Sociology Historic Preservation
Katie Turner, Kevin Loughran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0260


Historic preservation is an idea and a practice, an academic discipline and a field of political and cultural action. For social scientists, a critical approach to historic preservation means to interrogate the underlying assumptions about history, community, and culture that drive preservation contests as well as the sociospatial outcomes: how places are made, branded, and changed as a result of historic preservation. A number of key questions can be raised about any given preservation effort: What kinds of claims are being made when mnemonic activists declare a building or a neighborhood to be “historic”? Whose vision of history is being wielded when monuments and other spaces of consecration are laid down in the urban fabric? What are the cultural frames that are mobilized to socially construct such landscapes as “historic” versus those are simply “historical”? What are the debates that ensnare all kinds of social actors—urban planners and historians, community activists and politicians—in decisions about which historical landscapes to conserve, and which to leave as unprotected commodities? Lastly, what are the spatial scales where preservation and memorialization are enacted, contested, and materialized? This entry considers historic preservation from these many angles, presenting readers with a critical overview of the topic and raising questions and presenting important readings for further consideration.

Frames for Analyzing Historic Preservation

Historic preservation envelops a number of scholarly fields: architecture, anthropology, cultural studies, law, geography, government, history, urban planning, and sociology. While each discipline has a different outlook on the practice, most recognize that putting any symbol in place—whether a building, a monument, or simply a plaque—is an act of social power. Scholars of historic preservation analyze a process through which urban meaning is bureaucratically assigned, and through which stories, narratives, and truth claims are memorialized and spatialized, as Olick and Robbins 1998 foregrounds. Sociologists ask how this process factors into inequality and into culture. In the end, historic preservation is a servant to social power like any other urban planning tool (as in the theories set forth in Scott 1998). But historic preservation can be a malleable tool: depending on who uses it and how it is used, historic preservation can work for or against the forces of urban growth, and can be helpful or harmful to marginalized communities. Historic preservation is one way of formally organizing the process by which use objects like buildings become cultural objects, as argued in Gieryn 2002 (see also Griswold 2012). Do historic preservationists recognize, as theorized in Lefebvre 1991, the cultural meaning created by residents of an area? Or do they use historical symbols as a pretense to remake social space, marketing cultural meaning for branding, spectacle, and profit, as indicated in Zukin 1982 and Zukin 1987? David Harvey asked these questions of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur; Harvey 1979 recognizes not only the symbology used on the basilica as important—depicting a sepulchral, ethereal, “haughty grandeur” (p. 363)— but the sociospatial context as well. Butte Monmartre serves not just to make the structure visible throughout Paris but also instill moral order by creating martyrs of those who had died fighting the Paris Commune at that site. This memorial commemorates death with ulterior political motives: to remind the city of the defeat of a radical socialist party and of the power of the Catholic Church. While some might see monuments as carvings of marble or stone, scholars of historic preservation insist that we must view the material and cultural context.

  • Gieryn, Thomas F. 2002. What buildings do. Theory and Society 31.1: 35–74.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1014404201290

    A creative piece that theorizes the social meaning and social influence of the built environment.

  • Griswold, Wendy. 2012. Cultures and societies in a changing world. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    An important overview of recent advances in cultural sociology.

  • Harvey, David. 1979. Monument and myth. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69.3: 362–381.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1979.tb01262.x

    A foundational and in-depth explication of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris that analyzes geographical, historical, and social context for the creation of the monument.

  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space. Translated by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.

    A classic in urban sociology, Lefebvre’s Marxist approach to the creation of spatial meaning theorizes that space is socially produced but can be a means of control and domination.

  • Olick, Jeffrey, and Joyce Robbins. 1998. Social memory studies: From ‘collective memory’ to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices. Annual Review of Sociology 24:105–140.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.24.1.105

    An agenda-setting piece in social memory studies.

  • Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A discipline-spanning achievement that highlights the power of the state to shape social space and the often deleterious consequences that result.

  • Zukin, Sharon. 1982. Loft living: Culture and capital in urban change. Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press.

    One of the first sociological studies of gentrification, this highly influential book by Sharon Zukin shows how cultural production, the arts, and the aesthetics of the built environment boost urban economic development.

  • Zukin, Sharon. 1987. Gentrification: Culture and capital in the urban core. Annual Review of Sociology 13:129–147.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An early overview of the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of gentrification processes.

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