A review of The Sociology of Housing, edited by Brian McCabe and Eva Rosen
— Gregory Preston
Housing is often only in the public consciousness or policymaker agenda during cyclical busts, as in the foreclosures of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or the eviction moratoria of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for many low-income homeowners and renters, housing is in a state of perpetual crisis: a shortage of affordable and habitable housing, housing precarity and the risk of displacement, a durable architecture of segregation and resulting exclusion from opportunities, to name a few.
Studying the inequalities that arise from these housing crises is not new for sociologists. Some of the discipline’s earliest scholars placed housing in their analyses of social inequality, like Du Bois in The Philadelphia Negro. However, the study of housing itself remained indirect and fragmented across sociology’s many subfields. In The Sociology of Housing, Brian McCabe and Eva Rosen bring together preeminent scholars in a twenty-four-essay edited volume to make the case for housing as a coherent subfield and a primary object within sociological inquiry.
Many of the contributing authors contend sociology has much to extend research on housing, including the discipline’s theoretical frameworks and methodological toolkit. The sociological perspective is unique, the editors posit, in that it facilitates seeing housing as both an input and outcome—on both sides of the equation—of social relations. The focus of the collection, however, is not novel empirical findings. Instead, The Sociology of Housing aims to trace the definitional contours and lay out a research agenda for a more coordinated field of study.
Across the numerous topics covered in the volume, some fundamental themes and components of a sociology of housing emerge: First, race is a central and salient axis of housing inequality in the United States. Second, a sociology of housing must attend to the spatial and locally differentiated facets of inequality. Third, a sociology of housing must contend with social inequalities as dynamic processes, not just fixed outcomes. Lastly, researchers of the field must engage with policy as it is part of the causal mechanism of inequality, and the products of their research have inherent consequences for policymaking.
To bring together such a vast literature, the editors organize the volume into four parts. The first takes on the many drivers that elevate housing to a societal issue: institutionalized racism, settler colonialism, and the social determinants of health. Two standout chapters address a gap in the racial residential segregation literature which has largely focused on and theorized from Black-white differences: In Chapter 3, Rendón, Martínez, and Kulkarni call on sociologists to adopt a relational treatment of race, where racialization is a dynamic process understood in both local and historical contexts. From a relational perspective, the experience of Latinos is not taken to be somewhere between Blacks and whites (comparative) but is richly theorized on its own terms and co-constituted with the racial formation of other groups. Darrah-Okike, Rile, Garboden, and Rita similarly challenge the Black-white binary in Chapter 5 and call for the sociology of housing to grapple with settler colonialism and integrate indigenous challenges to property into the field’s theoretical framework.
In Part II, authors address the full spectrum of housing insecurity, from unstable tenure and ‘doubling up’ to eviction and homelessness. Overall, this research articulates that the state of being housed is neither static nor binary, but dynamic. Considering there is now an extensive literature, Nelson and Lens in Chapter 8 urge researchers to extend eviction research beyond the correlates and deleterious outcomes of eviction and explore the institutional arrangements and processes that shape the diverse local political economies of eviction. Similarly, Herring in Chapter 12 prompts researchers to adopt longitudinal perspectives, to focus on dynamic processes in which people enter and exist shelter systems and permanent supportive housing. The drive to confront complexity is mirrored in novel sites of analysis offered in this part: of unique homeownership/land-rentership arrangements that characterize much of manufactured housing, of mixed housing arrangements like ‘doubling up’ and non-family households that are often obscured in survey data, and of the varied motivations of people squatting in informal housing. These authors in this section challenge the disciplinary norms that tend toward theoretical abstraction and paradigmatic cases.
In Part III, housing supply is considered not just an economic good in abstract exchange, but as a market constructed and perpetuated by social relations. This section illustrates how a robust sociology of housing will emerge from the interplay of structural theorizing and agent-based fieldwork. Garboden’s compelling conceptualization of ‘exploitation’ in housing markets in Chapter 17 makes its contribution to the field in its application to the housing market intermediaries described in Chapter 14 by Korver-Glenn, Bartram, and Besbris or the institutions and actors who struggle over housing construction as LaBriola details in Chapter 13. Similarly, by conceptualizing actors and institutions in the housing market by their fiscal relationships, in Chapter 18 Martin reshapes an evaluation of social responsibility for well-known housing policies such as the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (HMID) and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Here, the editors suggest a break from methodological and topical siloing they claim currently characterizes the field of research.
Lastly, Part IV connects a sociology of housing to broad social issues and policy goals, such as racial residential segregation and racialized carceral state-violence. This part contends that a sociology of housing is inherently political. In Chapter 19, Faber notes racial residential segregation and its resulting consequences are social phenomena, that are created and perpetuated by actors and institutions. Therefore, disassembling racial segregation will require interfacing with political power to rebuild more just institutions. In the same vein, Kurwa in Chapter 22 argues that to challenge the discriminatory criminal justice system requires also challenging the social relations inherent in legal conceptions of property itself. This suggests sociologists of housing should feel compelled to engage with policy because it is both cause and consequence of an unjust social order.
Taken together, this volume is a tremendous feat of wrangling and organizing a significant terrain of subfields into a coherent whole. It is a roadmap I wish I had when beginning my studies. However, without a concluding chapter from the editors that explicitly lays out a consistent definitional framework or coordinated scope of research, it can be difficult for the reader to parse between the many, widely varied agendas. This is not to say that sociologists of housing will ever take up a universal approach to their research. Indeed, the most successful essays in the volume embody reciprocal thinking between, say, top-down (structural) and bottom-up (agent-based) research. As it stands, the contribution of the volume is in putting all the contributing authors between the same covers and hoping, yet, for them to begin conversing.
Similarly, I question whether the volume achieves its goal of defining a novel sociology of housing, for there is a rich and ever-growing history of sociological research already represented in this volume. Instead, perhaps, the editors are ultimately aiming to recalibrate sociological research for a new age. This recalibration might include a new set of methodological and theoretical approaches that confront demographic transformations in the nation’s racial makeup and geography as well as macroeconomic shifts, like the financialization of housing, that imbue novel social meanings and economic motivations into housing. In this way, reading between the chapters, I believe they are successful.
The task of sociologists studying housing, then, is to continue to challenge contextless abstractions and classical thinking. Instead, a new sociology of housing will precipitate out of complexity, such as relational constructions of race and atypical sites of analysis, which will advance and continuously test the field. In my own work as a quantitative researcher, this is a call to question the simplifying assumptions made in the construction and selection of independent variables in statistical analyses. Still, it is common to use monolithic categories of Latino and Asian or to standardize households to their nuclear arrangements because it is convenient to the survey data available. That itself is insufficient reasoning, and this volume pushes researchers to reshape those theories, data sources, and methods.
I expect this volume will be valuable in both academic and applied research settings. Each respective essay represents the most up-to-date review of the literature and often provocations for the near-future of research on the topic. Some of the most transformative agenda items include integrating indigenous and anti-carceral challenges to property relations, challenging normative and nuclear conceptions of the household as a unit of analysis, reconciling theories of development that place business elites or existing residents (NIMBYs) as the central drivers, reconciling theories of neighborhood change that balance accounts of both neighborhood decline and gentrification, extending the field to the Global South, and repoliticizing the field as a whole. Overall, this collection makes a powerful case for why researchers should take seriously the place of housing in sociological research, while also recalibrating its canon for social issues of the twenty-first century.
Gregory Preston (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral student in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Urban Planning
Link to the full issue of Poverty & Race Journal, Volume 32 No.3 (August-December 2023)