Segregation: A global history of divided cities

Nightingale, C. H. (2012). Segregation: A global history of divided cities. University of Chicago Press, 536p.

I came across this book repeatedly while writing the introduction for a book on the relationship between cities and inequality (edited with D. Pumain, 2021). I was reviewing the literature, looking for morphological and social details of cities divided on racial grounds during colonial empires and sanitarian waves. This book appeared to provide a chapter on exactly this subject regarding Delhi, with ample context and  illustration material. I later looked for other examples of institutional separation of cities and the book seemed to offer such a chapter on Johannesburg. In fact, it kept coming to my bibliographical attention even in unrelated articles dealing with contemporary linkages between economic segregation to economic inequality. Those were good enough signs to suggest a thorough read.

“Segregation, A global history of divided cities” is an impressing book published in 2012 by Carl H. Nightingale, a specialist of world and urban history as well as critical race theory, currently professor at the department of transnational studies at the University of Buffalo. The book sits precisely at the intersection of these three topics: it tells the story of how cities came to be divided by race, from the moment when race as a concept became central in world politics onwards. It also reveals how city-splitting techniques spread and interacted between cities all over the world, in particular within three key institutions: governments, intellectual networks, and real estate markets. C. H. Nightingale not only exposes the overall picture and its main logics, but also dives into a dozen of specific case studies to show the singular entanglement of individual motivations, interpersonal connexions, particular interests and local resistance at play in the city under study. This leads both to a global picture of synchronous segregation trends between 1700 and 1960, but also to nuanced portraits of urban histories from Asia, Africa, America, Europe and Oceania. It shows how the world urban history is full of connexions (intellectual, personal, political), borrowings (of idea, of methods, of legislation), imitations and exchanges. In doing so, C. H. Nightingale is able to compare cities from very different geohistorical contexts, and to conclude for example that colonial cities were never strictly segregated (because of the self interests of merchants and users of domestic servants for instance), or that Chicago could be considered even more segregated than Johannesburg in the 1940s, but that early experiences in city-splitting developed the segregationists’ toolbox by proof-testing the instruments which would make systemic division possible and effective in later contexts. The book has received the 2012 Jerry Bentley Prize in World History from the World History Association and the American Historical Association. 



It consists of twelve chapters distributed over five parts, a general introduction and an epilogue.

The book opens on a Baltimore preacher’s words in 1910, soon after the city passes its first segregation ordinance, i.e. a piece of legislation identifying areas for the residence of black people and areas of the residence of white people. This is a defining moment in the history of American segregation, but the premise of the introduction is that it is by no means a beginning in the history of urban segregation by race:

experiments with legalized urban color lines arose in the mid-1800s in cities in China and around the Pacific Rim; they were designed to keep Chinese people from living in the white sections of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong and San Francisco. The word ‘segregation’ itself was first used for techniques of racial isolation in Hong Kong and Bombay (today’s Mumbai) in the 1890s. […] From there it inspired a nearly worldwide spread to what I call ‘segregation mania’ across Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic world. The mania even resonated in Latin American cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, where distinctions between black and white were typically murkier than elsewhere. Monumental segregated colonial capitals went up in places like Rabat, in French Morocco, and New Delhi, in British India, signalling new arrogant ambitions for urban planning based on separate racial zones. The most radical of all forms of urban segregation arose during these same years in two rapidly industrializing white settlers societies[: South Africa and the United States].” (p. 2-3).

Even earlier than the 19th century (or even the 18th when “black”, “white” and “race” entered the urban conversion in colonial parts of India), the author traces the history of city-splitting back to its non-racial origins in ancient civilizations. The first part is therefore dedicated to such earlier examples of merchants, foreigners, Christian rulers and jewish communities living in separate quarters according to local clan, class, craft, ethnic or religious principles of urban segregation. The introduction ends on a description of the three institutions within which racial segregation subsequently flourished: the government (as it gets to decide who gets rights and privileges and who is able to cross boundaries, in the  state as well as in the cities), intellectual  and scientific networks (responsible for the “invention” of race as well as its diffusion through dense networks of exchange) and the real estate market (complete with agencies, surveyors, registrars and financial institutions in their role to assess and protect property values). “This book attempts to bring all these political dramas of urban racial segregation [
] into a single, wide-ranging, always changing, and always paradoxical narrative. In a kind of geographical counterpoint, it asks us to watch the theater of segregationist politics on many stages at once, by continually switching from wide-angled lenses, to various kinds of telescopes and binoculars, to highly focused microscopes. Meanwhile the narrative also moves chronologically across time, retelling the sweeping story of human history with the politics of urban segregation at its center” (p. 14).

The first part of the book covers “seventy centuries of city-splitting“, starting in Eridu (Mesopotamia) with the separation of gods’ monumental quarters from humble human residence in 5000BC. According to C. H. Nightingale, this is one of the earliest instances of introduction of an inequality (in this case between humans in the service of the gods and the other mortals) which then translated into spatial forms, at a time where equality was pretty much the norm in urban societies. From Mesopotamia, the monumental division of cities spread and developed to ancient Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. Another source of early segregation is identified in the “citadella” of Christian crusaders, initially defensive hilltop fortresses to protect new conquest in the Holy Land, later exported across the world to house and protect christian colonial settlers. A third type of ancient segregation is that of (foreign) merchants districts, present “throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean” but also in West African cities and later colonial ports. Fourth, ancient segregation manifested itself in terms of religion, and the account of Jerusalem’s history (p.30) illustrates the complexity of some cities’ such splitting. Finally, the author identifies class and wealth segregation as a fifth driver of ancient segregation: “The story of class segregation – defined broadly as the impulse to separate those with power over a society’s economic resources from those with little power over those resources – is the most complex and widespread of these dramas and is connected to all the others. Sacropolitical districts, city walls, merchants’ quarters, and scapegoat ghettos all contain elements of class segregation” (p. 39). Once again, this dynamic of segregation is presented as a consequence of the large increase of wealth inequality in modern cities. To conclude this part, “for about seventy centuries – arguably since the invention of cities themselves – we have repeatedly committed acts of inequitable and forcible city-splitting. Along the way, we have justified our actions in the name of just about every other concept of human difference imaginable, marking off separate residential territories for different classes, clans, castes, crafts, nations, religions, civilizations and even sexes” (p. 19).

The second part of book tells the story of how colour and race entered the scene in world politics in general, and in city-splitting in particular. As such, the turning point is 1700 and it is linked to two main influences: the legacy of American slavery on the one hand and the productions of Enlightenment philosophers and ethnologists on the other hand. Indeed, prior to the 18th century, segregation was mainly based on religious or “national” grounds, as in Manila or Batavia (today’s Jakarta) for example, where Portuguese and Dutch colonial settlers separated Chinese, Japanese or Javanese dwellers in separate quarters or villages, distinct from European or “christian” towns and sometimes separated by a wall. In America at that time, segregation was scaled down to individual properties: “As New World cities became increasingly enmeshed in the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation economy, local officials had to institutionalize their suppression of what they saw as slaves’ nearly constant insubordination. [
] To control a ‘slave city’ internally, authorities preferred a technique that went back to ancient times: the forced slaves to live in the households or on the properties of their masters” (p. 52-3). The use of colour categories to refer to separate neighbourhoods appears in the city of Madras  (today’s Chennai) in 1711. “Black town” in this context, according to C. H. Nightingdale, refers to a derogatory representation of Indians by British colonial officials, rather than to the association between blackness and slavery which starts to appear in America. However, “white town” seems to derive from American circumstances, where the christianisation of slaves introduced a confusion in the former association between christianity and freedom, requiring a new term to refer specifically to  free european christians. “Race” itself came acquire its modern meaning in the 1680s in European erudite circles, providing “a system to categorize different strains of humankind based on their skin color” that would “soon arrive in Asia and Africa, whether through London, Paris and Amsterdam, or along the increasingly direct trans hemispheric connections between all colonial cities. In that way, divided colonial cities transformed from places where color lines largely arose from needs for defence and control to cities consumed by the grander ‘natural’ obligation to separate the races” (p. 73-4). Once of the most important routes through which ideas, practices, money and people used to flow is the “London-Calcutta connection” (chapter 2). “The innovations that arose within the London-Calcutta connection were due as much to the differences in the two cities’ politics as to their connection. Put much too baldly, the politics of urban space in London began with differences between classes. The city was the site for the world’s first use of government-protective legal instruments – restrictive covenants – to divide neighborhoods for the rich and ‘respectable’ (the West End) from the poor, the ‘paupers’, and the ‘unrespectable’ (the East End). In Calcutta, by contrast, color was the driving edge of the political theater, and after 1770, race” (p. 78). One of such “innovations” in the area of racial city-splitting is the introduction of institutions and ideologies of racial zoning, in the form of exclusive imported architectural style from London in the “white town” or the sanitarian ideologies aimed at tackling public health of the poor through urbanism. Their effect was limited in Calcutta itself but would later permit “the replication – and the increasingly coercive politics – of white and block town systems across the world” (p. 83). Finally, “London land speculators invented the driving intellectual principle of class segregation, the idea that having poor people as close neighbors brought down the property values of the rich. The same speculators also invented a tool to prevent the invasion of wealthy neighborhoods by unrespectable elements, namely the restrictive covenant in title deeds” (p. 96). This instrument would later allow racial segregation to reach heights in South Africa and the United States.

The third part of the book narrates the “surges of segregation in the colonies“, using the stations Raj in chapter 4 and the Pacific settlers cities in chapter 5 as archetypical examples, then extending the analysis of this “segregation mania” to the rest of European colonies in Asia and Africa in chapter 6 and 7. The stations Raj in India, and Simla in particular, represented the first instances of new cities designed with racial separation in mind: “Colonial authorities in India designed these strange quasi-cities – some one hundred seventy-five of them, from Afghanistan to the Malay peninsula – with spatial, social and even mental distance in mind. Part military base, part Victorian suburb, part resort, part provincial capital, part Indian market town, part open sewer […]. An important subcategory of stations, the hill stations, functioned as the Raj’s hot-season resort capitals and were meant to be even further removed from Indian life. Most of them were built in remote places in the mountains, precisely to distance themselves from their cousins in the Indian mufossil, as the dusty, hot, flatland districts and their teeming Indian cities were called” (p. 113). They provided precedents to colonial officials on which to pitch their next attempts at fuller urban segregation, developing for instance narratives around European children’s health and women’s purity to justify the separation of people from different races in space. These narratives were later reused and refined in Hong Kong, South Africa and America. In the case of the Pacific wave of segregation following the forced opening of the Chinese empire by the British empire, C. H. Nightingale explains that:

“As the tide of white imperial expansion crashed into the tide of Chinese migration in Asia and the Pacific, urban racial segregationist politics expanded to new shores and spawned two new variations. One of these variations played out in new colonial cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong-Kong. [
] In some ways, segregationist practice in these cities resembled that of Calcutta and the stations of the Raj. But imperial and sanitary justifications for segregation grew more elaborate in East Asia, and they were supplemented by some of the earliest theories linking race and property values. [
] The second new strand of city-splitting politics arose in cities in Australasia and along the west coast of North America. There, urban populations were the reverse of those in Asia: white settlers were in the majority and their intention was to remain permanently in their new towns, to raise families and future generations. [
] The goal of the first race-based immigration-restriction laws was to prevent Chinese people from moving across the Pacific to the coasts of North America and Australasia.” (p. 135-7)

In all these cases, the color lines eventually became blurred under opposing interests (for example: benefitting from the economic contribution of Chinese migrants vs. keeping settlements all-white). In chapter 6, the author associates the “segregation mania” with the spread of the plague from 1894 in Hong Kong. The epidemic and how it was handled by colonial authorities meant that suddenly segregation became justified under the pretence of public health. “Race mattered: the main goals was to protect Europeans, and local Asian people got the roughest treatment. Tens of thousands of natives fled town, in part from fear of the plague, but more from fear of segregation itself” (p. 159). Once again, governments and intellectual networks (of doctors and epidemiologists this time) worked hand in hand to propagate techniques of isolation and segregation throughout the colonial world. “In the years between 1914 and 1923, segregation mania peaked across tropical Africa, signalling a slow end to the strategy of segregation based on plague and malaria worldwide” (p. 185). Meanwhile, a third institution came to the rescue of segregationists: the real estate market. In chapter 7 (“the outer limits of colonial urbanism”), the author traces the influence of Paris and London’s urbanists on the planning of two new colonial capitals: Rabat and Delhi, two cities telling “similar stories about the inequality of the races and the civilizations” (p.193). In Rabat for instance, the use by Lyautey of Haussmann’s principles of monumentality and beauty coupled with expropriation schemes and planning restrictions led to the building of a mostly dual city without even having to resort to explicitly racial restrictions. Yet, “unless Moroccans were willing and financially able to buy Torrens-title land and build European-style houses, they would not be permitted to live in the ville nouvelle” (p. 216). 

The fourth part of the book is dedicated to “the archsegregationists“, i.e. the usual suspects of racial segregation urban studies: South Africa and the United States, with extensive historical focuses on Johannesburg and Chicago. Interestingly, the author shows that most urban segregation tools which were used by archsegregationists from the 1930s onwards had already been developed (racial restrictive covenants, migration control, planning restrictions, narratives around the preservation of white women and children’s innocence and health, etc.). What archsegregationists introduced in South Africa during apartheid is a complete racist system, aimed at keeping black, indian and coloured workers in the city (to provide cheap labour in the mines and domestic services) while pushing their residence ever more at bay to limit encounters, but also fiscal separation, distinct welfare systems and mobility restrictions to enforce the coincidence between economic inequality and racial inequality (which was not that strong prior to the apartheid regimes, as Boer farmers tended to be much poorer than English settlers, whereas Black artists and entrepreneurs were able to buy property until they were forbidden to do so). In Chicago and the United States, the camouflaged introduction of racist considerations into the official machinery of property valuation and mortgage lending (through redlining and the selective dissemination of HOLC maps) had the same enduring consequence of creating wealth inequality from racial prejudice. Once again, C. H. Nightingale insists on the crossed influence of segregationists in the two countries. Both systems also used grass-root as well as state violence on top of the enabling institutions of segregation (government, intellectual networks and the real estate markets). In both countries, the peak in segregation coincided with the rise of the individual automobile, resulting in an additional way by which cities split into even more distinct parts: wealthy white suburbs relying on cars and publicly funded expressways on the one hand and black impoverished centres reliant on run-down public infrastructure and transportation on the other hand.

Part 5 of the book (“fragmented legacies“) first tells the story of the global revolution of de-colonisation and de-segregation, highlighting the role of high profile activists as well as ordinary residents. However, “we can map out three routes by which urban segregation outflanked the global racial revolution. First, though opponents of urban segregation achieved their greatest successes by attacking government-imposed residential color lines, they were unable to stop the worldwide diffusion of economic incentives for race and class segregation that were first built into capitalist land markets in the seventeenth century. Second, though the Cold War provided political room for the world’s racial liberation movements to fight against racial segregation in cities, it also severely limited the scope of the egalitarian revolution. [
] Third, and most important, beginning in the last 1960s and culminating in the years after 1980, a nearly all-white ‘New Right’ counterrevolution swept into power, most notably in the United States and Britain” (p. 386). The resort to discourse around the preservation of local prestige, school quality and property values provided new “color-blind” avenues for urban segregation under conservative governments in western Europe and the US, and so did the much less color-blind anti-crime and anti-immigration policies of recent years. The chapter closes with an overview of on-going segregation processes in Jerusalem and Belfast, noting the contemporaneity of the problem still.

The epilogue is dedicated to a review of policies and initiatives which reduce racial and class segregation (such as reducing inequalities, focusing on  affordable and sustainable housing, stopping slum removals), and to the activists which work relentlessly to push them to the front of national and international agendas.


The richness of ideas, details and stories of the book is reflected somewhat by the length of this summary. I have found it a most enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking read. One of its main strengths in my opinion lay in its study of the exercise and the contesting of power by urban actors with differing interests. One of the main ideas I take away from it are:

  1. the argument that segregation derives from inequality: “Even in the absence of major spatial changes, the fight for more just workplaces and for government policies that redistribute wealth more fairly across racial and class lines can create more equality between all urban neighborhoods.” (p. 423)
  2. that it is first a class-based phenomenon:Remember that the biggest problem with urban racial segregation is not that it separates different types of people into different neighborhoods. It is that it does so unequally – creating a maldistribution of resources that disproportionately disfavors those racial groups that the color line also helps to subordinate politically. Racial segregation, therefore, was not only dependent historically on techniques of class segregation. It is a kind of class segregation – and it nefariousness arises principally from that fact.” (p. 225)
  3. that it is maintained and amplified most effectively nowadays by the real estate institutions: “Land-markets are the one capitalist institution in which race-infused economic interests became consistently and increasingly important to the division of cities, even arguably becoming the single most important segregationist force in cities today” (p. 7).

A weakness from the book is, to me, its focus on and generalisation from only large and capital cities. There is obviously no human way to conduct a world history of urban division in all cities, but a few examples or trends from smaller and less connected cities could have provided an insight into the different spatiality and temporality of such places (too small to be divided? too late to enter the segregation mania?). Other reviews of this book have criticised this statement: “We should always hesitate before we equate the spatial tactics of antiracists movements with ‘voluntary’ segregation – let alone assert the ‘goodness’ of any form of ‘self-segregation’ – even if it creates successful cultural havens” (p. 11-12), referring to C. Peach (1996) for instance. I find however that C. H. Nightingale does a convincing job throughout the book to demonstrate the validity of this introductory remark. His analysis of San Francisco’s Chinatown for instance shows how the neighbourhood was created by white settlers’ intolerance and maintained by white mobs violence and then accused of separatism by the local press. The  allegedly ‘voluntary’ character of some subsequent segregation thus proceeds from an initially defensive strategy, a sequence also described by Yuan (1963) for New York’s Chinatown.

Finally, in relation to my project of modelling urban economic inequality, I was challenged with C. H. Nightingale’s argument that “real people, not mechanical processes, make segregation, and the ideas, interests, and practices people mobilize for or against segregation are complex. The political dramas that result never stop to rest in one spot; they are always dynamic, shape-shifting, unpredictable, and internally contradictory” (p. 10). While this is undeniably true, I think it can argue for an improvement of dynamic models of inequality and segregation, rather than their dismissal, in order to better encapsulate the qualitative processes highlighted in books such as this one, but also to pay attention to local variations and appreciate the status of singularities which will always remain out of the modelling scope.


  • Peach C., (1996) Good segregation, bad segregation, Planning Perspectives, 11(4), 379-398.
  • Yuan, D. Y. (1963). Voluntary segregation: A study of new Chinatown. Phylon, 24(3), 255-265.



Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Environment and Planning A, the Journal of Planning research and education, Urban History and the American Historical Review, as well as on an LSE blog.


OĂč va l’argent des pauvres

Colombi D., 2020, OĂč va l’argent des pauvres, Payot & Rivages, 300p.

Cet ouvrage porte un titre trĂšs explicite et trĂšs rĂ©vĂ©lateur de son contenu. Il s’agit en effet d’un essai sur la relation entre l’argent et les pauvres, qui s’intĂ©resse Ă  la finalitĂ© de l’argent gagnĂ©, reçu et dĂ©pensĂ© par les membres les plus pauvres de la sociĂ©tĂ©. Denis Colombi pose la question de la dĂ©finition de la pauvretĂ© en termes monĂ©taires et non-monĂ©taires : est-ce uniquement la quantitĂ© d’argent dĂ©tenue par un individu qui le rend pauvre aux yeux de la sociĂ©tĂ©, ou bien une sorte d’identitĂ© seconde supposĂ©ment associĂ©e Ă  des comportements et Ă  une culture distincte ? L’auteur interroge la destination de l’argent en analysant les postes des budgets contraints gĂ©rĂ©s par les mĂ©nages les plus pauvres. Enfin, il explore la relation entre la pauvretĂ© des uns et l’aisance des autres dans les sociĂ©tĂ©s française et amĂ©ricaine, en suggĂ©rant qu’une partie de l’argent des pauvres finit souvent, et non par hasard, dans la poche des riches. Au terme de cet essai, le lecteur identifie deux messages trĂšs clairs que l’auteur fait passer. D’une part, la pauvretĂ© ne devrait ĂȘtre qu’une question d’argent, qui soit donc solvable en donnant de l’argent (ou au moins l’accĂšs Ă  des liquiditĂ©s) aux mĂ©nages qui en manquent, que ce soit par le travail, rĂ©munĂ©rĂ© Ă  sa juste valeur, ou par d’autres mĂ©canismes comme l’assistance sociale ou le revenu universel. D’autre part, la sociologie du XXIe siĂšcle doit ĂȘtre considĂ©rĂ©e une science descriptive plutĂŽt que comme un corpus de thĂ©ories concurrentes ; elle remplit sa fonction lorsque sont produites des connaissances qui servent la sociĂ©tĂ© qu’elle Ă©tudie.

Denis Colombi est sociologue et professeur de lycĂ©e. Il dĂ©veloppe la thĂ©matique de cet ouvrage depuis 2017 sur son blog et sur Twitter, oĂč j’ai dĂ©couvert ses travaux et rĂ©flexions. Son propos porte principalement sur la sociĂ©tĂ© française (bien que l’on trouve aussi de nombreuses rĂ©fĂ©rences amĂ©ricaines) et se nourrit d’actualitĂ©s rĂ©centes (les “Ă©meutes du Nutella” ou le steak en or de F. Riberi par exemple) et d’expĂ©riences personnelles comme professeur de lycĂ©e, de rĂ©fĂ©rences littĂ©raires mais aussi acadĂ©miques. Il est Ă  noter que la lecture en est trĂšs fluide, cet ouvrage se voulant accessible au plus grand nombre.



La question “OĂč va l’argent des pauvres?” est dĂ©clinĂ©e en six chapitres, prĂ©cĂ©dĂ©s d’une introduction. Celle-ci a pour objet de justifier la lĂ©gitimitĂ© de la question posĂ©e. En effet, D. Colombi constate que le rapprochement des thĂšmes de l’argent et de la pauvretĂ© est peu frĂ©quent, que ce soit dans le discours public comme en sociologie. “Étonnamment, l’argent n’est pas forcĂ©ment la premiĂšre chose Ă  laquelle on pense lorsqu’il est question de pauvretĂ© : on prĂ©fĂšre au mieux se concentrer sur ce qui explique, pense-t-on, le manque d’argent que sur ce dernier proprement dit. Pourtant, comment veut-on comprendre quoi que ce soit si l’on ne commence pas par lĂ  ?” (p. 19-20). Il tient Ă  montrer d’emblĂ©e que les dĂ©fis posĂ©s aux mĂ©nages pauvres en termes de gestion de budgets sont incomparables avec ceux des mĂ©nages aisĂ©s ou de classe moyenne, car les revenus des mĂ©nages pauvres sont Ă  la fois faibles et incertains, tandis que leurs dĂ©penses sont rigides et contraintes. La charge mentale de ce dĂ©fi du quotidien est par ailleurs sous-estimĂ©e dans l’imaginaire collectif qui prĂ©fĂšre se rĂȘver riche plutĂŽt que de se mettre dans la peau des pauvres. Enfin, la parole publique sur les sujets Ă©conomiques est gĂ©nĂ©ralement monopolisĂ©e par les classes supĂ©rieures. Pourtant, “penser que ses propres façons de faire en matiĂšre d’Ă©conomie devraient ĂȘtre universalisĂ©es parce qu’elles seraient partout et toujours efficaces relĂšve de la pensĂ©e magique et non de l’argument rationnel” (p. 15).

Dans le premier chapitre “Les coupables idĂ©aux. Du bon et du mauvais pauvre“, D. Colombi explore la construction de la figure du pauvre par la sociĂ©tĂ©, d’un point de vue historique et sociologique. Il rappelle que les sociĂ©tĂ©s ont gĂ©nĂ©ralement alternĂ© entre deux postures face aux pauvres : la compassion et la culpabilisation, “la pitiĂ© et la potence“. À un extrĂȘme, les pauvres sont les victimes dĂ©shumanisĂ©es de la malchance et doivent recevoir la charitĂ© des plus aisĂ©s. À l’autre extrĂȘme, les pauvres sont responsables de leur sort, n’ayant pas fait les efforts nĂ©cessaires pour se sortir de leur situation. Dans tous les cas, les rapports habituels de la sociĂ©tĂ© Ă  ses membres les plus pauvres passent sous silence l’argent proprement dit, le caractĂšre collectif de certains phĂ©nomĂšnes sociaux comme le chĂŽmage ou la pauvretĂ©, et tendent plutĂŽt Ă  stigmatiser les pauvres en leur assignant un statut particulier (souvent disqualifiant ou dĂ©gradant). La pauvretĂ© monĂ©taire des individus est donc associĂ©e par la sociĂ©tĂ© Ă  une identitĂ© sociale. L’Ă©conomique et le social se mĂȘlent ainsi dans la dĂ©finition du groupe des pauvres. “Les pauvres ne forment pas une catĂ©gorie homogĂšne, mais plutĂŽt un ensemble de personnes et de familles inĂ©galement situĂ© dans un parcours oĂč s’accumulent Ă  la fois des difficultĂ©s matĂ©rielles (notamment l’Ă©loignement du marchĂ© du travail) et une perte de la reconnaissance de la part des autres” (p. 44). Ce stigmate social est rĂ©vĂ©lĂ© dans les cas extrĂȘmes oĂč les pauvres deviennent soudainement riches (Colombi prend l’exemple des footballeurs et des gagnants du loto). Dans ces cas-lĂ , les “nouveaux riches” se reconnaissent parce qu’ils ont conservĂ© un ensemble de pratiques, de goĂ»ts et de comportements mĂ©prisĂ©s par la sociĂ©tĂ©. La pauvretĂ© monĂ©taire s’accompagne en effet d’une pauvretĂ© en capital culturel et symbolique, qui permet aux classes supĂ©rieures d’afficher leur richesse (mĂȘme lorsqu’elle est hĂ©ritĂ©e, suspecte ou indĂ©cente) avec plus de “distinction”. Le chapitre se clĂŽt par l’analyse du droit de regard que la sociĂ©tĂ© impose lorsqu’il s’agit de la dĂ©pense des pauvres, surtout lorsque que cet argent provient de l’aide publique.

“Ce qui se passe avec les aides publiques, [
] ce n’est pas seulement que les pauvres ne peuvent pas faire de contre-don – ce qui rend, dans l’analyse de Mauss, la charitĂ© la plus classique humiliante. C’est aussi et surtout qu’on soumet le don Ă  des contreparties […] Lorsque l’on donne ainsi, afin de venir en aide Ă  quelqu’un, on s’estime gĂ©nĂ©ralement lĂ©gitime Ă  lui dire aussi comment utiliser ce don” (p. 76).

Dans le second chapitre (“De folles dĂ©penses? Du luxe Ă  la survie“), D. Colombi analyse les stratĂ©gies de gestion de leur budget par les mĂ©nages pauvres et trĂšs prĂ©caires. Il montre tout d’abord que la prescription sociale Ă  l’accumulation et Ă  l’Ă©pargne est absurde et irrationnelle dans les contextes de pĂ©nurie absolue dans lesquels se trouvent beaucoup de mĂ©nages pauvres. Dans ces cas-lĂ , les mĂ©nages adoptent des stratĂ©gies qui s’expliquent entiĂšrement par la raretĂ© de l’argent plutĂŽt que par un dĂ©faut de gestion. Une de ces stratĂ©gies consiste par exemple Ă  constituer des stocks alimentaires dĂšs le dĂ©but du mois, ce qui permet de prioriser la survie physique dĂšs la rĂ©ception des revenus (de peur qu’il ne reste pas assez en fin de mois) et d’optimiser les opportunitĂ©s irrĂ©guliĂšres (les promotions par exemple). D’autres stratĂ©gies paraissent moins Ă©videntes Ă  premiĂšre vue : il s’agit par exemple de certaines consommations considĂ©rĂ©es comme “luxueuses” par les classes moyennes et supĂ©rieures. L’auteur range par exemple les smartphones et le permis de conduire dans cette catĂ©gorie et montre que l’investissement est pourtant nĂ©cessaire pour les mĂ©nages les plus pauvres, car de ces dĂ©penses dĂ©pendent la possibilitĂ© de recettes futures (le permis pour trouver un emploi lorsque l’on habite en zone peu dense que l’on a peu d’autres qualifications Ă  ajouter sur son CV) mais aussi, dans le cas du smartphone, car il permet l’intĂ©gration sociale et institutionnelle (se connecter aux services publics dĂ©matĂ©rialisĂ©s par exemple). Enfin, certaines consommations apparemment ostentatoires ou de prestige, comme les “vraies” cigarettes ou les vĂȘtements de marque pour les enfants, dĂ©coulent directement du stigmate associĂ© Ă  la figure du pauvre dans la sociĂ©tĂ© et de la nĂ©cessitĂ© ressentie de s’en distinguer pour conserver son rĂŽle social. “L’attachement Ă  certaines consommations symboliques est d’autant plus fort que leur abandon signifierait un abandon de soi, de l’espoir de connaĂźtre des jours meilleurs, ainsi que l’endossement dĂ©finitif et sans doute irrĂ©mĂ©diable du rĂŽle de pauvre et de l’identitĂ© nĂ©gative qui constitue la derniĂšre Ă©tape de la disqualification sociale. Lutter contre la pauvretĂ©, cela peut vouloir parfois dire consommer, mĂȘme au risque de s’enfoncer encore plus dans les difficultĂ©s. C’est ce qui fait toute la tragĂ©die de la misĂšre” (p. 105). L’injonction Ă  un style de vie sain et austĂšre s’accompagne parfois de la rĂ©probation sociale concernant le nombre d’enfants des familles pauvres voire leur trop forte assignation genrĂ©e. D. Colombi montre Ă  quel point ces injonctions des classes moyennes et supĂ©rieures sont hypocrites et cruelles. Dans le premier cas par exemple, l’expĂ©rience d’avoir des enfants est, de maniĂšre partagĂ©e par tous les groupes sociaux, de plus en plus considĂ©rĂ©e comme un pilier de l’accomplissement personnel (surtout lorsque les perspectives professionnelles et culturelles sont moroses). “Dans ce contexte, comment penser que les pauvres pourraient dĂ©cider ‘rationnellement’ de s’en priver ?” (p. 124). La mise Ă  jour de cette hypocrisie rejoint l’analyse, pour de la sociĂ©tĂ© britannique, d’Owen Jones dans “Chavs”. Concernant la fĂ©minitĂ© et la masculinitĂ© :

“L’usage du genre Ă  des fins professionnelles n’est pas spĂ©cifique aux classes populaires. Du trader qui doit faire preuve d’une agressivitĂ© toute masculine Ă  la top-modĂšle qui capitalise sur sa maĂźtrise de la fĂ©minitĂ©, on peut trouver des exemples Ă  tous les niveaux de l’Ă©chelle sociale. Mais ce qui est spĂ©cifique aux pauvres, c’est que ces compĂ©tences particuliĂšres sont plus souvent qu’ailleurs les seules sur lesquelles ils peuvent s’appuyer, les seules cartes Ă  jouer sur le marchĂ© du travail.” (p. 207)

Le chapitre 3 (“GĂ©rer l’ingĂ©rable. Petits arrangements avec la misĂšre“) s’intĂ©resse au moneywork (c’est-Ă -dire l’Ă©norme de travail de planification, de suivi, de contrĂŽle et de gestion de l’argent lorsqu’il est Ă  la fois rare et incertain) induit par la pauvretĂ© et principalement supportĂ© par les femmes. L’analyse des ressources et des dĂ©penses contraintes des mĂ©nages (Ă  l’euro prĂšs Ă  partir des statistiques publiques) conduit l’auteur Ă  conclure que la marge d’expression des prĂ©fĂ©rences personnelles dans les choix de dĂ©penses des mĂ©nages pauvres est infime, contrairement aux discours culpabilisants leurs mauvais choix : “les 10% les plus pauvres disposent de seulement 80 euros [par mois] une fois dĂ©duites les ‘dĂ©penses contraintes et incontournables’ – 80 euros pour les loisirs, vacances, dĂ©penses d’habillement et d’Ă©quipement mĂ©nager, ou pour mettre de l’argent de cĂŽtĂ©. […] des sommes qui paraissent, vu du plus haut sur l’Ă©chelle sociale, dĂ©risoires – les 10% les plus riches disposent eux d’un reste Ă  vivre de 1474 euros [
] A partir de ces diffĂ©rentes donnĂ©es, on peut comprendre que les affaires de prĂ©fĂ©rences, de goĂ»ts, de styles de vie, de bonnes et mauvaises dĂ©cisions, de cultures ou autres soient, finalement, de faible importance lorsque l’on s’intĂ©resse aux pauvres. Pour que tous ces Ă©lĂ©ments s’expriment, encore faut-il qu’il y ait des moyens Ă  disposition” (p. 151-2). MalgrĂ© un travail Ă©puisant de gestion quotidienne leur budget incertain, les pauvres souffrent en plus de consĂ©quences disproportionnĂ©es en cas d’erreur, notamment de la part des banques et organismes de prĂȘts.

Dans le chapitre 4 (“La pauvretĂ©, c’est la pauvretĂ©. De l’utilitĂ© publique du pauvre“), D. Colombi propose de renverser le sens de la causalitĂ© gĂ©nĂ©ralement admise entre pauvretĂ© et les comportements de dĂ©pense. Au lieu de supposer que les pauvres le sont en raison de dĂ©faut de jugement et de dĂ©penses outranciĂšres, l’auteur suggĂšre que c’est au contraire l‘expĂ©rience de la pauvretĂ©, avec son lot de stigmatisation et de disqualification sociale, qui conduit les pauvres Ă  modifier leurs comportements. “‘DĂ©s-altĂ©riser’ les pauvres, cesser de les voir comme un ensemble d’individus radicalement diffĂ©rent du reste de la sociĂ©tĂ©, voilĂ  l’enjeu. Leurs comportements ne sont pas le produit d’une culture ou sous-culture particuliĂšre, dont on ne pourrait que constater la distance avec celles des autres classes. Ils agissent en fait comme n’importe qui le ferait Ă  leur place” (p. 218). Ce changement de perspective permet Ă  la fois de rĂ©insĂ©rer les mĂ©nages pauvres dans la sociĂ©tĂ© comme membres rationnels Ă  part entiĂšre (si l’on en doutait) et non comme les reprĂ©sentants d’une sous-culture Ă  part. Il permet aussi de se dĂ©faire des deux attitudes habituelles vis-Ă -vis de la pauvretĂ© : la compassion et la culpabilisation. “Si l’on ne rĂ©duit pas ledit stigmate, aucune autre mesure en faveur des pauvres, aucune tentative un peu ambitieuse de redistribution ne sera ni possible ni pleinement libĂ©ratrice. Tant que l’usage de l’argent par les pauvres fera l’objet d’un soupçon infamant, tant que l’on cherchera Ă  le contrĂŽler et Ă  le contraindre, tant qu’on les traitera comme des pauvres, alors il sera impossible pour eux de sortir collectivement de la pauvretĂ©” (p.229).

L’avant dernier chapitre, comme son titre “MisĂšre des pauvres, opulence des riches. La pauvretĂ©, un business lucratif” l’indique, s’intĂ©resse Ă  la reproduction de la pauvretĂ© par la relation systĂ©mique entre riches et pauvres. Pour ce faire, D. Colombi s’appuie sur la notion d’exploitationpour dĂ©signer toute situation oĂč les inĂ©galitĂ©s ne sont pas seulement relatives […], mais oĂč la situation des plus favorisĂ©s implique, par une relation substantielle, le maintien dans la pauvretĂ© des moins favorisĂ©s” (p. 233). Une partie du chapitre d’attache Ă  lister certains biens et services effectivement payĂ©s plus chers par les mĂ©nages les plus pauvres. Il peut s’agit en effet du logement, de l’Ă©lectromĂ©nager ou des services bancaires. La raison peut en ĂȘtre que certains de ces produits sont vendus dans des marchĂ©s captifs spatialement (on pense aux dĂ©serts alimentaires mis en lumiĂšre aux États-Unis) ou socialement (lorsque le vendeur suspend ses jugements sur l’apparence et le choix des clients, avec un surcoĂ»t cependant). Dans le cas des services bancaires ou assurantiels par ailleurs nĂ©cessaires Ă  la vie professionnelle et personnelle, “les pauvres français payent plus cher pour leurs services bancaires parce que c’est seulement Ă  ce prix-lĂ  qu’on accepte de leur fournir. AmĂ©liorer l’accĂšs et la stabilitĂ© du logement des uns et les facilitĂ©s d’accĂšs Ă  la liquiditĂ© et aux emprunts des autres serait alors peut-ĂȘtre un moyen extrĂȘmement simple de rĂ©duire la pauvretĂ©â€ (p. 247). Dans la deuxiĂšme partie du chapitre, l’auteur explore les relations systĂ©miques encore plus directes entre riches et pauvres, c’est-Ă -dire oĂč les riches sont d’autant plus riches et libres que les pauvres sont pauvres et exploitĂ©s. Il s’agit par exemple des services Ă  la personnes (le care), sous-payĂ©s et stigmatisĂ©s, qui rendent possible le style de vie privilĂ©giĂ© des hommes et femmes de la classe supĂ©rieure ou moyenne supĂ©rieure, au prix de la misĂšre des femmes fragilisĂ©es par leur statut social et/ou migratoire. La pandĂ©mie de COVID-19 aura au moins eu le mĂ©rite de mettre au premier plan l’ampleur et les consĂ©quences de cette injustice flagrante. Un autre exemple pris par l’auteur est celui des travailleurs de plateformes numĂ©riques dont le travail mal rĂ©munĂ©rĂ© et peu protĂ©gĂ© est exploitĂ© pour organiser un future automatisĂ© qui les rendre obsolĂštes.

“En replaçant la question de l’exploitation au cƓur de l’analyse de la pauvretĂ©, on se donne les moyens de mieux la comprendre : si elle existe, si elle persiste, c’est d’abord parce que certains acteurs tirent profit de cette existence.” (p. 273)

Tout ça, c’est politique. Solution et volontĂ©” conclut l’ouvrage. Ce chapitre expose les solutions possibles pour rĂ©duire la pauvretĂ© de maniĂšre substantielle en France (oĂč elle touche prĂšs de 2 millions de personnes), ainsi que les verrous politiques, notamment le manque de volontĂ© et l’intĂ©rĂȘt des plus riches Ă  la reproduction de la pauvretĂ©. L’auteur rappelle qu’une rĂ©duction de la pauvretĂ© est possible, comme le montre l’histoire des XIXe et XXe siĂšcle et l’Ă©tablissement de l’État providence. La pauvretĂ© a alors drastiquement baissĂ©, notamment pour les personnes ĂągĂ©es. “Mais ce recul de la pauvretĂ© n’a pas Ă©tĂ© une pente naturelle de l’Ă©volution des sociĂ©tĂ©s, ni mĂȘme la simple consĂ©quence du dĂ©veloppement du capitalisme et de la croissance Ă©conomique. Il a bel et bien Ă©tĂ© le rĂ©sultat de politiques volontaristes et de dispositifs collectifs” (p. 276). La solution Ă©noncĂ©e par D. Colombi peut sembler dĂ©concertante de simplicitĂ© : il suffit de donner de l’argent aux pauvres, “ou, au moins, de leur donner accĂšs Ă  l’argent. Une source de revenus, un prĂȘt Ă  moindre taux, une facilitĂ© de caisse, autant de choses qui peuvent reprĂ©senter une bouffĂ©e d’air frais et une sortie de la misĂšre pour des mĂ©nages Ă©crasĂ©s par les difficultĂ©s Ă©conomiques” (p. 277). En discutant les maniĂšres possibles de faire cette distribution d’argent, l’auteur en vient Ă  discuter de l’intĂ©rĂȘt du revenu universel, c’est-Ă -dire de donner de l’argent Ă  tous pour accroĂźtre l’acceptabilitĂ© collective de la mesure.

C’est ce que l’on appelle le ‘paradoxe de la redistribution”. Si l’on veut aider les pauvres, il vaut mieux ne pas les viser spĂ©cifiquement. […] Il est vrai que si l’on veut, dans un tel systĂšme, avoir des personnes qui ramassent nos poubelles, il faudra envisager non seulement de les rĂ©munĂ©rer suffisamment, mais en outre arrĂȘter de les mĂ©priser. En fait, ce sera toute la valeur des emplois qui sera affectĂ©e : certaines activitĂ©s apparaissent aujourd’hui Ă  la fois trĂšs utiles et bien peu rĂ©munĂ©rĂ©es, parce que la menace de la misĂšre permet de trouver des gens disponibles pour les rĂ©aliser Ă  bas coĂ»t. Un revenu universel conduirait Ă  devoir repenser complĂštement la notion mĂȘme de valeur” (p. 293-303).

Le livre s’achĂšve sur ce constat dĂ©sarmant et crucial : “les pauvres sont comme tout le monde, et les plus fortunĂ©s seraient comme eux s’ils n’avaient pas d’argent” (p.311). Bien qu’Ă©vidente, l’inscription de cette formule au frontons des institutions sociales pourrait ĂȘtre recommandĂ©e par mesure prophylactique, pour Ă©viter la naturalisation de la pauvretĂ© et sa justification par les classes favorisĂ©es (on pense ici Ă  l’ouvrage “Ce que les riches pensent des pauvres” de S. Paugam, B. Cousin, C. Giorgetti et J. Naudet).


Au final, cet ouvrage confirme certaines de mes intuitions (sur le surcoĂ»t des biens et services vendus au pauvres par exemple) et ouvre de nouvelles perspectives (sur la monĂ©tisation de l’aide ou le caractĂšre genrĂ© du moneywork). Bien que certains sujets du livre effleurent la dimension spatiale des mĂ©canismes de maintien dans la pauvretĂ© (avec les marchĂ©s captifs notamment), on pourrait Ă©videmment regretter l’absence de discussion de l’effet des environnements gĂ©ographiques locaux sur les opportunitĂ©s et les contraintes accessibles aux mĂ©nages pauvres selon leur inscription territoriale (la question de l’Ă©cole et des soins y est fortement associĂ©e localement par exemple, celle de l’emploi Ă  une Ă©chelle plus large). Enfin, on peut dĂ©plorer la restriction gĂ©ographique des exemples aux cas français et amĂ©ricains. Qu’en est-il dans les sociĂ©tĂ©s oĂč la charitĂ© envers les pauvres est nĂ©cessaire Ă  l’ordre social et au salut des privilĂ©giĂ©s (comme dans le roman d’Aminata Sow Fall : “La grĂšve des bĂ ttu”) ? Qu’en est-il dans les collectivitĂ©s oĂč, pour des raisons spirituelles par exemple, la pauvretĂ© est cĂ©lĂ©brĂ©e plutĂŽt que stigmatisĂ©e ? Au final, ce livre constitue un essai original sur la pauvretĂ© dans les sociĂ©tĂ©s occidentales. Il met en lumiĂšre de nombreux mĂ©canismes sociaux de sa reproduction, dont certains sont parfois contre-intuitifs.



Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants.

D’autres comptes-rendus de cet ouvrage ont Ă©tĂ© publiĂ©s Ă  ce jour, par exemple dans la revue Lectures ainsi que sur le blog de Mediapart.  


Enfances de classe. De l’inĂ©galitĂ© parmi les enfants.

Lahire B. (dir.), 2019, Enfances de classe. De l’inĂ©galitĂ© parmi les enfants, Paris, Seuil, 1232p.

(N.B. Ce compte-rendu a Ă©tĂ© publiĂ© par la revue Cybergeo, European Journal of Geography. La version blog ci-dessous inclut, en plus, une discussion de l’ouvrage en lien avec mon projet sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s urbaines, ainsi que le document compagnon contenant les citations que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©es importantes.)

La premiĂšre chose qui marque dans ce livre, c’est  probablement son poids! Avec 1232 pages, l’ouvrage dĂ©passe mĂȘme le record du nombre de pages pour un livre grand public consacrĂ© aux inĂ©galitĂ©s dĂ©tenu par Thomas Piketty. Toutefois, la lecture (et la revue) n’en sont pas dĂ©mesurĂ©ment longues, notamment car les deux tiers environ de l’ouvrage sont consacrĂ©s Ă  18 portraits d’enfants, qui prĂ©sentent leur biographie familiale, leur environnement quotidien ainsi que les descriptions et opinions de leurs parents, enseignants et proches sur diffĂ©rents thĂšmes relatifs Ă  leur socialisation (la lecture, le sport, les jeux, l’alimentation, l’autoritĂ©, etc.). C’est d’ailleurs l’aspect que j’ai trouvĂ© le plus intĂ©ressant dans cet ouvrage quant Ă  sa forme : contrairement Ă  beaucoup de recueils de rĂ©sultats consĂ©cutifs Ă  une enquĂȘte en sciences sociales menĂ©e par une Ă©quipe de chercheurs sur plusieurs annĂ©es, ce livre fournit Ă  la fois le contexte de la recherche, sa mĂ©thodologie, ses rĂ©sultats, mais aussi le matĂ©riau de l’enquĂȘte lui-mĂȘme, synthĂ©tisĂ© en monographies de 30 Ă  40 pages chacune. Les chapitres d’analyse concluant l’ouvrage en sont d’autant plus percutants que le lecteur ou la lectrice a dĂ©jĂ  pu gĂ©nĂ©raliser certaines conclusions lui ou elle-mĂȘme en lisant la sĂ©rie de monographies, dont la prĂ©sentation suit une trame plus ou moins standard, abordant tour Ă  tour les diffĂ©rentes questions de la socialisation de l’enfant, agrĂ©mentĂ©e d’extraits d’entretien.

L’ambition de l’ouvrage est annoncĂ©e par Bernard Lahire dĂšs la page 13 : il s’agit de montrer “la plus extrĂȘme pauvretĂ© comme la plus grande richesse et permet[tre] de faire sentir, autant que de faire comprendre, que ces enfants, qui sont tous en grande section Ă  l’école maternelle, au mĂȘme moment, dans la mĂȘme sociĂ©tĂ©, ne vivent pas du tout les mĂȘmes rĂ©alitĂ©s. Saisir les inĂ©galitĂ©s dĂšs l’enfance est une maniĂšre d’apprĂ©hender l’enfance des inĂ©galitĂ©s, au sens de leur genĂšse dans la fabrication sociale des individus ». Contrairement aux enquĂȘtes quantitatives menĂ©es sur un Ă©chantillon trĂšs large d’enfants (l’enquĂȘte ELFE de l’Ined par exemple compte plus de 18000 individus en 2011), le parti-pris de l’Ă©quipe de sociologues rĂ©unis autour de B. Lahire est de sĂ©lectionner un nombre rĂ©duit d’enfants d’une mĂȘme cohorte (35 en l’occurrence), et d’analyser le plus finement possible la façon dont leur inscription sociale, familiale et scolaire influence leur vie au quotidien, de la maniĂšre la plus concrĂšte possible. Ainsi, les enquĂȘteurs ont demandĂ© aux familles combien de livres possĂ©dait l’enfant, quelles Ă©taient ses habitudes vis-Ă -vis des Ă©crans, s’il ou elle recevait ou non de l’argent de poche et selon quelles modalitĂ©s, etc. En lien avec la visĂ©e politique qui traverse l’introduction et surtout la conclusion de l’ouvrage, “la variĂ©tĂ©, la richesse et la densitĂ© des informations produites sur chaque cas permettent d’incarner la rĂ©alitĂ© de l’ordre inĂ©gal des choses et de rendre plus difficile le dĂ©tournement du regard ou l’indiffĂ©rence. » (Lahire, p.15).

“Enfances de classe” se compose donc de trois parties. La premiĂšre (“Etudier les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă  l’échelle des enfants”) est entiĂšrement rĂ©digĂ©e par B. Lahire. Elle dresse tout d’abord le contexte de l’Ă©tude – Ă  savoir les travaux et dĂ©bats scientifiques existant sur l’identification des inĂ©galitĂ©s entre enfants et leur significativitĂ© -, son importance en raison du poids des inĂ©galitĂ©s et enfin sa mĂ©thodologie. La deuxiĂšme partie consiste en 18 Ă©tudes de cas, signĂ©es chaque fois du ou des enquĂȘteurs impliquĂ©s. La derniĂšre partie (“Les inĂ©galitĂ©s dans tous leurs Ă©tats”) prĂ©sente la synthĂšse des rĂ©sultats issus des diffĂ©rents cas et leur gĂ©nĂ©ralisation selon une dizaine de dimensions. Les diffĂ©rents chapitres sont signĂ©s par diffĂ©rents groupes de chercheurs, tandis que la conclusion gĂ©nĂ©rale revient Ă  B. Lahire.

Le premier chapitre (“Une enfance socialisĂ©e”) de la partie introductive correspond Ă  la posture thĂ©orique et Ă©pistĂ©mologique de l’ouvrage. L’auteur situe explicitement l’ouvrage dans le champ des Ă©tudes de socialisation, en opposition aux childhood studies. Il critique notamment l’importance donnĂ©e par ce courant Ă  l’agency (i.e. la capacitĂ© de choix de l’enfant dans le dĂ©roulĂ© de son dĂ©veloppement et de son Ă©ducation) en raison du poids des normes sociales et de la socialisation familiale dans le type de choix offerts Ă  l’enfant et leur existence mĂȘme. Il renvoie aussi l’action des pairs Ă  un effet de la position des familles dans l’espace social (et gĂ©ographique) plutĂŽt qu’Ă  un facteur indĂ©pendant de l’Ă©volution sociale et scolaire de l’enfant: « Le capital Ă©conomique et culturel des parents (et notamment le volume et la nature du capital scolaire qu’ils possĂšdent) ont des effets sur le type de parcours scolaire rĂ©alisĂ© par l’enfant, sur le type de quartier habitĂ©, le type d’école frĂ©quentĂ©e et, du mĂȘme coup, le type d’amis que les enfants peuvent se faire, une grande partie des pairs potentiels se recrutant dans le voisinage immĂ©diat et parmi les camarades de classe. [
] Les enfants ne sont pas passifs, mais ils sont particuliĂšrement dĂ©pendants des adultes avec qui ils sont liĂ©s et qui structurent leurs champs d’actions et de rĂ©actions depuis leur naissance » (p.23). L’importance primordiale de la famille dans la socialisation prĂ©coce de l’enfant est ce qui fonde les prĂ©mices de cette enquĂȘte menĂ©e sur des enfants suffisamment ĂągĂ©s pour pouvoir s’exprimer par le langage et frĂ©quenter l’Ă©cole depuis plusieurs annĂ©es, mais suffisamment jeunes pour ĂȘtre encore principalement dĂ©pendants de leur famille en termes de ressources, d’habitudes et de dispositions. Le programme scientifique de l’enquĂȘte est donc d’identifier les multiples ressorts concrets par lesquels des enfants de mĂȘme Ăąge et scolarisĂ©s au mĂȘme niveau Ă  l’Ă©cole maternelle dans un mĂȘme pays prĂ©sentent des comportements et des caractĂ©ristiques aussi diverses, en analysant dans chaque famille enquĂȘtĂ©e comment “elle dĂ©termine l’environnement social de l’enfant par le choix du mode de garde et du lieu de rĂ©sidence ; elle exerce un contrĂŽle plus ou moins Ă©troit en matiĂšre de ‘frĂ©quentations’ [
], de choix de l’école [
] elle joue un rĂŽle de filtre par rapport aux usages des programmes tĂ©lĂ©visĂ©s, des imprimĂ©s lus ou des jouets achetĂ©s, par rapport aussi aux diffĂ©rents types d’activitĂ©s culturelles ou sportives pratiquĂ©es par les enfants ; elle effectue, enfin, plus gĂ©nĂ©ralement, un travail, insensible mais permanent, d’interprĂ©tation et de jugement sur tous les domaines de la vie sociale » (p.31-3).

Dans “Le poids des inĂ©galitĂ©s”, l’auteur donne sa dĂ©finition des inĂ©galitĂ©s et rĂ©affirme sa posture critique. Il distingue ainsi les inĂ©galitĂ©s des diffĂ©rences sociales par la diffĂ©rence de valeur et de dĂ©sirabilitĂ© entre les diffĂ©rents Ă©tats et ressources des individus : “Etre riche, instruit et en bonne santĂ© n’est pas une option qu’on aurait Ă  choisir parmi d’autres possibles. C’est bien parce que la richesse est plus enviable que la pauvretĂ©, que l’instruction et les savoirs sont mieux considĂ©rĂ©s que l’absence d’instruction et l’ignorance, et que la bonne santĂ© est prĂ©fĂ©rable Ă  la mauvaise santĂ© qu’il n’est pas seulement question de diffĂ©rences sociales entre riches et pauvres, instruits et non-instruits, personnes en bonne santĂ© ou personnes souffrantes ou diminuĂ©es, mais bien d’inĂ©galitĂ©s » (p.39). Le devoir du sociologue (critique) est donc, selon lui, de donner Ă  voir les asymĂ©tries prĂ©sentes au sein de la sociĂ©tĂ© Ă  un moment donnĂ©, ainsi que les rapports de domination par lesquels les diffĂ©rences sont transformĂ©es en inĂ©galitĂ©s et les inĂ©galitĂ©s reproduites au cours du temps et des gĂ©nĂ©rations. Ce programme fait donc la diffĂ©rence entre inĂ©galitĂ©s vĂ©cues et reprĂ©sentations subjectives en interrogeant les conditions d’accĂšs et les usages sociaux d’un grand nombre de biens matĂ©riels et symboliques valorisĂ©s par une sociĂ©tĂ© donnĂ©e (par exemple l’instruction, la santĂ©, l’espace, le confort, le leadership, le temps, la culture, etc.).

Dans le chapitre consacrĂ© au “dispositif de recherche inĂ©dit”, l’auteur rĂ©affirme le parti-pris original d’aborder les inĂ©galitĂ©s par l’Ă©tude des « conditions et modalitĂ©s concrĂštes de la socialisation, envisagĂ©es Ă  l’échelle des cas individuels et dans leurs effets conjuguĂ©s » (p. 54). En l’occurrence, 35 enfants ont Ă©tĂ© enquĂȘtĂ©s, Ă  raison de trois entretiens par famille, plus un entretien avec l’enseignante ou l’enseignant, un entretien avec un proche de l’enfant, une journĂ©e d’observation en classe et quatre exercices langagiers. Les familles ont Ă©tĂ© “recrutĂ©es” Ă  partir des rĂ©seaux personnels et professionnels des chercheurs, en veillant Ă  tenir compte du niveau et de la composition du capital culturel et Ă©conomique des parents, de leur situation professionnelle et de leur capital scolaire. PlutĂŽt que d’Ă©chantillonner les familles de façon Ă  reproduire la composition exacte de la sociĂ©tĂ© française (dans laquelle les classes populaires et moyennes sont plus nombreuses que les classes supĂ©rieures), le choix a Ă©tĂ© fait de reprĂ©senter ces trois catĂ©gories Ă  part Ă©gale, en explorant plutĂŽt les diffĂ©rences entre “fractions de classes”. « L’enquĂȘte devait permettre d’objectiver deux grands types de ‘ressources’ inĂ©galement rĂ©parties parmi les familles : d’une part, des ressources socialement objectivĂ©es (niveau de revenu, niveaux de diplĂŽmes, carriĂšres et positions professionnelles, types de logements, rĂ©sidences secondaires, recours Ă  des femmes de mĂ©nages ou des domestiques, etc.) et, d’autre part, des ressources incorporĂ©es (dispositions et compĂ©tences), qui engendrent des effets en matiĂšre de types d’interactions avec l’enfant, de pratiques adultes qui font exemple pour les enfants, d’organisation de la vie familiale, de choix de pratiques ou d’activitĂ©s pour les enfants, etc. Les ressources incorporĂ©es des enfants ont Ă©tĂ© saisies Ă  travers les multiples descriptions et jugements de leurs comportements et attitudes de la part des adultes (parents, enseignant et autre adulte de rĂ©fĂ©rence)  » (p.65).

Dans la seconde partie, on trouve ainsi dix-huit des trente-cinq portraits d’enfants rĂ©alisĂ©s par la quinzaine de chercheurs impliquĂ©s dans l’enquĂȘte, regroupĂ©s en trois classes sociales (populaires, moyennes, supĂ©rieures) selon le niveau de capital et de ressources scolaires des parents. Chaque portrait est associĂ© Ă  un prĂ©nom (anonymisĂ© mais socialement proche de l’original) et Ă  un titre (par exemple “Thibault : grandir Ă  la ferme” ou “Balkis : dormir dans une voiture devant l’Ă©cole”). Il signĂ© par le, la ou les deux chercheurs qui ont enquĂȘtĂ© auprĂšs de l’enfant et de sa famille. Il est Ă  noter que certains portraits sont bien situĂ©s gĂ©ographiquement (on sait par exemple que Valentine habite le VIIe arrondissement, Ilyes une “banlieue populaire de Lyon” et Lucie une maison de ville Ă  Besançon) tandis que d’autres sont plus flous ou moins bien renseignĂ©s.

La derniĂšre partie synthĂ©tise l’analyse des 35 cas d’Ă©tudes en dix dimensions transversales des inĂ©galitĂ©s chez les enfants enquĂȘtĂ©s, Ă  savoir le lieu de vie (FrĂ©dĂ©rique Giraud, Julien Bertrand, Martine Court, Sarah Nicaise), la stabilitĂ© professionnelle et la disponibilitĂ© parentale (GĂ©raldine Bois, Sophie Denave et AurĂ©lien Raynaud), le rapport Ă  l’argent (Martine Court, Sophie Denave, FrĂ©dĂ©rique Giraud, Marianne Woollven), l’Ă©cole et les jeux (Fanny Renard, Charlotte Moquet, GaĂ«le Henri-PanabiĂšre, FrĂ©dĂ©rique Giraud), l’autoritĂ© et l’esprit critique (GĂ©raldine Bois, GaĂ«le Henri-PanabiĂšre, AurĂ©lien Raynaud), le langage (Marianne Woollven, Olivier VanhĂ©e, GaĂ«le Henri-PanabiĂšre, Fanny Renard, Bernard Lahire), la lecture et l’expression orale (Marianne Woollven, Olivier VanhĂ©e, GaĂ«le Henri-PanabiĂšre, Fanny Renard, Bernard Lahire), les loisirs (JoĂ«l Laillier, Olivier VanhĂ©e, Christine Mennesson, Emmanuelle Zolesio), le sport (Christine Mennesson, Julien Bertrand, Sarah Nicaise) et le corps (Sarah Nicaise , Martine Court, Christine Mennesson, Emmanuelle Zolesio). Il n’est pas possible de reprendre ici l’ensemble des conclusions apportĂ©es dans ces dix chapitres. J’en propose donc deux Ă  propos des effets du lieu de vie, qui feront Ă©chos aux travaux de gĂ©ographie sur le sujet, et deux conclusions plus gĂ©nĂ©rales croisant plusieurs dimensions (par ailleurs, on trouvera dans le document compagnon de cette recension les citations relatives Ă  l’ensemble des chapitres traitĂ©s ici).

– La premiĂšre conclusion du chapitre sur l’influence du lieu de vie (entendu Ă  la fois comme espace domestique et comme localisation gĂ©ographique de la rĂ©sidence) sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s enfantines est que ce lieu, loin d’ĂȘtre une variable quelconque, est Ă  la fois le rĂ©sultat des inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques de la gĂ©nĂ©ration des parents et l’un des facteurs majeurs de la production des inĂ©galitĂ©s entre enfants. En effet, le capital parental (et grand-parental) dĂ©termine quelles conditions d’existence sont accessibles aux familles et oĂč se situe l’environnement quotidien des enfants. En retour, l’espace, le confort et l’environnement social de rĂ©sidence agissent sur le dĂ©veloppement des enfants de maniĂšre inĂ©gale : « Les classes supĂ©rieures bĂ©nĂ©ficient de conditions matĂ©rielles d’existence sans commune mesure avec celles des classes populaires et de classes moyennes. Leurs logements sont Ă  la fois spacieux et confortables [
] Ces chambres individuelles leur permettent de possĂ©der un espace, des objets et des jouets Ă  eux, de s’isoler pour se livrer Ă  des activitĂ©s calmes ou encore d’inviter leurs copains. Elles permettent Ă©galement aux parents de sĂ©parer les enfants lors de disputes ou d’énervements. [
] Nombre de ces logements se situent en outre dans des quartiers oĂč se concentre une population socialement favorisĂ©e : en centre-ville, dans des arrondissements ou dans des banlieues prisĂ©es garantissant l’entre-soi des classes dominantes et le placement futur des enfants dans des Ă©coles ayant ‘bonne rĂ©putation’ » (p.944-5). Les gĂ©ographes des inĂ©galitĂ©s retrouveront donc ici l’idĂ©e familiĂšre que le logement et sa localisation font partie intĂ©grante des stratĂ©gies des mĂ©nages, et surtout de ceux qui ont les moyens de choisir (la proximitĂ© de telle ou telle amĂ©nitĂ©, la rĂ©putation de tel quartier) autant que d’Ă©viter (telle Ă©cole ou tel secteur).

– La seconde conclusion relative au lieux de vie concerne l’effet des ressources rĂ©sidentielles et immobiliĂšres sur les reprĂ©sentations des enfants et de leur importance : « L’accĂšs Ă  la propriĂ©tĂ© individuelle, redoublĂ©e parfois par l’achat d’une rĂ©sidence secondaire, consacre le sentiment d’appartenir aux classes favorisĂ©es – les ressources rĂ©sidentielles et Ă©conomiques des autres membres de la famille facilitant cette consĂ©cration matĂ©rielle ou attĂ©nuant les difficultĂ©s de logement passagĂšres » (p.947). A l’inverse, « la dĂ©possession d’espaces et les conditions prĂ©caires d’habitat peuvent gĂ©nĂ©rer l’isolement et la stigmatisation par les autres enfants. Les inĂ©galitĂ©s spatiales et matĂ©rielles se rĂ©percutent donc sur l’ordre enfantin qui maintient les hiĂ©rarchies et rĂ©tablit les places de chacun en leur sein. » (p. 935-6).

– Da maniĂšre plus gĂ©nĂ©rale, l’enquĂȘte montre que malgrĂ© la distinction de la population en trois classes sociales, les discontinuitĂ©s sociales Ă  l’origine des inĂ©galitĂ©s les plus fortes rĂ©side entre les familles trĂšs pauvres et prĂ©caires sur de nombreux plans (insĂ©curitĂ© Ă©conomique, rĂ©sidentielle et lĂ©gale notamment) et les autres. En effet, bien que la vie des enfants de “fractions stabilisĂ©es des classes populaires” ait peu en commun avec celle des enfants des familles les plus privilĂ©giĂ©es, les effets de ces conditions inĂ©gales de ressources sur leur comportement (notamment scolaire), leur santĂ© et leur stabilitĂ© Ă©motionnelle sont moins immĂ©diats qu’entre eux et les enfants des familles les plus prĂ©caires. Ce constat suggĂšre une action urgente, ciblĂ©e et intense pour venir en aide Ă  ces familles.

– Enfin, il ressort des analyses transversales et des entretiens avec les parents une impression de relation positive entre d’une part la position de la famille au centre d’une classe sociale donnĂ©e et d’autre part sa dĂ©contraction affichĂ©e vis-Ă -vis de l’Ă©ducation des enfants, tandis que les familles “entre-deux” groupes sociaux ou en transition apparaissent comme les plus anxieuses et conscientes d’appliquer des principes Ă©ducatifs distinctifs et intransigeants (pas d’Ă©cran, pas de football, aucun vĂȘtement franchisĂ©, de la nourriture biologique uniquement, etc.).

La conclusion gĂ©nĂ©rale de l’ouvrage s’ouvre sur le dĂ©veloppement de l’humain comme espĂšce ainsi que sur le progrĂšs des civilisations et se referme sur une critique des gouvernements qui, au lieu de permettre au plus grand nombre d’accĂ©der aux progrĂšs de l’outillage et du savoir, contribuent Ă  privatiser les communs et Ă  aggraver les inĂ©galitĂ©s. Entre les deux, on trouve un rappel intĂ©ressant des effets de la domination historique masculine sur la libĂ©ration du temps et de la crĂ©ativitĂ© des hommes. « Inversement, nous l’avons vu dans ce livre, pour celles et ceux qui cumulent les ‘handicaps’ et les manques de ressources, c’est toute la vie qui se restreint. Le temps de vie qui se raccourcit, l’espace qui se rĂ©duit, le confort qui diminue, l’horizon mental et sensible qui se referme, et finalement la maĂźtrise du monde et d’autrui qui s’affaiblit ou disparaĂźt » (p. 1169). B. Lahire en appelle donc aux gouvernements de ne pas dĂ©tourner les yeux du constat parfois cruel qu’apporte son livre Ă  propos d’enfants de 5 ans vivant dans la mĂȘme sociĂ©tĂ© au mĂȘme moment, et de “mettre en Ɠuvre pour rĂ©duire ces inĂ©galitĂ©s” (p. 1176).

Cet ouvrage relĂšve assurĂ©ment le dĂ©fi de fournir un instantanĂ© trĂšs complet et trĂšs lisible des inĂ©galitĂ©s de conditions matĂ©rielles et symboliques entre enfants aujourd’hui en France. Il tĂ©moigne de l’ampleur et de la qualitĂ© d’orchestration d’un collectif oĂč chaque chercheur est impliquĂ© Ă  la fois dans la constitution de plusieurs monographies et dans la rĂ©daction d’une ou plusieurs synthĂšses thĂ©matiques dont il est spĂ©cialiste, mais qui requiert la connaissance des autres monographies. Ce dispositif implique de plus le lecteur qui, ayant accĂšs au matĂ©riau de l’enquĂȘte par le biais des 18 portraits publiĂ©s, participe en temps rĂ©el Ă  la gĂ©nĂ©ralisation des rĂ©sultats prĂ©sentĂ©s en derniĂšre partie d’ouvrage. Ainsi, de l’aveu mĂȘme du coordinateur de la recherche, « en plus de sa volontĂ© assumĂ©e de forcer les responsables politiques Ă  regarder en face la rĂ©alitĂ© des inĂ©galitĂ©s, cet ouvrage revĂȘt une autre dimension politique : celle des pratiques scientifiques mĂȘmes qui l’ont rendu possible. Car ce livre est le fruit d’une recherche collective inĂ©dite, conçue comme une opĂ©ration de recherche cohĂ©rente, et non comme une simple juxtaposition de contributions, ce qui est trop frĂ©quemment le cas » (p.85).

On peut toutefois relever quelques faiblesses Ă  l’ouvrage. D’une part, il m’a semblĂ© que l’angle d’analyse des inĂ©galitĂ©s entre enfants rĂ©sultant de leur socialisation dans des familles issues de diffĂ©rentes positions dans l’espace social Ă©tait biaisĂ© en faveur de la “rentabilitĂ© scolaire” des comportements enfantins. L’importance de cet angle se comprend assez facilement au vu du profil de B. Lahire, spĂ©cialiste de la sociologie scolaire, et en particulier de la rĂ©ussite et de l’Ă©chec scolaire. Ainsi, le fait que les parents valorisent chez leurs enfants la disposition au calme, Ă  l’esprit critique, au leadership ou Ă  la lecture est analysĂ© comme un atout pour l’entrĂ©e dans le “mĂ©tier d’Ă©lĂšve”. Inversement, la tendance Ă  la non-verbalisation des Ă©motions ou l’Ă©vitement de la compĂ©tition sont interprĂ©tĂ©s comme de possibles handicaps dans la poursuite scolaire de l’Ă©lĂšve. Si les dispositions transmises par les familles les plus favorisĂ©es ont tendance Ă  ĂȘtre plus rentables scolairement (et c’est ce que montre les rĂ©sultats de l’enquĂȘte), certaines semblent pouvoir ĂȘtre interprĂ©tĂ©es comme nĂ©gatives voire dommageables dans d’autres domaines de la future vie des enfants, comme par exemple l’attention trĂšs marquĂ©e des mĂšres favorisĂ©es au poids de leurs petites filles ou l’encouragement des petits garçons et des petites filles de classes supĂ©rieures Ă  jouer systĂ©matiquement le rĂŽle de meneur auprĂšs de leurs pairs. Une discussion plus nuancĂ©e de ces questions aurait pu enrichir cet ouvrage et Ă©tendre son application au-delĂ  des effets purement scolaires des inĂ©galitĂ©s. De mĂȘme, une rĂ©flexion sur la particularitĂ© nationale des conclusions prĂ©sentĂ©es aurait pu ĂȘtre intĂ©ressante, par rapport Ă  d’autres systĂšmes scolaires par exemple (oĂč la scolarisation commence plus tard qu’en France, oĂč il n’existe pas de modĂšle dominant d’Ă©cole rĂ©publicaine, etc.). Enfin, bien qu’un Ă©chantillonnage social et gĂ©ographique Ă©quilibrĂ© ne puisse ĂȘtre envisagĂ© pour un nombre d’Ă©tudes de cas si petit, il m’a paru surprenant de constater que toutes les familles prĂ©caires vivaient la mĂȘme mĂ©tropole (Lille) et frĂ©quentaient deux Ă©coles dont le militantisme des parents et du personnel enseignant paraĂźt plus important que la moyenne. De maniĂšre gĂ©nĂ©rale, bien qu’une attention particuliĂšre soit portĂ©e dans les rĂ©sultats Ă  distinguer les conditions de vie rurale, pĂ©riurbaine et urbaine, le lecteur gĂ©ographe ne sait pas jusqu’Ă  quel point ni comment ces critĂšres ont jouĂ© de maniĂšre formelle dans le recrutement et la sĂ©lection des familles.

Dans le cadre de mon projet de recherche sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s urbaines, je retiens de cette lecture l’importance de la socialisation familiale et scolaire prĂ©coce sur la reproduction des inĂ©galitĂ©s sociales, ainsi que l’idĂ©e d’une temporalitĂ© longue au cours de laquelle se construisent les inĂ©galitĂ©s de situations matĂ©rielles, d’attitudes scolaires et de comportements sociaux, depuis la plus petite enfance jusqu’Ă  l’Ăąge adulte. Les  biographiques familiales, bien qu’elles montrent des trajectoires sociales ascendantes et descendantes (notamment en termes de diplĂŽmes) mettent toutefois bien en valeur l’importance des hĂ©ritages multiples (immobilier, culturel, Ă©ducatif, informationnel, etc.) dont bĂ©nĂ©ficient les classes supĂ©rieures et qui les ancrent durablement dans le haut de l’espace social.

Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants.

A ce jour, je n’ai pas connaissance d’autres comptes-rendus de cet ouvrage publiĂ©s dans des revues scientifiques. Toutefois, une recension-prĂ©sentation de l’ouvrage par Sonya Faure et Simon Blin existe dans LibĂ©ration, ainsi qu’un compte-rendu par François Jarraud pour le cafĂ© pĂ©dagogique.

Ordinary cities between modernity and development

Robinson J., 2006, Ordinary cities between modernity and development, London, Routledge, 204p.

“Ordinary Cities” is now thirteen years old and it features in the reading list of many urban geography university courses, from UCL (where J. Robinson is professor of Geography) to SOAS, LSE and McGill. Its concepts and messages have diffused largely in academia (cf. for instance the 1899 citations of the book in scholarly publications at the time when this post was written), yet the predominance of western cities and western scholars in mainstream urban studies is still patent and renewed with each wave of urban ‘modernity’ (if we think of smart cities, connected cities, etc). This late review of the book content thus provides a yardstick of what it has achieved (or not achieved) since its publication in 2006.

I have first encountered the idea of Ordinary Cities while reading my friend SolĂšne Baffi’s thesis on rail transportation in South African cities. The proposition was of course well indicated in the context of Robinson’s home country of South Africa, but it resonated also with my own thesis on post Soviet cities, supposedly singular and specific, where general urban models would not apply and where mordern urban theory was not made. The whole argument of J. Robinson in this book was thus extremely attractive. It can be summarised as follow: cities are diverse, and therefore so should be urban studies. More than a scientific requirement to better understand cities and urban processes around the world, this objective of diversity is deeply militant, as argued by the author in the preface to the book: “Theories of modernity, just like South African cities, have often reserved experiences of dynamism and innovation for a privileged few, and especially for those wealthy cities and their citizens who have laid claim to originating modernity. Theories of urban modernity, then, have drawn a stark line between ‘modern’ cities and other kinds of cities, variously described as Third World, perhaps African, perhaps developing / underdeveloped, perhaps colonial. At best these ‘other’ cities have been thought to borrow their modernity from wealthier contexts, presenting pure imitations rather than offering sites for inventiveness and innovation. This book is a contribution to the task of ensuring that as scholars of cities we end our complicity in such dispossessions.” (p.x). Further along in the book, she illustrates this claims quite eloquantly: “Once New York’s urbanism has been understood as just another cosmopolitan and provincial form of modernity, any anxiety on the part of other cities about lagging behind or mimicking a modernity that is always ‘elsewhere’ (Johnson 1999) becomes less plausible.” (p.73).




The book consists in six chapters, which take the reader from the deconstruction of the concept of modernity (chapter 1) to the exposition of cosmopolitan ways of being urban and modern through comparative urbanism (chapter 2 and 3). A whole chapter (#4) is dedicated to the critique of city ranking, hierarchizing and labelling, arguing that world cities and global cities are more than centres of control for finance and management. The fifth chapter argues that urban studies need to put the (ordinary) city back to the centre instead of classifying them into modern or developing. Finally, chapter 6 looks at the possible and diverse futures of cities through policy and planning.

In introduction, the author clearly sets the two ambitions of the book. Firstly, she states: “it is an argument of this book that all cities are best understood as ‘ordinary’. [
] Instead of seeing only some cities as the originators of urbanism, in a world of ordinary cities, ways of being urban and ways of making new kinds of urban futures are diverse and are the product of the inventiveness of people in cities everywhere.” (p.1). The change in perception is supposed to provoke a change in perspective at the world scale, by considering cities in their simultaneous diversity rather than in a sequence of modernity adoption. Secondly, J. Robinson suggests that “we need a form of theorising that can be as cosmopolitan as the cities we try to describe. This would be a form of urban theory that can follow the creative paths of urban dwellers – across the city or across the world – as they remake cities (Simone, 1998) and that can draw on the transformative potential of shared lives in diverse, contested – ordinary – cities to imagine new urban futures.” (p.3). Therefore the dual objective of scientific understanding on the one hand and militant repossession of urban studies on the other hand appears to structure the book from its start. The way Robinson chooses to tackle this dual objective in the introduction is by exposing the parochial nature of modernity claims made by Western cities and Western scholars. The appropriation of modernity by “the West” is important because it creates a universal standard of city life and innovations with which other cities are supposed to catch-up. Debunking this claim allows the identification of urban modernity outside western cities in a contemporary and cosmopolitan manner. Robinson argues that it also provides urban planners and decision makers with a wider panel of policy options, inspired from a diversity of experiences around the world that can also be more adapted to their cities, instead of applying the same past “western” recipes. This theoretical articulation of ideas is the core contribution of the book. The following chapters then consist in illustrations of the workings of the appropriation and in research strategies to avoid the dispossession.

The first chapter, “dislocating modernity”, highlights the paradox of modernity: i.e. a concept initially related to temporality which has been diverted and perverted into a spatialised assessment of who is “in” and who is “out of time”. The way in which this diversion was achieved, according to J. Robinson, is through a constant editing/re-writing of the Western urban story to remove all contributions from other cultures: “A reconceptualization of urban modernity might begin by interrogating Western forms of modernity. For these are as much a product of dynamics from beyond the West as its own ingenuity, including primitivist-inspired borrowings, actual resource extraction and political innovations learned in colonial governance (see, for example, Stoler, 1995; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). But western modernity’s projection of itself as the generative source of creativity relies on forgetting these circulations and borrowings.” (p.19). Cities are central to this process, since they connect people, combine ideas and inspirations at a larger scale and at a faster pace than anywhere else. The rest of the chapter explores how urban studies themselves have embedded the western conception of urban modernity. She cites the Chicago School of sociology as a powerful vector in that process, in particular by noting how Park and al’s conception of the city in opposition with “primitive” and “folk” qualities of community and emotions has imposed a very specific way of urban living as the standard for city identification. This then made it hard for cities with strong community ties and non-anonymous relationships to claim their cityness, as examplified by J. Clyde Mitchell’s struggle to have (now) Zambian cities recognized as such by urban scholards, not discounting but accounting for tribal elements of culture and social relations. Robinson’s argumentation also makes use W. Benjamin’s work on Parisian arcades as urban signals of alternative and possible futures of the western city itself: “a future where the public and the private might be intermingled and where the utopian fantasies through which technological innovations were often represented harkened back to a pre-class and pre-commodity society of plenty” (p.29).

The second chapter in the book is intitled “Re-imagining the city through comparative urbanism. On (not) being blasĂ©”. It starts from the classic contribution of L. Wirth, “Urbanism as a way of life”, which Robinson shows as a claim/attempt at explaining cities everywhere based on a North-American XXth century experience (of Chicago). For instance, she notes that the high demographic growth fueled by a diverse immigration at a time of booming industrial economy on which the theory relies is a very situated moment in the world geographical history rather than a universal path for urbanisation around the world. The scientific antidote to this appropriation lies, for Robinson, in relaying the accounts of urban research from other contexts. She especially relies on the work made by the Manchester School of anthropologists in the zambian Copperbelt. “Like the Copperbelt anthropologists and many other comparative urbanists, Oscar Lewis observed that the blasĂ© attitude of Western urban dwellers, which Simmel, Park and Wirth had seen as a cornerstone of urban sociability, was not representative of urbanism elsewhere. [
] He did not stop, though, at simply noting differences from the US analysis and with J. Clyde Mitchell, Epstein, Gluckman and South African anthropologist Philip Mayer, he went on to suggest that ‘there are many ways of life which may coexist in the same city’ (1973: 130). He insisted that his observations from Mexico should make a difference to how cities in other places are understood.” (p.57). The chapter concludes with J. Robinson advocating for a post-colonial urban theory which “establish[es] conversations because of, and across, strong empirical and theoretical differences” (p.63) and, more importantly, lets ideas flow both ways between locations “from Chicago to the Copperbelt, but also back again” (p.63) .

Ordinary cities make their appearance in the third chapter as the primary material from which a postcolonial comparative and cosmopolitan urban studies might come about: “Ordinary cities, then, exist in a world of cities linked through a wide range of circulations – of people, ideas, resources – in which cities everywhere operate both to assemble diverse activities and to create new kinds of practices. This chapter therefore introduces a new tactic for a post-colonial urban studies: a form of theorising in which the resources for thinking about cities are as cosmopolitan as the cities that are being theorised.” (p.65). Therefore J. Robinson embarks into an analysis of modernity from the perspective of a diverse pool of cities (yet mostly large state capital cities). She looks at the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, which signal the city’s modernity to the rest of the world while excluding poor malaysian residents from it. She looks at the early Saint Petersburg where the Nevsky perspective provided the street decorum for individual performance and recognition in a context of poor infrastructure and peasant economy. She also draws from Zambian cities and how the second-hand clothing trade allowed citizens to express their modernity through styling at a time of post-structural adjustment. All these examples participate in showing that “the experiences of poor people, or cities in poor contexts, do not stand for the ‘past’ of Western urbanism – either as sites of tradition or economic backwardness – but are contemporaneous social formations that have produced diverse and distinctive ways of being urban. With inventive traditions and appropriated copies, urbanisms in poor places stand alongside other ways of being modern and can illustrate experiences of city life in other contexts. But, as we will consider briefly in the conclusion, if poor cities are not the ‘past’ or simply ‘copies’ of Western urbanism, neither, I suggest, are they its future.” (p.90).

In chapter 4, “World cities, or a world of ordinary cities?”, the author introduces the concepts of world-cities and global-cities and how their success moved the attention from the dynamic processes they were supposed to describe (the globalised economic relations between cities and concentration of command over some of these relations in a limited number of nodes) to a fixed hierarchy of cities from which poor cities are excluded, deemed irrelevant and relegated from urban studies to development studies. She offers an interesting alternative to this view, first by considering the “key sectors involved in managing the global economy” as just another form of industrial district (p.97), and second by considering the other sectors of the world network of cities, i.e. “commanding” cities as well as cities involved in other trades and flows. Considering all cities as ordinary enables such integration. “First, ordinary cities can be understood as unique assemblages of wider processes – they are all distinctive, in a category of one. [
] Second, and learning much from global- and world-cities approaches, ordinary cities exist within a world of interactions and flows. However, in place of the global- and world-cities approaches that focus on a small range of economic and political activities within the restrictive frame of the global, ordinary cities bring together a vast array of networks and circulations of varying spatial reach and assemble many different kinds of social, economic and political processes. Ordinary cities are diverse, complex and internally differentiated.” (p.108-9). The added-value of this change of perspective is argued to be found beyond urban studies and theory building, in the practice of urban planning, as it would provide decision makers with a wider diversity of inspirations for policy rather than the restricted example of so-called world cities to catch up to.

“Bringing the city back in” in the fifth chapter means considering cities in their diversity and internal inequalities. “Rather than theories of world cities, which encourage competitive behaviour amongst cities and focus on a very small segment of the urban economy or developmentalist accounts, which zoom in on the poorest and least well-provisioned areas of the city, urban studies will need to explore the dynamics of socially and economically diverse cities. Both globalising economic sectors and the needs of the poorest citizens will have to be considered, bringing the ordinary city, in all its complexity and diversity, firmly into view.” (p.117). In short, the analysis Robinson recommends at this point of the book thus comprises various sectors of city life and the economy, within cities and city-regions as well as between them, in rich as well as in poor cities. This vast program is illustrated with a very specific analysis of Johannesburg metropolitan governance within the iGoli project, although not necessarity laid out in terms of generic research tools and methodology.

Chapter 6 (“Cities futures”) implements the ordinary cities perspective into urban planning. It looks at economic prescriptions maybe by western urban economists in western contexts regarding the desirability of industrial diversity (or specialisation in the case of clusters). For example, in a section devoted to discussing J. Jacobs’ theory of diverse cities, J. Robinson notes that “Jacobs’s overall argument is that it is the everyday, tolerant coexistence of social difference and economic diversity that enables cities to bring together different people and different talents, to generate new activities and to enable innovation. Cities that encourage segregation – physical or social – from the ‘ordinary’ city, with its jumbled mixtures of uses and people, she suggests, will lack vitality and perhaps die. [
] Clearly, diverse neighbourhoods, the physical coexistence of a range of business environments and the spatial concentration of diverse activities can have the generative social and economic effects she described. But cities do not always get to be like that, and yet they remain sites for economic growth and innovation.” (p.159). However, she finds room to accomodate Jacobs’ theory within the ordinary cities framework by switching the scale of analysis from the neighbourhood to the city. “This chapter [shows] how keeping in mind the ordinary city – diverse, contested, connected – brings into view a range of potential strategies for enhancing economic growth that could encourage redistributive investments in infrastructure, as well as expand access to employment and support different kinds of livelihoods. Reinforcing the broadest agglomeration economies of cities, it has been suggested, along with encouraging diverse urban economies, might be more useful strategies than pouring scarce public resources into already successful clusters of globalising firms.” (p.164-5).

The conclusion summarises the content of the book and reinforces the double message that the author has been communicating throughout: the fact that all cities are distinctive and diverse, and that urban studies need to reflect this diversity. She adds a warning about the scientific status quo: “Facing a world of ever-expanding cities, more likely than ever before to be home to poor people, urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few wealthy cities: this would doom it to irrelevance.” (p.167).


Towards the end of the book, I must admit I was a little disappointed by the gap between the ambitious program set in introduction and the resulting implementation in the last chapters. The book is more of a manifest in my opinion, and I completely adhere to the core ideas of ordinary cities as the diverse material of a diverse urban studies. However, I found that the applications seemed too restricted in their scope to adequately prove the author’s point rather than just claim it. The message I take home is that we need to keep in mind, while we are studying cities, that they and their residents are diverse, connected and contested. This does not make a recipe on how to actually study cities, let alone design inclusive policies, but it is a significant step forward. A second point of critique I have towards the author’s method is that, although she acknowledges and celebrates diversity in cities and within cities, her resources remain very biased towards the dominant model when it comes to academic and theoretical references on the one hand, and to the type of city considered here on the other hand (. Regarding references, it is a pity that the only theories which are discussed (and criticised) are the dominant paradigms originating from prestigious US and UK scholars (the Chicago school, the GaWC, Louis Wirth, Jane Jacobs, Scott & Storper). Non-english writers are left entirely out of the schope, and so are less well-known scholars who have advocated for diverse urban studies before 2006. It leaves a false impression that ordinary cities are a theoretical greenfield emanated exclusively from an opposition to dominant english-speaking western references, which is probably not true. Regarding cities themselves, I wondered if it was a choice to restrict the analysis to large metropolises and national capitals (New York, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Johannesburg, Chicago, Singapore, Saint Petersburg, Mexico city, etc.), or just an ambiguity related to the fact that nowhere are cities defined. It seems however that smaller cities have a very important role to play in the promotion of the ordinary in urban studies. To paraphrase Robinson: “urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few [large] cities: this would doom it to irrelevance”.

With respect to my project about the scales of urban inequality, I have found interesting ideas about the relationship between industrial clusters and social segregation in chapters 4 and 6, which is mediated by J. Robinson through scale: “The benefits of proximity for networks of learning, cooperation and competition in dynamic clusters and specialised concentrations in some cities would be very relevant examples of innovation through single-use neighbourhoods, a kind of ‘segregation’. But, in many cases, strong concentrations of certain kinds of activities in cities do not translate into close spatial clustering, or into close interactions amongst similar firms, or even into stable ongoing interactions with actors […]. So, in economic terms, Jane Jacobs’s ‘ordinary city’ is perhaps best thought about at a city-wide scale where the diversity of activities that she identified as crucial to economic expansion and innovation coexist and have opportunities for the interactions she saw as crucial for generating new activities.” (p.160). I also keep her overall message about diverse, connected and contested cities in mind to draw inspiration, examples and illustrations from the most diverse pool of cities possible, large and small, from across the world when approaching urban studies.



Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Belgeo, the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Justice Spatial / Spatial Justice (in French), the Journal of world-systems research, Research in African Literatures and Cultural Geographies.

Géographie des Inégalités

George P., 1981, Géographie des inégalités, Paris, Que Sais-Je, Presses Universitaires de France, 127p.

Alors que je dĂ©marrais un projet Ă©ditorial sur le thĂšme de la gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, j’ai cherchĂ© les ouvrages existants (en français) sur le sujet et trouvĂ© en premiĂšre place ce petit volume de Pierre George datant de 1981. Je ne connaissais pas le travail du gĂ©ographe sur ce sujet, ayant plutĂŽt cĂŽtoyĂ© ses Ă©crits sur l’URSS, les villes et la gĂ©ographie Ă©conomique. Au moment oĂč je cherchais ce Que Sais-Je devenu rare (seuls 15% de l’ouvrage peuvent ĂȘtre lus sur Gallica), Denise Pumain en trouvait une copie dans une bibliothĂšque familiale et m’envoyait un scan de la conclusion, sans concertation mais Ă  point nommĂ©. J’ai depuis empruntĂ© le volume et lu ce texte datant de presque quarante ans. Il me conforte dans l’idĂ©e de renouveler l’exercice aujourd’hui, car certains faits et processus ont changĂ©, mais j’ai Ă©tĂ© aussi Ă©tonnĂ©e de son actualitĂ© et de la prĂ©sence dĂ©jĂ  ancienne de questions toujours non rĂ©solues dans la gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, et en premier lieu celle, sur laquelle je reviendrai, de l’importance de l’Ă©chelle gĂ©ographique dans la prĂ©sentation, la comprĂ©hension et la reprĂ©sentation des inĂ©galitĂ©s.

PubliĂ© chez PUF dans la collection Que Sais-Je, cet ouvrage est vu par P. George comme une actualisation de son opus GĂ©ographie de la Consommation dans la mĂȘme collection vingt ans plus tĂŽt, et qui abordait les diffĂ©rences nationales en termes de niveau de consommation, contrastant des espaces de sous-consommation et des espaces de sur-consommation. “Il a paru plus conforme aux circonstances de reprendre la question en amont et de proposer Ă  des recherches plus approfondies une prise en compte des facteurs de diffĂ©renciation des consommations Ă  l’Ă©chelle de la gĂ©ographie gĂ©nĂ©rale, mais aussi des espaces plus concrets de la vie quotidienne, Il en est issu l’idĂ©e d’une GĂ©ographie des InĂ©galitĂ©s.” (p.4). Cette approche des niveaux de vie par les conditions matĂ©rielles de leur rĂ©alisation est un point important de l’ouvrage et n’est pas Ă©tranger aux propositions d’A. Sen sur les capabilitĂ©s, mais il peut surprendre dans le contexte actuel oĂč la majoritĂ© des ouvrages sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques prennent pour acquis l’usage des variables de revenus, de salaires et de patrimoine pour dĂ©crire les inĂ©galitĂ©s. Dans cet ouvrage, l’auteur aborde aussi bien les niveaux de production agricole que ceux de la consommation alimentaire pour dĂ©crire les inĂ©galitĂ©s entre groupes sociaux situĂ©s sur des espaces diffĂ©rents (diffĂ©renciation internationale, opposition urbain-rural) mais aussi les inĂ©galitĂ©s entre groupes sociaux d’un mĂȘme espace (les grandes villes notamment).



L’ouvrage se compose d’une introduction et d’une conclusion, sĂ©parĂ©es par trois chapitres : un premier chapitre est consacrĂ© au “pays industriels”, un second Ă  “la pauvretĂ©” et un dernier (“une nouvelle donne?”) au dĂ©veloppement Ă©conomique et ses consĂ©quences en termes de nouveaux Ă©quilibres mondiaux des inĂ©galitĂ©s.

DĂšs l’introduction, la question des Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques dans la perception, la comprĂ©hension et l’analyse des inĂ©galitĂ©s apparaĂźt comme centrale. Selon P. George, “l’espace est fait d’unitĂ©s prĂ©sentant certains caractĂšres d’homogĂ©nĂ©itĂ©, emboĂźtĂ©es les unes dans les autres. A l’intĂ©rieur de chacune d’elles se diffĂ©rencient des secteurs d’inĂ©galitĂ©s. Une gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, comme toute gĂ©ographie, s’articule donc suivant diverses Ă©chelles. Il y a autant de nĂ©cessitĂ© Ă  prendre en compte dans une ville ou dans une rĂ©gion les diffĂ©renciations sociales de l’occupation et de la maĂźtrise de l’espace qu’Ă  mesurer les Ă©carts entre de grands ensembles continentaux.” (p.8). La dĂ©finition des inĂ©galitĂ©s est ici rendue par l’idĂ©e de diffĂ©renciation entre zones homogĂšnes. Le parti est pris dĂšs le dĂ©but de l’ouvrage de s’intĂ©resser avant tout aux inĂ©galitĂ©s (et donc aux diffĂ©renciations) de niveau de vie Ă©conomique: “Quel que soit le caractĂšre choquant des discriminations liĂ©es Ă  la naissance ou Ă  l’appartenance Ă  une collectivitĂ© ethno-culturelle, les grands contrastes de conditions de vie et mĂȘme, Ă  la base, de chances de survie, reposent sur la rĂ©partition des moyens d’existence. [
] ConcrĂštement, les clivages les plus perceptibles des inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques et sociales se projettent sur l’utilisation de l’espace.” (p.7). L’objectif de cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s est donc de prĂ©senter les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques mondiales Ă  travers la lecture des diffĂ©renciations spatiales produites par les sociĂ©tĂ©s Ă  diffĂ©rentes Ă©chelles.

Le premier chapitre brosse une gĂ©ographie de la richesse et des inĂ©galitĂ©s des pays industriels – c’est-Ă -dire principalement de l’Europe, du Japon, de l’AmĂ©rique du Nord et du bloc socialiste de l’Ă©poque – en deux Ă©tapes. La premiĂšre partie du chapitre dĂ©crit le niveau de richesse absolu des Etats concernĂ©s, en se rĂ©fĂ©rant Ă  leur niveau de vie et de consommation, mais aussi Ă  la structure sociale de la sociĂ©tĂ©, qualifiĂ©e “de classes moyennes”. L’ouvrage a cette qualitĂ© de ramener systĂ©matiquement la distribution des richesses Ă  leur projection dans l’espace. Par exemple:

“En France, l’Ă©cart officiel est de l’ordre de 1 Ă  7 entre le salaire minimum garanti et les Ă©moluments d’un cadre supĂ©rieur. La hiĂ©rarchie des revenus rĂ©els et sa rĂ©partition sont en fait toutes diffĂ©rentes – autant du fait des inexactitudes Ă  la base que des sous-Ă©valuations au sommet – et se projette sur une Ă©chelle beaucoup plus Ă©tirĂ©e et gĂ©nĂ©ralement dĂ©calĂ©e dans l’ensemble vers le haut. En premier lieu, les conditions d’une famille peuvent varier sensiblement suivant qu’il est possible ou non dans un mĂȘme lieu de rĂ©unir plusieurs salaires par mĂ©nages. Les rĂ©gions ou les villes qui n’offrent qu’un type d’activitĂ©, et notamment que des activitĂ©s masculines, sont pĂ©nalisĂ©es par rapport Ă  celles oĂč tous les Ă©lĂ©ments d’Ăąge actif d’une famille peuvent exercer un emploi rĂ©munĂ©rĂ©. C’est notamment le cas des pays miniers ou des rĂ©gions d’activitĂ©s industrielles Ă  forte majoritĂ© d’emplois masculins (sidĂ©rurgie en particulier).” (p.24)

L’auteur opĂšre ensuite une dĂ©clinaison scalaire de ces niveaux de vie au sein des pays industriels. “On doit prendre en compte toute une hiĂ©rarchie de situations qui se projette dans l’espace Ă  des Ă©chelles diffĂ©rentes: inĂ©galitĂ©s entre villes et campagnes qui engendrent l’exode rural, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre petites villes et grandes villes, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre rĂ©gions rurales Ă  forte productivitĂ© (et Ă  population relativement nombreuse) et rĂ©gions rurales Ă  basse productivitĂ©, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre rĂ©gions Ă  intĂ©gration industrielle multiforme assurant diversitĂ© et relĂšve d’emplois et rĂ©gions mono-industrielles exposĂ©es aux crises conjoncturelles et techniques” (p.34-5). La seconde partie du chapitre Ă©voque les dĂ©fis de ces Etats pourtant privilĂ©giĂ©s relativement Ă  l’Ă©chelle mondiale, au travers de l’injonction Ă  la croissance illimitĂ©e et des crises successives. Une mention est faite aux pays socialistes, qui ne sont pas pour autant fondamentalement distinguĂ©s des pays industriels dans cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s. “Le principe organique de la sociĂ©tĂ© [socialiste] est une rĂ©partition Ă©galitaire des revenus sectoriels modulĂ©e en fonction de la qualitĂ© de l’activitĂ© exercĂ©e. Dans la pratique, des avantages non comptabilisĂ©s privilĂ©gient la ‘classe politique et administrative’, communĂ©ment appelĂ©e la Nomenklatura, mais ils ne se transposent pas dans le paysage comme les diffĂ©rences sociales des pays d’économie libĂ©rale. Les structures urbaines sont uniformes, et discret l’impact gĂ©ographique des privilĂšges de fonction – dans les zones de ‘datchas’ ou les aires rĂ©servĂ©es aux loisirs des hauts fonctionnaires et des responsables politiques.” (p.43).

Le second chapitre est dĂ©diĂ© Ă  la pauvretĂ©, que P. George aborde par sa mesure, discutant tout d’abord les indicateurs les plus appropriĂ©s, notamment aux Ă©conomies agricoles d’auto-subsistance. L’auteur distingue ainsi les indicateurs (PNB par exemple) des rĂ©vĂ©lateurs (espĂ©rance de vie, Ă©tat de santĂ© et d’Ă©ducation notamment). “Dans la mesure du possible, il est souhaitable de dĂ©passer [la] premiĂšre approximation [du quotient de PNB] en Ă©valuant des revenus rĂ©els Ă  partir d’enquĂȘtes locales. La difficultĂ© majeure est que cette Ă©valuation ne peut se faire en signes monĂ©taires que pour des populations urbaines qui ne reprĂ©sentent que des minoritĂ©s, et dont une partie au moins est dans une situation relativement favorable par rapport Ă  la masse de la population qui est une population rurale. Or, la transposition de quantitĂ©s de produits agricoles en valeurs monĂ©taires, quand il est question de produits qui ne sont pas commercialisĂ©s, n’a guĂšre de sens.” (p.55-6). La seconde partie du chapitre met en relation les succĂšs apparents du dĂ©veloppement avec les preuves du maintien de la pauvretĂ©, notamment dans les pays de forte croissance dĂ©mographique. Cette discussion introduit l’importance de considĂ©rer les inĂ©galitĂ©s intra-nationales, par exemple dans le domaine de l’alimentation: “Ces donnĂ©es d’ordre gĂ©nĂ©ral ne fournissent qu’une image imparfaite des insuffisances alimentaires, en ce sens qu’elles ne font pas apparaĂźtre les privations affectant particuliĂšrement certaines catĂ©gories et certaines classes d’ñge de la population, et confondent dans une mĂȘme moyenne, mĂȘme gravement insuffisante, la succession de pĂ©riodes au cours desquelles elles sont susceptibles de varier dans des proportions importantes. Une grande partie des disponibilitĂ©s alimentaires est absorbĂ©e par les minoritĂ©s privilĂ©giĂ©es rĂ©sidant en ville et consommant les nourritures les plus riches souvent fournies par l’importation. Les moyennes recouvrent de sensibles diffĂ©rences d’un lieu Ă  l’autre.” (p.57-9).

Le troisiĂšme chapitre enfin Ă©voque la situation des Etats intermĂ©diaires. Ces Etats incluent les pays pĂ©troliers (“la fortune sans richesse”) ainsi que ceux que l’on qualifie aujourd’hui d’Ă©mergents (Chine, BrĂ©sil, Mexique par exemple). A propos des sociĂ©tĂ©s des pays pays pĂ©troliers et de leurs disparitĂ©s sociales et spatiales, P. George note que “le contraste est probablement un des plus forts qu’on puisse observer dans le monde” (p.88). A propos des pays Ă©mergents, caractĂ©risĂ©s par la vitesse de leur dĂ©collage tout autant que par leur niveau de vie intermĂ©diaire, l’auteur tente d’identifier les conditions gĂ©ographiques et historiques communes qui les diffĂ©rencient des Etats restĂ©s pauvres ou en dĂ©veloppement. Selon lui, et sans dĂ©terminisme, “les Ă©lĂ©ments principaux peuvent ĂȘtre ramenĂ©s dans une approche prĂ©liminaire au nombre de quatre : la dimension, les facteurs naturels de production, la maĂźtrise de la dynamique dĂ©mographique, les structures de production. […] Les conditions gĂ©ographiques et historiques favorisent, sinon imposent, certains choix. Ceux-ci incombent Ă  la classe politique gĂ©rant les affaires d’Etat et qui se confond, sous des formes variĂ©es dans la structure et l’idĂ©ologie retenues, avec la classe Ă©conomique. Il en rĂ©sulte des clivages dĂ©cisifs Ă  l’intĂ©rieur de la sociĂ©tĂ©, dont il sera fait Ă©tat au titre des inĂ©galitĂ©s dans le dĂ©veloppement.” (p.93-8). Si la situation moyenne des Etats dĂ©crits ici est intermĂ©diaire Ă  l’Ă©chelle mondiale, P. George consacre la fin de ce chapitre Ă  montrer Ă  quel point cette moyenne masque les inĂ©galitĂ©s les plus extrĂȘmes entre classes aisĂ©es et dĂ©munies, entre quartiers riches et quartiers pauvres, entre capitales nationales et villes secondaires notamment. Loin d’ĂȘtre un effet secondaire, ces inĂ©galitĂ©s font partie selon lui du processus mĂȘme de dĂ©veloppement de ces pays. « Les grandes Ă©conomies libĂ©rales en voie de dĂ©veloppement rapide sont les plus inĂ©galitaires du monde. Les inĂ©galitĂ©s se projettent sur deux plans, celui de l’échelle sociale globale et celui de l’espace gĂ©ographique dĂ©multipliĂ© Ă  son tour en unitĂ©s rĂ©gionales et en subdivisions locales. Le fondement de l’inĂ©galitĂ© est l’armature mĂȘme du dĂ©veloppement. » (p.105-6).

Dans la conclusion, P. George retourne Ă  son argument de l’imbrication des Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques dans la lecture des inĂ©galitĂ©s au travers des diffĂ©renciations spatiales: “les ‘disparitĂ©s rĂ©gionales’, l’inĂ©gal dĂ©veloppement des Ă©conomies urbaines et des Ă©conomies rurales, la hiĂ©rarchie des villes, les sĂ©grĂ©gations intra-urbaines sont les thĂšmes gĂ©ographiques de l’inĂ©galitĂ© Ă  l’échelle des Etats, des rĂ©gions, des agglomĂ©rations. » (p. 122-3). Il met en relation les sociĂ©tĂ©s mondiales analysĂ©es sĂ©parĂ©ment durant l’ouvrage, en notant par exemple que les inĂ©galitĂ©s des pays en dĂ©veloppement au moment de l’Ă©criture sont incomparablement plus Ă©levĂ©es que celles qu’ont connu les pays industrialisĂ©s, sur lesquels sont pourtant fondĂ©s les figures typiques de la sĂ©grĂ©gation en gĂ©ographie (l’opposition ‘beaux quartiers’ / ‘quartiers ouvriers’ dans les villes par exemple). Le rĂŽle des indicateurs statistiques, utilisĂ©s tout au long du livre pour prĂ©senter les ordres de grandeur de la richesse et de la pauvretĂ© des pays, rĂ©gions, villes et quartiers, est relativisĂ© par l’auteur qui  les traite de “moules vides” et recommande de leur adjoindre des Ă©lĂ©ments d’explication issus de l’observation et du dialogue. Enfin, il plaide pour une gĂ©ographie “utile” qui dĂ©crit les inĂ©galitĂ©s pour dĂ©noncer leurs consĂ©quences nĂ©gatives et contribuer Ă  “la prise de conscience de la nĂ©cessitĂ© d’une certaine forme d’action rĂ©paratrice” (p. 123).



L’analyse critique de cet ouvrage trente huit ans aprĂšs sa publication a la tache impossible de distinguer les incongruitĂ©s dus aux parti-pris de l’auteur de celles rĂ©vĂ©lĂ©es a posteriori par les changements advenus dans le monde en gĂ©nĂ©ral depuis 1981 et dans celui de la gĂ©ographie en particulier. Notons donc simplement quelques faiblesses de l’ouvrage pour le lecteur contemporain, notamment liĂ©es Ă  la prĂ©-Ă©minence de l’Ă©chelle des Etats, malgrĂ© les efforts importants de l’auteur pour offrir une analyse multiscalaire. Ainsi, les Etats Ă©tant l’Ă©chelon premier qui divisent le monde dans cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, il n’est fait usage nulle part (ou trĂšs peu) des ensembles territoriaux plus larges (tels que l’Union EuropĂ©enne, l’URSS ou l’ALENA) qui non seulement permettrait une classification plus homogĂšne des espaces au regard des inĂ©galitĂ©s (au lieu de la dichotomie pays industriels / pays en dĂ©veloppement) mais aussi constituent pour certains des espaces de redistribution de la richesse (le Fond EuropĂ©en pour la Politique RĂ©gionale par exemple, crĂ©Ă© en 1975, qui existait donc dĂ©jĂ  au moment de l’Ă©criture de l’ouvrage). Cette absence de considĂ©ration pour les institutions supra- ou sub-nationales s’accompagne d’une faible attention portĂ©e aux politiques de rĂ©duction des inĂ©galitĂ©s en gĂ©nĂ©ral. Enfin, la description des niveaux de vie par pays et de leurs disparitĂ©s gĂ©ographiques telle qu’elle est mise en oeuvre dans le livre de P. George masque un aspect important des inĂ©galitĂ©s et de leur dynamique, Ă  savoir les interactions entre espaces (par le commerce, la finance ou les investissements, mais aussi les relations politiques et militaires dans un contexte post-colonial).

La prioritĂ© donnĂ©e aux Etats et au processus de dĂ©veloppement face aux relations internationales reflĂšte peut-ĂȘtre l’anachronisme d’une lecture biaisĂ©e par l’idĂ©e actuelle de mondialisation, mais suggĂšre que l’actualisation de ce travail doit dĂ©sormais incorporer cette dimension. Ce petit Que Sais-Je mĂ©rite toutefois d’ĂȘtre lu aujourd’hui, ne serait-ce pour son attention au caractĂšre multi-scalaire des inĂ©galitĂ©s et pour sa projection systĂ©matique des diffĂ©renciations sociales dans l’espace gĂ©ographique.


Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants. Chaque citation est accompagnĂ©e d’un ou plusieurs mots clĂ©s (ou tags), prĂ©cĂ©dĂ©s d’un # afin d’effectuer des recherches thĂ©matiques dans le document. Les passages en gras ne le sont pas nĂ©cessairement dans la version originale.

A short history of inequality

Alacevich M., Soci A., 2017, A Short History of Inequality, Agenda Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 232p.

I have purchased this book in the hall leading to a Regional Studies Association conference in London last year. The promising title and the short format (232 pages including a 50-page appendix on the measures of inequality) suggested a quick read and a useful textbook to keep at reach for future reference. It has kept its promises and also delivered some surprises.

The first surprise is that the book is more a history of the economics of inequality than a history of inequality itself. Indeed, the title suggests that the reader will find at some point a collection of historical evolutions of inequality indices. There are some of such graphs, but they do no make the core of this book. Instead, the place of inequality within economics as a discipline and its main contributors are exposed and explained. This history of economics includes accounts of how measures of inequality came about and how they were used to support theories about the social distribution of economic resources. This approach can be explained by the profile of one of the authors, Michele Alacevich, who is an Associate Professor of Economic History and the History of Economic Thought at the University of Bologna. His collaboration with Anna Soci, Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna, dates back from their concomittant stay at Columbia University  in the early 2010s.

The second surprise of the book is an additional focus on dialectic relationships (inequality and globalisation in chapter four, inequality and democracy in chapter five) which brings insightful reflexions about the causes and consequences of inequality, even though it is sometimes detached from the main narrative. The biggest contribution of this book in my perspective is its general information on the history of inequality studies (for example the biographies of Lorenz, Pareto and Gini which were new to me) as well as the wide (yet digest) presentation of how inequality can be approached, in terms of scales (global, international and national accounts), of content (income, wealth, production, capabilities) and of rationale (equity, welfare, democracy). Obviously, some aspects and discussions (especially on data sources) are missing but the authors have compensated this by deeper analyses in the dialectic chapters, so that the small book does not cover only superficial categories. I think all in all, the book falls short of telling the history of inequality (which is fine since other books had done it already anyway), yet it provides an original and reflexive contribution well worth the (quick) read.



The book is structured around an introduction, six chapters and an appendix. The introduction and chapter one set the frame and incentives for studying inequality, recalling why it is a social issue that economists should address. Chapter two and three present how and why inequality has been sidetracked from mainstream economics until very recently, because of its object (individuals) and methods (distributional statistics). Chapter four deals with inequality and globalization, and chapter five with inequality and democracy. The last chapter opens on the future of inequality, including sectoral politicies expected to reduce economic inequalities. The appendix details the statistics of inequality through a more in-depth presentation of the main measures of inequality (Gini, Theil, P10/P90, etc.).


As the introduction recalls, despite the sizeable place that economics of inequality hold in the public debate in recent years, it has long been an issue relegated to the side of mainstream economics, which were far more interested in the dynamics of growth and production than in the individual distribution of income and wealth. This is especially true for early industrialised countries. “Whereas economic inequality per se cannot be said to be a new issue, its catalytic power in terms of political discourse is indeed novel. […] While we have been used to consider inequality as a basic characteristic of many less developed countries (except perhaps the very poor countries, whose low inequality is mainly attributable to everybody being poor), only in recent years have pundits, the economics profession at large, and public opinion awakened to the fact that inequality has become a fundamental problem in countries that have long considered themselves immune from it – mainly the advanced countries” (p.4). What has changed to push the issue of inequality to the forefront of political economics, according to the authors, is the post-crisis increase of domestic (within-country) inequality in ‘advanced economies’ as well as a bigger focus on individuals (in part through democracy) and their capabilities. The  processes of globalisation and democratisation are intertwined with inequality at various geographical scales, and according to the authors: “Wether we succeed in giving globalization a human face and keeping democracy a credible and truly representative political system will depend in greatest part on how we resolve the problem of inequality” (p.10).

The first chapter is entitled “Why inequality is the real issue”. It aims to show how inequality differs from the related issues of poverty and growth, and why it should have precedence in this book. This take opposes the views of scholars like Nozick, Toqueville and Mc Closkey, for whom poverty is the real issue to resolve, for example by fostering a general enrichment of society (of the like of industrialisation), regardless of the further enrichment of the already rich. By contrast, the authors argue that the gap between rich and poor is important itself, on an economic as well as political level, because “while poverty may be smoothed as a nonantagonistic question, inequality will always, sooner or later, trigger a discussion about the structure of power and social disparities in a given society” (p.15). In this first chapter, inequality is also related to its counterpart: equality, a much bigger subject in social philosophy and the first contributors to classical economics, whereas it became a strong deterrent in neoclassical economics, increasing the acceptability (and even desirability) of inequality in this body of work. For the authors, inequality is everything but a desirable outcome: “not only does structural inequality undermine the functioning of global and national economic systems, its disruptive power in the economic sphere also merges with other dimensions of inequality in a society, such as racial and gender inequality; inequality in education, opportunities, and other social attributes such as class and status; inequality in life expectancy; and, in less lucky countries, inequality in access to much more basic necessities, such as food and potable water. These inequalities reinforce each other (though not always in a linear ways) to produce visious circles, through a process called “cumulative causation”, that entrap most disadvantaged individuals or groups and make them increasingly behind the privileged ones. Social scientists have insisted on ‘self-reinforcing mechanisms’, ‘critical thresholds’, ‘dysfunctional institutions’ and other forces that perpetuate existing stratifications and work against social mobility” (p.22). One further argument against inequality in this chapter is that “Inequality deeply penetrates the social fabric, shapes it, and remains engrained in it, possibly for generations. Inequality, in other words, is inherited. […] It imperils the mechanisms of a healthy democracy” (p.23-4).

In view of this opposition of arguments, the second chapter contextualises “the long neglect of inequality” within the history of economic thought. The inter-individual inequality of wealth and income has been neglected in mainstream economics until recently for three reasons according to the authors. Firstly, “whereas a theory of personal income and wealth distribution, which is vital to the study of inequality, has been prominently absent from the economic literature, another kind of distribution has played a very important role, name functional distribution. […] Thus the distribution of production, central to the classical economic thought, is ‘functional’ since it pertains to the distribution of the product to the groups that contribute to production.” (p.27-31). The groups in question (workers and capitalists, or producers and consumers) are taken as homogenous units, leading the way to the ‘representative agent’ of neoclassical economics. This way of thinking excludes the possibility and necessity for a “complete theory of personal distribution because there are no person” (p.36). Secondly, the lives of individuals were not viewed as legitimate objects of economic analysis until recently. “Even during the French Revolution, the bourgeois favored political equality but not social or economic equality. The time was not ripe for a social revolution that would make the individual its center. Much time would elapse before the individual became the true focus of societal studies” (p.32-3). Thirdly, the study of inequality to inform the opportunity of state intervention lies on normative grounds, and presupposes the adoption of an idea of social justice, which mainstream economics (including the New Welfare doctrine) have rejected, focusing instead on “the problem of efficient allocation of resources in the form of so-called Pareto optimality, according to which an allocation is Pareto optimal whenever it cannot be reorganized so to improved the condition (utility) of somebody without worsening that of other” (p.38). Finally, the authors note that as a result, a complete and consistant theory of the personal distribution of income does not exist in the discipline. “Regrettably, at least for the construction of a theory of size distribution of revenues, twentieth-century economics has been occupied in diatribes between the two competing Keneysian and neoclassical theories, leaving no space for other ideas or for contamination from other disciplines, such as sociology and politics” (p.44).

Chapter three complements the picture by describing “the statistical drift of inequality studies”. Indeed, as a consequence of the absence of theory, the authors suggest that economics of inequality resorted instead to present factual observations and to design ever more sophisticated ways of summarising them (i.e. statistics and inequality measures). They review in details the landmark measures of inequality (Pareto’s alpha, Lorenz’s curve, Gini’s coefficient), highlighting their strength and weaknesses. For example, compared to the descriptive fitting of Pareto to a power law distribution, Lorenz introduced the idea of concentration of wealth/income with respect to the share of population holding it. “As Lorenz put it, the purpose of his 1905 article – apparently his only publication in a scientific journal – appeared to be rather humble: to discuss some techniques used thus far in distribution analysis, and to suggest ‘an additional one’ in order to ‘take account simultaneously of changes in wealth and changes in population’. In particular, Lorenz insisted on the benefits that a graphical representation of distributional data would offer” (p.51-2). By integrating over this curve to produce a bounded index, Gini popularised Lorenz’s curve and allowed for the scale- and population-independent comparison of spatio-temporal units with respect to inequality. “Contrary to Pareto’s outcome of a uniform distribution of wealth across countries and time, he found that total income distribution differs geographically” (p.53). The drawbacks of the Gini index are well-known (uni-dimensionality, low sensibility to extremes, non decomposability). The latter one was alleviated by Theil’s entropy index, which allows to measure “how much of the inequality is due to difference showed by the groups of observations in relation to each other and how much, conversely, is due to differences within each group of observations.” (p.55), distinguishing for example the within-country and between-country inequality. The presentation then turns to Kuznets’ theory and the inverted-U-shape curve that bears his name (although he never traced it apparently). The authors recall the principle of this theory: “During the process of economic development – that is, as the society as a whole comes richer – inequality rises, but eventually it reaches a plateau and starts to decrease while economic development proceeds” (p.61), its reliance on between-sectors processes (agriculture and industry in the original version) and how it might have been misinterpreted as an explanation for the differences in inequality between countries (non-ergodicity). The final developments detailed in chapter three regards Atkinson’s work of translating the Lorenz curve into welfare functions and vice versa and Sen’s introduction of the capabilities approach.

Chapter four dives into the relationships between inequality and globalisation. It starts by illustrating the relation with the phenomenon of international migrations: “the current Mediterranean migration underscores that migrations are a fundamental factor directly affecting and affected by inequality dynamics at the global level. People’s ability to migrate is not only an unmistakable sign that globalizing forces are at work; it is also one of the principal mechanisms for individuals to raise their standard of living and increase their position in the global income distribution” (p.73). The analysis is then split into within, between-country and global inequality. Within-country inequality is shown to have decreased after WWII, then reversed to increase again after the 1970s. “The downward trend of the Kuznets curve [in a number of countries] was due to a number of factors, some positive and some negative, such as the closing gap between rural and urban wages; the reduction in return on capital; destruction of capital; higher taxation, and inflation caused by the two world wars; and major political shifts in favor of inclusive and redistributive policies” (p.92). Since then, between-country (or international) inequality has increased and stagnated while population-weighted between-country (or global) inequality has decreased, especially thanks to the economic development of India and China. Thus, between-country is  becoming a less prominent contributor to the levels of global inequality (i.e. population-weighted between-country inequality). Therefore, to which family one is born is becoming more important than a few decades ago to explain their level of wealth and income, compared to which country they were born in (which explained the bulk of global inequality between WWII and 1980). To summarise “the combination of diminishing within-country inequality in large Asian countries and increasing within-country inequality in a number of rich countries, especially the United States, has important global consequences. The richest 1 per cent of any country’s population has obviously benefitted everywhere, taking an increasingly larger slice of the pie. Among the beneficiaries of this beneficiaries of this phenomenon, however, is also the emerging middle class in China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where, of course, the middle class would be considered poor if compared in absolute terms with the middle class of Western economies. The great losers, in this global reshuffle, are those belonging to the lower middle class of rich countries, whose real incomes, in the last tweny-five years, have grown slowly or remained stagnant” (p.103).

In chapter five, the authors address the ‘open issue of inequality and democracy’. They recall the absence of univocal causal links between political equality and economic equality beyond the obvious: “the absence of political equality makes the issue of economic equality irrelevant” (p.109). However, the authors present arguments as to how economic inequality threatens democracy. For example “A substantial degree of economic inequality may corrupt political equality or slow the realization of its potential, even in a democratic regime. […] There is evidence that the rich have great influence on the behavior of elected officials while people in the bottom third of the income distribution seem to have no impact, and, in general, political leaders apprear to react to what middle- and upper-income citizens prefer.” (p.109-16). Economic inequality is shown to have negative consequences on other social features praised by democratic societies, such as health,  education opportunities, and intergenerational social mobility.

The ‘future of inequality’ concludes the book as a sixth chapter. It presents policies aimed at reducting inequality at different scales, based on four arguments: “first, inequality, though present in nature, is not inevitable in human societies. Second, values, ideologies, and institutions play an fundamental role in how and to what extent a society adopts policies that curb inequality. Third, excessive inequality is socially disruptive and lowers the standard of living of all members of a community, including the well-off. Fourth, policies are needed to redress inequality [
 because] the market alone is unable to address complex social issues like inequality” (p.130). To curb within-  ‘advanced’ country inequality, the authors recommend fiscal policies (inc. tax rates, brackets and thresholds), corporate institutional reforms (transparency of financial operations, anti-trust legislation, minimum wages, social security), educational policies (in touch with the current technological needs) and social mobility programs. To curb within- ‘developing’ country inequality, the authors advocate for economic, social and institutional reforms, yet “gradualist and selective reforms, consensus building, the creation of an institutional infrastructure (which cannot happen overnight), phased restructuring, room for policy latitude – in sum, a sensitivity to the dynamics of change and transition – are equally as important if not more important” (p.140). To curb between-country inequality, they push for growth (to help alleviate international poverty) and between-country redistribution through international aid and a substantial contribution of rich countries towards ecological sustainability.



“As Nobel laureate Jan Tingergen noticed more than fifty years ago, the statistical description of income distribution was much more advanced than its economic interpretation. [
] Today the situation is not substantially different, notwithstanding a flourishing new body of research. Some ‘building blocks’ – such as skill-based technical progress, human capital formation, and wealth accumulation – are recognized as among the main mechnisms operating on economic inequality, but a complehensive theory is still lacking” (p.60). Despite this brief in-passing note of the authors about building block mechanisms, I have not found this book to provide a comprehensive account of the dynamics of inequality. Similarly, despite some elements in the appendix, I found that the authors brushed aside the data question very quickly. However, what type of data is available, curated and used to apply the measures of inequality is a strong determinant of the quality of resulting analysis (especially when increasing/decreasing trends are not very stark). When crude and ‘dirty’ data is thrown at slick and sophisticated statistical apparatuses, unfortunately it tends to produce crude and ‘dirty’ rather than slick and sophisticated results. A deeper inquiry around data sources and quality could have also raised some questions about collection boundaries and the meaning of expressing inequality only in terms of between- and within-country. Inter- regional, continental, urban, local inequality are almost absent in economics of inequality, and potentially so because of the dominant use national accounts data (i.e. individual data aggregated at the state level). Survey data or other aggregations of individual data could offer a renewed vision of the state of inequality in the world, distinguishing the class (within-) and place (between-) terms for different types of spaces (and accessibility between them).

All in all, this small book does a good job at providing a thorough summary of the main contributions to economics of inequality, of statistics and scales involved, on policies proposed to curb inequality. It constitues a perfect introduction to the subject and points to a diversity of potential paths to explore further.


Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Another review of this book has been published in the Journal of Economics.

Le capital au XXIe siĂšcle

 Mon incursion dans l’Ă©tude des inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques a commencĂ© avec la lecture de l’ouvrage de T. Piketty, Le capital au XXIe siĂšcle, paru en français au Seuil en 2013 puis traduit et publiĂ© en anglais par Havard University Press en 2014 avant de connaĂźtre un succĂšs mondial.

Ma lecture de l’ouvrage a donnĂ© lieu Ă  un compte-rendu “de gĂ©ographe” publiĂ© par la revue Cybergeo en 2014.

Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants.

Chaque citation est accompagnĂ©e d’un ou plusieurs mots clĂ©s (ou tags), prĂ©cĂ©dĂ©s d’un # afin d’effectuer des recherches thĂ©matiques dans le document. Les passages en gras ne le sont pas nĂ©cessairement dans la version originale.