Geography and Inequality- Disparities and Dichotomies Within Cities

Two centuries ago, Charles Booth created his maps on

‘Life and Labour of the people in London’.

At the time, his method of data collection was supremely original, investigating home life, working conditions and religious convictions, and conducting an array of interviews and observations to give an accurate depiction of living and working conditions in the capital in the 19th century. Essentially, the use of ethnography.

Looking at the map now, we’d certainly have problems with how each social group has been referenced. At the lowest end people are described as ‘vicious and semi-criminal’, and areas of the map shaded black and blue depict these members of society as their inhabitants. Shades separate the rich from the poor. However, it is the truly anthropological methodology that I believe we should be celebrating. Booth was critical of the purely statistical census data which existed around poverty, and his new work, though significantly more time consuming, showed the number of those living in abject poverty in the East End of London, to be 10% higher than the original figure of 25%. His work led to the founding of the old age pension, free school meals for the poorest children, and government interventions against poverty.

Despite this groundbreaking work done by Booth, which highlighted just how stark the economic disparities were between areas of East London and the elite of Westminster, and the fact that new versions of these maps have been created in the 21st century, the problem still exists in the city of London.

To see this, you need only watch this YouTube video from the popular personality Russell Brand. This is but one of many of his videos and public appearances, aiming to bring this issue to a larger public and political forum. In the video, he states

 ‘There is an economic apartheid happening here on the streets of London’

This is in reference to the ‘poor doors’ that exist in luxury apartment blocks in London, so that socially rented properties are accessed differently to those which are privately rented.

But what does this mean for the human body? One must pass through a different door to another, because it’s social and economic value is greater or lesser?

Gordon comments in her paper on a segmented society in New Zealand that

‘the material, cognitive and physical come together in a potent and self-reinforcing mix’

this is in terms of how segmentation of society occurs, and the fact that ‘our bodies are scared’ of what lies in these different territories, preventing crossing of these borders built purely from social construct. Images of the ‘lower class’ body are portrayed by the media, reinforcing an image for others to separate and distance themselves from. An image often of a hooded teenager who is part of a gang, or an overweight, unemployed mother claiming state benefits.

Gordon blames this fear and division on the rise of neo-liberal policies. She is hopeful that change will occur, but how and when she is not sure.

This is ultimately a problem in society as a whole, but as Booth found, it is only by looking at individual bodies and people, and scratching beneath the surface of statistics, that we see how truly divided we are becoming.

Sources:

1. British Library. Booth’s London Poverty Map. Available: http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/mappinghist/booth-st.jpg. Last accessed 31st Jan 2015

2. Drift Report. (2014). Poor Doors – social segregation in London: Russell Brand Trews Reports (E3). Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAtrAfhBcgk. Last accessed 31st Jan 2015

3. Gordon, L. (2014). The 486 Bus and Poverty: Habits of mind and body in a segmented society. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 46 (9), p1000-1003.

4. LSE. Inquiry into the life and labour of the people in London (1886-1903). Available: http://booth.lse.ac.uk/static/a/3.html. Last accessed 31st Jan 2015

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Samuel Johnson

When thinking of London, the above quote is something that will readily cross most people’s minds.  However, for an anthropological context, Samuel Johnson stated a far greater truth; that

a great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life.”

But what does life in a city mean?

Cities are our biggest human settlements, attracting a vast variety of people and constantly being crafted and reformed around the human experience. Keeping my focus on London, walking around the East you can see the tiny brick back alleys from Jack the Ripper’s old stomping ground, yet you need only look up to see brand new skyscrapers being built from Plexiglas. How and where we live is changing, and how the body moves and is affected in a city shows huge contrast to living anywhere else. It creates health problems, but also affords room for innovation. To many there is a sense of opportunity and freedom, but to others claustrophobia.

In this blog I am going to examine the individual and collective experience of being a body in the city from an anthropological perspective. Particularly as I am surrounded by ‘the school for studying life’ on a day to day basis, I am looking forward to what I might find.

lifebeautiful