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2 February 2022

Geographies of socio-economic inequality

Over many decades, academics, policymakers and governments have been concerned with both the presence of inequalities and the impacts these can have on people when concentrated spatially in urban areas. This concern is especially related to the influence of spatial inequalities on individual outcomes in terms of health, education, work and income, and general well-being amongst other outcomes. Research into the geographies of inequality can broadly be split into two categories. The first includes studies focusing on understanding the spatial patterns of inequality in cities and regions, including how these patterns emerge and change (or do not change) over time. This category includes studies on residential sorting, the changing intensity and geographies of socio-economic segregation, and the relationship between spatial segregation and income inequality. A lot of work on segregation is inspired by the segregation models of Thomas Schelling (1971), which show that small individual preferences can lead to high levels of segregation in cities.

The second category of research includes studies that consider the effects of spatial inequalities on individual outcomes – often termed neighbourhood effects or spatial context effects (Petrović, Manley and van Ham, 2020). Underpinning this work is the idea that living in deprived neighbourhoods has a detrimental effect on individual outcomes, above and beyond the effect of individual characteristics, such as level of education. In recent years, studies of spatial context effects have shown that the residential context in which people live, and grow up, can have a meaningful effect on a variety of outcomes later in life.

In this commentary, we provide an overview of the contribution that both types of studies make for our better understanding of the impacts and processes behind the (re)production of inequalities in modern cities. We also address some of the main challenges in modelling contextual effects and, crucially, provide evidence that no single study can definitively provide the answer to the question whether – and how much – spatial context effects are relevant for understanding individual outcomes. There is a wide plethora of studies that use different types of data, drawn from different countries and cities, use different outcome variables, and different conceptualisations of the spatial context in which individuals (inter)act. It is only when taken together that this rich body of research on spatial context effects gives a sufficiently nuanced view on the potential influence of spatial context, but increasingly shows convincingly that spatial context effects are relevant.

Cite this as:

van Ham, M., Manley, D. and Tammaru, T. (2022), ‘Geographies of socio-economic inequality’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,