Monthly Archives: November 2012

“Moral Capitalism” and Gated Communities: An Example of Spatio-moral Fragmentation in Istanbul

Basak Tanulku finished her PhD research (2010) in the Department of Sociology, University of Lancaster. By adopting a relational-comparative perspective, her research demonstrates that gated communities cannot be generalized. Rather, gated communities are different on the basis of their target groups, master plans and histories of construction, as well as the cultural contexts from which they emerge. They produce different neighbourhood interactions, experiences of space and safety and relations with the wider urban context involving political and social tensions with various political actors.

 Keywords: moral capitalism, cities and spatio-moral fragmentation, gated communities, social differentiation 

Image by CyberMacs from flickr

I was a university student when I first started giving thought to the concept of a “moral” capitalism. It was a left-leaning friend who made me think about it, during a discussion, by asking me in a cynical way “Can capitalism be moral?” This question has become increasingly popular as a result of the latest economic crisis when global capitalism began to defend itself against criticisms of speculative sectors, especially finance and real estate. In this piece, I will indicate how moral values are important for the identity formation for upper-middle and new middle classes, by using data from my PhD research on two gated communities in Istanbul, Turkey.

Similar to the rest of the world, Turkey has experienced political and socio-cultural changes since the 1980s, resulting in a neo-liberal economy and a more polarised and fragmented labour market while witnessing the rise of the new middle and/or upper-middle classes working in finance, insurance, real estate and various knowledge-intensive sectors. Another important consequence of that era was the emergence of new forms of capital accumulation through illegal or speculative ways, which found a favourable climate to develop due to neo-liberal economic policies and a culture dominated by consumerism and wealth achieved without labour, crystallised in the various scandals regarding bankers and trade. This also led to a hierarchy within the upper class, competing with each other for achieving “deserved status”, coming from different social origins, having different sources of income, professions, lifestyles and tastes, and preferring to live in different residential areas, which symbolise their different but competing statuses.

One aspect of my PhD research was this spatio-moral fragmentation, mirrored in housing preferences in Istanbul, more specifically, “gated communities”, which have become popular since the 1980s. They symbolise a global search for escape from dangerous and undesirable urban spaces, especially large ones such as Istanbul, experiencing problems of housing and infrastructure quality as well as environmental degradation and population increase. In contrast, gated communities provide the opportunity to live separated from a mixed urban culture dominated by immigrants as well as access to various amenities that reduce the need to use public services and protection through various safety mechanisms against increasing crimes associated with a declining urban life. In the mainstream literature, gated communities are usually regarded as the reflections of competing forms of capital accumulation, reflecting the tension between (not necessarily mutually-exclusive) the old and the new rich, and secular and Islamist upper and middle classes. They are usually regarded as housing and/or working complexes closed to outsiders through different mechanisms such as walls, gates, and fences which are protected through security guards, and CCTV cameras. Gated communities are composed of spatial (walls and gates), social (population characteristics) and legal mechanisms (rules of conduct managing life inside these spaces).

My research explored two gated communities in Istanbul, one on the European and the other on the Anatolian side of the city, targeting residents with different income levels, but with similar cultural backgrounds: they were well-educated people, adopting a secular and Western way of life, and working in the service sectors such as media, finance, insurance, banking and education. I asked residents about their motives for choosing their particular gated community as well as their interactions within the community and with other gated communities, in order to explore how they differentiated themselves from their neighbours and other nearby gated communities.

Despite the differences in terms of income level, residents in both case studies used similar moral values to evaluate the residents inside their own community or other gated communities. They spoke of desirable characteristics of their neighbours such as showing respect for staff and each other, establishing good and respectful relationships with the locals (non-humiliating behaviour towards the locals), and neighbours, and sharing a similar lifestyle, and good taste reflecting “high culture”. They criticised those who showed spoilt, impolite and violent behaviour, and had disputes with neighbours. They also attached importance to a person’s social origin based on the length of time spent to gain status and wealth. Another way of differentiation is the gap between a person’s wealth and “culture”. Despite being a general term, culture refers to a good level of education, and social origin which help people to digest their wealth. While residents also described themselves as hard-working, they described especially those with higher income level as relying on easy money obtained without effort and/or illicit or speculative ways. In terms of social interaction, they explained that there was a friendlier attitude between neighbours in their communities, regarded as a family, while richer people or gated communities lacked neighbourly interaction, leading to a socially isolated lifestyle separated from the realities of Turkey.

What can these findings indicate for us? Firstly, even at the discourse level, moral values are a common way of identity formation for the upper and upper-middle classes, regardless of national differences, composed of groups competing with each other. Secondly, residents use these values not only because of “class envy” they feel for richer people, but also “class shame” they feel due to their relatively advantaged social position. While for some, gated communities are the residential stigma of upper classes, residents try to distance themselves from this stigma and legitimise their wealth and status by accusing other neighbours and especially richer gated communities. These values frame the boundaries of a “moral capitalism”, showing the difference between deserved and undeserved status. However, this does not mean that capitalism is/or can be moral, but indicates how residents frame the rules of a moral capitalism on the tension between illegal and legal sources of income.  These rules are important if we think of the latest debates on “moral capitalism”, from David Cameron’s speech to various fraud cases which shake the Western and Eastern Worlds simultaneously, showing the need of policy making for a better and just world.


GENIS, S. (2007) “Producing Elite Localities: The Rise of Gated Communities in Istanbul”, Urban Studies, 44 (4), pp. 771-798.

LAMONT, M. (1992) “Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and American Upper-Middle Class”. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

WEBER, M. (1985) “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Unwin Paperbacks”.

David Cameron’s speech on “moral capitalism”: (30/07/2012)

TANULKU, B. (2012) “Gated Communities: From Self-Sufficient Towns to Active Urban Agents”, Geoforum, 43 (3), pp. 518-528.