Social Power and Power Over Space: How the Bourgeoisie Reproduces itself in the City


Urban sociology has long ignored districts of wealth and privilege in cities because they harbor few ‘social problems’ and the class background of sociologists has not inclined them to venture there. In France after 1968, the continued attraction of Marxism and the sulfurous reputation of sociology conspired to make such investigation difficult. Pierre Bourdieu pioneered it with his landmark book on the bourgeoisie, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. This essay reports on two decades of research extending Bourdieu’s model of social space to study the territories and strategies of the French high bourgeoisie and aristocracy. The dominant class lives in reserved upscale districts and this seclusion, resulting from the elective spatial aggregation of familial dynasties, is a fundamental characteristic of the group. Segregative isolation is strengthened by specific institutions, such as society balls and social clubs, entrusted with effecting class closure and perpetuation. But, in the greater Paris region, the best districts also attract businesses (corporate headquarters, luxury firms), and thus employment that prompts the established bourgeoisie to migrate westwards in an endless search for social exclusivity. In addition to their Paris homes, upper-class dynasties possess family properties (a castle or a large manor house) in the provincial hinterland that serve as a basis for paternalistic forms of sociability, linking them to the local lower class via such institutions as riding to hounds. Spaces reserved by and for the high bourgeoisie are major vectors of social reproduction and, along with family and elite schools, help to train heirs suited to safeguarding and valorizing their inherited assets.