Thinking about research in Gentrification: An Examination of Positivism and Structuralism

Geography is the study of the earth’s landscapes, peoples, places and environments. It is quite simply the world in which we live (RGS). Literature aimed at enhancing our knowledge of these social and physical processes is fundamentally based on philosophical assumptions inherent in the research. Indeed it is impossible to conduct a successful piece of research without making certain philosophical choices (Graham in Flowerdew and Martin, 2005).

These philosophical positions have a significant bearing on the research question, the evaluation of theory, the choice of appropriate methodologies and most crucially the interpretation of results (Holt-Jenson, 1999).

As a consequence the research is shaped by its philosophical foundation and it is therefore fundamental to any research project. The paper aims to promote awareness of the range of philosophical positions which may be seen to represent different epistemologies and ontology’s.

This will be achieved through critically evaluating four different empirical studies on gentrification. While some authors are overt in their philosophical position, many are implicit, in that there are philosophical guidelines but these are not overtly recognised and instead form part of the researchers taken for granted world (Johnson, 1986).

By explicitly questioning the epistemological and ontological positions which underpin the research, it takes the research into a different realm and also situates the research in the history of geographic thought.

I wish then to highlight and contrast these approaches in order to render them explicit. The central element in any philosophy is its epistemology which refers to the theory of knowledge and the fundamental epistemological question of how we know what we know.

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In epistemology one strives to generate truthful and justified descriptions and explanations of the world. Associated with epistemology is the philosophical framework of ontology, which Johnston (1986) describes as the nature of being, existence and reality, or ‘what can be known’.

The manner in which we answer the question of ‘what exists’ determines what can be accepted as fact and thus is the basis of every investigation. The divergent epistemologies and ontology’s together inform the methodologies for any piece of research, which, in turn, must be appropriate to the questions or problems that prompt the research enterprise (Graham in Flowerdew and Martin, 2005). Methodology is defined as a “a set of rules and procedures which indicate how research and argument are to be constructed: how information can be collected and organised” (Johnston, 1986).

The methodology enables the accumulation of a store of knowledge which can be accepted as valid because it was collected within the boundaries of coherent epistemologies and ontology’s. This in itself also has a moral element to it, as the goal is not simply to add to knowledge but to change the world and society for the better (Graham in Flowerdew and Martin, 2005) Acknowledgement of the different epistemological and ontological assumptions and methodological approaches they entail is particularly fundamental in the literature surrounding gentrification and cannot be ignored.

The preoccupation with gentrification during much of the 1970s and 80s has been described as “a major research frontier” (Hamnett, 1991) and can be explained primarily because gentrification represented “one of the key theoretical and ideological battlegrounds in urban geography, and indeed human geography as a whole” (Hamnett, 1991). It was this contrast within theoretical explanation which encouraged many scholars to the study of gentrification and the different epistemological and ontological assumptions it evokes.

Hamnett (1991) collapses this broad set of philosophical positions (each emphasising radically different theories and explanations) into two competing sets, between the liberal humanists who stress the role of choice, culture, consumption and consumer demand and the structural Marxist who stress the role of capital, class, production and supply. However, such a view has been criticised for over simplifying the debate (Smith, 1982) to the neglect of a number of other identifiable epistemological positions being advanced within the study of gentrification.

These include feminism (Blondi, 1991), post-modernism (Rose, 1984) and post-structuralism (Mills, 1993) to name a few (In Martin Phillips, 2002). This vast array of alternative epistemologies has caused an increasing range of conceptualizations of what constitutes gentrification (Phillips, 2001). One response to such a broad plethora of ontologies and epistemologies has led to Rose (1984) to label gentrification as a ‘chaotic concept’ and argue for it to be an ‘urgent research priority to disaggregate this concept as it includes a wide variety of different categories which should be explored separately.

Furthermore, this work led many geographers to question some of the concepts within geography, and in particular, the positivist approach which was dominating geography at the time (Phillips, 2005). The debates has come a long way since its ignition in the early 1980’s. The major outcome of this debate is that it served to crystallise many of the epistemological perspectives and forced researchers to look much more explicitly at the philosophical foundations of their work. This debate has changed our understanding of what geography is and thus the ways in which research is approached.

This debate is highly complex and theoretical and a detailed synopsis shall not be attempted here. However, it is important to recognise how different philosophical assumptions are fundamental to the research and can cause vastly different claims to knowledge. This essay will examine the assumptions of the structural Marxists and positivist epistemologies and ontology’s. Positivism is a philosophy of science developed by August Comte. This philosophy follows the belief of the supremacy of science as the only form of knowledge.

Although this philosophy was born of the natural sciences, it has also very influential in the field of social research as well. Positivism is based on an objectivist epistemology. It approaches knowledge with the view that the world is a structured place independent from human existence, and observations through direct sensory experience form the way of constituting knowledge of that world. The adequacy of this knowledge is determined through replication of the research, through rigorous testing of theories that can be falsified through repeated observation.

The ontology follows that only what is directly observable (and measurable) can be accepted as evidence (Johnston, 1986). Positive methodology is thus primarily quantitative in nature, although qualitative studies do exist. The studies use replicable experiments to rigorously test hypothesis and enable empirical generalisations, this enables the accumulated Knowledge through identifying empirical regularities which are used to create theories and scientific laws. The second philosophical position is Structuralism.

Associated with mainly Marxist traditions, structuralism is in part derived self-consciously in response to many of the shortcomings of positivism. Structuralism is defined as “the study of the theory of the processes and structural forces that underlie and determine empirical events” (Holt-Jenson, 1999). The structuralist epistemologies is that the world of observations yields knowledge of surface appearances but are inadequate at revealing the general structures which underpin all phenomena and observations.

These underlying structures are not directly observable, so instead valid knowledge is generated through identifying from the observable features of a given historically specific phenomenon, the essential underlying mechanisms which themselves inform the reconstruction of the surface appearances (McLean, 2002). These underlying structures provide understandings of our experience within that society. It is therefore necessary to have an ontological distinction between the surface observations and the underlying reality that cannot be observed directly but only through thought (Johnston, 1986).

The methodology aims to identify underlying structures through empirical observation followed by the construction of theories that can account for what is observed but cannot be tested directly as evidence for their existence is not available. The articles chosen use a more specific epistemology of structural Marxism which forms part of the literature referred to by Johnston (1986) as ‘structure of processes’. Marxism aims to understand how the mechanism of the economic base are gradually changed in dialectical processes between society and individual agents (Holt-Jensen, 2005).

This position recognises the social constitution of the human subject, assuming that actors themselves have no say, and individuals are merely puppets who are manipulated by the economic mechanisms (Hoyt-Jensen, 1999). The different practical outworking of each philosophical position will become obvious as the two empirical papers are compared below. The first two papers are from a positivist perspective. The first paper is by Wyly and Hammel, (1998). ‘ Modelling the context and contingency of gentrification. The second is Bostic and Martin (2003) ‘Black Home-owners as a gentrifying Force?

Neighbourhood Dynamics in the context of Minority Home-ownership’. Although these two perspectives are discrete in their philosophical position the articles are inherently and unmistakably positivistic in nature. The second two articles are from a structualist perspective and both by the same author, Neil Smith, who was prolific in the much of the theoretical debates intertwined with the study of gentrification. The first structuralist article was extremely influential, ‘Towards a theory of gentrification: a back to the city movement by capital, not people,’ (1979).

The second is ‘Of Yuppies and housing: gentrification, social restructuring, and the urban dream’ (1987). Both approaches are inherently self aware of their philosophical positions. The first article has adopted certain aspects of Marxist thought (particularly those related to the economic workings of a capitalist society), however the article has not embraced a full Marxist approach. This approach has been criticised for separating production and consumption (emphasised throughout the article) which Marxist writing maintains are inseparably linked.

As a result the second article (1987) attempts to integrate the two, although it gives presidents the former. Positivism and Structuralism form fundamentally different epistemological and ontological perspectives and consequently take different approaches to the topic. The first article (Wyle and Hammel, 1998) define gentrification is as “relating to changes in class structure to conspicuous housing investment and new consumption patterns in the built environment. The second article (Bostic and Martin, 2003) describing gentrification as being characterised as a “neighbourhood evolutionary process with an influx of new affluent, young households which displace original residents”. Both definitions entail a positivist ontology of a reality which can be defined, categorised and measured and which exist objectively. Thus the articles epistemology is objectivist, research measures surface phenomenon which are separate from the subjectivity of the researcher.

This is inherent throughout the articles and explicitly stated in the second (Bostic and Martin), 2003: “the paper… uses a straightforward, independent objective approach” (Pp. 2447) The first paper objectively measures “signs of reinvestment that typically precede in tandem with gentrification processes”. The second article maintains that these ‘neighbourhood characteristics (which define gentrification) are observable by viewing the correlation between gentrification and neighbourhoods growth of black home ownership in a historical context. ‘

Positivism holds that the only claim to knowledge is that which is empirically viable as such both articles demonstrate methodologies in adherence with the scientific method. The data, from the census statistics, is purely quantitative in nature. The analysis is based on statistical testing against hypothesis in order to verify the results. The hypothesis is stated in both articles, in the first (Wyly and Hammel, 1998), the null hypothesis is: “gentrified neighbourhoods are not a distinct neighbourhood type” (pp. 305). This is analysed using models and multivariate statistical methods to “permit a rigorous quantitative assessment” (pp. 06) of the degree to which the ‘gentrified neighbourhoods have developed ‘significantly different’ neighbourhoods in relation to surrounding urban neighbourhoods’. In the second paper (Bostic and Martin, 2003) “the working hypothesis… is minority households have been a gentrifying force in the US” (pp. 2438). Regression analysis is used to test whether Black home-owners were attracted to gentrifying census tracts, and enable them to state that “A comparison of the statistics provides an indication that Black home-owners have been a gentrifying force”.

Thus, in both cases the statistical analysis enables them to accept the alternative hypothesis. The scientific method used in the research also aims to be ensure generality and be repeatable, as demonstrated in the first article, (Wyly and Hammel, 1998) “the technique must be generalizable and replicable to facilitate comparison among cities and time periods” (pp. 315). In order for it to be accepted by the scientific community as a whole (Johnston, 1986). Contrary to the first two articles the structural Marxist approach takes as axiomatic a broad Marxist position in defining gentrification and class.

Smith first paper identifies gentrification to be a ‘structural product of the land and housing market’. The second paper (1986) aims to identify the influence of new middle class on gentrification, defining class according to ‘peoples relation to the means of production’. Therefore the ontology’s (positivism and structuralism) share communality in that each assert that the social world, and more specifically the process of gentrification are identifiable fields of social reality.

However, structuralism makes an ontological distinction between the surface observations and the reality which structures such appearances. For example in first article (Smith 1979) the underlying mechanism is found in the theoretical formulation of the rent gap. This Smith claims this is able to explains and predict the surface observations : “If the rent gap is correct, it would be expected that rehabilitation began where the rent gap was greatest… Empirically this seems to have been the case”.

However the theory is itself not directly observable, thus, it is formed through the abstracting from the empirical evidence. The structural Marxist methods for gathering data do not differ from those of positivism, as both articles use empirical observations. The first of Smiths articles (1979) uses a case study of society hill in Philadelphia (supported by data from Baltimore and Washington), from data sampled from case files by the redevelopment authority in Philadelphia.

From this a statistical breakdown is performed. Additionally he uses economic observations from ‘property value, sale price, conceptualised ground rent and potential ground rent’. The second article uses slightly more detailed empirical data derived from census data from a total of twenty-four census tracts from which statistical analysis is performed to provide evidence for the existence of the new middle class and the changing social roles of women in causing gentrification.

Different value is given to these empirical evidence to that of the positivist methodology, this is due to the structuralist epistemology that knowledge is produced not through the accumulation of evidence but by the development of theories. Consequently the evidence is evaluated in ‘theoretical terms’ (Smith, 1987) this is very different from the positivist approach which is based on empirical observations and hypothesis testing of correlations found in the results.

As a consequence, by unquestionably accepting as a given the observable reality the positivist claims to knowledge are very different from the conceptions of the structural Marxists (which is in itself a criticism of positivism). Both structuralism articles unlike positivism do not use clearly stated testable hypothesis, rather they submit the empirical data to interpretations. The structuralist approach maintains “this is not the place to attempt a comprehensive empirical investigation, but… will provide statistical documentation of the role of women in gentrification” (Smith, 1987 pp. 57). Referring to his results Smith (1987) states that “correlation is not causation”, and “this should not blind us to less visible but more truncated effects”. Instead Smith aims to identify through theoretical debates and abstractions from the evidence the mechanisms which explain the occurrence of gentrification, which is found in the rent gap (in the first article) and “political and structural changes in the labour market and in styles and modes of reproduction which have loosened previously oppressive social bonds” (the second article).

The identification of these theories have power in explaining and predict surface observations and thus explaining gentrification. Another crucial difference is that where positivism aimed to generalise its results, the structural Marxist articles acknowledges the importance of distinctive times and space to each of the levels of social construction. This is recognised by Smith (1987) who states. “Whether these findings are replicable in other cities or whether New York City is in this as in other respects unique remain to be shown” (pp. 158).

These article maintain that mechanisms themselves are not fixed but rather social products created by societies as means of organising the reproduction of human life (Johnston 2000). It is also important to recognise the structural Marxist understanding of the social constitution of the human subject. Both articles doubt that social life can be explained in terms of unbounded capacities of human agency. By way of comparison, it is useful to contrast this perspective to the humanist work emphasising the changes in the “social and spatial divisions of labour and the supply of potential gentrifiers” (Ley, 1978).

Humanism was in part created in response to positivisms, which has no room for human agency. Indeed structuralism maintains a profound suspicion of humanism. Smith contests this notion instead emphasising the role of producers; ‘the relationship between production and consumption is symbiotic, but it is a symbiosis in which production dominates’ (pp. 540). He sees gentrifiers as ‘merely the passive handmaidens of capitalist’s requirement’ (Hamnett, 1991).

This polarisation of theoretical perspective is debated at length by Hamnett (1991). This serves to demonstrate firstly the distinctive structural Marxist perspective, and secondly how the different approached produce fundamentally different claims to knowledge. In the process of producing claims to knowledge some believe there is a ethical dimension, not simply to add to research but to improve the scientific explanations and change the world for the better (Flowerdew and Martin 2005).

Both positivist papers aim to improve the discipline, this is demonstrated in the second article, “An important contribution of the current work is the development methods for identifying gentrification neighbourhoods… marking a departure from much of the extant literature… enhancing the ability of future research on gentrification” (pp. 2447). This clearly demonstrate the authors considered effort to produce action-orientated knowledge from this research, which are made explicit from the start. The structuralist article take an oppositionist ethical stance to that of positivism.

The difference is demonstrated by Harvey (1973, in Holt-Jensen, 1999) who stated that “positivism simply seeks to understand the world whereas Marxism seeks to change it” this expresses political and ethical aims inherent in Marxism. In Smiths second article he emphasises the “bifurcation of the consumption dream, producing a city of ‘haves and have-nots’… the yuppies and mushrooming gentrification… and the burgeoning homeless” (pp. 170). Thus the approach, in seeking to identify the structures that constrain people’s lives, thus enable people to change them.

The presentation of the research is also influenced by the philosophical positions. The body of the text in both positivist articles have clearly defined conventions, following an standard scientific way of reporting experiments. The structural Marxist articles also followed logically from the initial presentation of observation to the final conclusion, however, the articles are less formally structured and more theoretical, building on the past work and shaping the abstract interpretations into theoretical knowledge.

The presentation of data is represented far more explicitly in the positivist articles. For example, in the first positivist paper Wyly and Hamel (1998), tables occupy five pages and forms a much more central role in the body of the text itself, where it is reviewed in detail within lengthy results sections. This is because empirical analysis form an integral part of the methodology and in reaching verifiable conclusions. In contrast, the structural Marxist approach presents tables and data far more subtly with only two very small and uncomplicated tables presented in each article.

Although the empirical observation are important to producing claims to knowledge, the research is not aimed to be replicable and verifiable, and as such data forms a less central part in convincing the reader to the validity of the article. The neat philosophical characterizations presented in this essay should not obscure the rather blurred conceptions prevalent within the topic of gentrification and social science as a whole. In reality a vast amount of diversity and disagreement is prevalent within each.

The presentation of these two philosophical perspectives and how they generate knowledge is obviously a simplistic representation of the work on gentrification. The analysis has demonstrated the substantial commonality between Positivism and structural Marxism. These two philosophical positions share much more than their interest in generating knowledge about gentrification, each maintain that the social world is real and that the progressive accumulation of knowledge about that reality is possible.

It follows then, in each philosophy that the researchers enjoys a privileged status in comparison to their research subjects. However within each philosophy are fundamental differences, which are often actively contested, as each set of assumptions speak an fundamentally different language they have trouble understanding or at least recognising the legitimacy the each other’s alternative expiations. I would argue with Rose (1984) that the study of gentrification should not be solely reliant on the assumptions of the positive perspective.

Nor should research be so narrowly conceived on Marxist work. By doing so “is to make epistemological and methodological errors which both truncate and distort our understanding of gentrification” (Rose, 1984). It should be recognised that there is no single correct epistemological position or mode of explanation, rather each position has benefits and flaws which hold particular values to the study of geography. Finally, and most importantly, the essay has served to emphasise that the practice of research cannot be divorced from questions of philosophy (Graham in Flowerdew and Martin, 2005).

The implications of these philosophical underpinnings make it hugely important to provide careful considerations of the fundamental epistemological and ontological assumptions in the way the research question is framed. The two philosophical positions informed dramatically different methods and consequently (as demonstrated using these articles) create extremely different claims to knowledge. Furthermore these assumptions provided, in part, the justification of the research questions. Crucially for one’s own future research it is essential these positions are made explicit to ensure a coherent epistemological stance.

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Thinking about research in Gentrification: An Examination of Positivism and Structuralism. (2017, Dec 20). Retrieved from

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