Edited by Ben Derudder, Michael Hoyler, Peter J. Taylor and Frank Witlox
Chapter 32: Urban Social Polarization
Chris Hamnett The concept of ‘social polarization’ has become widely used in recent discussions of social change, social divisions and inequality in global cities (O’Loughlin and Friedrichs, 1996; Moulaert et al., 2010). The term has become a convenient shorthand for a variety of social problems and has become part of the conventional discourse on cities, but it is often used without precise definition. In this respect, its rise to prominence parallels the term ‘urban decline’ which, as Beauregard (1993) has shown, has acquired a narrative power of its own independent of rigorous analysis or empirical evidence, and the existence of social polarization is often maintained irrespective of evidence to the contrary. This uncritical acceptance of the existence of social polarization means that its existence is frequently assumed rather than demonstrated. This is not helpful for the development of theory, empirical analysis or policy. If social polarization is intended as a convenient catch-all shorthand term for urban social divisions or urban inequality, we cannot dispute its existence, as cities are clearly socially divided and unequal in a multiplicity of ways, but the question must be posed: why not use the simpler alternatives? If, however, the term is intended to be more precise and to specify the potential existence of particular processes and outcomes, we must be clear what these are. The term ‘polarization’ is commonly defined in dictionaries as relating to ‘the production or condition of polarity’, ‘the process of being divided into two opposing groups’ or ‘the condition of having...
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