Towards a Sociology of Marginality in Helsinki

This writing is based on the research article published in the English edition of Sosiologia, 2/2016.

According to a recent research article, the poor and the wealthy in Helsinki have differentiated geographically to such an extent that “the age of segregation” is upon us. The article defines segregation as a process of unwanted differentiation that has continued despite attempts to prevent it by offering various housing tenures throughout the city – a so-called social mixing policy. In an interview published shortly before the article, one of its authors was asked for their opinion on social mixing policy. The author questioned the policy and made the following peculiar remark: “I think it is good that a city has roughness and luxury. I think it is the strength of cities.”

An ambiguous distinction was thus made between two differentiations: an unwanted one, labeled as “segregation”, and another, wanted, of “roughness” and “luxury”. How can we explain this?

The explanation can be found by examining some popular assumptions about the causes and outcomes of differentiation. I have critically examined such assumptions in my article published in the issue 2/2016 of Sosiologia. In my article I criticize scholars for too often resorting to a kind of circular reasoning when describing differentiation, thus failing to actually explain it. In the article I suggest that this circular reasoning leads to the ambiguous distinction portrayed above. What I want to do in the present text is recapitulate two of these popular assumptions about differentiation as well as my criticism of circular reasoning.

By circular reasoning I mean that differentiation is often explained with differentiation. The first popular assumption is that the presence of marginalized people such as poor families and ethnic minorities make a neighborhood unattractive for middle class “natives” who pack up and move out. The presence of marginalized populations in an unattractive neighborhood supposedly drives down property values, and lower rents draw in more marginalized people, leading to their increasing presence and differentiation.

One problem with circular reasoning is that it does not actually ask or explain how the process of differentiation begins. Another problem is that by neglecting this question, it consequently insinuates that marginalized people are to be blamed for a neighborhood’s unattractiveness and low property values.

To explain the process, I suggest that we pay critical attention to urbanization under capitalism and what geographer Neil Smith (2008) has named the uneven development of the built environment. Smith explains how uneven development ensues when capital is continuously invested in some built environments to produce surplus value, and meanwhile withdrawn from other built environments to be invested in more profitable locations. So, capital jumps from one location that becomes “rough” to another location that becomes “luxurious”.

Uneven development explains urban inequality. It shows how marginalized people end up living in “rough” peripheral neighborhoods. It explains that wealthier groups begin their move away simultaneously with escaping investments followed by the settling in of those who cannot but live in the disinvested location. Simply describing a cycle of events that blames marginalized people for driving down property values and driving out wealthy “natives” is misleading and derogatory.

Because of their neglect of a critical examination of capitalist urbanization, the author quoted in the beginning of this text fails to see that the uneven development leading to“roughness” and “luxury”, which they celebrate as the strength of a city, is the very structural cause of the segregation they criticize. But what then, if not its structural cause, is unwanted about segregation for the quoted author?

The second popular assumption is that segregation is unwanted because low income neighborhoods thwart people’s chances to improve their own situation. Scholars are concerned that a “culture of poverty” will form in Helsinki’s low income neighborhoods. Idleness, unemployment, crime, drinking, smoking and unhealthy and unsavory lifestyles are feared to spread as the wealthy are not present to provide a good example. This is what urban geographer Tom Slater (2013) calls a class antagonistic way of blaming poor people and their neighborhoods for their own poverty.

Such class antagonism can be expected from the Finnish conservative government, which uses moralizing rhetoric of a “work-shy” population of “welfare-dependents” to justify their aggressive austerity measures and welfare-to-workfare programs. Social scientific urban research, however, should not succumb to similar populist “culture of poverty” speech.

Instead, we should explore the reasons for income inequalities and poverty. For example, analysis of income statistics explains how and why any economic growth in Finland in recent decades has clearly favored the highest income groups. We need robust analysis of both reorganization of work and the retrenchment of the welfare state. They are the key dynamics behind what sociologist Loïc Wacquant (2008) calls advanced marginality.

Because ultimately, Helsinki’s predicament is not that poor people or ethnic minorities or other marginalized populations live together. The predicament is that they are marginalized. Marginalized by racism. Marginalized by moralizing views of poverty that blame the individual. Marginalized by a lack of jobs and by cutbacks in welfare services. Marginalized by the kind of urban development where the primary role of the built environment is capital accumulation. Marginalized by commodified housing where the role of dwellings as homes is superseded by the role of dwellings as producers of returns on investment.

Ambiguous assumptions about unwanted segregation and peculiar celebrations of “roughness and luxury” provide little explanation. We have to study the actual dynamics of socio-economic inequalities and uneven development that cause and aggravate the social and geographic marginalization of those most vulnerable in our city.

Mika Hyötyläinen


Hyötyläinen, Mika. 2016. “Poverty of Theory in Finnish Segregation Research.” Sosiologia 53:2, 105–121.

Kortteinen, Matti & Mari Vaattovaara. 2015. ”Segregaation aika.” Yhteiskuntapolitiikka 80:6, 562–574.

Merimaa, Juha. 2015. ”Kaupunkitarinoita Helsingistä.” Yliopisto-lehti. (

Riihelä, Marja, Risto Sullström & Matti Tuomala. ”Keille talouskasvun hedelmät ovat menneet Suomessa viimeisen viidenkymmenen vuoden aikana?” T&Y-blogi. (

Slater, Tom. 2013. “Your life chances affect where you live: A critique of the ‘cottage industry’ of neighbourhood effects research.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37:2, 367–387.

Smith, Neil. 2008. Uneven Development. Nature, Capital and the Production of Space. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2008. Urban Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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