Book review: Class, Ethnicity and State in the Polarized Metropolis: Putting Wacquant to Work

edited by John Flint and Ryan Powell and reviewed by Keith Jacobs

12 Jun 2020, 1:08 p.m.
Keith Jacobs

Class, Ethnicity and State in the Polarized Metropolis: Putting Wacquant to Work book cover

Book review: Class, Ethnicity and State in the Polarized Metropolis: Putting Wacquant to Work

edited by John Flint & Ryan Powell and reviewed by Keith Jacobs

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; 345 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-030-16221-4, £89.99 (hbk)


The contribution to sociology of US-based French sociologist Loïc Wacquant is the focus of a new book edited by John Flint and Ryan Powell. It contains two chapters by Wacquant himself and 11 others authored by scholars from the UK, France, Italy and the US. The publication should be welcomed. Wacquant is a leading critical sociologist whose reputation stems from his reworking of sociological concepts and subsequent empirical analysis. New concepts are necessary, Wacquant argues, to make sense of the ways that capital is able to reshape class relations by taking advantage of new developments in information technology. One outcome is that nations in advanced capitalist economies are becoming more fractured, punitive and unequal as commercial agencies extend their power. ‘Advanced marginality’, ‘territorial stigmatisation’, ‘hyperghetto’, ‘the centaur state’ and ‘hyperincarceration’ are some of the concepts that he has deployed over the course of his academic career. Over the last 28 years, Wacquant has covered topics such as the US penal system and its societal impact, the role of the state in promoting neoliberal ideology and the effects of welfare practices on the urban poor. His attention to the combination of symbolic and institutional forces that make up and extend inequalities is perhaps the defining feature of his work.


Most of the chapters stem from papers presented at a one-day conference held in Sheffield in 2016 in which Wacquant participated. In their introduction, Flint and Powell claim that Wacquant’s work provides a link between classical sociology and more contemporary inquiries on urban inequality because of its critical reflections on the application of sociology itself and through his commitment to empirical research. They describe Wacquant’s work as ‘totalizing’ (p. 9) because it seeks to consider class, ethnicity and state practices as a whole. The editors provide a useful summary of the insights that Wacquant’s work provides and also identify some of the criticisms that have been made about his research, including: overstating the role of government to steer neoliberal practices, paying insufficient heed to the gendered aspects of inequality and not taking enough account of the capabilities of those who are deemed marginalised to resist neoliberal practices.


Following the editors’ introduction, Wacquant’s chapter titled ‘Class, ethnicity and state in the making of urban marginality’ provides an overview of his sociological contribution in understanding the penalisation of poverty and the class and ethnic divisions that ensue. Wacquant describes his own work as a ‘sociology of political power’ (p. 45), as it attends to the sources of power within and across a set of state practices. In this regard, a contrast can be made with Foucauldian views of power that situate it within a network of societal relations.


Part 1 features three chapters by Talja Blokland, Larissa Povey and Emily Ball that attend to the dynamics of class antagonism. Blokland argues that ‘while surveillance and control shaped Ghetto residents’ realities, it did not increasingly strip residents of the means of their own collective and individual identities’ (p. 56). Blokland encourages a close everyday reading of the ghetto that takes full account of the micro practices of individuals. Povey’s chapter is on the management of ‘maternal outcasts’ (p. 81), and provides findings based on fieldwork in two English cities undertaken in 2016. Her interviews reveal some of the ways that austerity policies impact on individual lives. The focus of Ball’s chapter is the family intervention projects and Troubled Families Programme initiated by the UK Conservative-led government. She argues that there is a need to challenge ‘a binary and simplistic class divide between the subjects that have challenged interventions, project workers and government discourses’ (p. 125). In short, some families support features of conditionality, and for this reason researchers should be cautious of claims that suggest that these families have simply internalised the values reinforced by the agencies of social control.


Part 2 explores issues relating primarily to ethnicity. Fabien Truong draws on an ethnographic study of the French banlieues to foreground the subjectivities of those who live there and how these are shaped by context and time. These are best explored through a longitudinal analysis that can capture shifting perspectives and changing identities. Isabella Clough Marinaro’s chapter adopts a historical frame to consider life in Roma settlements in Rome. She charts how the camps have been subject to an array of spatial and racialised interventions that largely reflect anxieties amongst the broader public. Powell and Robinson also adopt a long-term perspective to situate change, noting the fundamental role that the UK housing system has had in accentuating marginality. Rather than see the GFC or Brexit as causal factors, they argue that they are symptoms of deeper processes that are enduring features of late capitalism, such as the power of capital to impose its will on labour. They conclude by arguing that a more complex account of housing can usefully inform Wacquant’s own analysis.


Part 3 focuses on the governance of marginal spaces. Reuben Jonathan Miller’s chapter attends to life within a Chicago ghetto. He argues that people’s lives within these spaces are often overlooked because the primary focus of research is the practices enacted by the state. Miller’s foregrounding of the informalities of life in the ghetto brings our attention to the impact on individuals of penal practices. Ian Cummins’ chapter explores stigma in the setting of social work interactions. He notes that austerity has accentuated the disciplinary components of social practices in the UK, and that this has led to considerable tension within the social work profession, since many of its practitioners are committed to the social justice features of their work. Gaja Maestri extends Wacquant’s work on the role of the state in managing Roma camps in Italy. She explores the role of NGOs and ‘not for profit’ welfare agencies, and the impact that neoliberal ideology has on their practices. The last chapter in Part 3 is by Chris Herring. He considers the lives of homeless people living in San Francisco, noting how government policies attempt to keep them out of sight. These policies reinforce the gulf that now exists between the well-off and those who are homeless. The last section of the book is a response by Wacquant to issues discussed by contributors, in which he addresses some of the criticisms that have been raised.


Since the focus of Wacquant’s recent work has been mainly on the US, it is worth pondering whether his concepts can be applied to other nation states that are markedly different. Whilst some Anglophone critics who have focused on the global south remain sceptical, there are academics who have taken up his concepts (ghettos, confinement, penality and incarceration) for understanding urban tensions in both India and Latin America. Certainly, it is evident from the contributions in this book that Wacquant’s reworking of theoretical concepts can enhance empirical analysis by making explicit the connections between capital and the state and the ways that state practices impact on marginalised communities. For this reason, the book provides a valuable resource for critical social scientists who wish to engage with Wacquant’s work. Though one or two chapters that have been translated into English are rather opaque, this does not detract from the book’s overall contribution.


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If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

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Examining the relationships between advanced urban marginality and new forms of state craft to regulate marginalised populations

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Zana Vathi, Kathy Burrell

Vathi and Burrell argue that a focus on material infrastructures is especially important in understanding how marginalised urban communities are affected by, and galvanised in response to change.


How elite sport helps to foster and maintain a neoliberal culture: The ‘branding’ of Melbourne, Australia

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The ambiguity of diversity: Management of ethnic and class transitions in a gentrifying local shopping street

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Powerful actors, such as government agencies and gentrifiers, adhere to a more sanitised articulation of diversity, but ethnic entrepreneurs and residents also reverberate negative associations of ethnic particularism.



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