Sociology Ghetto
Terry Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0081


Most scholars view the iconic social form of the ghetto as having a particular racial component, and as being defined by social isolation, residential segregation, gross inequality, consistent poverty, and crime. This article includes the radical scholarship of the late 1960s and 1970s, which still exists in the early 21st century, albeit in a different, more theoretical way. In the past couple of decades, the tensions between theoretical and experimental, experience and structural processes, have been significant. As Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson argue in their article “Reconsidering the ‘Ghetto’” “in the final analysis, the relationship between operational and theoretical definitions of the ghetto and the function of each type of definition deserves further consideration and is crucial for theory building” (Chaddha, Anmol and Wilson, William Julius. December 2008. Reconsidering the “Ghetto,” City & Community 7.4).

Origins of the Term

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ghetto” as “1. Formerly a section or quarter in a European city to which Jews were restricted. 2. A slum section of an American city occupied predominantly by members of a minority group who live there because of social or economic pressure.” Historically, the word derived from the Italian word “gietto,” or foundry, in Venice, where Jews were originally forced to live within an enclosed settlement. The word retains this association, a geographic constraint where certain identifiable groups are compelled to live. Wirth 1928 used the term ghetto to connote a natural area that all who enter will assimilate into and later escape from, a notion that was heavily refuted by later scholars. The idea of the ghetto was being bandied about at the time almost exclusively as a concept involving Jews and not other minority groups, but it was also related to geography, as a specific location for those who lived in a particular area but who would and could eventually go elsewhere in the city. Frazier 1932 discusses the “negro community” in Chicago but did not use the word “ghetto” to refer to blacks in these locales. It was Drake and Cayton 1945, published a decade later, that defined the term as meaning a poor, rundown section of the black community (Bronzeville); yet ironically, they maintained not all of Bronzeville was a ghetto. Three years later, the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Robert Weaver, in Weaver 1948, argued persuasively about the existence of residential segregation in the north, making the point that no more “ghettos” should be created in the United States. Seventeen years later psychologist Kenneth Clarke, writing about the role of power in the creation of the ghetto, surmised that “America has contributed to the concept of the ghetto the restriction of persons to a special area and the limiting of their freedom of choice on the basis of skin color” (Clark 1965). Tabb 1970 provided an early critique of poverty and other social and economic relationships as they relate to ghettos in America and was one of the first to connect the ghetto to the Fanonian colonial paradigm.

  • Clark, Kenneth. 1965. Dark ghetto: Dilemmas of social power. New York: Harper & Row.

    This seminal volume represents a study of the ghetto in an attempt to understand the conditions of those trapped in the area known as the slums. The study attempts to answer several key questions; What are the personal and social consequences of the ghetto? What are the consequences of the victims’ lack of power to change their status? What are the consequences of the inability or unwillingness of those with power to use it for constructive social change?

  • Drake, St. Clair, and Horace Cayton. 1945. Black metropolis: A study of Negro life in a northern city. New York: Harcourt and Brace.

    This landmark study is ironically not considered a study of the ghetto per se, but the entire black community. It has been the sociological bible for many generations of social scientists, scholars, and writers interested in ghetto life since it was published sixty-eight years ago. It is a pioneering work that depicts the historical iconic ghetto and is an exhaustive survey of Negro life in Chicago. It is possibly the best written volume on the black community to date.

  • Frazier, E. Franklin. 1932. The Negro family in Chicago. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The central argument for Franklin was that the high crime and delinquency of “so-called ghettos” or high industrial cities was not the fault of the black inhabitants but a leftover legacy from previous immigrant groups; the remnants of those populations left dilapidated infrastructure (housing, streets, commercial overzoning), high crime areas, and excess poverty, and the problem was systemic from the beginning and not caused by the incoming group.

  • Tabb, William. 1970. The political economy of the Black ghetto. New York: W. W. Norton.

    An early critique of poverty and other social and economic relationships as they relate to the ghettos in America. Tabb was the first to connect the ghetto to the Fanonian colonial paradigm. As an economist, he was able to link poverty, race, and unemployment as key elements in the maintenance of persistent poverty in American ghettos.

  • Weaver, Robert. 1948. The Negro Ghetto. New York: Russell and Russell.

    Weaver discusses residential segregation in the north, arguing that no ghettos should be created in the United States.

  • Wirth, Louis. 1928. The Ghetto. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An early study that outlined the ghetto as a place Wirth considered “a natural area” in Chicago, although this notion was challenged by later scholars. The study was concerned with immigrant Jews in history, their intellectual and communal life in the city proper. Wirth points out that the ghetto was a transitional stage between the old world where Jews emigrated from and the new world which they came to inhabit in the United States. This is a study of the origins of the ghetto.

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