Urban Inequality and Social Solidarity

We’re all looking for a little solidarity these days. We have a human desire for mutual respect, dignity, and the comfort of knowing the person next to you understands something of your life. We want to stand together against the inequalities we face as groups. We build communities within our cities, and these communities are based on similar interests and goals. This is how social solidarity develops, and through social solidarity, socioeconomic inequality is reinforced.

Where humans come together, we sort ourselves into groups. In our highly-urbanized modern culture, the most prevalent system of sorting isn’t ethnicity or language. It’s money. Economic status has become the main driver of social status. The nature of economic status as an result of fiscal means, is that those with economic status have power. These economic groupings have inherent social meanings: there is less respect for those in lower economic groups, so there is a direct correlation between social and economic status. As a result, upper classes work to demonstrate their elevated status in ways that visually distinguish them from their lower class counterparts. Walls create physical barriers between the wealthy of São Paulo, Brazil, and mark their homes as the homes of the wealthy (Caldiera 2000:258). Lower class people do two things. One, they imitate the trappings of upper class lifestyles wherever possible. This is evident in the proliferation of fortified enclaves in all but the lowest classes in São Paulo (Caldiera 2000:232). It’s also expressed in the hopes for a better life of the impoverished people of El Barrio, New York City, USA (Bourgois 2003), and of The Park, Cape Town, South Africa (Ross 2010). Two, they create a hierarchy among themselves such that there is always someone worse off than themselves. In the informal settlements in Cape Town, South Africa, there are bergies, bosslapers, and plakkers, all of whom are somehow not formally homed (Ross 2010:18). The variation of degrees of homelessness between these three groups is the basis of the social implications of these groups as labels, and it is a great insult to label someone as being less stably homed than they are (Ross 2010:18).

Urbanization contributes to the integration of ideas and encourages familiarity with the variety of customs encountered in a city, and thus reduces the desirability of segregation between groups of people (Wirth 1938:16). While at the same time, physical segregation by socioeconomic class occurs regardless of the politics of the era (Wirth 1938:15). This happens by way of financial means; neighborhoods tend to have residents who have similar financial means to each other. Yet, city life lacks the social integration associated with rural life. The relationships built between individuals in an urbanized culture are often utilitarian, and secondary relationships are more frequent in this setting than primary relationships (Wirth 1938:12). The social distance created by this situation leaves individuals lacking, in a “state of anomie” Wirth characterizes as pertaining to, among other things, the loss of “the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society” (1938:13). We see this in ethnographies of urban life that discuss the segregation of various classes. There is a desire in all classes to live integrated somehow. This is most obvious in ethnographies of poverty, where people’s aspirations for a higher quality of life might echo their simultaneous wish for greater inclusion in the infrastructure of their city. The tensions between classes seem based in the desire of the poor to enjoy the same security and respect as the wealthy. In El Barrio, the poor want to be included in the legal job market without feeling disrespected (Bourgois 2003:114-173). In the Bush, people want to have a home that cannot be taken from them, where they can have the same privacy afforded by those with formal housing, and where they feel farther from being considered a ‘throw-away’ person (Ross 2010:18-27). The wealthy, too, prefer to be farther from poverty. São Paulo’s walls are a testament to this (Caldiera 2000).

The urban lack of social solidarity manifests as more than just the idea that one isn’t fully included in infrastructure. Because the density of an urban population (compared to that of a non-urban population) prohibits inclusive solidarity, it creates the need for social controls that exist beyond the individuals within the population. However, no controlling mechanism can function without at least one individual maintaining it. Thus, the density of an urban population creates a necessary situation in which at least one group of people has power over another group. Those individuals who work within the controlling mechanisms can use their positions to shape the infrastructure of the city, thereby shaping the lives of the inhabitants (Wirth 1938:23). This situation opens up the city mechanisms to corruption, or simple irresponsibility, by the controlling group.

Socioeconomic class differences are inherent in the differences between those who control a city’s social mechanisms, and those who are at the mercy of those mechanisms. The ‘ruling’ class is wealthy; whatever classes exist in between, the poorest class is at their mercy. This creates tension. Tension heightens the emotional need for solidarity, and tension between classes ensures that solidarity will only happen within classes, rather than across classes. That is why, when an individual from El Barrio raises their own socioeconomic status and moves into a more genteel neighborhood, that person speaks carefully to avoid being considered a traitor (Bourgois 2003:173).

Thus, the same social inequality that ensures social solidarity only occurs within class groups, reinforces social inequality. The effect of social solidarity on the classes in power is an intentional distancing from those not in power. That distance decreases empathy and comprehension, creating – through the empowerment of the upper classes – city structures that exclude the lower classes. As individuals across all classes, when we build our communities and encourage social solidarity, it is to some degree at the cost of social equality.






Bourgois, Philippe
2003  In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Caldeira, Teresa P. R.
2000  City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ross, Fiona
2010  Raw Life, New Hope: Decency, Housing and Everyday Life in a Post-Apartheid Community. Claremont, South Africa: UCT Press.

Wirth, Louis
1938  Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44(1):1-24.


This essay is formatted in accordance with the American Anthropological Association style guide.


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