Geography of Residential Segregation Research Paper

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Residential segregation refers to the practices and ideologies by which socio-economic characteristics are expressed in, and shaped through, the organization of residential space.

1. The Division Of Residential Space

Residential space is a geographically uneven resource, and the land and housing which constitute it vary in quality, character, condition, and value. Land values vary according to demand and have traditionally been highest in city centres. Housing characteristics vary according to the circumstances of housing production and use, including the macroeconomic climate, the legislative and regulatory framework, the fortunes of the construction industry, the availability of loans and subsidies, changing architectural fashions, and so on.

A primary determinant of access to housing (and neighborhood) is cost, but the markets and institutions that make up the housing system also allow a range of social characteristics to mediate the process of inclusion within, or exclusion from, different parts of the residential environment. It is this interaction of the spatial structure of the housing stock with social structures, property values and with the operation of commercial and public institutions that gives rise to the geography of residential segregation. These processes are, furthermore, embedded in, and legitimized through, the wider set of entitlements, obligations, and ideologies built into the constitutions of states and societies.

Housing and the residential space it comprises is both a commodity and a welfare resource. Housing is bought and sold in the market place, but housing policy can also be a means by which states intervene to meet social needs and alleviate social inequality. Both market forces and governmental priorities therefore play a part in structuring residential space; and such space is fractured in many ways. This fracturing occurs because of differences in ‘need’ and in ‘ability to pay,’ and it occurs too because the processes governing access to housing tend to discriminate on the basis of social characteristics. Direct and indirect discrimination has been documented in all sectors of the housing system. In the housing market, access to housing opportunities generally, and to housing finance in particular, may be dictated as much by who people are (or are presumed to be), by what they do, and by where they currently live, as by their actual ability to pay. In the public or social sector, the principle of allocating homes according to ‘need’ is always hard to operationalize and in practice may be compromised by, for example, subjective discretionary judgments about what types of people ‘deserve’ what kind of housing, and where.

As a consequence of all this, while class, income, wealth, and other economic indicators provide one set of fault lines in the residential landscape, ideas about ‘race,’ ethnicity, religion, and language provide another. Health inequalities are also expressed and reproduced in the residential environment; and although most research on segregation refers to the experience of ‘households’ (implicitly lumping men, women, and children together, and often referring mainly to the experience of men), the division of residential space is also fundamentally gendered and sexualized.

2. Measurement: The ‘Index Wars’

A strong empirical tradition underpins the literature on residential segregation, and this has become the province of geographers and of those whom Peach (1975) terms ‘spatial sociologists.’ The idea implicit in all this work is that there is some kind of link between society and space; that social processes literally ‘take place’; and that where people live is both an expression of who they are and a factor affecting who they can become.

Empirical studies of residential segregation are dogged by the problems of measurement and interpretation. The problem of measurement is apparent from the large literature comprising the so-called index wars. One debate concerns the appropriate index with which to measure segregation. This has revolved around a group of indices of segregation and dissimilarity, which were favored for their simplicity and apparent (though questionable) scale independence. The index of dissimilarity (ID), for example, measures the difference in the distribution of any two population groups over a given number of areal units (e.g., census districts). ID is calculated very simply as half the sum of the difference in the proportion of each group in each areal unit. The index varies from 0 (complete similarity) to 100 (complete segregation) and the value of the index refers to the proportion of either group that would have to move from one areal unit to another in order for the two distributions to be the same.

ID is a special form of the more general index of segregation (IS) which measures the residential dissimilarity of one group from the rest of the population. Several other indices can be derived from this to capture the spatial segregation and isolation of one or more population groups from one another. Perhaps the best known of these is the asymmetric index of segregation, P*, which describes the spatial isolation of a social group and provides a measure of potential interaction between that group and another (Lieberson and Carter 1982).

A second point of dispute in the measurement of residential segregation concerns whether the degree of segregation should be gauged against a norm of evenness or randomness. If populations were randomly distributed across space, some clustering would be expected as part of this random pattern. The index of dissimilarity refers to the proportion of a population that would need to move to achieve evenness, and it may therefore exaggerate the amount of segregation that is enforced (or chosen). There is still no consensus on the best way forward here. Nevertheless, all these debates are dwarfed by the problems of how to conceptualize the groups in the study, of whether to standardize (e.g., for income when measuring ‘racial’ segregation), and, crucially, of how to interpret the results of applying the measures.

3. Interpretation: The ‘Choice-Constraint’ Debate

A major debate over the interpretation of measures of residential segregation concerns the question of causality. It hinges around the extent to which people choose to live separately from one another, and the extent to which segregation is forced upon them. This has become known as the ‘choice-constraint’ debate. In the UK, for example, all the major cities display enduring patterns of residential segregation between the white, African-Caribbean and (South) Asian populations. However, within the Asian populations, Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims tend to live in different neighborhoods to one another, while West Indians in London are segregated according to the island of origin of those who are migrants. Given these findings, it might plausibly be argued that the residential separation of Hindus and Muslims, or of Jamaicans and Trinidadians, is a matter of choice. Indeed in the USA, Clark (1992) draws on Schelling’s (1971) ideas about the aggregate effects of small variations in residential preferences to argue that, in the wake of declining institutional discrimination, the accumulation of own-group residential choices is a key factor sustaining current patterns of segregation in US cities.

While most people do have some choice over the precise space they occupy in the residential environment, the fact that, for the poorest people, these choices are highly limited, leads many authors to focus more on sources of ‘constraint’ than on elements of ‘choice.’ Smith (1987, 1989), for example, has argued that while it might well be the case that intragroup segregation is the result of household preferences, it is hard to sustain the argument that a very substantial proportion of such a diverse group as, say, South Asians in Britain, would choose to live in neighborhoods that are on average cheaper, poorer, less well serviced, and more deprived than any others. The demonstrable links between segregation and inequality, the marked extent to which poverty overlaps with (or is constructed through) these spatial processes of marginalization and exclusion, suggests that households segregated into the least desirable residential locations have very little room for maneuver.

Despite a number of conceptual and methodological problems, the empirical tradition has established beyond question that residential segregation is a key feature of the residential landscape, and that, preferences notwithstanding, patterns of residential segregation tend more often than not to be linked systematically with patterns of social inequality. Some have suggested that this means that residential segregation has the capacity to act as a catalyst in the process of class formation or as a springboard for collective action more generally. However, in one of the most influential theoretical accounts of the relationships between class structures and residential differentiation, David Harvey (1985) argues that residential segregation is part of the reproduction of social relations within capitalist societies. From this perspective the fracturing of populations into residential communities mainly serves to fragment the class consciousness which might otherwise be used to improve the quality of local life.

Some of these fragmenting, isolating effects of segregation are uncovered by Pratt and Hanson (1994) in a study of women workers in Worcester, Massachusetts. They show how residential neighborhoods are differentiated by the distinctive mix of ‘race,’ class, gender, and work traditions within them. This mix influences the locational decisions of employers, who work with stereotypes about the differences between men and women’s work, and about the suitability of different ethnic groups for particular types of task. Employers’ locational strategies thus reinforce a spatial division of labor which already emphasizes the gender divide. But because this division of labor also operates along class and ethnic lines, the potential for solidarity among women is undermined, despite their common interests. Residential segregation is thus experienced as isolating and exclusionary rather than as a potential resource.

4. Segregation And Inequality

The literature on residential segregation explores the many social dimensions embedded in the division of residential space. While there is some interest in the location of elites, and in the continuing residential segregation of predominantly ‘white’ ethnic groups (for example Poles, Jews, and Italians in US cities) despite their economic integration, perhaps the bulk of writing focuses on disadvantaged and marginalized minorities. There are therefore studies of residential segregation among people with mental health problems, the old and impoverished, disabled people, single mothers, and so on. However, the main research effort has been concerned with the impact of segregation on the lives of marginalized racialized groups in Western societies. This perhaps reflects the magnitude of the challenge of ‘otherness’ that most developed countries face in a postcolonial world, where ‘people of color in the historically white counties of the West are treated as second-class citizens’ (Bonilla-Silva 2000, p. 194). Failure to acknowledge this—that is, failure to recognize the intensely racialized nature of much residential segregation in the Western world—has been criticized by Wacquant (1997) who (writing with specific reference to the USA) is concerned that by reducing the problem of racial segregation to one of poverty and disadvantage, analysts underestimate the power of history and ideology.

A growing literature on the racial dimension of residential segregation shows that segregation is not just an economic process and a material fact of life, but that it also has powerful ideological underpinnings. Historians George Fredrickson (1981) and John Cell (1982), for example, show that segregation is part of the changing character of racism. The idea of ‘race’ may have arisen from the notion that particular places (climates and environments) produced different kinds of people (‘races’), but the tenacity of this idea is now secured by an unequal distribution of power which allows particular kinds of people to be restricted to particular types of place. Thus racisms become institutionally normalized in and through the spatial configuration of the residential environment (cf. Goldberg 1993)

So, whereas many writers once assumed that racial residential segregation is a declining legacy of a racist, colonial past, Cell and Fredrickson show how segregationism emerged during the early twentieth century as a new and powerful way to manage power relations. In the US South and South Africa, this was initially legally enforced through the Jim Crow laws and apartheid, respectively. But what Cell’s analysis vividly shows is that one of the key characteristics of segregationism is its tenacity, flexibility, and ability to survive as a practice even with the declining respectability of racism and even with the end of de jure racial separatism. Indeed, Cell goes so far as to define segregation as one of the most successful political ideologies of the twentieth century. ‘In a segregated society,’ he argues, ‘we expect job restrictions and unequal wages; inferior housing, education, transportation, health and social services; prejudiced courts and police forces.’ And to the extent that all these forms of exclusion are enacted through the practice of residential differentiation, segregation represents what he calls ‘the highest stage of white supremacy.’

4.1 Residential Segregation And Racial Inequality

In the USA, the tenacity of these discriminatory and exclusionary forms of segregation has been closely documented by Massey and Denton (1993). Their analysis of the 1990 US census identified 20 metropolitan areas in which racial segregation was so complete and so expressive of the social and financial exclusion of black Americans that they merit the label ‘hypersegregated.’ Massey and Denton argue for the case of the USA that ‘residential segregation lies beyond the ability of any individual to change: it constrains black life chances irrespective of personal traits, individual motivations or private achievements’ (1993, pp. 2–3). A startling demonstration of this is given by Polednak (1997) in his study of the relationship between segregation and health which shows, among other things, that mortality rates and infant mortality rates in segregated communities in the USA can exceed those in parts of the less developed world.

In a series of related studies, Massey and colleagues suggest that not only is segregation problematic because it creates spaces of deprivation, exclusion, and neglect, but it is problematic too because the fact of residential segregation acts to concentrate poverty during times of macroeconomic change. So, while all poor people have been affected by those structural changes in the economy which increase income inequality, the most highly segregated communities—in the USA, African Americans—fare worst because of the way that residential segregation interacts with economic restructuring to concentrate urban poverty (Massey and Eggers 1990, Massey et al. 1991).

This work has been contested on both theoretical and methodological grounds by authors who place more emphasis on ‘class’ than ‘race’ in explaining recent increases in the spatial concentration of poverty among black Americans. However, Massey and Fisher (2000) have responded with a persuasive empirically-based argument that the same socio-economic changes in a given society have radically different consequences for the concentration of poverty as segregation rises. Residential segregation, they argue, ‘is the key factor differentiating the experience of racial and ethnic groups in the United States, dividing them into two basic categories: those whose poor experience a high degree of class isolation in neighborhoods characterized by unusally high concentrations of poverty, and those whose poor do not’ (p. 689). Because black Americans are by far the most highly segregated of the studied populations, ‘the population of poor experiencing high concentrations of poverty is overwhelmingly black’ (p. 689).

This kind of finding is by no means only a feature of societies with a historical legacy of de jure segregationism. In Britain, with no history of domestic slavery or legally enforced racial separatism, the residential segregation of racialized minorities has been a persistent theme for more than half a century (Smith 1989). There has, it is true, been a fierce empirical debate over whether British inner cities are as segregated as many US ghettos. This has centered on whether, for example, an ID of 60 calculated using British enumeration districts is somehow ‘better’ or less problematic than an ID of 80 for US census districts. However, Smith (1987) argues that while segregation persists at any of these levels, it is the form not the intensity of the phenomenon that is at issue. Whether or not ghettoes are the same thing in all places, that higher levels of segregation are associated with higher rates of poverty, unemployment, poor health, and so on, is indisputable. Indeed, Smith (1989) goes on to argue that segregationism is as effective in Britain as in the USA as an interlocking system of economic institutions, social practices, and political strategies designed by one group to keep another in its place. Residential segregation, then, is a material fact of the lives of marginalized, racialized groups in Britain, and it goes with poor housing, limited employment prospects, limited service provision, poorer health prospects, and a range of other inbuilt disadvantages,

A key finding in several studies of racial segregation is that, once established, residential segregation is not just an expression of the marginality of racially ‘othered’ groups, but that it is also a determinant of their future life chances and opportunities. So the iniquitous form that segregation takes not only expresses marginality, but also reinforces it.

This reinforcement takes place in a number of ways. In the USA, for example, it has been suggested that there is a spatial mismatch between those who are unemployed and the jobs they need to survive. The argument here is that the spatial restructuring of the economy has taken jobs and incomes away from the areas in which black Americans live. Residential segregation can, in short, act as a constraint on labor market participation. In the UK, a similar process has been observed—there too, entrapment in spaces of deprivation can prevent already disadvantaged groups from seizing opportunities opened up by the restructuring of the economy. In the British example, moreover, this process is overlaid by what might be thought of as a ‘welfare mismatch’ as those most dependent on welfare find themselves excluded spatially and economically from the range of commodities, insurances, and financial services that have expanded with the ‘rolling back’ of the welfare state (Smith 1989).

So residential segregation both expresses social inequalities, and materially affects the participation of spatially excluded groups in social, political, and economic life. But because of its ideological dimension (noted above) segregation is not just a material fact, it is also a political idea—and one which often bears little resemblance to the lived experience of those it refers to. Smith (1988, 1993), for example, shows how, in Britain, ‘racial segregation’ as a political construction has helped sustain common-sense assumptions about the natural origins of racial differentiation without tackling the problems of racism and discrimination which underpin the inequalities embedded in the structure of residential space. The importance of ideas and images (ideologies) about residential space as a factor structuring people’s life chances and opportunities is further illustrated by Anderson (1991) in her work on Canadian constructions of Chinatown. She shows how that segregated space known as ‘Chinatown’ grew out of, and came to structure, a politically divisive system of racial discourse that justified domination over people of Chinese origin in late nineteenth-century Vancouver. In a similar vein, Wilson (1996) illuminates the power of metaphor to drive the process of uneven development between segregated segments of urban Indianapolis in the USA. His aim is to illustrate what potent political instruments metaphorical symbols can be. In the example of Indianapolis, USA, ‘they injected a constellation of representations into everyday thought that rendered a form of growth as value-free and neutral that was, in fact, directly adverse to the interests of the black inner city poor’ (p. 96).

Because of its ideological underpinnings and material effects, residential segregation is something that those who are marginalized and excluded by it can have little control over. However, iniquitous forms and practices of segregation can be, and are being, resisted in a number of ways. There is a policy dimension to this, of course, the relevance of which is firmly established by Bashi and Hughes (1997). In a thoughtful account of the likely implications of globalization for the character and intensity of residential segregation by race they argue that the main problems and their likely solutions are located locally (nationally) rather than globally. ‘On the topic of segregation,’ they note, ‘the real problem is less one of sustained explanation than one of sustained action’ (p. 120). This adds new significance to the work of those who argue that the best weapon with which to tackle segregation is the law (Goering 1986, McGrew 1997).

Other ways of illuminating and challenging the inequalities embedded in residential segregation range from urban unrest to artistic expression. The first of these is extensively documented. The second is less fully recognized, though a glance at the work of artists like photographer Ingrid Pollard, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, or filmmaker Spike Lee soon illustrates its potency. Ingrid Pollard’s exhibition ‘Pastoral Interludes,’ for example, locates a series of ‘black’ figures in the ‘white’ English countryside. This contrasts with the ‘usual’ positioning of black Britons within the segregated inner city, and challenges the taken-for-granted assumption that it is somehow normal for black people to be absent from rural areas. The other side of the coin—a stark vision of (and dissatisfaction with) the experiences of confinement within residentially segregated urban spaces—finds expression in the stick-like black figures which characterize so many of Basquiat’s paintings and in the rise of rap and hip-hop which was used so effectively in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to speak about life in the segregated space of New York’s Brooklyn.

5. Overview

To summarize, residential segregation is both an expression and a mediation of the ideologies and practices which structure social life. It is a product of the uneven development of residential space and of the selective operation of the markets and institutions that govern access to housing. Residential space is a gateway to services, educational, and employment opportunities, health, and social services. Where people live is therefore a reflection of who they are, but it is also an influence on who they can become. It has therefore been argued that tackling the inequalities embedded in residential segregation is a key priority for public policy and an urgent focus for social concern.


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