Can We Bring Culture into the Large-Scale Study of Gentrification? Assessing the Possibilities Using Geodemographic Marketing Data

By Mahesh Somashekhar (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Many people think that gentrification leads to displacement, but academic research shows that is not always the case. Many impoverished households in gentrifying neighborhoods try and stay put because they hope to take advantage of the new amenities that gentrification brings, like new grocery stores or city parks. Even more, people in poverty move around a lot – due to eviction, unstable family arrangements, the struggle to find work – so it is hard to determine whether an impoverished person moving out of a gentrifying neighborhood is really moving due to displacement or for another reason.

Although there is debate over the degree to which gentrification physically displaces people, my paper in UAR shows that gentrification does much to culturally displace people. In my study, I use geodemographic marketing data, which includes information on households’ lifestyles and consumer habits, to reveal a substantial shift in the kinds of people who reside in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Specifically, I use Claritas PRIZM data on neighborhoods in Chicago between 2010 and 2017 to reveal the emergence of three types of gentrifiers in changing neighborhoods. The first type is younger, lower-income renters who engage in activities such as reading The New Yorker magazine and hanging out in bars and restaurants. The second type is older, wealthier renters who chase after the latest trends in consumer goods, which include handheld electronics and microbrews. Finally, the third type is older, wealthier homeowners whose consumer habits revolve around children and family.

As these groups settled into the gentrifying neighborhoods of Chicago, other groups disappeared. In particular, there was a rapid decline in the number of households that did much of their daily shopping at the local drug store and rarely shopped online. These households tended to include lower-income renters who had little education and insecure jobs.

My study clarifies several debates about gentrifiers and how they shape the gentrification process. For example, geodemographic marketing data calls into question the attribution of “gentrifier” to any specific demographic group. The three types of gentrifiers mentioned earlier lived together in the same neighborhoods at the same time. The latter two types even shared the same social class position but practiced different lifestyles. Once lifestyle is taken into consideration, in other words, scholars can begin to understand the complexity of gentrifiers and their influences on changing neighborhoods.

Put more directly, geodemographic marketing data can help scholars and practitioners identify the mechanisms that drive neighborhood change. If a neighborhood gentrifies but does not experience growth in fashionable stores like boutiques and coffee shops, for instance, it may be because family-oriented gentrifiers moved in rather than trendier gentrifiers.

In addition, many quantitative studies of gentrification rely on traditional demographic data sources such as the U.S. Census, which lack information on households’ cultural habits and practices. Traditional data sources, therefore, reveal little about the cultural fabric of local communities undergoing gentrification. The cultural aspect of gentrification is often left for qualitative researchers to study. By incorporating geodemographic marketing data into gentrification studies, quantitative scholars can begin to weave together a structural and cultural analysis of gentrification across different kinds of neighborhoods and on a large scale.

Despite the vast research potential of geodemographic marketing data, there are reasons to be cautious when using the data to analyze gentrification. Many geodemographic marketing data sources are proprietary, and the methods used to assign households to lifestyles are non-reproducible. As I elaborate on in my paper, to be sure of the data’s validity and assess the data’s biases, future research must compare geodemographic marketing data to local ethnographies and interviews of households found in the data. A similar process occurred before ReferenceUSA, a commercially available listing of retailers in the United States, was adopted in public health and urban studies research.

In addition to improving our understanding of gentrification, geodemographic marketing data can help activists looking to ensure that poor families get to live in good neighborhoods. Fair housing advocates, for example, have used geodemographic marketing data in the past to determine which communities may be most receptive to living near public housing. Moreover, community activists can use geodemographic marketing data when strategizing how to create meaningful social and political connections between gentrifiers and longstanding residents.

To conclude, my study was a first step toward using geodemographic marketing data to better understand gentrification and mitigate its negative effects. More work is required to learn how neighborhoods and communities change due to gentrification, and geodemographic marketing data can help.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by yns plt on Unsplash

Author Biography

Mahesh Somashekhar is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on how economic development and social inequality affect one another in urban and suburban neighborhoods. He is currently working on several research projects that explain why gentrifying neighborhoods can experience diverging social and economic outcomes. In addition to these projects, he studies the economic foundations of immigrant neighborhoods and gay villages. To learn more about his research, go to