Segregation refers to the process that results in individuals or social groups being separated or isolated from one another. When segregation occurs, there is little or no interactions between these individuals or groups.
Examples of segregation include ghettoization (class-based), separation of white and black people in schools (racial), and exclusion of women from spaces of public debate (gender-based).
Segregation is generally based on a person’s attributes, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or social class and it often has connotations of inequality and discrimination.
This divide can be enforced by governments, for example during the Jim Crow era, or can sometimes be self-selective and voluntary. While mostly seen as destructive, it may also be seen as a positive force in society on some occasions.
Definition of Segregation
Schelling, an influential sociologist who studied segregation, provides a seminal definition below:
“There is segregation by sex, age, income, language, color, taste, comparative advantage, and the accidents of historical location. Some segregation is organized; some is economically determined…and some results from the interplay of individual choices that discriminate” (Schelling, 1969, p. 488)
There are different types of segregation that affect individuals or groups differently and they all bound to a historical time and cultural context.
Furthermore, because of its discriminatory nature, some groups may experience multiple forms of segregation.
Types of Segregation
There are two dimensions of social segregation: vertical and horizontal segregation, and the labor market is a good way to illustrate these two types of segregation.
- Vertical Segregation: Peopleshare a space but are treated differently. It occurs, for example, when women in the same occupations as men in a given profession are paid less, for doing the same job.
- Horizontal segregation: People are spatially separated. An example is the concentration of the sexes in certain occupations, for example, more women in nursing positions than men.
- Occupational segregation: This often happens when certain occupations are socially segregated by gender. So, for example, there are more female primary school teachers than men. Here, we can see that it’s not coercive but rather cultural.
- Gender segregation: the differing patterns in terms of participation of men and women in some spheres, such as politics, education or unpaid domestic work are all examples of gender segregation. We can also see coerced versions when men and women are banned from business events or ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.
- Age segregation: Work and school are two places in which age segregation can be found. While children and young people spend most of their time in educational settings, adults do so in the workplace. This is a type of segregation generally endorsed and encouraged in societies.
- School segregation: Some schools have a higher concentration of children who are disadvantaged on the basis of their socioeconomic, ethnic or cultural background, or because of a disability. Private schools overtly and necessarily segregate based upon socioeconomic status (ability to pay), with the exception of scholarship offerings.
- Religious segregation: Religious segregation happens when people who belong to a religious group live away and with as little contact as possible from the rest of society, such as with the Amish.
- Economic segregation: This happens when social groups are kept apart due to their income or wealth. Commonly, this involves people living in separate neighborhoods based upon housing prices.
- Spatial segregation: Also known as residential segregation, it is the separation of people in different areas or neighborhoods. This separation can be caused by income or class, but also by nationality, ethnicity or religious beliefs.
- Ethnic or racial segregation: This refers to the complete separation of ethnic minorities from majority or ruling communities, or the separation in the use of services or facilities such as public transport on the basis of race or ethnic background.
- Sexuality: Segregation based on sexuality regularly occurs in bars and nightclubs, where people self-select where to go to meet potential partners.
- Political: Online spaces are increasingly segregated based upon political persuasions, such as when social networks typecast a user as left-wing or right-wing and only present those perspectives to the user.
Real-Life Examples of Segregation
- Jim Crow Laws – From approximately 1870 to 1968, laws in states throughout the USA legalized racial segregation, including in schools, public pools, public spaces, and on public transit.
- Rosa Parks – A flashpoint of the Jim Crow laws occurred when Rosa Parks (a black woman) refused to move seats for the white people on a public bus. It highlighted a time when black and white people had separate seating areas on public transit.
- Gentlemen’s Clubs – Gentlemen’s clubs traditionally banned women and created space for men to interact, make friends, and make social contacts. They have been steadily phased out after accusations that they are spaces where business deals are often made, which implicitly places women at a disadvantage in business.
- Redlining – Redlining refers to practices by banks that would deny people mortgages based upon their race. It was historically used to segregate suburbs based on race to ensure houses in white suburbs could fetch a high price from white buyers.
- Apartheid – The South African era in which Black South Africans were explicitly denied rights in order to secure white social, economic, and political dominance.
- Disabled schools – Up until the 1990s, disabled and neurodivergent people were often educated in separate schools. Increasingly, nations like the UK, Australia, and Canada saw this as a practice that restricted people with disabilities from full participation in the public sphere due to a negative social construction of disability. This realization led to increased inclusion of disabled people in mainstream schooling.
- Private education – Private education is a version of segregation that comes about through capitalism rather than coercion. The segregation is secured through high tuition prices that exclude working-class people from the space of the school. Selective and capped issuance of scholarships can help create a façade of class inclusivity while placing caps on how much integration can occur.
- Gendered education – All boys and all girls schools are forms of self-selected gender segregation that are chosen by parents and educators for cultural, religious, or educational purposes.
- Ghettoization – Due to racial inequalities in economic capital, often ghettos occur in cities where poor minorities will cluster in the most affordable areas of a city and the wealthy upper middle-class will avoid the area.
- Retirement villages – Retirement villages secure age-based segregation at the self-selection of people aged 55+ who choose that they want to live in areas that provide services, entertainment, and social groups catered to their needs.
- Safe spaces – Safe spaces are a form of positive discrimination where minorities and marginalized groups (including women) create a space that only minority groups can access. This is often to open space for minorities to feel safe, build social capital within their groups, or share their experiences of discrimination. Examples include female-only train carriages and women’s only entrepreneurship meetups.
- Australian freedom rides – The freedom rides occurred in the USA and Australia in protest of segregation. In Australia, they began in protest of the exclusion of Aboriginal ex-servicemen (veterans) from ex-servicemen’s clubs (veteran’s clubs).
- Gentrification – Gentrification refers to the process of wealthy people moving into a suburb, which leads to rising housing prices and the forcing-out of the original poorer inhabitants. While at first this process involves integration, over the medium-term it forces the further segregation of poorer people who are pushed further and further away from city centers.
- The Amish – The Amish are an example of a community who have self-segregated in order to continue to live their religious practices without interference of technology or people of other religions.
- Online spaces – Online segregation happens when social media algorithms only show users information that conforms to their subcultural preferences or political views. This leads to separated online spaces where people only communicate with others in their political or cultural bubble.
Segregation Case Studies
1. Racial Segregation
Ethnic and racial segregation in the US (Jim Crow Laws) and in South Africa (apartheid) can be taken as the examples of the most extreme form of segregation.
Unlike other types of segregations, being able to segregate on the basis of a person’s race or ethnic background has historically been enforced by law.
This type of segregation is a system of institutionalized racial segregation, meaning that it is not simply a result of social forces, but rather, it is endorsed and perpetuated by political, social and economic institutions.
2. Gender Segregation in Schools
When there are differences in patterns of representation of men and women in different areas, such as the labor force, in political life, or in the domestic sphere we can talk about gender segregation.
In democratic countries this segregation is the result of perpetuated inequalities between men and women. Some jobs are still highly feminized, women are still a minority in achieving positions of political power and they are still overrepresented in domestic work and caring.
Like racial segregation, in some countries nowadays, segregation based on gender can be the result of laws that dictate what women can and cannot do. This includes driving, attending school or voting.
3. School segregation
The concentration of children and young people in schools, based on characteristics such as socio-economic background, class, ethnicity or immigration status are all part of what is called school segregation.
However, the separation of children and young people is not the only trait of school segregation. There is an added aspect, which is that this segregation has negative consequences for children clustered on those schools.
So for example, when US expats take their children to an American School in Europe, they could be considered to be separated but not segregated, as it is difficult to consider this school as problematic.
4. Residential segregation
Residential segregation refers to the separation of people in different neighborhoods or districts.
These segregation patterns are determined by a range of self-selected practices as well as discriminatory laws, such as redlining laws in the Untied States (see video above).
However, other things, such as age, having children or birthplace play a role in this type of segregation. In this sense, residential segregation can be the result of social forces or a matter of individual choice.
5. Occupational segregation
Occupational segregation refers to the exclusion of individuals, or groups, from certain professions, occupations or labor markets, known as horizontal segregation.
It also refers from stopping people from being promoted in their careers, which is vertical segregation.
Segregation in the labor market often occurs based mainly on two characteristics (that people cannot control): gender and race.
Thus, for example, certain professions are highly feminized: nursing, cleaning or being a professional carer are all jobs with a high representation of women. Other professions, such as truck driving, mechanical engineers or the police force are masculinized areas.
In terms of promotions at work, black men and women, as well as white women have been found to have to wait longer to be promoted on average (Maume, 1999).
Segregation in societies throughout history has taken many forms, and even nowadays, segregation in different parts of the planet can look differently. But what is clear is that segregation is a process that results in individuals or groups being kept away from each other – either voluntarily or systematically.
This process can sometimes be the consequence of social forces or characteristics, like race or gender, and represent discrimination and inequality practices.
Other times, segregation can be voluntary, like when religious groups decide to group together and cut themselves from mainstream society, like Hasidic Jews who reside in Williamsburg. Segregation can too be enforced by governments.
Anker, A. (1997). Theories of Occupational Segregation by Sex: An Overview 136 Int’l Lab. Rev. 315.
Bruch, E. E & Mare, R.D (2007) Segregation Processes. California Center for Population Research On-Line Working Paper Series
Council of Europe. (2017). Fighting school segregation in Europe through inclusive education. https://rm.coe.int/fighting-school-segregationin-europe-throughinclusive-education-a-posi/168073fb65
Maume, D. J. (1999). Glass Ceilings and Glass Escalators: Occupational Segregation and Race and Sex Differences in Managerial Promotions. Work and Occupations, 26(4), 483–509.
Schelling, T.C. (1969) Models of Segregation. The American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings of the Eighty-first Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association 59(2): 488-493
Hagestad, G. O. & Uhlenberg, P. (2006). Should We Be Concerned About Age Segregation?: Some Theoretical and Empirical Explorations. Research on Aging, 28(6): 638–653.