Life in the 'Alpha Territory'

Article

In this project we hope to address the wealthy and how they live by focusing extensive research effort onto a number of key case study localities in London and by using a range of approaches to address these problems.

Several individuals in London streets walking.

About the project

This project is funded by the ESRC (£583,313 [FEC]).

Despite public and political interest in the wealthy we know surprisingly little about where and how they live, nor how they fit into the social, cultural and economic life of the metropolitan centres within which they tend to live. Social research has tended not to focus on this group, largely because they are hard to locate, and even harder to collaborate with in research.

In this project we hope to address both these sets of concerns by focusing extensive research effort onto a number of key case study localities in London and by using a range of approaches to address these problems. In economic terms the life and functioning of rich neighbourhood spaces appears intuitively important.

For example, attractive and safe spaces for captains of industry, senior figures in political and non-government organizations are often regarded as major markers of urban vitality and the foundation of broader social networks that may make-up the broader glue of civic and political society. Yet we know very little about how such neighbourhoods operate, who they attract and how they are linked to other cities and their neighbourhoods globally. Work on deprived and middle-class neighbourhoods has long been a significant element of social scientific research.

Context

In particular it has been through work on poverty, the compounded disadvantage of life in deprived neighbourhoods and work on gentrification that much of what we know about how localities operate and how class relations and social identities are 'plugged-in' to localities, has arisen. Our aim in this research would be to supplement and build on the reach of this work by more firmly grappling with what might be described as elite neighbourhoods - locales inhabited by the very affluent; what geodemographers have recently come to term the 'alpha territory'.

The life and impact of the residential choices of the 'super rich' has been a major strand in more conceptual (and some limited empirical work) by members of the research team. This work advanced the proposition that the upper-tier of income groups living in cities tend to exploit particular forms of service provision (such as education, cultural life and personal services), are largely distanced from the mundane flow of social life in urban areas and tend to be withdrawn from the civic life of cities more generally.

Some of this work is underpinned by a slender literature on, for example, gated communities, but it has surprisingly been under-used as the guiding framework for close empirical work in affluent neighbourhoods, perhaps largely as a result of the perceived difficulty of working with such individuals. Our work would combine these recent statements about inequality and socially fracturing forms of urbanism (in terms of urban governance, services and social networks) to attempt a ground-breaking study of the life in and of super-rich areas.

What the research will cover

The research will profile a select group of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the UK to understand more about them and to develop clearer and evidenced positions on the urban life and society of the super rich in the UK. We will employ a multi-method research design which will include both the analysis of existing data and detailed case studies of six carefully selected neighbourhoods in and around London. We believe that the result will be a unique series of datasets from which the public, policymakers and academic commentators can learn more about these rich spaces, the social networks within and beyond them, and their role within contemporary city life more broadly.

Researchers: Roger Burrows and Caroline Knowles with Rowland Atkinson (York), Tim Butler (KCL) and Mike Savage (LSE)