Social Theory: Loïc Wacquant

26th Jul 2022 by Staci Strobl

Social Theory: Loïc Wacquant

As an interdisciplinary sociologist, Loïc Wacquant fuses two approaches: the material, associated with Marxist thought, and the symbolic as developed by Pierre Bourdieu, to produce a novel and highly relevant social theory. Broadly speaking, Wacquant contributes to the literature on racial capitalism which identifies links between social inequality, capitalist development, punishment, and political symbolics.

Wacquant recognizes race and poverty as complex, mapped onto neighborhood identities, and overlapping with gender (among other group identities) to form spatialized hierarchies and the construction of an “underclass.” His notions of race and class may be broadened to apply to other social differences, given that other identity markers may be more analytically relevant in other times and spaces.

Wacquant emerged within the fin de siècle debate on neoliberal capitalism-- a political process (not merely an economic one) involving the dismantling of the welfare state, the opening of free trade and investment, privatization, deregulation, and austerity. He finds that neoliberalism represents a novel and new form of capitalism exacerbating social and economic inequalities. Jamie Peck, for instance, reads Wacquant’s theory as necessarily requiring “…neoliberalism as the ‘root cause’…” of social difference, while others allow for application into other types of capitalism; broadly speaking, the applications of his theory rests in critiques of capitalism with social symbolic meaning.  

Key arguments

Wacquant implicates nation-states in perpetrating structural inequalities which reinforce and reproduce those symbolic markers for their political and economic benefit. His initial research involved the African-American experience in urban ghettos in the U.S, first through the micro lens of a boxing gym in Chicago, and then in a macro way in subsequent books, ay focusing on the racialization of capitalism and the disproportionate punishing of poor minorities in the U.S. and France. He identified a “closed circuit”  from ghetto to prison as a means not just of regulating labor, as prior sociologists put forth, but as a means of extracting it through such programs as convict leasing. Wacquant most famous work uses in-depth descriptions of ethnoracial domination, labor extraction, and the penal state in the U.S. to highlight the role of the state in producing and maintaining social and economic marginalities. Racial underclasses are marked by economic difference and social difference, operating in a self-reinforcing loop. 

Wacquant’s most enduring concept will likely be that of territorial stigmatization. Through his work on the racialized ghettos in the United States and the class and ethnically marginalized banlieux in France, he posits that “…poverty politics are not only directed toward deprived and marginal groups, but also toward deprived and marginal territories.” In “The New Peculiar Institution” and later in Punishing the Poor, Wacquant connects American slavery-- and its Jim Crow legacies of segregation, lynching, and continued labor extraction of black Americans-- to the advent and persistence of the black ghetto in the urban United States. He describes the ghetto as a mechanism of social spatiality that enables a dominant class to benefit from a marginalized group materially and socially. For Wacquant, there is a social prison in the ghetto and a juridical ghetto in the prison. By this he means that there is the ever-presence of metaphorical walls and over-policing in the ghetto, and the ghetto is reconstituted behind the walls of penal institutions and through the stigmatization of punishment. 

For Wacquant, the social space of the ghetto has four main characteristics: stigma, constraint, confinement, and institutional encasement.

Stigma. The salient difference of people in a ghetto is exaggerated and constructed as hostile to a dominant people and to the state. The population is stripped of their full humanity and negative social capital adheres to entire communities by association and shared identity (symbolically) and materially as well.

Constraint. A dishonored group’s life opportunities are minimized, sacrificed to the monopolization of social and material goods by the honorable and dominant status group.  This “… turn(s) the [population] into a sacrificial category which concentrates within itself all the negative properties (immorality, poverty, [ethnoracial difference]) that [the dominant] community wishes to expel outside itself.”

Confinement. Here he points to the ghettos of early modern Europe, which were not just confined by high walls, but were also made confining by continual surveillance by authorities, the modern-day equivalent of being over-policed and over-incarcerated in African-American ghettos.

Encasement. The ghetto is a “social prison” encasing the population by real or metaphorical barriers, separate from the places where the dominant status group lives their lives. 

Wacquant also characterizes ghetto spaces as “Janus-faced” being both places of stigma and destitution as well as economic improvement and social unification for those living therein. Here the possibility of agency can be found as adaptive subcultures of survival and resistance form. Wacquant also sees two faces in the neoliberal regime itself, as governments care for and enable the social and economic elites, but are authoritarian toward others more precariously situated. The latter are targeted not just for disciplinary action, but moralistic campaigns, and being socially-engineered toward low wage labor. In extreme cases such as in the U.S., Wacquant points to a “(hyper)ghetto” for “(sub)proletarian blacks” when special diligence and penal severity can be found in a “city within a city.”

As a student of Pierre Bourdieu, Wacquant extolled deep engagement in case studies, employing many of the techniques of historical sociology in his work, such as a long durée approach of historical contextualizing, archival studies, in-depth interviewing, cases studies, and most importantly, ethnography. Bourdieu’s insistence on relating to what ordinary people do, think, and feel in a particular milieu resonates strongly in Wacquant’s work. 

In application to the MENA region, including its limitations

It is important to note that shoe-horning the American or French experiences onto MENA societies would be contrary to the spirit of Wacquant’s commitment to local engagement, ethnographic fieldwork, and the long durée. Because Wacquant drew extensively on historical sociology in looking at the U.S. and France, researchers applying Wacquant in other domains should engage deeply in the region, country, or community when applying his theory. For example, Wacquant’s territorial stigmatization provides an analytical tool for scholars looking at the Occupied Territories in Palestine, expatriate labor camps in the Arabian Gulf, and displaced peoples’ camps in Syria and Iraq, among many other examples.

Of note, Bourdieau and Wacquant explored post-colonial Algerian society, analyzing the writings of sociologist Abdelmayak Sayad, a migrant from the Kabylia region in Algeria to France. As an academic and reflexive account of immigration and human intransience, Bourdieau and Wacquant concur with key principles of Sayad's, for instance, that an immigrant is an emigrant first. Scholars should “…start from the sending communities, their history, structure and contradictions. Like Sayad, Bourdieau and Wacquant theorize overall that migrants are social hybrids often with no legitimate place to be calling into question notions of citizenship, state and nation.

Bruce Hall in “Reading race in Africa and the Middle East” confronts the problem of conceptualizing race in varied societies and recognizes that it may be socially relevant to greater and lesser extents in certain times and places. By focusing on Wacquant’s notion of the distinction between folk and analytical versions of race, scholars can begin to apply his theory in a sophisticated way to non-Western spaces. In other words, how does the category of race or other social difference operate among ordinary people and how can that folk notion be connected to the analytical category so that it is more empirically grounded? In the Middle East in particular, the salient difference between a hegemonic power, such as the dominant state identity, and a marginalized group may not be race, but rather religion, sect, or indigeneity, among other possibilities.

Additionally, the role that neoliberalism plays in MENA societies differs from the Western societies Wacquant studied. Critics of Wacquant have pointed to the ambiguity of the term neoliberalism, and this is even more the case for non-Western milieux (that a society may still have a welfare state or never had one to begin with, for example). MENA nation-states are imperial artifacts, carved out for resource extraction, subject to colonial rule, and in the process, subjugated, reconstituted, and scarred. Scholars should turn to post-colonial theorists to illuminate unique processes of industrialization, labor extraction, decolonization, nationalization, political independence, and foreign investment, and these historical antecedents would need to be described specifically. For example, the Arabian Gulf countries have been referred to as “rentier states”—whether this is accurate is beyond the scope of this article-- but as such, this points to a consideration of the way neoliberalism manifests, or more broadly how the particular state or community is incorporated into global capitalist systems. 

Suggested reading

Wacquant, Loïc. Le prisons de la misère, Reasons d’agir Éditions, 1999 [translated as Prisons of Poverty Minnneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Wacquant, Loïc.“The New Peculiar Institution: On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto.” Theoretical Criminology 4 no. 3, (2000): 377-389.

Wacquant, Loïc. Urban outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008. 

Wacquant, Loïc. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

Wacquant, Loïc. “Class, Race and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America.” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (2010): 74-90.

Wacquant, Loïc. The Two Faces of the Ghetto. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wacquant, Loïc. The Invention of the 'Underclass': A Study in the Politics of Knowledge. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2022.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loïc Wacquant. “The Organic Ethnologist of Algerian Migration.” Ethnography 1 no. 2 (2000): 173-182: 173-174.

Braudel, Fernand, and Immanuel Wallerstein. "History and the social sciences: the longue durée." Review (Fernand Braudel Center) (2009): 171-203.

Collier Stephen J., “Neoliberalism as Big Leviathan, or…? A Response to Wacquant and Hilgers.” Social Anthropology, 20 no. 2 (2012): 186-195.

Go, Julian. “Three Tensions in the Theory of Racial Capitalism,” Sociological Theory 39 no. 1(2021): 38-47.

Hall, Bruce. “Reading Race in Africa and the Middle East.” Antropologia 7 no. 1 (April 2020): 37-38.

Mayer, Margit. “Punishing the Poor—a Debate: Some Questions on Wacquant’s Theorizing the Neoliberal State.” Theoretical Criminology 14 no. 1 (2010): 93-103, 2010.

Measor, Lynda. “Loïc Wacquant, Gender and Cultures of Resistance,” in Criminalisation and Advanced Marginality: Critically Exploring the Work of Loïc Wacquant,” edited by Peter Squires and John Lea, 129-150. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2012.

Peck, Jamie. “Zombie Neoliberalism and the Ambidextrous State,” Theoretical Criminology 14 no. 1 (2010) 104-110.

Slater, Tom. “Loïc Wacquant” in Key Thinkers on Cities, edited by Regan Koch and Alan Latham, 237-242. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2017.

Wacquant, Loïc. “Pugs at Work: Bodily Capital and Bodily Labour among Professional Boxers,” Body & Society 1 no.1 (1995): 65–93.

Wacquant, Loïc. "Negative Social Capital: State Breakdown and Social Destitution in America's Urban Core," Netherlands Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 13, no. 1 (1998): 25-40.

Wacquant, Loïc. "On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto," Punishment and Social Control (2003): 471.

Wacquant, Loïc. Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wacquant, Loïc. Le prisons de la misère, Reasons d’agir Éditions, 1999 [translated as Prisons of Poverty Minnneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Wacquant, Loïc.“The New Peculiar Institution: On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto.” Theoretical Criminology 4 no. 3, (2000): 377-389.

Wacquant, Loïc. Urban outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008.

Wacquant, Loïc. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

Wacquant, Loïc. “Class, Race and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America.” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (2010): 74-90.

Wacquant, Loïc, Tom Slater, and Virgílio Borges Pereira. "Territorial stigmatization in action." Environment and Planning 46, no. 6 (2014): 1270-1280.

Wacquant, Loïc. The Two Faces of the Ghetto. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wacquant, Loïc, and Aksu Akçaoğlu. "Practice and symbolic power in Bourdieu: The view from Berkeley." Journal of Classical Sociology 17, no. 1 (2017): 55-69.

Wacquant, Loïc. The Invention of the 'Underclass': A Study in the Politics of Knowledge. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2022.