DOI 10.4067/S0718-83582016000200001


Segregation and integration in urban sociology: a review of perspectives and critical approaches for public policy


Javier Ruiz-Tagle1

1 Chile. Assistant Professor, Institute of Urban and Territorial Studies at the School of Architecture, Design and Urban Studies, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. PhD in Urban Planning and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2014. MSc in Urban Planning, University of Chile, 2006. Architect, University of Chile, 2004.


Residential segregation is for some a natural phenomenon for and for others a structurally determined problem. In contrast, integration has become a neoliberal goal or a voluntaristic approach. Several explanations of segregation are reviewed here: sociologic-historical considerations, functionalist-positivist theories and conflict-poststructuralist theories. It is argued that functionalist-positivist theories have influenced empirical studies and various ideas that shape integration policies, with an excessive reliance on the physical proximity between different social groups. Finally, in order to understand spatial transformations, beyond structuralist and naturalist views of segregation, the idea of socio- spatial dialectics and the Right-to-the- City program are taken to relocate integration as a critical and progressive claim.


Received: 19-01-2016 | Accepted: 16-05-2016



The problem of residential segregation has been debated for years between two opposite visions. On one hand, the Chicago School has influenced several generations of authors who have portrayed segregation as a natural phenomenon. On the other hand, the Marxist approach understands this issue as a structurally determined problem. These debates have not been limited to theory, but have marked the empirical agenda of different urban studies and public policies, especially the Chicago School, which has been established as the base over which social integration policies that promote socio-demographic diversity within cities have been supported. Likewise, Marxist authors criticized these policies, arguing that socio-spatial integration responds to simplistic and naïve objectives, since they only produce physical proximity, which may even end up inducing gentrifying processes. But: how did we arrive at these conceptions? How have these ideas been addressed by the different urban sociological theories?

Residential segregation has been the center of discussion for almost all theories of urban sociology. The understanding of the causes, dynamics and consequences of segregation, expose the epistemological foundations of such theories. Thus, this review is intended to bring a critical view to the trajectory of how general theories have influenced a large number of empirical studies, and how these empirical studies were transformed into public policies for integration. Then, the goal of this paper is two-fold. First, to discuss the sociological origins of segregation and the feasibility of integration from several theories and approaches, but deepening specially on the natural and/or structurally determined character of this phenomenon. Second, and linked to the first, to assess the importance of the transformation of space in terms of the transformation of society, in order to develop a progressive agenda for urban change.

With these goals, the argument is organized in three parts. First, the origins of segregation, the main urban sociological theories that address this issue, their ramifications and the explanations they have regarding this phenomenon are all reviewed. Second, the influence of theoretical approaches on empirical studies and public policies is discussed. And third, in order to understand spatial transformations beyond structuralist and naturalist visions of segregation, the idea of socio-spatial dialectic and the Right- to-the-City program are taken to relocate integration as a progressive claim and to operationalize it as a valid and effective cause.


Segregation and its different currents in urban sociology

Though it has been said that socio-spatial separations are as old as urban spaces themselves, the origin of current residential segregation is generally associated with the socioeconomic transformation promoted by the consolidation of industrial capitalism2. Several dichotomies were created to explain this transition: urban-rural; tradition-modern; community-society; mechanical solidarity-organic solidarity, etc. However, beyond specific interpretations of each one of them, there is agreement that in the pre-modern society cities were based on a rigid social segregation and on a non-specialized land use3. On the contrary, in modern societies, cities were organized in complex systems of stratification and specialization with high levels of overcrowding and poverty; all conditions over which class divisions began to take shape4.

Thus, there are four explanatory lines about the origin of current residential segregation related to the transition from traditional to modern societies. First, segregation is explained by the changes in the means of production and their influence on the location of housing. Engels5 highlights the separation between production (labor) and reproduction (housing) that began with capitalism, which left working-class housing devoid of material resources and located in marginal areas that were no longer relevant for urban settlements. This had important consequences for the structure of families as well, since their members were divided by gender roles of production and reproduction. Second, segregation is explained by the commoditization of urban land. The proliferation of deeds and rights and the growing subdivision and densification of modern cities gave rise to the creation of real estate markets, and consequently, to the spatial separation between the rich and the poor according to hierarchical spatial patterns6. Third, segregation is explained by socio-cultural differentiations. The specialization of labor into specific roles and tasks intensified the diversification of cultural traits and lifestyles7, in a heterogeneity that became a necessary condition for residential segregation. And fourth, segregation is explained as a phenomenon derived from racism, promoted by the expansion of the so-called civilized societies and consolidated by science and technical rationality8. Racism, as a system of beliefs and group superiority, promotes social relationships based on discrimination, prejudice, violence, aversion and oppression9.

During the first decades of modernization, the development of cities paralleled the transformation of the means of production. But at certain point, those -socially created- spatial structures began to exert some influences on the reproduction of inequalities. The spatial arrangement of cities then, went from being a mere expression to be part of the factors that influence the development of individuals and their territories; which Lefebvre10 and Soja11 explain as “socio-spatial dialectics.” This is how different theories from sociology were raised to account for “new” socio-spatial relationships that were taking place within cities.

The current literature on segregation is overwhelming and its orientations are diverse, but in general this phenomenon is understood as a lack of interaction among social groups that comes from class separations (socioeconomic segregation), spatial location (residential segregation), different interests and/or lifestyles (symbolic and/or cultural segregation) and/or racial or ethnic differences (ethno-racial segregation). The sociological studies that address segregation are generally divided into two main groups of theories: the Chicago School and the Marxist approach. Each one has different epistemological foundations, branches and political visions regarding residential segregation. The following section offers a review of the foundational approaches of each group, their explanations of residential segregation and the theoretical branches derived from them.


Human Ecology (or Chicago School)

The approach of the so-called Chicago School of urban sociology, also known as Human Ecology, was influenced by the work of Emile Durkheim on the division of labor and his empirical-positivist methods, and by a Darwinian understanding of competition, domination and subordination12. This approach is also close to the functionalist paradigm since it focuses on a tendency to equilibrium and on the evolutionary nature of change13. This School is renowned for being the first to study urban problems in a systematic fashion, building a wide theoretical perspective of cities and social life14. This approach is widely recognized for the connection between social phenomena and spatial patterns, the interactionist perspective that explores emergent forms of association, and the study of the role of individual attributes in the explanation of urban problems15. To do this, it is focused on two levels of association: symbiotic associations, in terms of organization and competition; and social associations, in terms of the symbolic and psychological adjustments and consensus. This is, a moral and a physical organization in interaction16.

The symbiotic level was inspired from biology and ecology (or social Darwinism). This proposed that groups of people were treated as a population and that the city was understood as the environment where they have to compete and adapt, producing even more complexity17. This competition leads to cooperation and interdependence through differentiated spatial functions and distributions18, forming an unstable equilibrium that is maintained by continuing adjustments19. The main focus in this level was competition for land and for succession, illustrated by Burgess’ concentric zone model and Mackenzie’s invasion-succession model20. In this level, the Chicago School developed the methodologies of the social area analysis, the ecological complex, and the functional differentiation structure21, having later influence on the so-called ‘factorial ecology’, which was characterized by the use of quantitative methods.

In the social level, Durkheim’s concepts were taken for granted: it is assumed that modern societies are characterized by individual freedom, differentiation, an ethic of individualism and a weakened collective conscience resulting in anomie22. Here, the position and self-conception of the individual is determined by other individuals and their group standards23, and the natural areas, defined in the biotic level, give life to local cultures organized by a moral order24. In addition, this level was based on the social disorganization paradigm, a situation that was conceived as the inevitable influence of urbanization on human beings. Indeed, this paradigm affirmed that the decreasing influence of existing rules of behavior and the decomposition of ties would produce an ecological process of competition, conflict, accommodation and assimilation25. The social level of association was marked by the use of qualitative methods, and was very influential in later theoretical developments of symbolic interactionism and community studies.

The explanation of segregation from the Chicago School is that this is a “natural phenomenon”. Human Ecology sees the organization of the city as something that has not been designed and that lacks specific control. It is affirmed that segregation is a mere incident of urban growth, locational changes, and the metabolism of the city. That is, a condition that is inevitably produced in a context of competitive cooperation26. Segregation is not seen as something pathological, but as a normal stage of transition towards equilibrium in the social order.

The criticism against Chicago School’s descriptions of segregation has been intense, and has three aspects; the ecological fallacy, the positivist emphasis, and the ignorance of factors of political economy. First, the ecological fallacy stresses the translation of properties from the whole to individuals, the over-interpretation of results as a totalizing theoretical perspective, and a reductionist vision that lacks reference to significant intentional actions27. Second, the positivist orientation is criticized for its poor theoretical roots, its determinist character, its conservative uniformity, its emphasis on system maintenance, the normative character or its moral judgments, and its failure to provide an analytical model to explain the ‘natural’ occurrence of segregation28. Finally, the indifference towards factors of political economy is the most common criticism and derives from the failure of this school when addressing issues of racial and class divisions, due to an ideological concealing of capitalism, and to a limited conception of culture, history, the economy and the role of relevant institutions29.

There are two branches that have an intimate connection with the Chicago School. First, the Culturalist Approach includes the ‘urban ways of life’30, the ‘compositional theory’30, and the ‘sub-cultural theory’32. These theories conceive segregation as a condition of modernization and of urban experience. It is said that life in dense cities, in a positive or negative way, affects social relationships and influences self-selection and concentration through the prevalence of secondary, instead of primary, relationships. And second, there are the so-called Community Studies, which were developed close to anthropology, based on symbolic interactionism, and influenced by Ferdinand Tönnies’ conception of traditional communities. Their explanation of segregation is described by the idea of the ‘defended neighborhood’ (or home territories): an urban product defined by real or imagined boundaries, exclusionary social differentiation, internal cohesion and group identity33. Thus, since urban life contains the possibility of isolation and integration, the construction of communities may be understood as a form of social differentiation, and even of exclusion, within society as a whole34.


Marxism and Urban Political Economy

The Marxist and Urban Political Economy approaches have their origin in the widening of traditional Marxist theory during the 1960s35. While Marxist theory did not have a tradition in the treatment of urban problems, the authors of these studies take some aspects of Marx’s method and mixed it with new concept and interpretations. Thus, they reconsider the city as a significant theoretical object and criticize the majority of existing urban theories and practices as ideological, for legitimizing class domination36. Some authors recognize an important distinction between humanist and determinist interpretations of Marxism within this approach. On one hand, the humanist vision (represented by Henri Lefebvre) is focused on the production of space and its consequences in all aspects of everyday life37. And on the other hand, the determinist vision (represented by Manuel Castells) rejects notions based on individual subjects, is focused on class struggle extended over the urban question, and recognizes certain non-spatial sources of urban problems38. This non-spatial perspective is influential in authors that deny the relevance of space as an object of investigation, suggesting that the study of cities would mean the same that the study of society as a whole, and emphasizing the importance of class and status for the creation of communities39. Beyond this, Urban Political Economy represents an orientation open to many disciplines and visions that, although dominated by Marxism and Neo-Marxism, expresses an umbrella for a variety of viewpoints, even without including social class into the analysis. Both branches together (of the so-called New Urban Sociology, in reference to the old Chicago School), were born in particular sociopolitical contexts: the mid 1960s riots in US ghettos, and the 1968 insurgency in Europe. The coherence of this wide theoretical orientation, conceived as the dominant present paradigm (although always non-mainstream), is given for its conjunction of issues around urbanization, economic domination, and the role of the state within social classes40.

This theoretical vision can be better understood in terms of its three most important authors; Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells and David Harvey. First, the project of Lefebvre was directed to show how spatial forms are products of specific means of production, and how they contribute to the reproduction of domination, proposing a series of ideas to promote radical action41. The urban for Lefebvre involved the space, everyday life and the reproduction of capitalist social relationships42, from which emerge his well-known conceptual triad: spatial practices (the experienced), representations of space (the perceived), and spaces of representation (the imagined)43.

Second, Manuel Castells begins criticizing almost the whole urban sociology as ideological, emphasizing the idea of the disappearance of the city as an autonomous social unit, and the consequent disappearance of urban sociology as a theoretical body. He considered space as the superposition of social and spatial forms in the so-called ‘collective consumption units’44. Castells breaks the social totality in three analytical levels: the economic, the political and the ideological45. His theoretical object then, was the process of consumption as a functional element within the totality of the social system, involving the reproduction of labor force. Consequently, the urban crisis is understood as a particular form within the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production46. Castells emphasizes that the theory of space is an integral part of a general social theory; that is, in terms of articulations and contradictions of several means of production47. This is why, reaffirming his structuralist character, this author understands the city as a spatial form according to the techno-social structure48.

Lastly, David Harvey is focused on the creation of the built environment as a product of the capitalist industry. He defines three circuits of capitalism; production and consumption, built environment of cities, and scientific knowledge. Harvey derives the understanding of urban processes from patterns of the capitalist means of production, and then observes the implications in terms of the spatial separation between production and consumption49. The history of capitalist urbanization is outlined by Harvey in three stages: mobilization of surplus values in the mercantile city, production of surplus values in the industrial city, and absorption of surplus values is the Keynesian city50. Far from Castells and closer to Lefebvre, Harvey is not that determinist and gives a chance to space in the transformation of society.

One of the great conceptual contributions made by these authors is the so-called Right-to-the-City. This was proposed by Lefebvre51 from an eminently philosophical position. Far from a nostalgic vision about old cities, he understood that excluded and segregated workers must be provided with the ability to influence the transformations of the city. To do this, Lefebvre suggests an agenda that generates a political program of radical urban reform and the development of audacious urban projects that are not restricted to realisms or mere conformisms. From a much more practical perspective, Harvey52 believes that in order to turn workers, or displaced classes, into relevant actors for urban transformations, they must achieve a higher control over production and over the use of surpluses that are produced in cities. Although the dominance over urban surpluses today lies on a few capitalists, there are powerful signs from social movements for the achievement of the Right-to-the-City.

The general critique against the Marxist approach is related with its excessive structuralism, its emphasis on the economy, and its focus on class interests53. Clearly, Castells has been the most criticized in these issues, for having a deterministic-systemic vision based on non-spatial aspects, and for being skeptical of the contribution of spatial transformations to generate radical social changes. Some authors have criticized this theoretical approach for not fitting the observed reality, for being too abstract, for ignoring the historical role of human action (agency), and for not accounting for aspects of urban culture that are not exclusively determined by capital54. This represents a dilemma for urban sociology: on one hand it is worried about social class, prestige, and power, and becomes more disinterested in urban issues, while on the other hand, there is widening public interest for social problems that are becoming urban problems55.

There are five approaches that can be identified as connected or emanated from the so-called New Urban Sociology. First, the Weberian Approach (or British Urban Sociology) is focused on how institutions emerge and how are the actions of groups against social structures. They see the city as the center of resource distribution and as an arena for conflict56. Their explanation of segregation is based on the administration of public housing, which represents the diffusion and extension of the bureaucratic power that controls the working class57. Second, the Feminist Approach is based on general feminist conceptions around capitalism, patriarchy and theories of diversity, offering a heterodox conception of urban inequalities that affect women more than men58. The feminist explanation of segregation emphasizes a criticism to current forms of social reproduction, which leads women to a suburban location, with fragmented identities, and to a reproduction of a new generation of socio-cultural boundaries59. That is why the authors in this approach are strong supporters of diversity in a wide sense. Third, the Los Angeles School is self-proclaimed as an alternative agenda of urban studies, assuming the notion of difference within a conflict perspective and building heterodox conceptions of socio-spatial differentiation60. The researchers of Los Angeles observe segregation not only by race, class and ethnicity, but also by occupational categories, household composition and individual attributes61. They highlight a hostile post-liberal ideology, directed to the defense of luxury lifestyles, and translated into new repressions of space and movement62. Fourth, the Global City approach aims at describing the general relation between macro-economic forces and urban results, in terms of the growing vulnerability of places to the disruptions in the market of commodities and a higher exposure to external forces63. The authors highlight the dispersion of economic activities, new forms of territorial centralization in superior levels of administration and control, the erosion of the role of governments, and the transition of cities from manufacturing to finance64. Their explanation of segregation emphasizes major contradictions that global cities create for advanced industrial capitalism; the polarization of classes and a surprising spatial disparity within a growing and impoverished local diversity65. And fifth, the Symbolic Economy approach tries to explain how the production of symbols depends and shapes the production of public space, combining emphases on the material and on the symbolic-cultural sides66. The idea of a ‘symbolic economy’ implies a continuous production of symbols and spaces that give meaning to the struggles for difference; or said in a materialist language, an exploitation of the uniqueness of fixed capital, divorced from its original social context67. Segregation is discussed here in terms of cultural strategies of urban revitalization, which supposedly improve the competitive character of cities in relation to others, but not necessarily include measures for social justice68.

From the recent developments achieved by these branches of political economy, specifically from the Los Angeles School, the idea of socio-spatial dialectics, which Soja69 deepened from Lefebvre, can be highlighted. This idea is taken from the dialectic method of Marx and it is an invitation to understand how material conditions of existence have a parallel in space, in an inseparable fashion, and vice versa. With this, they intend to supersede some of the critiques that are directed to Marxism regarding its lack of interest for understanding the role of space in social transformation. Space understood this way, is not a closed expression but also a vehicle for articulating the struggle for the Right-to-the-City70.


Integration in urban sociology, empirical studies and public policies

So far we have presented a group of theories in a very simplified and reductionist fashion, with the goal of generating a theoretical taxonomy. These theories go from functionalism/positivism, passing through the sociology of conflict, all the way to post-structuralism. In the fucntionalist/positivist group are Human Ecology, Culturalism and Community Studies. Between functionalism and conflict sociology is the Global City approach. In a central place within conflict sociology is Marxism, Urban Political Economy and the Weberian Approach. And between conflict sociology and post-structuralism are the Los Angeles School, the Feminist Approach, and the Symbolic Economy approach. All these theories discuss social problems in different levels, from the structural to the individual, and from the cultural to the symbolic. In a more advanced level, we could have added a Foucauldian Approach (led by Richard Sennett), a Bourdieusian Approach (led by Loïc Wacquant) and an Actor-Network Approach (led by authors like Ignacio Farías), but these approaches have not yet formed a distinctive convergence of ideas71. Figure 1 is an abstract of the theoretical taxonomy outlined here72.


Figure 1. Theories of urban sociology: macro-orientations and macro-dimensions.

Source: Self-elaboration


From all theories, the study of segregation is in tension between two general visions: one that proposes the existence of a ‘natural’ phenomenon (and even positive) that emerge from spatial concentrations, and another that affirms that segregation is determined by the social and economic capitalist structure. Both visions have been and continue to be highly influential in the recent empirical literature. On the side of conflict theories, there have been important influences from Marxist and Weberian approaches in several studies. These include several theoretical constructs like Urban Regime Theory73 or the Urban Growth Machines74, gentrification studies75, advanced marginality studies76, and contemporary applications of the sociology of zones of transition77. These theories have had a restricted impact on public policy though, circumscribed specially to the 60s and 70s through the formulation of the so-called advocacy planning, radical planning, social reform and planning from social learning (or “bottom up” planning)78.

On the other hand, functionalist/positivist theories have influenced the majority of empirical studies regarding segregation in the United States in the twentieth century, with a wide diffusion in other countries. But in recent decades, the issue of a ‘natural’ emergence of this phenomenon has been consensually rejected, and the forces of racism and the practices of the state have been widely accepted as the main causes. However, we affirm here that there are currently five persistent groups of ideas that are influenced by functionalist/positivist theories and that provide the conceptual base over which desegregation and ‘integration’ policies are supported, both in the United States and in the rest of the world. First, the social disorganization paradigm is still present in the portrayal of ghettos as pathological social forms79. Second, the idea of ‘neighborhood effects’ is used to show how the concentration of poverty influences deviant behaviors in a relatively spontaneous and ecological fashion80. In fact, this conception has even led some authors to think in a relation between the size of the poor and concentrated population, and the potential negative consequences81. Third, very related with ‘neighborhood effects’, is the idea of geography of opportunity, which suggest that geography shapes life decisions in terms of objective opportunity structures and perceived subjective opportunities82. Fourth, the assumptions of the projects of mixed-income housing affirm that policies of proximity to higher status neighbors would create ‘virtuous’ circles of social networks, social control, role models and an expanded geography of opportunity83. And fifth, regarding the emergence of unplanned socially-diverse neighborhoods, these have been explained from an ecological-demographic model, which is based on functionalist/positivist theories of neighborhood change84. This model tries to explain the ‘spontaneous emergence’ of stable diversity patterns in terms of specific demographic changes85.

Nevertheless, these five groups of theories have been seriously questioned by diverse authors. Against the visions of social disorganization in the consequences of segregation, authors stress the role of institutional actors, the survival strategies of the poor and the abandonment from the state86. Regarding neighborhood effects, some argue that this is not a problem of size or level of homogeneity of the segregated areas by themselves. The factors that make the quality of local resources and opportunities dependent on the socioeconomic status of its residents are related to neoliberal policies of municipal devolution, segmented services, and targeted resources. And these factors are prevalent in neoliberal contexts like the United States or Chile. A symptom of that is the formation of what Standing calls the precariat: referred to those individuals who are marginalized of the benefits of economic growth, with high labor instability, no opportunities, negatively defined from the state, without class identity and located in the margins of the proletariat87. This way, here we affirm that neighborhood effects are mediated by a ‘neoliberal spatial equivalence’, between poor residents on one side, and poor opportunities, services and resources on the other (see Figure 2). The major evidence to affirm this, is that in some European Welfare States, due to a better territorial redistribution of resources, neighborhood effects are not as severe as in the United States or as in Chile88. In addition, the relation between concentrated poverty and additional social problems is criticized for not separating the structural forces of poverty and for portraying segregation as the cause of almost everything89. As more critical authors have affirmed, neighborhood effects come from powerful institutions90, and are “effects of the state inscribed into space”91.


Figure 2. Mediating Mechanisms within the Neighborhood Effect Context.

Source: Ruiz-Tagle and López Morales, 2014.


In terms of geographies of opportunity, one can see that this idea has an implicit market-oriented assumption, which proposes that the location of opportunities follows the most powerful groups, and does not take into account the role of institutions in the redistribution of resources. Under this assumption, the practices of poverty dispersion or physical proximity to higher classes would be the main way to improve the life prospects of the poor. And beyond the role of opportunity, the assumptions of the so-called ‘mixed-income communities’ pretend that higher status individuals would be willing to share their resources with the poor, that the poor would be better controlled by better-off individuals in their own neighborhood, and that the poor would be better oriented in their behavior and in their objectives through the presence of higher classes92. In other words, this represents a one-sided reaffirmation of the moral prescriptions of functionalist/positivist theories. Finally, in terms of the emergence of unplanned socially-diverse neighborhoods (in contrast with the ecological-demographic model), there is a politico-institutional model as well, which emphasizes the active influence of powerful actors and grassroots organizations for a desired coexistence93. Table 1 summarizes the five mentioned ideas and their criticism.


Table 1. Five ideas that influence integration policies and their criticism

Ideas that influence integration policies Description Criticism
Social disorganization paradigm Portrayal of ghettos as pathological social forms, from a dominant moral vision Ghettos better described by the role of institutional actors, survival strategies of the poor, and abandonment from the state
Neighborhood effects Poverty concentration directly influences deviated behavior Not the concentration of poverty by itself, but the institutional mechanisms producing neighborhood effects (‘neoliberal spatial equivalence’)
Geographies of opportunities Availability of local opportunities shapes life decisions The location of opportunities should not be connected to the most powerful groups. Institutions have a crucial role in the distribution of resources
Assumptions of mixed-income housing Virtuous circle of social networks, social control, role models, and an expanded geography of opportunity One-sided assumptions based on a moral superiority of the middle class over the poor
Ecological-demographic model to explain the emergence of unplanned socially-diverse neighborhoods Spontaneous emergence of neighborhood diversity from specific demographic changes Politico-institutional model: active influence of powerful actors and grassroots organizations to create and/or maintain a local diversity, in a voluntary fashion

Source: Self-elaboration.


But despite the criticism, functionalist/positivist theories have had a strong influence in the creation of public policies, especially in the urban social integration agenda, which can be directly observed in the debate over Social Integration Projects in Chile. The policies created under these premises, have taken poverty dispersion and spatial proximity to higher status residents as an end by themselves, even showing some physical determinism in their proposals. These strategies are aimed at reversing the problems supposedly created by poverty concentration, within rationalities of neighborhood effects and geographies of opportunity. But, where do these rationalities come from? We affirm that they come not only from functionalist/positivist research paradigms, but also from neoliberal biases. This is, for a lack of attention to the working of institutions in comparative perspective and for an excessive focus on the emergent results of ecological aggregations, leading some scholars to ‘reify’ the role of space94.

In addition, these integration policies have led to dispersion, disintegration, and assimilation, loss of networks, atomization, and break of ties95. In other words, they have changed the very meaning of integration: from a positive right to opportunities to a negative and undesired imposition of mere demographic diversity. Thus, integration policies have been recently understood as neoliberal strategies with underlying objectives of gentrification and social control96, or at the most, as naïve liberal approaches97. But there are several other aspects that contribute and maintain exclusion or integration, beyond ecological aggregations. Socio-spatial integration may be conceived as a multi-dimensional relationship that works independently and at different levels. And within this, physical proximity is limited to be just one intervening variable in a larger process, as Table 2 shows.


Table 2. Dimensions of socio-spatial integration

Dimensions Characterization
Physical Physical proximity between different social groups
Functional Effective access to opportunities and services
Relational Non-hierarchical interactions between different social groups
Symbolic Identification with a common ground

Source: Ruiz-Tagle, 2013.


Returning to the more theoretical discussions then, how can we understand the transformation of space beyond structuralist and naturalist visions of segregation? What would be the rationale for these transformations and how can it be operationalized? The next section of the article is dedicated to respond the first question in terms of the idea of socio-spatial dialectics, and the second question in terms of the idea of the Right-to-the-City, trying to relocate socio-spatial integration as a progressive demand.


Proposals for a critical approach: stopping segregation and promoting integration

According to our review, there are two ideas that emerge from Urban Political Economy that have not been considered in current urban policies and that may be useful to rethink, specifically, the strategies that promote social integration in the city: socio-spatial dialectics and the Right-to-the-City.

The idea of socio-spatial dialectic was originally outlined by Henri Lefebvre and then refined by Edward Soja. The argument begins noting that in the Soviet Union, the spatial transformations were not an automatic byproduct of revolutionary social changes: this is, that the capitalist and pre-revolutionary organization of space continued producing social inequalities and exploitation98. Lefebvre argued that space is a complex social construction that, once produced, affects social practices and perceptions, turning into a tool of domination and power. In this sense, explains Lefebvre, social relationships exist as long as they have spatial existence and are materialized through the production of space99. Then, structured relationships from the social and the spatial are not only homologous but also dialectically inseparable, admitting that space represents a dialectic component in general relations of production100. In addition, Lefebvre affirms that no social revolution can succeed without being a consciously spatial revolution at the same time, considering that the structure of space is not a separate and autonomous structure, nor is it a simple expression of class structures emerging from social relationships101. In summary, socio-spatial dialectics implies that spatial and social structures are mutually determining factors: while space is socially constructed, this has also certain degree of influence on the social relationships that it surrounds.

Similarly, the idea of the Right-to-the-City was first developed by Henri Lefebvre, then extended by David Harvey, and then taken to practice by several social organizations. Lefebvre began suggesting that urban strategies need social support and political forces. Since socio-spatial configurations are not natural, their transformation implies the action of key actors, specifically the working class, the only one able to put an end on segregation102. Lefebvre calls Right-to-the-City to a demand of the oppressed for urban life and for the control of the urban process in general103. Later, Harvey extends the idea putting the Right-to-the-City as a collective right; more than the individual access to the resources of the city, a right to change oneself by transforming the city104. According to some classifications of human rights105, the Right-to-the-City would imply a duty for the state (securing a social participation in the production of space), and not an individual right. The Right-to-the-City would belong to a second and third generation of rights; this is, positive and collective rights for equality and fraternity. From these two ideas then (socio-spatial dialectics and Right-to-the-City), it can be extracted that the transformation of space may be both necessary and effective for more just social relationships. And part of this progressive transformation of space is what can be called socio-spatial integration.

Therefore, is it possible to build a progressive approach for integration? Does it have any sense to have integrated communities? From the criticism to the ideas influenced by functionalist/positivist theories, we can extract at least three propositions for a critical approach of integration.

First, there is a need of institutional conceptions about urban social problems and opportunities. In this sense, while the territorial redistribution of resources is critical for socio-spatial integration, the mixture of social groups is not a precondition. By contrast, institutions may be transformed to break the ‘neoliberal spatial equivalence’ that exists between poor residents and poor opportunities. This can be aligned with the ideas of Young106, which emphasize the need of moving resources-to-people instead of moving people-to-resources107. However, the sole working of institutions is not enough.

A second and more delicate proposition is that a diverse socialization and social reproduction of different groups is necessary. A separate socialization and a differentiated social reproduction have been highly influential factors in the creation and maintenance of an exclusionary culture and sociability when social integration policies have been established. In the case of the United States, this has been manifested in the construction of parallel spaces of interaction between whites and African-Americans that live in proximity. In Europe, this has been manifested in ethnic terms (cultural-religious), and in Latin America the strongest distinction seems to have a socioeconomic character. But, why this is delicate? The most radical thinkers of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States explain this clearly: “we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy”108. For the majority of African-Americans up to these days, living and coexisting with whites in neighborhoods, jobs, schools and public space mean a forceful assimilation to white lifestyles and rules, in addition to persistent and subtle forms of discrimination. Thus, integration directed only to have demographic diversity does not make sense if institutions do not change as well. But, how do socio-spatial changes intervene here? A diverse socialization and social reproduction does not only mean physical proximity; it depends heavily on the existence of non-hierarchical spaces of interaction at the local level (e.g. public schools, local policies, community development organizations, etc.). Beyond the conflictive character of these spaces then, these could and should allow the debate of differences without much subordination.

And a third proposition is that a universalization of social rights is necessary. The major consequence of targeted policies and resources in neoliberal contexts has been a division in the access to ‘benefits’ that should be equal for all, which has intensified fragmentation and conflict in society. Therefore, the existence of key common resources at the local level generates challenges for different social groups, in terms of working together for a ‘common interest’. In fact, this is the foundational idea behind the concept of ‘community’.



We have already mentioned that from functionalist/positivist theories, segregation can be conceived as natural, and from Marxism, as a structurally determined product. The hegemony of the first theories in the design of integration policies have not generated the expected results: discrimination and the unequal access to opportunities persists, there is a dissolution of social networks, etc., which is largely explained by the excessive reliance that these policies have had on spatial proximity, which clearly implies a reductionist vision of reality.

That is why the questions that point to urban integration policies today are multiple: How to reduce segregation without at the same time producing new forms of discrimination? How to ensure equal access to urban goods without creating new inequalities? How to generate cohesion in socially diverse contexts? How to guarantee social mix without displacing the poor? How to diminish power differences, and their sources, between unequal social groups?

For the improvement of integration policies, both socio-spatial dialectics and the Right-to-the-City can be useful. From the perspective of socio-spatial dialectics, integration represents part of the spatial changes needed for a generalized and major social change. Ultimately, the main progressive goal of integration, and in general of a Critical Urban Policy109, is that the socio-spatial forms of mixed-income communities should work to diminish power differences between dissimilar social groups110 and allow the excluded to have the capacity to transform the city as well. In this way, the struggles to change society and space should not be regarded as isolated struggles, but as simultaneous and equally important. In other words, they should be dialectically inseparable.

This allows us to advance the discussion over urban integration towards new lines of exploration. One of these may be to clearly establish the role and the symbolic effects that the action of institutions have on socially diverse neighborhoods. And another line could be to scrutinize into the diverse socio-spatial mechanisms that promote the construction of mixed neighborhoods with stable communities that guarantee the access to functional and symbolic opportunities, under egalitarian conditions.



2 Nightingale, 2012.

3 Davis, 2003.

4 Flanagan, 1999.

5 Engels, 2003.

6 Gottdiener & Hutchison, 1994.

7 Durkheim, 1997.

8 Flanagan, 1999

9 Cazenave & Álvarez, 1999.

10 Lefebvre, 1991.

11 Soja, 1993.

12 Flanagan, 1993.

13 Saunders, 1986.

14 Orum & Chen, 2003.

15 Gottdiener & Hutchison, 1994.

16 Park, 1915.

17 Orum & Chen, 2003.

18 Saunders, 1986.

19 Orum & Chen, 2003.

20 Burgess, 2008.

21 Flanagan, 1993.

22 Saunders, 1986.

23 Park, 1926.

24 Flanagan, 1993.

25 Burgess, 2008.

26 Park, 1915.

27 Flanagan, 1993; Gottdiener & Hutchison, 1994; Saunders 1986.

28 Gottdiener & Hutchison, 1994; Saunders, 1986.

29 Flanagan, 1993; Gottdiener & Hutchison, 1994; Orum & Chen, 2003.

30 Simmel & Wolff, 1950; Wirth, 1938.

31 Gans, 1994.

32 Fischer, 1984.

33 Cohen, 1985; Lofland, 1985; Suttles, 1972.

34 Krupat, 1985.

35 Saunders, 1986.

36 Castells, 1978.

37 Saunders, 1986.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Zukin, 1980.

41 Saunders, 1986.

42 Lefebvre, 2003; Saunders, 1986.

43 Lefebvre, 1991.

44 Castells, 1977a.

45 Ibid.

46 Castells, 1978.

47 Ibid

48 Castells, 1977b.

49 Harvey, 1989.

50 Ibid.

51 Lefebvre, 1968.

52 Harvey, 2012.

53 Orum & Chen, 2003; Zukin, 1980.

54 Saunders, 1986; Zukin, 1980.

55 Mellor, 1975.

56 Saunders, 1986.

57 Elliott & McCrone, 1982.

58 Harman, 1988; Hayden, 1980.

59 Markusen, 1980; Pratt, 1998.

60 Nicholls, 2011.

61 Soja, 1993.

62 Davis, 2002.

63 Fainstein, 2002; Sassen, 2000.

64 Sassen, 2000, Sassen, 2002.

65 Orum & Chen, 2003.

66 Zukin, 1995.

67 Zukin, 2003.

68 Short, 1996.

69 Soja, 1993.

70 Morente, 2012.

71 As in the previous approaches, the discrepancies over the location of these theories within the taxonomy are significant. The Bourdieusian and the Actor-Network approaches are similar and understand, especially the latter, that dynamics always tend to be hybrid and heterogeneous in each context. The issues developed by the Foucauldian Approach are urban culture, inequality and labor. The Bourdieusian Approach focuses on urban poverty, marginality, incarceration and social programs targeted at the poor (welfare policies). And the Actor-Network Approach concentrates in public space and consumption.

72 Figure 1 is defined by the intersection of three macro-orientations and four macro-dimensions. The macro-orientations represent the most important currents in sociology and social sciences (or at least those that are involved in the reviewed theories): functonalism-positivism, conflict sociology and post-structuralism. Likewise, macro-dimensions point to some main categories of analysis over which the currents of sociology tend to be associated: structural, individual, cultural and symbolic. These last two (cultural and symbolic) could have been overlapped with the first two (structural and individual), but that would have added an unnecessary complexity to Figure 1, hindering its reading. Thus, the presented division is organized from the general characteristics of the reviewed approaches, instead of a strict (and mutually exclusive) scheme of macro-orientations and macro-dimensions.

73 Elkin, 1985, Stone, 1987.

74 Logan & Molotch, 1987.

75 Smith, 1996.

76 Wacquant, 2008.

77 Downey & Smith, 2011.

78 Friedman, 1991.

79 Jargowsky, 1997; Massey & Denton, 1993.

80 Sampson, Morenoff & Gannon-Rowley, 2002; Sampson, 2012.

81 Fowler, 2016.

82 Howell-Moroney, 2005.

83 Joseph, 2006.

84 Smith, 1993.

85 Ellen, 2000.

86 Gotham, 2002; Wacquant, 1997.

87 Standing, 2011.

88 Musterd, 2005.

89 Steinberg, 2010.

90 Gans, 2008.

91 Wacquant, 2009, p. 109.

92 Smith, 2006.

93 Cashin, 2004.

94 Castells, 1977a.

95 Bolt, Phillips & Van Kempen, 2010.

96 Greenbaum, 2008.

97 Smith, 2006.

98 Soja, 1993.

99 Lefebvre, 1991 affirms that social relationships need factors that make them fixed to persist. One of those factors is laws and legislation, and other is the configuration of space and the territory.

100 Soja, 1993.

101 Ibid.

102 Lefebvre, Kofman & Lebas, 1996.

103 Ibid.

104 Harvey, 2008.

105 Marshall, 1998; Vasak, 1977.

106 Young, 1999.

107 see Imbroscio, 2012.

108 Carmichael, 1966.

109 Imbroscio, 2012.

110 DeFilippis & Fraser, 2010.



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