 1984) to re-conceptualize gentrification. Bourdieu’s distinction between material (economic) and symbolic violence, in particular, helps us further understand the impact of gentrification on gentrified areas and populations. In addition, symbolic power can be utilized across all gentrifying waves and processes in all cities to describe the fundamental dynamics between dominator (gentrifying agents) and dominated (gentrified populations).
Stefano Rumi studies Sociology and Social Entrepreneurship as a Jefferson Scholar and Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia. He has recently taught Housing and Urban Poverty, a semester-long undergraduate seminar course at the University of Virginia. Stefano is a 2017 Clinton Global Initiative U Scholar and a 2014 U.S. Presidential Scholar, one of the nation’s highest honors for students.