The language of poverty

Slightly late for its inclusion in Mapping Society, I’ve come across this quote from Max Weber, writing about the stockyards of turn of the twentieth century Chicago as a landscape of “lowing, bleating, endless filth”. His likening of the city as akin to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work”[i] is an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities. Not only is the use of graphic imagery a means to convey the urgency of the problem, (and in this instance to reveal the extent of the problem just as a dissection might do), but also to argue for its solution: whether to cleanse, or to separate it out.

Image result for chicago stockyards horror not:pinterest
Men on horseback herding cattle during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Photograph by Chicago Daily News, Inc. Source: Chicago History Museum

Separating the unclean from the cleansed is not of course a new idea. David Sibley has written how the Greeks and the Romans saw themselves as standing at the centre of the civilised world, so that the farther away a group was from the imperial hub, the ‘greater was its “vice”’.[ii] Any civilisation that was inferior to the Greek or Roman culture was in effect deviating from the mean – or the norm – in its statistical as well as its physical sense. A map of prostitution, he argues, provides essential information about ‘the social topography of the town. The basic principle of medieval regulation was to designate certain areas to prostitution, either inside or outside the walls, and limit vice strictly to them.’ This was a form of ‘social hygiene’, locating prostitution in poor districts, ‘often close to the river’ or beyond the city walls.[iii]

By drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the centre from the periphery. This analysis recalls similar ideas put forward by Richard Sennett regarding the treatment of the Jews of Venice. Sennett writes of the ‘fear of touching’ that led the Christian community of Venice five centuries ago to seek to isolate its foreign inhabitants, as if they were ‘isolating a disease that had infected the community . . . with corrupting bodily vices’.

Despite the complexity of the subject, many nineteenth-century texts continued to use powerfully negative imagery to describe the poor, foreigners and other people viewed as marginal to society in emotive, sensual terms – emphasising their moral contagiousness. David Sibley has described how a distinction was made between the ‘pure bourgeois and the defiled proletarian’ in mid-nineteenth century Paris as part of an effort to ‘deodorize utopian city space’ during the reshaping of the city under Baron Haussmann.[iv]

Minority groups are typically not the only people to be marginalised spatially. So too are the poorest classes. Despite the slum clearances that took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the increasing numbers of people moving into the city from the countryside, coupled with a lack of organised city planning, led to the formation of poverty areas constituted by an ‘almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other . . . like a rabbit warren’.[v] Robin Evans has commented that the campaigns to clear the slums were due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency ‘. . . as if the homes had been one great block of stone eaten by slugs into innumerable small chambers and connecting passages’.[vi] Overcrowding was linked with immorality, while poverty was associated linguistically with the animal (in this instance, the insect) world, suggesting the poor to be non-human in their behaviour. At the same time, likening the city’s morphology – its physical form and layout – to a rabbit warren shows how the city was itself viewed by people as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants.[vii]

No language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’.[viii] This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well.


[i] “(Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[ii] D. Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 50.

[iii] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 87. Bronislaw Geremek has similarly described how the city walls of medieval Paris were seen as a purifying device, defining territory within and without the walls, and placing the prostitutes beyond them. B. Geremek and J. Birrell, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[iv] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 57. For more on Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris, see section on the contemporary mapping of disease, in Chapter 2 of this volume (p. 000).

[v] H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 4 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861); Penguin Classics reprint edition, ed. V. Neuburg (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 299–300.

[vi] R. Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, ed. R. Evans (London: AA Documents 2, 1997, first published 1978). ‘Rookery’ is a term dating from the 1820s to describe a particularly low quality of housing, closely packed with people of the poorest class (it refers to colonies of rooks, which nest in trees in large populations during the breeding season).

[vii] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’.

[viii] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.

‘Mapping Society’: new book out with UCL Press in September

I’m pleased to announce the forthcoming open access publication in September 2018 of Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography with UCL Press.

The book reflects two decades of enquiry into the spatial nature of society, focusing on the detailed patterning of social phenomena as these are laid out in historical maps. The importance of a spatial analysis of historical data is not to be underestimated. Going beyond placing the data on the map to a deeper analysis of the geographical patterning of the data allows the researcher to pose a variety of questions: regarding the spatial character of the urban setting, regarding whether social data of a single type have spatial characteristics in common, and – in general – to control for spatial effects when analysing social patterns.

For me, the Booth maps have become the quintessential starting point when exploring the relationship between the spatial organisation of cities and how societies take shape over time. I have written about the spatial-temporal evolution of cities in my earlier book, Suburban Urbanities. This current publication effectively goes back to the origins of my research, starting with my most fundamental subject of interest: how the spatial configuration of cities shapes social patterns and, specifically, urban social problems.

Booth and legend
Section of the Charles Booth map of Poverty, 1889 – with legend

This book does so by taking maps of social statistics and developing a close reading of the maps themselves as well as the context within which they were created. A side product of this inquiry has been the discovery of the extent to which social cartography is frequently used not only as a tool for communicating information on patterns of settlement, but also for other purposes: for propaganda, to collate evidence or to support scientific argumentation. The use of social maps as an analytical device is less prevalent and this book will show how a reading of the spatial patterns captured by such maps can reveal some fundamental rules about how cities work according to a specifically spatial logic of society.

From a rare map of yellow fever in eighteenth-century New York, to Charles Booth’s famous maps of poverty in nineteenth-century London, an Italian racial zoning map of early twentieth century Asmara, to a map of wealth disparities in the banlieues of twenty-first-century ParisMapping Society traces the evolution of social cartography over the past two centuries, examining maps of ethnic or religious difference, poverty, and health inequalities, demonstrating how they not only serve as historical records of social enquiry, but also constitute inscriptions of social patterns that have been etched deeply on the surface of cities.

The power of diagrams in urban studies

There has been a flurry of retweets of my response yesterday to a cartoon by John Atkinson (@WrongHands1 ‏), Simplified City Map, which I suggested was reminiscent of the classic chart by Ernest Burgess’ from his 1925 paper ‘The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project’.


simplified city map
Simplifed City Map, copyright John Atkinson, Wrong Hands, published February 12, 2016:

Readers may be interested in the following excerpt from my forthcoming (open access) book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography, where I discuss Burgess’s chart, in the figure below. Ernest Burgess was one of a group of sociologists based at the university of Chicago who were known as the ‘Chicago School’. Robert Park, together with Ernest Burgess and colleagues, was one of the first to propose that the complexity of urban societies requires an empirical approach that controls the shape and form of the spatial environment as one might control a chemical in a laboratory.[i] The combination of their institutional backing and the setting of the rapidly growing city made Chicago the ideal place to ‘do urban research’ for much of the period leading up to the Second World War and on into the 1950s.[ii]

Ernest Burgess' Chart 2 - Urban Areas, showing concentric zones in cities from Loop at the centre to commuters zone at the edge
Chart 2 – Urban Areas, illustrating the growth of cities. From E.W. Burgess, ‘The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project,’ in The City, ed. R.E. Park, E.W. Burgess and R.D. McKenzie (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1925), p. 38

One of the School’s most influential ideas was Burgess’s conception of cities as if they were made up of concentric zones. In an idea first articulated in 1925, Burgess proposed that the growth of cities typically followed a concentric process of expansion: from an inner Zone I (termed Loop – clearly Chicago was the model) surrounded by a Factory Zone, set within Zone II (the Zone in Transition), surrounded by Zone III (the Zone of Workingmen’s Homes), surrounded by Zone IV (a Residential Zone) and finally Zone V (the Commuters’ Zone). Despite Burgess’s explanation that his chart was ‘an ideal construction’,[iii] its impact on planning ideas continues to this day. But another idea that appears in the same paper, disorganisation theory, is equally important for its long-term influence on the discipline of criminology.

Burgess argued that as cities expand, ‘a process of distribution takes place which sifts and sorts and relocates individuals and groups by residence and occupation’[iv]. The result, he wrote, is a mosaic of social worlds comprised of immigrant areas such as Chinatown or the Jewish ‘ghetto’, whose inhabitants move progressively through each zone, seeking ‘the Promised Land’ beyond. These naturally evolved areas have developed alongside other residual areas, ‘submerged regions of poverty, degradation and disease’, where accepted rules of social behaviour are absent. If cities grow too fast, Burgess wrote, the internal movements of people through the zones create a ‘tidal wave of inundation’, leading to excessive social disorganisation in the form of crime, disorder, vice, insanity and suicide. He was stating that social disorganisation occurs where there is a lack of collective social values and effective social control on deviant behaviour; so delinquency is the outcome of community breakdown, rather than individual deviance. Shaw’s later work with McKay, which expanded the study to 21 American cities, supported Burgess’s hypothesis that the physical deterioration of residential areas accompanied by social disorganisation is greatest in a central zone in the business district, and declines progressively from the inner city to its peripheral areas.[v] These propositions have since been refuted by scholars who argue that the model does not explain the reality of complex urban processes, yet the beauty of its simplicity means that notions of disorganisation – as well as the concentric zones model – continue to hold in many criminology studies today.


[i] Park and Burgess, The City; R.E. Park, ‘The Urban Community as a Spatial Pattern and a Moral Order,’ in The Urban Community, ed. E.W. Burgess (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926); R.E. Park, ‘The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment,’ American Journal of Sociology 20, no. 5 (1915); R.E. Park and E.W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921).

[ii] T.F. Gieryn, ‘City as Truth-Spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies,’ Social Studies of Science 36, no. 1 (2006, February 1), p. 5.

[iii] EW Burgess, ‘The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project,’ in The City ed. RE Park, et al. (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1925), p. 36.

[iv] Burgess, ‘The Growth of the City,’ p. 38.

[v] C.R. Shaw and H.D. McKay, Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquency in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942).