Examining Gentrification: A New Internal Colonialism — An Academic Essay by M. Moosa Khan
March 27, 2022
In this academic essay, M. Moosa Khan assesses a considerable amount of academic writing and research on gentrification to evaluate it as a type of “new internal colonialism.” In doing so, the young scholar expands the definitions and specifications of gentrification that are conventionally western-centric to bring about a view of gentrification that is closely tied to processes of colonization. The result of such academic inquiries provides a more dynamic understanding of gentrification that expands beyond western urban spaces and cityscapes, and well into the “Global South.”


This academic essay provides thought-provoking insights to unpack the political economy of the changing postcolonial city and of urbanism. The sense of interdisciplinarity becomes evident when culture, economy and politics form a conceptual integration of several epistemological disciplines to arrive at new ideas. I have not only provided the definitional discourse on gentrifications as internal colonialism to support my arguments, but I have also used methodological empiricism as a case to strengthen these further. Massive urbanization has fascinated urban policy experts to venture out further and use substantial amount of data from sociology, political economy, Geography and Architecture. The main argument highlighted is that “gentrification” as a western-dominated category has to be deconstructed by epistemological stretch based on diverging spatio-temporal dimensions as seen in case of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Hauz Khas in India. Thus, gentrification as a potentially emerging phenomenon needs immediate scholarly attention.

Examining Gentrification: A New Internal Colonialism

M. Moosa Khan

The term gentrification is often used loosely in both academic and popular discourse. It is no longer confined to studying western cities but is now seen as a global phenomenon. My approach to examining gentrification is methodologically grounded, reflecting that apart from the other conceptual dimensions to gentrification elaborated by L. Freeman—in acting as gentrification apologist. In the evaluation that follows, this phenomenon could also be seen as a new form of urban or internal colonialism explored as such by drawing on some conceptual apparatuses to navigate and therefore widen the epistemological usage of the term. In other words, gentrification as internal colonialism could be re-evaluated and by extension re-defined beyond what has already been specified within previous academic research and writing.

Here, there is an emerging need to draw upon Marxist perspective (mainly Smith’s), countering and asserting that gentrification was a “movement of capital, not people.” However, in the words of recognized British sociologist Ruth Glass, who coined the term gentrification, describes it as the following:

One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class which is upper and lower. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed” (Glass, 1964 p.17).

Glass describes how the middle class “invaded” former working-class sections of London in the 1960s, in a process that breeds exclusivity, marginalization and supposed revitalization for affluent urban newcomers (Smith ,1996). Within that context, the word evoked more than a simple change of scene and suggested a symbolic new attachment to old buildings and a heightened sensibility to space and time. Along similar lines, Sharon Zukin argues that it also indicated a radical break with suburbia, a movement away from child-centered households and toward the social diversity and aesthetic promiscuity of city life due to which the collective residential choices of gentrifiers, the amenities that clustered around them, and their generally high educational and occupational status were structured by—and in turn expressed—a distinctive habitus, a class culture and milieu—to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology (Zukin, 1987). Thus, gentrification may be described as a process of spatial and social differentiation (Zukin, 1987).


In their work on the subject, Atkinson and Bridge argue that gentrification was pressurizing cities and neighborhood around the globe, and that processes of class colonization were dislocating the urban poor. Both scholars critiqued this as a “new form of urban colonialism” (Atkinson and Bridge, 2005). Conversely, earlier interpretations had perceived it as a kind of ‘back to the city’ movement of middle-class suburbanites wanting better proximity to jobs and the kind of cultural and recreational infrastructure that were hard to find on city peripheries. However, a process of changing neighborhood that includes economic change in a historically divested neighborhood—by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in—as well as demographic change—reflects a colonial and colonizing modality to gentrification. Such a gentrified modality manifests itself not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents. More recently, there have been some attempts to reconcile culture and capital arguments—by applying the work of Pierre Bourdieu—so as to look at gentrification as a manifestation of cultural capital.

Smith (2002) was perhaps the first gentrification researcher to highlight the relationship between globalization, neo-liberalism, and the changing role of the state in fortifying gentrification. In such academic work, he argues that gentrification is now a global urban strategy linked to a new globalism and related to a new urbanism. Here, he presented two central arguments: first, that the neoliberal state was now the main agent of gentrification worldwide, and second, that gentrification had gone global and had become what he called gentrification generalized, a strategy connected with the circuits of global capital and cultural circulation (Smith, 2002).

Such research further indicates that gentrification reinforces capitalism through economic demands (real estate) while at the same time displaces a number of urban inhabitants (local residents) (Lees, Slater and Wyly, 2007). In this sense, and at par with colonialism, gentrification not only encroaches upon and concentrates local and economic power to newer and often wealthier residents; there are implied class and racial components attached to it as well. A number of individuals accumulate wealth and power through gentrification and their activities and modes of operation must be further analyzed since they profit from the process and serve as significant players in redeveloping cities, while scores of urban residents are displaced (J.L. Wharton 2008). Both gentrification and colonialism require an economically empowered few to oversee an operation to economically and politically displace one group, to be replaced by another, while the former achieving financial gain and political power. In many instances, such processes are camouflaged or obfuscated through commercial activity and permissions within legally sanctioned frameworks, making a re-evaluation of the greater complexities behind gentrification a matter of necessity.

While problematizing the multiple notions of gentrification that exist, it is important to look beyond the utilitarian consideration of accessibility to city center jobs and to aesthetic and lifestyle choices. The so-called urban renewal, restructuring and redlining practice in US, for example, meant that people of a particular ethnicity and economic background were denied access to loans that would enable them to buy or repair homes in their neighborhood. Colonialism suggests disempowering one group of people and empowering another, while at the same time an elite group implements the mechanisms for colonialism or in this case, gentrification, to flourish and stay in effect. Internal colonialism uses the mode of discrimination and exploitation within, to account for the development of rich and poor regions within a country, resulting in the uneven effects of economic development on a regional basis. Robert Blauner (Racial Oppression in America, 1972) used the concept to describe race relations in the United States and elsewhere, adding to another paper that explores the thesis that white-Black relations in America are essentially those of the colonizer and the colonized (Blauner 2014). Such academic work elucidates how American city officials remade their urban locales through a specialized elite. Developers, realtors, bankers, investors, planners, architects, engineers, and politicians all played a hand in this redevelopment and gentrification process. Therefore the consciousness of investing in a particular city neighborhood could be understood through Marxist model proposed by Neil Smith by specifying the following:

The whole point of the rent gap theory is not that gentrification occurs in some deterministic fashion where housing costs are lowest, as Ley is proposing, but that it is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual land values and potential land values ( Smith 1987).

In this mode, Smith points to the disparity between the current rental income of a property and the potentially achievable rental income. This difference gives way to the interest of investors to renovate entire neighborhoods, resulting in an increase in rent and in the value of property. Smith argues that the relationship between consumption and production is crucial to explaining gentrification as one way of closing the rent gap restructuring of the city (Smith 1987). It involves a social and economic as well as a spatial and political transformation. Those who come to occupy prestigious central city locations frequently have the characteristics of a colonial elite.

The colonial resonances of gentrification and the role of heritage designations are extensively explored in Silvana Rubino’s analysis of gentrification in several Brazilian cities. One instance of her study exposed the tensions over the proposal to build a branch of the Guggenheim museum in Rio de Janeiro as an initiative that was seen by many as a symbolic form of neo-colonialism. By this time, the nickname of the museum had become ‘McGuggenheim’, suggesting both an imperialist and capitalist franchise and a colonial commercial force that might move into Brazil. Initiatives of the Guggenheim in New York, such as exhibiting couture as art, were also severely criticized. The transformation of many neighborhoods, already leading to gentrification and commercial displacement, was embraced where this resulted from local partnerships and new cultural programs but at the same time rejected where a global franchise was involved. In short, a new urban colonialism was seen as legitimate when it was driven from within the state but problematic if pushed from outside (Rubino, 2005).

Formulating the Gentrification Paradigm and the Principle of the Colonized

There is a significant number of arguments around gentrification ranging from its epistemological usage or stretch to looking at gentrification as a panacea for urban malaise in the most dominant discourses. Recent academic work offers a sympathetic critique of recent efforts to “explore if, and how, gentrification has travelled from the Global North to the Global South” (Lees, 2012, p155). Over the years, there has been anxiety on and off about the term ‘gentrification’ being stretched beyond its limits. Bondi (1999, p255) warned researchers not to overload the concept of gentrification with re-conceptualizations. Similarly, Atkinson (2008) argues that gentrification researchers have tended to label too many kinds of neighborhood change as gentrification and this elasticity has reduced the bite of critical studies from its localized appearance and has, as a result, diminished policymaker interest.

I tolerate that the poor and disassociated theorizing of gentrification leads to misconceptions but on the other side of it, a stylist, productive and methodologically grounded approach helps to extract the global regularities of the causes of gentrification. Asher Ghertner has touched upon the epistemic flexibility of gentrification that could lead to such misconceptions, but that does not mean the use of the term ‘gentrification’ in non-Western contexts is conducive to some sort of epistemic violence (Ghertner 2014). However, Ghertner’s argument does not validate the claim that gentrification is not happening in Indian cities today, especially when considering the evidence from international media coverage on rising rent in Delhi’s ultra-trendy Hauz Khas Village (Bernroider, 2016). Similarly, more careful historical analyses of Mumbai’s mill lands reflects and confirms that market-driven displacement is operational and persistent in contemporary India. In his elaborations, Ghertner is addressing the problems with the increasing tendency, in and beyond India, to classify a broad swath of mechanisms of displacement from slum demolition, to land privatization, to peri-urban enclosures. All these fall under the label gentrification, due to which he uses an analysis of key dynamics of socio-spatial change in Indian cities to offer a sympathetic critique of recent efforts to extend gentrification theory into the Global South (Ghertner 2014).

Such observations apart, gentrification is a part of the continual human obsession with conquering, disempowering, politicizing and capitalizing over other individuals for their own gain. In this view, it is also a byproduct of humankind’s continuing interest in advancing the notion that one group is superior to another and worthy of capitalistic consumption with little regard to social consciousness (J.L.Wharton 2008). In a particular scenario, several American city officials remade their urban locales through a specialized elite consisting of developers, realtors, bankers, investors, planners, architects, engineers, and politicians—all of whom played a hand in this redevelopment and gentrification process. These elite profiteers assured that plans and policies were shaped specifically for urban redevelopment, while in the same vein rarely disclosing proposals to consumers (young urban professionals) or longtime residents. In essence, the profiteers operated exclusively between themselves and served as venture capitalists, while the consumers (the upwardly mobile urban professionals) were kept uninformed of their implications on the communities they were displacing through gentrification. Young urban professionals working in corporate sector white collar jobs, otherwise known as “Yuppies”, were certainly in vogue during the latter part of the twentieth century. They were usually twenty to thirty years old, college educated and overwhelmingly single white men and women and they idealized the spendthrift 1980s since they had commissioned salaries and bonuses, thereby becoming the cash cows for urban renewal (J.L. Wharton 2008).

As a result, the gentrifying parties were seen as elite profiteers who used yuppies in terms of a consumer base. Meanwhile, longtime residents or members of the poor working class were displaced and driven out—becoming an afterthought for such elites who operated in modes attributed to colonizers. As with the colonization processes of years past, gentrification provides strange similarities among elite human factions perpetually acquiring new possessions with little regard for those who resided in those spaces that became occupied. By means of gentrification, once localized residents are suddenly priced out in a “rent gap” (Smith 1987) process when their rents increase, while new retail businesses serve the “Yuppie” clientele. In a parallel mode, changes in land use development takes place to close the gap or amplify gentrification in the targeted areas (Lees, Slater, Whyly 2007).

Concluding Reflections

It becomes evident that certain households are more likely than others to be affected by the changes wrought by gentrification. In particular, poor renter households would seem to be especially vulnerable to potential displacement from gentrification, while it is also the poor who may be least able to afford concomitant increases in housing costs. However, it should be taken into consideration that Atkinson and Bridge’s (2005) research on gentrification in a global context offered a much wider view of gentrification around the globe—which it evoked well through the phase ‘new urban colonialism’. At the same time, it failed to take a thorough look at comparative urbanism to some extent (Lees, Shen, Lopez-Moralles 2016).

My concluding view is that gentrification is a constant money-making paradigm based on property ownership and residential removal for profit that could be further conceptualized as part of a continuous desire to encourage colonization in urban spaces. The movement of capital and people acts as a driving force for neighborhood changes enforced through gentrification that in essence follows the new paradigm of colonizing the urban core in the 21th century. In addition to its emergence in new areas, gentrification has evolved over time to take on new patterns and forms due to which the need for sound scholarship on both its underlying causes and its ultimate consequences only increases. Therefore, my approach has explored one possible dimension of understanding the changing nature of gentrification and how it mutates over the course of time in different places and spaces.


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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/moosakhan/" target="_self">M. Moosa Khan</a>

M. Moosa Khan

M. Moosa Khan is pursuing a master’s in sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His area of interest includes sociology, political anthropology, religion and politics, philosophy, Indian political thought, urban studies and gender sensitization. In addition to such academic work, Moosa is also pursuing a second master’s in philosophy with explicit focus on continental philosophy.