The Symbolic Violence of Gentrification, Part IV

Applying Bourdieu's theory of symbolic power

Below is part four of an essay in five parts, written by University of Virginia student Stefano Rumi for Isaac Reed’s  Sociology of Power and Authority course. Previously, Rumi criticized incorporations of Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus in discussing gentrification as less applicable to third-wave gentrification, and excusatory of gentrifiers’ destructive actions in re-appropriating and excluding poor residents (whether intentionally or not). In this piece, he suggests applying Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic power to better explore the power dynamics involved in gentrification.


Bourdieu refers to symbolic power as the power of “world-making,” an indomitable ability to create and enforce an understanding of fundamental social divisions that becomes engrained into the experience of being (cognition and recognition) as legitimate and inevitable (Bourdieu 1991; 2006). Symbolic domination is imposed, among many ways, through state power, but it is also perpetuated through the daily thoughts and actions (habitus) by the very individuals who dominate and are dominated. I identify two distinct but interrelated examples of symbolic violence in gentrification.

First, the act of gentrification itself by gentrifiers constitutes both material and symbolic violence. Gentrification inevitably makes disinvested, working class neighborhoods unaffordable for original residents, especially renter households. Furthermore, the habitus of gentrifiers for urban living, as countless consumption-side scholars have refined it, inherently brings with it the imposition of a new set of legitimate standards of culture, leisure, and consumption. Regardless of the intention of gentrifiers to celebrate or appropriate the existing culture of a neighborhood, the existence of gentrifiers in disinvested space ubiquitously attracts destructive forms of capital investment that inevitably changes the physical, social, and cultural landscape of the neighborhood to suit gentrifiers.

Second, the facilitation of the entire process of gentrification by the state is a deeper form of symbolic violence. Guided by neoliberal doxa, the state has simultaneously disinvested itself of responsibility for public welfare to the poor and has embraced a governing philosophy of public-private partnerships. The state is directly responsible for facilitating and encouraging third-wave gentrification, with little regard or acknowledgement of its costs. By prematurely excluding alternative discussions for equitable urban revival, the state commits a gross symbolic injustice against the very marginalized individuals it is purported to protect. Yet, as Bourdieu notes, doxa shapes more than just the actions of the state; it shapes the habitus of individuals. Gentrifiers cannot have a habitus of reclaiming urban space without the assistance of the state. Just as the state dictated the creation of suburbs (and a habitus for suburban living) for the elite through explicit intervention in the 1940s and 1950s and facilitated early gentrification in the 1960s and 1970s, the state today is actively fostering a habitus for urban living through the same modes of explicit intervention through exclusion and domination.

As addressed earlier, displacement of original populations is intrinsic to the conception of gentrification as a social phenomenon. In all waves and aspects of gentrification, there is a constant act of renovating an undervalued piece of real estate to maximize its societal worth, as determined by the free market. Once a land is “rightly” valued, it becomes inaccessible to the poor and working class individuals who can only afford to occupy undervalued land. Because redevelopment rarely occurs across large swatches of land, this displacement is insidious; displaced residents make do, move in with friends and family, and slowly find affordable housing a few blocks down. When gentrification catches up to these blocks (in weeks or months or even years) the process is repeated, but rarely recorded, especially if it takes place within the same census tract. Displaced individuals do not see the “benefits” that gentrification brings because they can only afford to live in non-gentrifying areas. In addition, locally-owned businesses and social institutions, the lifeblood of the community, are priced out through rising rents and property tax rates and replaced with new businesses and institutions catered to newcomers. Original residents are unable to participate in the economic process of consuming new cultural goods and are excluded from the new public space.

Bourdieu’s exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) has many parallels to modern-day gentrification. He describes the colonizer as in a position of power and domination that is exercised symbolically through imposition of language and culture (acceptable modes of living) on those who are colonized. Bourdieu argues that this symbolic domination is accomplished through the colonizer’s coercion, although both colonizer and colonized do not see it as so. Colonizers engage in symbolic violence through the monopolization of consumption practices (which are conceived as a “sanctioned habitus”) in appropriated public space.

Within the context of gentrification, gentrifiers act very much as colonizers in the appropriation of gentrified space and subsequent imposition of a state-and-market-sanctioned habitus of consumption practices within this space. In addition to the economic violence committed by gentrifiers who displace the gentrified and re-appropriate spaces of consumption, gentrifiers commit a symbolic violence through their monopolization of legitimate consumption practices in gentrified neighborhoods. By dismantling and replacing existing sociocultural institutions of leisure and consumption and replacing them with exclusionary institutions catering only to newcomers, gentrifiers sever the ability of gentrified individuals to engage in daily identity work with the built environment and maintain their personal modes of living.

This monopolization, accomplished through “fair market principles,” is wholly uncontested by the state and private markets. In fact, I argue that gentrifiers are granted the legitimacy to do symbolic violence through the blessing of the state, explicitly through the state’s facilitation of gentrification and implicitly in the state’s neoliberal, laissez-faire support of “winner-take-all” urbanism. Gentrified populations are economically and symbolically forced to play the role of marginalized outsider, subservient to gentrifiers and secondary in importance in the eyes of the state. The simultaneous cultural re-appropriation that occurs in gentrifying neighborhoods, either to “sell” an image of urban grit or otherwise discard it in favor of a new image, represents the coercion by gentrifiers of the gentrified to accept “correct” impositions of identity and selfhood. Agency and purpose are irrelevant to the act of symbolic domination. Whether the intentions of gentrifiers is to “walk the line” of stereotyped ghetto culture, celebrate and embrace local culture, or simply seek out affordable and convenient housing is unimportant to the fundamental act of domination and displacement that occurs through gentrification when moneyed elites and the urban poor compete for control over physical and social space.

In the concluding piece, I will expand upon my contention that the neoliberal state commits a larger form of symbolic violence by advocating for gentrification and precluding debates on alternative solutions to urban decay as exterior to the relationship between state and capital. I conclude by advocating for further critical attention to the destructive nature of gentrification and underscoring the urgent need for innovative and equitable forms of neighborhood revival that are less destructive and do not marginalize the poor.

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.

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