map graphic

Belfast's Peacelines:

An Analysis of Urban Borders, Design and Social Space in a Divided City

1.0 Introduction

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- While politicians put the finishing touches on the historic settlement aimed at bringing Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland together, surveyors in a bleak Belfast neighborhood a few miles away from the talks were busy building a new wall separating the two groups.

New York Times April 11, 1998
“Fundamental Problem Remains: Those Who Would Challenge Change”

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The flash point towns of Northern Ireland were calmer… but police were preparing for the worst, erecting large steel barricades topped by razor wire across a small bridge at Drumcree, the tiny hamlet that has become the focal point of three consecutive days of raucous protest.

CNN News July 5, 2000
“Northern Ireland police anticipate more violence with steel barricades, razor wire”

1.1 The Context of the Study

On May 22, 1998 a historic referendum took place in Northern Ireland with record turnouts of 81% of the population. The electoral issues up for vote had been cast the previous year in the form of the Belfast Agreement, a dense document outlining the procedures in which to install a power-sharing executive and return government to the people of Northern Ireland. This followed a 29 year period of civil unrest and armed conflict, 26 years of direct rule from Westminster, 8 years of a peace process, and 4 years of a ceasefire. 71% of the population voted “Yes” in favor of the changes.

The above quotes, however, tell a different story about change in Northern Ireland. The recent construction of new peacelines in Belfast and barriers in other flashpoint areas indicates a crucial stumbling block, if not a total impasse, for the peace process—an interruption of the positive aspects of a political opportunity by the ongoing process of social division. These incidents also show that, even in a situation of obvious majority consent, a wide gap exists between people and politicians and between daily life and the political process. That break is most evident in the difference between the ideal political landscape offered by the Belfast Agreement and the everyday reality of the cultural landscape of a divided society.

The physical barriers of Belfast are stark visual reminders of the social divide in Northern Ireland—a conflict predicated on religious affiliation, but centered on split issues of national determination.1 Yet, while the peacelines get their share of media exposure and generate much comment, little detailed analysis or in-depth interpretation takes place past the off-hand comments and oblique references. The discourse that surrounds the peacelines is one of ambiguity, extreme reaction and critical opacity–evidenced by the insertion of inverted commas bracketing the term, the use of highly emotive adjectives in description, and the easy comparison to other well-known, but probably inappropriate, situations of partition.2 It is curious then that a social phenomenon such as the peacelines, a fact found wholly manifest in the environment, remains so elusive to the league of reporters and researchers in Northern Ireland and for that matter to the general public as well.

Perhaps that conundrum stems from the fact that there can actually be a situation as unique and complex as a wall. A wall in Belfast, however, is only one part of a spatial network and social system—the peacelines are a particular type of barrier existing in very specific circumstances, meeting a variety of special needs and requiring a host of dedicated participants. These factors comprise the basis of this study and lead toward a series of research questions ranging from the general to the specific:

• What is the function and meaning of walls in an urban sociological and historical context?

• How does that function and meaning translate for Belfast?

• What are the peacelines?

• How are they built and maintained?

• What are the phases and levels of participation in that process?

• How does that system affect Belfast as a city?

In light of the present situation of political change in Northern Ireland and the difficulties encountered “on the ground” during that process, the timing for a more sustained discussion of the peacelines is opportune. The development and continuing implementation of this system in Belfast forms the core of this analysis and attempts to answer the above questions.
Objectives of the Study

The objectives of the study are three-fold: to examine, evaluate and contribute.

1. Examination
To review the available literature and assess the current state of research on the peacelines.

To establish the process of development of the peacelines by looking at the background to the division, the role played by local and governmental agencies in their implementation, and the long-term effects of combined social practice and planning policy.

2. Evaluation
To set the process of development of the peacelines in a wider urban historio-sociological context and highlight the factors of design and social space.

To problematize matters of historical causation and sociological interpretation by analyzing the mechanism of structure and agency in the urban environment as they relate to the peacelines.

3. Contribution
To generate new sociological inquiries with regard to the relationship between design and society and to provide a balanced historical account of the peacelines based on those factors.

To develop a theory of urban borders based on how division is produced and reproduced in a city and how the peacelines are produced and reproduced in Belfast.

1.2 Methodology

The method employed for this study is based on the idea that there are two modes of understanding the urban environment: from first-hand and secondary experience. That experience includes the residents of Belfast, who have a long-standing intimate knowledge, and those that have come as visitors to acquire a similar understanding and comment on it.3 To arrive at both levels of interpretation the chosen method uses a combination of archival research and ethnographic fieldwork. The archival phase of the research entails the use of both primary material and secondary sources. The ethnographic phase of the research employs participant observation, informal interviews, and visual documentation. This combined effort is suited to the study in that observation assists in recording the present state of environment, primary data chronicles past events and relationships, and interviews and secondary sources provide the link between the two–past and present.

The data collection assembles evidence from four main sources:

1. Information assembled from archival records: newspaper and periodical articles; reports from relevant groups and agencies; academic literature; and works of non-fiction and fiction, such as biography and travel writing, and novels and poetry.

2. Observation of spatial divisions, photographic documentation and mapping of the peaceline and interface areas.

3. Interviews with individuals at community and statutory agencies involved with the peaceline system and policy matters.

4. Supplementary visuals: maps, photos and drawings.

1.3 Analytical Framework

The analytical framework employed for this study is based on the idea that there are two modes of shaping the urban environment: through authorized planning and local level use and modification. The factors of urban policy and social practice are thus reflected in the design and social space of the city. The stages of influence can overlap, and even coincide, with the result of those measures impacting on the recurrent development of design and social space construction. The causal argument to be made is that this comprehensive process of forming the city is not exclusive to either authority or community action, but instead combines to a mutual set of productive contingencies.

More times than most, however, the literature on Belfast privileges authoritative versions of “proper” history, top-down political analyses, and sociological interpretations of urban anomie from a static model of interaction. As such, the combined effects of municipal policy and local practice are seriously under-dimensioned.4 In order to better address that mix, this study engages the analytical model of structure and agency in an urban setting to expand both a general understanding of a “divided city” and the specific interpretation of the circumstances of division in Belfast. Conceptualizing urban borders in this way can lead to a clarification of the often misunderstood example of the peacelines.

1.3 Overview of Proposal

The bulk of the proposal, excluding this introduction, is divided into three sections: the research problem; the urban-sociological context; and the research design.

The first section, The Research Problem, is subdivided into three parts. Part one introduces the topic of the study and pinpoints the problematic. Parts two and three follow with a discussion of the historical and sociological issues present in the literature on Belfast and the peacelines.

The second section, The Urban-Sociological Context, sets the analysis of the peacelines and urban borders in a theoretical and historical context. This is achieved in three stages. Part one considers the idea of the “city” as it as been portrayed in urban sociological thought. Those concepts of urban life are then particularized through the historical roots of social and spatial divisions in part two which considers both the historical origins of the walled city and the evolution of physical and social boundaries from quartered space and perimeter walls to the modern version of segregated space and internal walls. In the final part, the example of Belfast and the peacelines is discussed with reference to the above theories and historical phases.

The third and final section, The Research Design, describes the way in which to theorize and conduct this type of study and maps out a plan for that research. In part one, the the problematic is re-addressed and reviewed in the context of the analytical framework of design and social space. Part two is a general discussion of methodology. Key theoretical sources are described in part three, the literature review. These combined research strategies are considered throughout with specific regard to the example of Belfast and the peacelines. In conclusion, the proposal ends with a summary sketch of the research agenda.

2.0 The Research Problem

2.1 The Problematic

Belfast as a “Divided City”

There appears to be little doubt that Belfast is a “divided city.” I have found that, if queried, the general population will agree to that proposition quite quickly and only a short stay in the city will generate that opinion among most visitors. The social aspects of that division are proven by a variety of demographic statistics: religious composition and political party preference being the outstanding variables with a corresponding distribution in the social space of city via residential patterning, employment breakdown, school enrollment, membership in voluntary organizations, and participation at local and city-wide events. The physical presence of that division is pervasive as well and can be seen in the peacelines that dot the landscape of residential areas, the street barriers that ring the city center and other crucial junctions, the deployment of the security forces in the overall area, the variety of sectarian imagery in the form of flags, tricolor painting schemes and gable murals that mark off territory, and the location of landmark buildings and symbolic sites which represent particular groups and historical activity.

Belfast as a divided city then is a matter of both agreement and fact. In this study, however, I argue that the way in which Belfast has come to be divided, and is presently divided, can and should be the subject of more in-depth inquiry and a more elaborate interpretation. The popular opinion and statistical data mentioned above serve only to reinforce a very basic idea of social and physical division in a city. And while those factors may be eminently interesting, they can only be regarded as superficially fascinating until analyzed in a fuller and more detailed context. That is to say that anecdotal and numerical assessments of Belfast do not go any distance toward understanding the more intricate dynamic of division which exists for this case.

Dynamic of Division

That dynamic engages both a historical system of separatism and contemporary segregative practices which have at one time or another included political, economic and social growth schemes–organizational procedures that have at each turn incorporated the physical environment in its development strategies. The origins of Belfast as a divided city reach back in time to its early stages as a fortified settlement–characterized by division in the form of the ramparts of the Anglo-Norman stronghold and the walls of the garrison town of the Scottish and English planters. In this sense, Belfast was initially established as a singular unit of administration within the bounds of the city and thus as a dichotomous entity when one considers any group which populated the outer area–in this case the native Irish population. Belfast began then in a situation of oppositional arrangement and has continued to exist to the present time as a contested urban site and representative of the symbolic center in a wider contestation for national determination in Northern Ireland.

The network of relations and the negotiations of space in divided Belfast involve a complex and diverse, yet nevertheless coordinated, engagement of civic interests leading to extreme, but rather profound, results in the shape of the city and the behavior of its inhabitants. The continuity of social and physical division–as represented in the early walls of the city, the social boundaries of segregated space and the present day peacelines–is a historical and sociological process that has required a peculiar mix of influences and imperatives. This system entails a synthesis of social forces which engage a series of dialectics: order and disorder; stasis and rupture; social control and internal regulation; authoritative coercion and community action. And while these contradictory facts are found manifest in the divided space of the city, there are also remarkable commonalities found in bounded social practice across that space. It is this contradiction which produces the dynamic of division and provides this study with a more compelling way to look at “divided” Belfast and with which to interpret the peacelines.

Belfast as an Object of Study

More often than not, though, Belfast as an object of more recent study is either reproduced as conventional history or subsumed in the literature which has been generated since the onset of the Troubles–studies which are generally concerned with political analysis and conflict resolution and thereby approach a larger scale of national issues across Northern Irish society. Likewise, sociological studies which focus on Belfast usually confine themselves to the limited reach of a local study and thus describe the life of a particular group–hence, only one subdivision within one side of a divided society. There seems to be a missing middle ground between the macro- and micro-level of analysis in treatments of Belfast. And, while valuable sources, these political analyses and community studies provide information which can only ever partially describe the physical conditions of de facto division in Belfast.

Hence, in terms of the dynamic of division, the academic literature on Belfast can be seen to fall short of such interpretation. The implication here is that both historical and sociological studies of Belfast have failed in some way to describe that system of interaction. While this is not entirely true, since there is an assortment of thorough and conclusive research on issues related to the division, there is as yet no true studies of “divided” Belfast. In particular, there are no singular works which treat historical and sociological issues in terms of design and social space. To rephrase that point, there are no dedicated reference works that incorporate both features of social life in Belfast and treat them in tandem. Nor are there specifically urban studies which highlight those social processes in their totality. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a concise collection of references assembled on such matters as the peacelines and other aspects and features of physical division in Belfast.

The Problematic

In the works so far consulted, the peacelines are described in brief as a more recent phenomenon and treated as a unique feature of the city existing in a state of urban anomie. Such a reading raises two important points with regard to the peacelines which are central to the problematic of the study. The fundamental problem then is to be found in the literature itself and concerns matters of historical causation and sociological interpretation–the span of time involved and the normative structures used to treat division in an urban environment.

The literature on Belfast and the peacelines is complicated by existing analytical frameworks–the nature of these inquiries having always been to question “when” and “why” Belfast is divided. In challenging accepted paradigms of cause and effect, this study aims to raise new questions about urban division, about “divided” Belfast and about the case of the peacelines. This type of inquiry addresses both the culture of division and the quality of division by asking “how” questions. In this way the mechanisms are related directly to the interaction of the factors of design and social space.

In the following sections, the weaknesses in the historical and sociological literature on Belfast and the peacelines are pinpointed and finally an alternate analytical approach is outlined to address those issues.

2.2 Historical Issues


At present, there are 14 neighborhoods in the inner-city of Belfast which are divided by peacelines (see figure 1, next page). Each structure varies according to both its history of development and method of construction–adhering to the specific needs of the area and the physical attributes necessary to meet those requirements (see figure 2, following page). Despite the obvious differences in the current variety of locations within the city and the factors of demand and make related to each example, there appears to be little disagreement in the literature about the origins of the peacelines and scant attention paid to any on-going process of development.

Three key historical factors contribute to a general understanding of the peacelines and impact on interpretations of their origin and development. These three issues, periodization, attribution and institutionalization, are discussed in the following sections in order to pinpoint important historical issues and problematize the accepted chronology and provenance of the peacelines.


It is generally understood in the literature on Belfast and the conflict in Northern Ireland1 that the peacelines were built by the British Army on 10 September 1969 and are consequently regarded as a direct result of that period of extreme sectarian rioting in Belfast. An example of this view is reflected in the entry in Flackes’ annotated directory Northern Ireland: A Political Directory which describes the initial peaceline as:

The barrier erected by British troops between the Roman Catholic Falls area and the Protestant Shankill area in Belfast in September 1969. Sometimes known as the Orange-Green line, it was erected because of the violent disturbances in the district… (1980: 177)

Flakes’ entry is by no means a definitive and complete description, yet it is included in what is largely considered a valuable and respected source as a compendium for vital information on the political situation in Northern Ireland. As such, this definition should not only be read as a succinct explanation of the peacelines, which is a logical choice in light of the brevity of format for such compiled listings, but should also be understood as a good indication of the popular perception and subsequent treatment in the literature2–a rather narrow view toward what this study considers a more profound and complicated social phenomenon.

The following citations from three modern historical accounts of Belfast further substantiate the point of an uncomplicated sequencing of events during that time:

…the two mobs clashed repeatedly… soon there were riots too… The army finally separated the combatants with a ‘peaceline’ of corrugated iron and barbed wire… (Bardon, 1996:123).

The Stormont government called in the Army to separate the two sides, a move at first welcomed… (Maquire, 1993: 182).

…citizens found that their city had become a war zone; soldiers first blocked off the streets with knife-rests and concertina wire; later sensitive areas were separated more permanently by walls of corrugated iron bristling with barbed wire. (Bardon, 1982: 283).

While the army did erect a barrier at this time, these structures were in no uncertain terms the first effort made at security measures or defensive tactics during that confrontational summer (Hastings, 1970: 151; Buckland, 1981: 130). Close to two months of activity had transpired from the July marching season to Sept. 10 during which the residents of the neighboring districts of the Shankill and Falls Roads had formed local defense associations and erected barricades of their own at crucial junction streets. Only after intense negotiations (Flackes, 1980: 309) did the government and the military decide to provide a guarantee of additional security and defense by constructing a make-shift wall midway between the existing barricades.


As one can see from the above definition and the citations, there is also a marked tendency to suggest that the peacelines can be attributed solely to the authoritative institutions of the government and the armed forces. This is furthered evidenced by the term being sub-categorized in the indices, usually under the heading of British Army or key figures involved in the initial military directive, such as Major Freeland, or the prime minister Chichester-Clark. This location might be the arbitrary choice of the index compiler, who made that decision by virtue of the proximity of its mention on the page and in relation to the government and military strategy during the first few weeks of disturbances in Belfast. However, there are no corresponding entries or linkages to be made for the numerous defense committees and the barricades.

Conventional understanding of attribution in this case gives extremely short shrift to the operations of the local population. In the context of that summer in West Belfast, the actions of the area inhabitants are understood instead as civil unrest or disturbance–the act of rabid and unruly crowds with unreasonable motives and recourses. The barricades were seen as a triage-based effort, erected by rioting mobs with vandalized property and thus wholly unacceptable to a society based on law and order principles. Hence, army interposition and demolition of the barricades. Another view could interpret the same events quite differently, i.e. the defense associations formed during those months represented a skilled collective action requiring disciplined organization with efficient response time. However, such mechanisms and negotiations are rarely cited or elucidated in relation to the peacelines. Instead, the actions of those involved are preserved almost entirely in the tradition of local folklore and relegated to the obscure listings of alternative press publications.3 Proper history eschews the local contribution to the situation and completely disregards any subsequent processes of development in the interface and peaceline areas.


In the subsequent development of the peacelines, both local groups and government agencies have been involved in their design, construction and maintenance. A vast apparatus has been put in place to deal with the security situation and public safety–both in terms of anti-terrorist measures and efforts to combat an on-going situation of communal disturbance, intimidation and population flight. Yet, again, community contribution in the overall process has often gone relatively unrecognized or, at best, merits short mention (Dawson, 1984; Murtagh, 1994). The domain of influence and regulation is apportioned almost solely to statutory agencies as evidenced by Bardon’s recapped assessment that by the ceasefires in 1994 “there were thirteen ‘peace lines’ in Belfast, their location decided on by the security forces and the NIO” (1996: 282).

One can also see this process taking shape by referring to addenda to the entry in Flackes’ directory over the last 20 years. In the first case local community request is alluded to, but is ultimately superceded by a municipal authority:

…In 1982 the height of the barricades was increased after complaints of missiles being thrown over them, and the DoE announced that an 80,000 brick wall would be built on part of the line. (1983)

...Since 1982 it has been converted into a brick wall and similar barriers have been erected in some other confrontation areas of the city. (1988)

...New peacelines were built at Belfast's Serpentine Road in January 1998 and at White City in May 1998. (1999)

Another source follows that example:

The Ministry of Defense began building a permanent brick wall to divide the Falls and Shankill Roads in Belfast from Cupar Street to Clonard along the ‘Peace Line’. (Fortnight, 1981: 16)

The NIHE agreed to build a ‘peace wall’ between Protestant and Catholic areas around Mountpottinger and the Albertbridge Road, east Belfast (Fortnight, 1981: 16).

Interestingly enough, the chronological listings of Fortnight, a publication which has recorded the very pulse of life in Belfast for quite some time, ceased to include successive changes to those peacelines or news of the installation of another 30 structures in 12 other neighborhoods. Perhaps the topic became old news or too routinized to warrant mention. In any case, the building of peacelines had in fact become quite systematic and refined since the first barricade at Cupar Street in 1969. Failure to comment on this process not only ignores the obvious, but discounts the multi-faceted incidents and evolving relationships that give rise to new barriers. Such a focus would account for the subtle social shifts in concentration of the population at interface areas and the overt transitions in the design of the peacelines as built barriers (see figure 3, next page).

Essentializing the Moment

The sequence of events which transpired over the course of a few months in 1969 does not expand our understanding of the almost comprehensive religious residential segregation that existed in Belfast–a condition that precedes those incidents. Nor does this type of cursory mention illustrate the degree to which those social boundaries developed into the physical barriers of present-day Belfast. Location was not in any sense arbitrary, as the positioning of the barricades occurred precisely at points of long-established community interfaces (Boal, 1969: 32). Max Hastings, an eyewitness to the events of August 1969, describes that social and geographic landscape:

On either side the whole of its length, side streets of exactly identical decaying terraced houses ran off, on one side leading to the Grosvenor Road, on the other to the perils of the Protestant Shankill, some four hundred yards away. At some almost precisely definable point along each street between the Falls and the Shankill, Catholic territory ended and Protestant ground began. (1970: 141) [emphasis added]

A zone of transition, a collection of “mixed” streets, had been in place for well over a century. Furthermore, segregation had been a characteristic feature of the city since its establishment (Jones, 1960).

The current peacelines follow, almost without exception, the unofficial boundaries of religious segregation in Belfast which only became fault lines once more in this recent phase of communal conflict (Purdie,1990: 4)–this period being commonly referred to as the Troubles. As such, the structures erected by the army were “merely a formalization of what was already there“ (Conroy, 1987: 111) and rigidly enforced a frontier of “already existing psychological and instinctive boundaries” (Interface Images, 4). Furthermore, the local practice of barricading an area and subsequent military intervention has a long history in the civil disturbances in Belfast (Boyd, 1969: 95; Stewart, 1977: 154; Broad, et al 1980: 197; Golding, 1991: 50; Kelly, 1995: 80). Social separation and a recourse to walls to accomplish that task has always been a part of social life in Belfast (see figure 4, next page).

Summary of Historical Issues

The previous discussion highlights the weak points in historical treatments of the peacelines and makes clear the error of accounts that essentialize the moment, privilege a top-down analysis and disregard any any aspect of ongoing development. In the historical works so far consulted, the peacelines are either curiously absent from the narrative or are only given a cursory mention, limited usually to a 3-4 sentence explanation which is suggestive of Flackes’ short definition. The peacelines are usually treated as either a foregone conclusion or as just one incident in a series of events. Moreover, and more importantly for this analysis, little attention is paid to the peacelines past these initial incidents. Therefore, the issues of periodization, attribution and institutionalization are important to an expanded interpretation of historical causation.

Primacy notwithstanding, both the early barricades and the army-installed barrier can be regarded as expedient measures taken in a time of extreme crisis. What is important to this study is not actually a matter of historical accuracy or the exact chronology of events per se, but rather the sociological import of the act of building provisional dividing structures and the historical process involved in the formalization of that divide over time to a permanent device–a wall. That process is by no means a linear one confined to a bracketed period of time. It involves a number of attributable sources, at both the local and governmental levels, with a corresponding amount of vested group interests (see figure 5, next page).

A short-termed view which eclipses broad influences and conflates key events is highly problematic for a historical and sociological analysis of Belfast’s peacelines. The development of segregated space and social boundaries, the erection of community barricades and military barriers, and the formalization of the peacelines are integrally related and should not be taken at face value. However, this is usually the case because most historical studies tend to privilege political, top-down evaluations of the conflict–the peacelines thereby fall into place in this scheme.

2.3 Sociological Issues


Given the fact that there are 14 neighborhoods in Belfast which are divided by peacelines, it should follow that there are quite specific factors in that current variety of locations and in the assortment of structures in use. However, the peacelines are rarely remarked upon as individual cases, but instead form a very broad category which is rather narrowly referenced. This type of treatment restricts both common perceptions and academic assessments of the peacelines.
Two key factors contribute to a general understanding of the peacelines and impact on subsequent sociological interpretations. These two issues are thematic and methodological and are discussed in the following section in order to pinpoint important sociological problems in the literature and to question both accustomed readings of the peacelines and the accepted analytical models used to treat them.

Thematic Issues

The issue of theme relates to the discursive trends that surround the peacelines in most casual writing and scholarly research. It was stated earlier in the introduction that mention of the peacelines is basically ambiguous, emotive and superficial. Foremost in each of those appraisals is the marked disposition for unconstructive estimates which result in a prevalently negative discourse. Opinions on the peacelines vary considerably, but they generally confine themselves to either disparaging or sarcastic statements. The following comments, drawn from a cross-section of the community and an assortment of foreign observers, confirm this point.

Two visiting travel writers and a journalist had this to say about the peacelines:

…the ironically named ‘Peace Lines’. It seems inexpressibly degrading that within a city of the British Isles neighbours have to be kept apart by tangles of wire, sheets of tin, brick walls, concrete barricades and piles of burnt-out cars. (Murphy, 1978: 135)

It is not, as the term suggests, something like the Berlin Wall, a big, ugly, brutal divider, so much as a series of devices… Peace Line is the wrong name but presumably deliberately chosen because anything more accurate, like ‘Conflict Inhibitor’ or ‘Social Controller’, would not do. (Gebler, 1991: 150)

And the barbed wire is on top of the ‘Peace Wall’, a kind of sociological toddler gate erected by the British to keep the ragamuffin Protestant homicidal maniacs of Shankill Road away from the tatterdemalion Catholic murderers in Falls Road two blocks over. (O'Rourke, 1989: 277)

A local resident activist, novelist and poet commented:

When I look at this wall, it’s now 23 feet high, almost twice its original height, it’s now almost a mile long, and, as you can see, it’s a lovely wall if you can say a wall is nice… (May Blood, 1996)

At the time we lived just around the corner from what was to become, comically enough, the Peace Line–a half-hearted and in places permeable Berlin Wall, thrown up in the 70s to prevent impoverished Protestants and oppressed and impoverished Catholics from knocking the shite out of each other. (Costello, 1992: 9)

No don’t trust maps, for they avoid the moment: ramps, barricades, diversions, Peace Lines. (Carson, 1989: 57)

These perspectives, a range of commentary coming from a broad spectrum of opinion, find unusual common ground in their negative assessments. Although the level of discussion is certainly a lively one, and hence could be considered one of healthy skepticism, there is still a unnecessarily derogatory take on an otherwise serious matter.

The so-called official lines follow the negative trend with only slight variation:

As to the so-called ‘Peace Walls’: these expensive, unsightly and inherently undesirable articles have become the subject of regular controversy. (Brett, 1986: 77)

…where both communities live side by side, walls are often required to separate them… Although there are 13 peace lines in Belfast it is important not to get the problem out of context. …just 1% of the housing stock is affected by the peaceline problem. (NIHE, 1991: 46)

The earliest one to be put up was at Cupar Street, a grim and formidable barrier of concrete… The peace lines were a visible sign that housing a divided community presented exceptional problems requiring exceptional measures. (Bardon, 1996: 281)

The fact that a physical wall is being built is no more than a tangible expression of what we have all known for years but have not had the courage to acknowledge: that we are getting nowhere, that we have run into a brick wall… (Hume, 1982)

These comments come respectively from a former civil servant, the Housing Executive, a local historian and a politician. Each displays a level of acceptance yet they all seem to be characterized by an exasperated resignation. As such, the peacelines are both determined and justifiable. For instance, the line of reasoning adhered to by the statutory agencies involved in the construction and maintenance of the peacelines is one of a necessary evil–the peacelines are a social burden which falls to wider society to bear and a financial matter which must be reckoned with public funds. And sadly so.

The points of view cited above span total derision and abject apology and in this way are alternately accusatory or defensive. But, at the same time that the peacelines elicit strong sentiments, there is nevertheless the presence of an overt disassociation from the barriers, the reason for their existence and the system of their implementation. The topic appears to be somewhat taboo–the few who are willing to comment remain detached and are loathe to claim any direct involvement with these walls.

In sharp contrast to the sentiments of the examples cited above, academic research attempts to avoid any type of patent judgement with regard to the peacelines and relies instead on quick explanations which are strongly reminiscent of Flackes’ entry cited earlier. For instance, Sluka’s terse footnoted definition:

The ‘Peaceline’ is a 1.5 mile long wall erected by the British army between the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill after August 1969. It is a Berlin Wall-like structure with checkpoints, guarded and patrolled by troops, and intended primarily to prevent the passage of sectarian mobs between the two districts. The Peaceline was originally built of corrugated iron and intended to be temporary, but it has now been replaced with a high, sturdy brick wall and has become a permanent fixture in the lower Falls. (1989: 154)

Objective descriptions of this nature result in a flattened response to the peacelines, which, while it should directly address the issue at hand and elaborate on it, ends up dodging the problem entirely–thus skirting the wall itself in its impartiality and brevity. Ultimately then, what is achieved in academic reviews is, in a curiously similar way, the very same level of detachment as those mentioned above.

This combination of factors in thematic representations of the peacelines has a rather extraordinary outcome in that walls are meant to be divisive structures that separate groups, yet the peacelines not only partition the community but additionally ward off the involvement of the entire society. These walls repel responsibility and resist understanding. In that case, general attitudes toward the peacelines remain ambivalent and scholarly interpretations fall short of treating them fully–in this way the peacelines are rendered as fundamentally incomprehensible to all, residents and researchers alike.

Methodological issues

Methodological issues related to the peacelines concern the use of an anomic model of analysis–one that regards the circumstances of Belfast’s divisions as a departure from established conditions of a city and results in a situation of urban pathology with regard to the peacelines. A review of the literature on Belfast and the peacelines reveals that, more often than not, sociologists and those working in a sociological tradition have located themselves and the topic of their work in Northern Ireland due to the “conflict” there. While this is not surprising, since most academic enterprises look for a unique arena in which to establish and test their theories, the tendency in this specific situation has been to focus on the “breakdown” of society in Northern Ireland and to conclude with normative assessments for potential remedy of the problem there.

But important questions need to asked of the standard of evaluation in this regard, namely how to treat a place such as Belfast where conflict has always existed in some form and physical barriers have regularly been employed to reduce that conflict. What type of gauge is being used to arrive at such rational models of analyses and their successive proactive proscriptions? Are these paradigms applicable to the case of “divided” Belfast and appropriate to the peacelines? In order to address these methodological questions it is first necessary to look at the available sources from which academic studies can derive the facts and thus form an opinion.

Sources of Information

As mentioned earlier, anyone looking for information on the peacelines would be hard-pressed to find a concise collection of references assembled on them anywhere in an archive or index. In addition to the fact that there is overall only short mention given to them under most general titles. Of the literature available however, which does bear directly on the peacelines, the work falls roughly into three categories:

1. government publications

2. community-based publications

3. media and journalistic accounts

Government publications are representative of the policies of both the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE). These two statutory agencies are directly involved, respectively, in the funding and planning of the peacelines in Belfast. Unfortunately for this study, the NIO does not publish any information on its precise role in the peaceline process nor does it keep any record of its expenditures. If in fact the NIO has any written documents it does not release them to the general public. In any case, and despite its negligence in record-keeping, the NIO is more than willing to acknowledge its participation and to state their policy in a direct interview. In short then, the NIO maintains that the system is an ad hoc affair in which they are obliged to fund the building of the peacelines when petitioned by the NIHE and do so as a matter of security under the direction of the Security Policy and Operations Division.

While the NIO are a bit reluctant to elaborate on the peacelines, the Housing Executive can be seen to deal more expansively with the matter and even to take some pride in their accomplishments. Three key publications by the Housing Executive refer to their policy and practice in the planning stages. In a brief history of the NIHE, titled Building a Better Belfast (1991), the peacelines are set within the total scheme of public housing in Belfast and are represented as just one part of an admirable effort in the difficult circumstances of housing a divided society. Explicit social issues surrounding the peacelines are more thoroughly pursued in an earlier report titled Coping with Conflict: Violence and Urban Renewal in Belfast (1978). This report details the specific considerations and requirements of an interface area, the design and construction techniques used to meet those needs, and the order of operations put in place to actually erect the wall. Following through on that process is the commissioned report Belfast Peacelines Study (1991). This review is the product of an architectural and environmental survey project prepared for the Belfast Development Office in conjunction with the NIHE, who hired an outside firm, the Environmental Design Consultants, to summarily record and evaluate the existing peacelines.

The second category of information on the peacelines complements official documents and statements with publications stemming directly from the interface community. These smaller publications are usually the effort of inter- and cross-community centers which provide valuable local input to site-specific social ills and the take of the residents on the peacelines and future improvement plans for the area. One such pamphlet, Life on the Interface: Report on a Community Group Conference (1992), gives this type of on-the-ground-insight and gets to the root of the problems faced by peaceline communities. Essentially these forums place an emphasis on youth issues–like education, employment and leisure activities–but also address adult issues of identity and potential acculturation and integration, where an individuals long-standing perceptions on the out group would need to change (Belfast Interface Project, 1998-99). One drawback to these accounts is that they are usually frank and personal and, as such, can be considered to be very much within realm of social work and less a matter of sociology.

The third category of source information on the peacelines are those generated by the media. As we have already seen, some journalistic accounts–such as travel guides and travel literature–thematically portray the peacelines as aberrant works of horror which defy the imagination (Belfrage, 1987; Conroy,1987; Gebler,1991; Murphy,1978; O’Rourke, 1989; Theroux, 1983). Likewise, newspaper and periodical articles–such as news stories and serial reporting–tend to focus on sensational events with dramatic perspectives (McKittrick, 1993; Turner, 1999) and in some cases, unlike most objective news reporting, often entertain unsubstantiated evidence and contribute to a mythology of the peacelines, ie. rumor-based explosives as evidenced by the protracted scandal over security force collusion in the 1980s (Alcorn, Beresford, Cowan, 1982). In any case, media accounts such as those described here certainly assist in chronicling the sequence of events aligned with the peacelines and can be considered in that context as quasi-historical documents. And, while still not exactly scholarly in their approach, are nevertheless a primary source used by most researchers and in this way help to form the basis for their interpretations (Whyte, 1990: 13).

Academic Studies

Having now considered the chief sources for most academic researchers, the available studies produced about Belfast fall into two categories: community and urban studies. Likewise there are two aspects to each category, those works that focus on social division and the factors which give rise to the peacelines, but do not necessarily highlight them, and those studies which concentrate directly on the peaceline and interface areas.

Community Studies

Apart from the general histories discussed above, there are handful of community studies which focus on Belfast. Four stem specifically from the social sciences: Burton’s Politics of Legitimacy (1978), Sluka’s Hearts and Minds (1989), Feldman’s Formations of Violence (1991), and finally Artexgna’s Shattering Silence (1997). Two more historically derived studies complete that series: A Past Apart: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast by A. C. Hepburn (1996) and Ballymurphy and the Irish War by Ciaran DeBaroid (1990). For the most part, the analyses are centered on the political conflict in Belfast and, whether the method be ethnographic or historical, there is an extremely factional identity formulation in the author’s understanding of the investigated group and the historical and social contexts of their object of study. Ultimately then one encounters more a state-centered examination and less an urban study.

The most obvious feature of the list of works, however, is that they focus on the inner workings of one, usually subset, group within greater Belfast society and in so concentrating rather blatantly give the most attention to the Irish, Catholic and Republican perspective. Only in the Feldman piece does one see a cross-over to both Loyalist and Republican agencies and ideologies. It is important to note though that Artexgna’s book, in its choice of a gender-specific analysis of women and nationalism, is a unique contribution to the literature. There is actually no reason why any of the studies listed could not be utilized in some way as the basis for comparison to other groups in Belfast or, for that matter, to other objects of study outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland. For the purpose of this analysis, however, a community study that encompasses only one side of the peaceline severely limits the scope of the project–comparisons across the divide should be made throughout the study.

The authors listed above choose to make the following theoretical connections respectively: the link between political ideology and social identity; the impact of political violence on male culture and subject formation; the impact of political violence on a “ghetto” community; the relations of gender and nationalism; the growth of an ethnic minority; and the social history of a local community at war with state security forces. The theoretical position of this analysis would take issue with the fact that these studies formulate their methodologies based on exceptional situations occurring in extraordinary circumstances, thus creating the impression that there has been a rupture in traditional social practices brought about by the conflict and a disruption of spatial distributions as a result. Yet, as Burton has also argued, the reaction on the part of the communities is largely contextual and incorporates an “inter-relationship between a pre-existing culture and violent social change” (1978: 9) The content of the theorization of such a social transition should account for that correlation–particularly in light of the fact that, as Burton further ascertained, there is virtually no anomic breakdown.

The peacelines do not figure greatly in any of these titles. As the Sluka description quoted earlier indicates by the very fact that it is footnoted to the main text. The walls are subordinate to the larger themes and deserve mention mostly as scenery–background for the comings-and-goings of the communities under study. That decision is not necessarily unusual with regard to physical structures, and is seen often in relation to the political wall murals in Belfast, but the fact that the peacelines are actually downplayed is a matter for serious consideration. The casual tenor of such a discussion is tantamount to saying, “this is a divided society, of course, which naturally results in two main communities living side-by-side, oh and by the way, in some parts needs walls to separate them.” In any of these cases, then, the methodological frameworks in use follow the theme of an ancillary outcome and indefinite opinion on the peacelines and concentrate almost solely on situations of deviance in an urban arena with strong political overtones. Moreover, with only one exception, they historically pick up the thread in 1969 and confine themselves to the period of the Troubles.

Urban Studies

In the category of urban studies that directly treat the peacelines the largest contribution in academic research comes understandably from the disciplines of urban planning and social geography. Chiefly these works focus on the origins of the divide and the social effects of housing development and segregation patterns. Four main authors have produced essays and books which treat the peacelines at least in part: F.W. Boal, a geographer; Scott Bollens, working in urban policy; Gerry Dawson, an urban planner; and Brendan Murtagh, also involved in urban planning.

Boal, perhaps the most noted of the four authors, has written numerous titles on Belfast, beginning with the seminal study of social boundaries in West Belfast, “Territoriality on the Shankill-Falls Divide, Belfast” (1969), and continuing on to the present day with updated developmental assessments like the follow-up article “The Perspective from 1976” (1978) and Shaping a City: Belfast in the Late Twentieth Century (1995). Bollens has recently produced two book titles from working papers: Urban Peace-Building in Divided Societies: Belfast and Johannesburg (1998) and On Narrow Ground: Urban Policy and Conflict in Jerusalem and Belfast (2000), both having some overlapping of information on the case of Belfast and identical sections on the peacelines. Dawson contributed two articles in the 1980s, “Defensive Planning in Belfast” (1984) and the follow-up study Planning in the Shadow of Urban Civil Conflict: A Case Study from Belfast (1984) , which deal very specifically with the construction of peacelines. And finally Murtagh, who has dealt most extensively with the topic of the peacelines in a series of studies Planning and Ethnic Space in Belfast (1993), Ethnic Space and the Challenge to Land Use Planning: A Study of Belfast’s Peacelines (1994) and the chapter “Image Making Versus Reality: Ethnic Division and the Planning Challenge of Belfast’s Peacelines” in Reimaging the Pariah City (1994).

In total the nature of these urban studies, while delving into a multitude of issues, generally produce policy-oriented area analyses. Urban planning research in particular is useful for its empirical descriptions of the interface communities. Attitudes surveys have made headway in identifying the specific social problems that arise in interface areas and address the requirements of life in a proactive way. As such, these studies strike at the heart of very real problems and seek to correct dire situations of social deprivation. Yet these studies are still limited in that they promote the peaceline areas as an inner-city situation suffering from extreme urban pathology and are ultimately only directly involved in proscriptive policy-making. In addition, the written style of such studies severely curtails the readability and accessibility to a general audience as it is bound to the remit of policy-bound reports. In any case, the list of works have gone a long way toward establishing local opinion and proving the degree of involvement in the community with the building of the peacelines.

Summary of Sociological Issues

The previous discussion concentrated on thematic and methodological issues in treatments of the peacelines and illustrated the shortcomings of negative evaluations and the limitations of both small-scale community and policy-oriented studies. Sociological inquiries are hampered by a community studies approach which limits the examination to only one localized group. Urban material on segregation uses a synchronic, empirical approach and emphasizes prescription in the form of policy reports for housing and other infrastructural development plans.

In the sociological works so far consulted, the peacelines are either ignored, serve only as a convenient setting for the conflict, or are over-emphasized as the cause of poverty and a myriad of other social ills. The peacelines are alternately totally invisible, partially represented or fully obtrusive. Moreover, and more importantly for this analysis, the peacelines are quickly castigated and easily decontextualized. Therefore, the issues of theme and methodology are important to an extended sociological interpretation.

What is important to this study then is not actually a recasting of the peacelines in a positive light–which would be a monumental task and in the end probably a failed project–but rather to expand our understanding of urban divisions and physical barriers. Not to discount the “facts” of the matter, which one can see from this review is largely negative, but to challenge those “perspectives” by lengthening the terms of the discussion and thereby elaborating on the peacelines. To illuminate historical imperatives and social trends, that is to say both the context in which walls appear and the content of their existence. This study contends that there are important relationships to be made between these factors and further interpretations to be made as well.

This chapter began with the problematic of “divided” Belfast and pinpointed the need for an expanded understanding of historical causation and an extended sociological interpretation of the peacelines. While still valuable to this study, the above mentioned books and articles often overlook a combined historical and sociological approach. This analysis, in contrast, pursues all of this material in this light in order to probe the issues of urban borders in this context. To begin that process, the next section looks at the dynamic of social and physical division in the city in an urban-sociological context. of urban studies that directly treat the peacelines the largest contribution in academic research comes understandably from the disciplines of urban planning and social geography. Chiefly these works focus on the origins of the divide and the social effects of housing development and segregation patterns. Four main authors have produced essays and books which treat the

3.0 The Urban-Sociological Context


As mentioned above, this study of Belfast’s peacelines–and the assortment of other natural, man-made and social barriers within the inner-city area–is a socio-historical analysis which reviews the conceptualization of such divides in the context of the literature on urban and historical studies. The concept of urban borders is developed here by setting the idea of such divisions firmly within the discourse of the city. The purpose of this approach is three-fold: first, to understand the historical circumstances for walls in an urban environment; second, to trace the evolution of boundaries in a city, from perimeter to internal walls; and third, to pinpoint the development of territorial division within the process of urbanization in order to address both the practical issues and the social function of walls.

In this chapter, the roots of urban borders are examined against the backdrop of urban sociology, historical geography and general social science writing. In the first section, Representations of the City, I look at how the idea of the city has been formulated in schools of urban sociology and sociological writing with a view toward understanding how those theories bear on the issues of social boundaries and built barriers. The second section, the The Development of Walled Cities, is a brief sketch of the history of the city as a bounded human settlement which employed peripheral walls for both practical and social uses. This history is brought up to date by reviewing the evolution of internal divisions in modern urban centers and the historical emergence of the ghetto, the “divided city” and the “gated community.” The final section, The Example of Belfast, refers to the previous sections with specific regard to the city and a treatment of the peacelines.

3.1 Representations of the City

The Roots and Focus of Urban Sociology

The development of the sub-discipline of urban sociology coincides with the consolidation of sociology as a distinct field of inquiry in the social sciences towards the end of the nineteenth century. At the same time, the growth of cities worldwide had generated many crucial changes in social life and raised important questions about social conditions and relations in an evolving urban environment. The city as an object of study required special attention.

It is necessary to point out though that the city as an object of study has not been limited to the domain of urban sociology nor of sociology alone. As a site of many social activities, the city has drawn the interest of a variety of disciplines and research agendas–for instance, geographers and demographers examine the physical structure and population; economists look to the system of production, distribution and consumption of goods for explanation; political scientists analyze the governmental structure; and finally cultural concepts and artifacts are reviewed by varied intellectual traditions, including the social sciences. The urban sociologist views the city primarily as a site of interaction between individuals and groups within the overall physical patterning of the space and the general distribution of people and social activities. As such, this approach calls all of the above subjects into play in the way in which the social conditions of groups are formed and the resulting social relations between groups is enacted. The urban sociologist regards the city as a comprehensive social system, thus incorporating perspectives and data from the above allied fields (Abu-Lughod,1991: 5).

Early Theorization

It seems that from the inception of the discipline, the foremost research question in urban sociology was how life in a city in fact differed from life in other settings. Although various scholars in the field set different parameters for that inquiry, most tended to reinforce the basic idea of that question. That is to say, the fundamental mode of analysis in urban sociology, involved contrasting social life in modern large-scale societies with that of the small-scale preindustrial and rural. Following this supposition, urban research projects attempted to determine the type of variations that existed in city life, to examine the factors to which those differences could be attributed, and then to what extent they affected social relations.

The notion that city life was essentially different developed from a series of historical indicators–vast changes in production and the economy, such as industrialization and the growth of a capitalist system. Cities, in the modern sense of the word, underwent a huge transformation at this time and, as mentioned above, the field of urban sociology branched off from the main discipline of sociology to concentrate on this phenomenon. A body of knowledge was formed, a substantive theoretical understanding was conceived and schools of thought developed. It was during this early phase that it was readily established as a given that social patterns were responding and adapting to this new environment at an unprecedented variance. Life in a city was simply distinct from other forms of living and thus it was referred to as an “urban way of life.”

An Urban Way of Life

By focusing on the implications and outcomes of the transition from rural to urban life, much of the early theorization of the city owed a great deal to two sociologists: Emile Durkheim (1893) and Ferdinand Toennies (1887). Both Durkheim’s formulation of mechanical and organic solidarity and Toennies’ models of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft illustrated nicely the process of change that occurred in social relations in human settlements due to a growth in population, an increase in productivity, and a consequent build-up of needs. Neither theorist, however, wrote a specifically urban analysis, nor did they posit a distinct urban theory, but the implication was there that the venue for both organic solidarity and the gesellschaftliche society was indeed towns and cities. What was also inherent in these theories was the belief that in experiencing social change certain sacrifices were made by the inhabitants of cities, namely a loss in community and social identity.

One of the first direct commentators on urban life was Georg Simmel, a German professor of philosophy. In his essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1902), Simmel used the concepts of external forces and human adaptation to explain the particular way of life of the “metropolitan man.” His framework of analysis focused on both psychological and physical conditions in the city. At the center of Simmel’s thesis was the peculiar preponderance of nervous stimulation in the surrounding environment. This type of diverse and chaotic, daily “input” leads to a two-fold development for the city dweller: he/she experiences an increased awareness and, at the same time and as a matter of survival, becomes inured to it all. The curious result was one of a heightened intellectual response and a flattened disassociation from interpersonal relations.

The obvious negative by-product was a social attitude of overt pragmatism and instrumentality, but this aspect could only be supported if it was presented in comparison to the rural kinship-based notion of social life in a small community. Simmel believed, however, that the urban situation ultimately created an unusual opportunity for the unfolding of a unique sense of individuality and personal freedom; hence the “urban way of life.” City life as such was considered by him to be the essence of modern society. Social identity and community had not truly been lost, but rather had been fundamentally transformed by history and would thus be newly defined.

Max Weber is another theorist who addressed the specifics of social life in the city (1958). He based his understanding on the more positive circumstances of life in a city and less on the potentially alienating aspects of the urban arena. He began his theorization of urban relations with the important point that, apart from all else, cities are in essence market places. As such, urban residents are dependent on the daily exchange of goods and services. That fundamental, yet complex, system of exchange creates a new set of social relations for urban dwellers, but does not necessarily entail the disintegration of community and social cohesion. Civic form and duty are predicated on economic and political interests and investments.

Building upon the earlier theories, Louis Wirth was another sociologist who focused on such issues in his essay “Urbanism as a Way of Life” (1938). Wirth’s essay quickly became the definitive theory for urban sociology. In a “sociologically significant” definition of the city, Wirth denoted the urban environment as a large permanent settlement, densely inhabited by a mixed population–designated as the “ecological factors” of size, density and heterogeneity. Each in turn initiated changes in the relations of people and the character of the community as a whole through segmental contact, greater dependence, structural complexity, little commonality with majority requirements, and formal controls. Those salient features which typified an urban way of life were a higher incidence of secondary relationships, relative anonymity and formal types of social organizations. In Wirth’s estimation, a sense of community was lost as a direct result of the process of urbanization.

Ecological Factors

Another significant trend overlaps with that of the previously discussed. Based on observations of inner-city Chicago, Robert Park and Ernest Burgess (1925) developed a model adapting principles of the natural sciences to the analysis of urban spaces–a biological explanation of the spatial distribution of the population. Their work is noted principally as being the first systematic theory about the physical form of cities. Burgess’ framework for a Concentric Zone Theory (1925), in keeping with a biological analogy, was illustrated by a map of the city showing 5 rings radiating out from the center of the city: the first ring encompassed the central business district, surrounded by a the zone of transition; the third ring was comprised of working class housing, followed by the fourth ring of middle-class residents; the fifth ring, outside the urban parameter was designated the commuter zone. As such, the there was an underlying logic to the physical form of the city. Burgess saw the most interesting social situation in the zone of transition–an area distinguished by change and uncertainty, built of cheap housing, and populated by low-income families. Through community study, Burgess and his students probed the zones and followed closely the “ecological” postulates of natural area, competition, and succession. Park adhered to pretty much all of the above, with an added emphasis on the neighborhood as basic unit of social organization, the method of participant observation, and the theoretical development a 4-fold understanding of social relations and practice in terms of cooperation and adaptation.

It was each of these theorists intention not only to define and provide commentary on the city, but to also constitute theoretical frameworks which could effectively be applied to empirical research. Their search for that systematic knowledge of the city, both unified and verifiable, was an effort to improve on the criteria of data and the methodology of social science scholarship. Perhaps the goal was overly ambitious, for in time the theories came to be seen as overgeneralized and incomplete. Wirth’s key factors were in the end too limited and could not account for variations in city life nor for the variables of class, gender and family cycle stage. The loss of community did not in fact occur as he predicted. In Burgess’ case, the zone theory proved somewhat inappropriate when applied to a various series of cities–the expected outcome of development in each ring did not always adhere to the model.

A Paradigm Shift

The so-called urban way of life then could not continue to be analyzed with these methods. Not only had the city itself changed, but the problematics had as well. A new set of theories and approaches had to be developed to meet those new needs. One of the most significant changes in understanding arose from the decline in the importance of the rural-urban contrast (Abu-Lughod, 1991:327). Due to the prevalence of urban saturation, the classic model of comparison between the city and the countryside had become insufficient to explain certain particularities of city life. Other factors were introduced to the field which contributed to a paradigm shift in urban sociology–some were new concepts, but it was also revealed that other treatments had simply been overlooked. Included in this list of new modes of analysis were Marxism, political economy and conflict theory, and the additional features of the relations of production, class structures and the role of the political and legal systems in shaping the urban environment (Abu-Lughod, 1991:235).

In conceiving new theories for the changing city and the understanding of the urban way of life, the primary idea of social and physical space was altered. It was now thought that social and spatial relations were no longer as contingent upon each other as they had once been (Karp, 1991:63; Flanagan, 1993:19). Social life in the city was determined not by ecological factors alone, but by the social actors themselves–that is individuals and groups interacting. The role of the neighborhood and the element of proximity became less of a decisive influence on urban communities. Borrowing from Simmel’s idea of multiple social circles (1922), theories derived from network analysis were established to confirm those assumptions. This method of inquiry was utilized to describe the structure of social space as sets of relations and not as a priori sets of social categories and bounded groups.

Network Analysis

Two important studies in the 1970s laid the groundwork for the use of network analysis in urban sociology. In Barry Wellman’s study of residents in Toronto (1973, 1979), it was revealed through network analysis that there was little social breakdown or loss of community. On the contrary, city dwellers had developed a wide range of intimate social relationships. Wellman described this type of community as “liberated,” as opposed to “lost” or “saved.” Another study, by Claude Fisher (1977-8), reinforced these findings and carried the method of network studies even further. This study of 50 California communities made particular use of the categories of personal characteristics–such as age, family cycle stage, gender, occupation, education,and race and ethnicity–and types of residential communities, ie. center city, suburban metropolitan, and the independent, semi-rural small town. Social networks were compared from the location of the individual in social and physical space and then controlled by those same features in order to indicate any residual effects of physical space.

Structure and Agency in the City

The paradigm shift in urban sociology also included a move from traditional schools of thought and the grand theories of political economy and human ecology. Those theorists from a culturalist tradition, such as those following the premises of Simmel and Wirth, argued that the city itself created and continued to change the human condition there. Likewise, urban ecologists imposed a rational order on the shape and content of cities–an order that urbanites passively and unproblematically accepted. Marxists and political economists followed suit in the idea of inexorable economic forces producing a similar underlying and central order to the city. In the end, the social structure of the city, based on constants and fixed relationships, experienced only materialist effects.

Ultimately these theories were unable to explain social change in specific urban localities. As Flanagan has argued, “local outcomes must be the result of local variables, of specific historical and local cultural circumstances and, moreover, the consequence of deliberate human action” (1993: 137). The space of the city is socially created by actors who influence the direction of urban change–human agency produces and reproduces the urban environment. Structurally determined interpretations were not unique enough to account for particular processes and space-specific characteristics. New questions were posed relating to the local population, the mobilization of its resources and its growth patterns. Modifications to such patterning were found to also be the result of localized bottom-up strategies of groups and individuals and not, as it were, solely dependent on structurally determined processes, such as the global forces of capitalist profit and technological advance.

The argument was not settled, however, and instead of replacing the old theories a new debate came to light–the structure vs. agency debate. Contemporary theorists of the city began to test ideas of locality and agency and to incorporate matters of choice (Fischer, 1976; Warf 1990), independent action (Lefebvre, 1974), and local cultural variations (Gottdiener, 1988) into their existing frameworks. More recently the debate has been refined by Giddens (1984) in his structuration theory, which posits a mix of the two–an interactionist approach. The city is in fact the ideal place to locate sociological analyses since it is situated in a mediated position between local, regional and global processes. In so doing, Giddens gives neither structure nor agency the priority they seem to struggle so desperately for in the works of most urban sociologists.


It has been made clear from the preceding discussion that representations of the city, as formulated by urban sociologists, have developed beyond their original conception as a singular phenomenon in sole contrast to rural forms of living and as distinctive ways of urban life. Moreover, it is apparent that there never was nor ever will be a single definition of a city. In fact, the characteristics of urban social life itself have grown almost in proportion with the physical space of the city. Research agendas have multiplied to include a range of different modes of living and interacting in the city. The paramount research question in urban sociology is thus no longer how city life differs from other forms of living, but rather how the theories and methods of the field can account for, and then duly explain, the varieties of urban experiences that exist today.
Having reviewed the representation of the city in urban sociological theory, the next section looks at the social and physical development of the walled city before going on to address specific points in the example of Belfast and the peacelines.

3.2 The Development of Walled Cities

Early Settlements

The history of the city reaches back to antiquity for its origins. At some imprecise time1 during the neolithic period the nomadic way of life, which consisted of temporary camps and a system of hunting and gathering food, ceased and was replaced by permanent settlements in which the principal occupation was farming (Mumford, 1961: 30; Abu-Lughod, 1991: 20). These communities were located initially along river valleys and later trade routes as agricultural production expanded from consumption to the distribution of goods (Sjoberg, 1965). Thus, as the story goes, were proto-cities widely established–the forerunners of our modern day urban centers.

Two written examples from classic times, one text and the other iconic, reflect early sentiments toward the evolution of the city and the very concept of an urban settlement. The first a biblical quote from the Old Testament:

Come let us build ourselves a city... and make a name for ourselves; or we shall be dispersed all over the world… (Genesis 1: 2-5)

The second example is the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for the word city, an image of a crossed circle.

These visual documents illustrate in brief two very important aspects in the development of these early settlements. First, that the concentration of a population follows a social organization of some kind that goes beyond the techniques of food production and the ensuing choice of locality–namely the consolidation of a distinct ethos and identity for the inhabitants. In the case of this specific quote, a religious belonging based on Judaism. Secondly, that the management of that land follows a spatial arrangement which can also transcend practical issue of survival in that the chosen layout of an area is representative of the symbolic of order of the community. In this instance, the character of the political institution of kingship in Egypt. The circle depicts the limits of the governed area and the cross points the centrality of that power.

These two examples, while they are not in any way lengthy and complete, are nevertheless indicative of the basic nature of cities–an essence which includes both the character of the civitas and the organization of the occupied space. Hence, we can gather from this that at the very onset of advanced human settlements there has been a fundamental relationship between the social and physical attributes of that site. In addition, the location was bounded by the quality of civic spirit and the reach of the inhabited space. A city begins and ends at its social and built boundaries.2 A key feature, then, if not the deciding mark, of a city was its perimeters–or more precisely, its walls.

The Origins of the Walled City

The origin of the walled city corresponds, when it does not coincide exactly, to the path of development of these early settlements. Returning to the example of the crossed circle, this original sign for a town clearly suggests enclosure. Several ancient cities materialized that idea by building perimeter walls to delineate space. Two examples are the city of Ur on the Euphrates in Sumer, which had an oval wall approximately 26 ft high, and the Athens-Piraeus complex, also surrounded by a fortified wall. The basic layout saw these cities emerge as a citadel complex at a heightened center point–that is to say a mound with public buildings and a protective ring wall.

The act of circumscribing an area in fact predates an actual “walled” city and does not necessitate permanent settlement either as it was a common tendency among nomadic people too–as evidenced by the circular settlements of Native American tribes and Zulu herders, to name but two examples. The practical form of enclosure is two-fold: to offer both shelter and protection. This is an important set of factors for the development of the city and specifically the walled city–the correlation between settlement and defense.

The Medieval Era

The true form of the walled city emerges in the medieval era because it was during this period that the outer wall became not only a prominent physical feature, but the defining aspect of a city (Weber, 1958: 75). The medieval city was principally a place of commerce, where a diversification of trades and an increase in the division of labor eventually produced a highly stratified society. The so-called “free city” operated under the control of its citizens and promoted an open system of collaboration thereby guaranteeing a degree of internal self-determination. Walls can be regarded as an extension of the initial aim of permanence. In the medieval city, walls provided an additional guarantee of security from aggressive economic competition and also afforded defense at times of military attack. When a threat was calculated from either source, the wall could be employed to forcibly deny entrance or exit.

The City Within the Walls

In addition to the design of the outer walls, the area within the ramparts proper was also planned. The example used earlier of the crossed circle can also represent two intersected axial streets–the fundamental grid form. Based on a Roman idea, the grid formed four segments, with the obvious result of “quarters” or, more to the point, thresholds of distinct spaces in the city each with a dedicated use. It is important however not to see the grid as an oversimplification of planned space, for these areas were formed by a variety of variables–factors which indicated practical use but also represented both a social hierarchy and embedded cultural beliefs and practices.

Cities in China, for example, were planned symbolically according to a set of rules which reproduced the contemporary idea of the universe: square like the earth was thought to be, with 12 gates for each month of the year, a N-S-E-W orientation, and with the principal buildings facing south. There were also several subdivisions of interior space which corresponded to specific activities, such as walled compounds or what can be better described as “cities within the city.” Perhaps the best example of this form is the Imperial City, with its combination of bureaucratic offices, ceremonial spaces, and residential wards.

One can see how the citadel sites of Ur and Athens mapped out respectively the sacred space of the ziggurat and the ritual heart of the Acropolis. However, the force of the radiating center point of such sites was only one aspect of the overall plan of space and distribution of the population and services. Such edifices clearly represented the centrality of the arrangement and directed a symbolic point of growth for the city. The actual scale and dimension of outward expansion from that center to the limits of the wall was contingent upon the varied needs of the general population. Real power in this sense then rests in the permanent collective structure of the urban residents and the legitimacy they are willing to accede to that authority. Subdivision and a perimeter wall in this case can be employed to either substantiate those claims or to undermine them.

The Social Value of Walls

The city as an enclosure embodied the rampart and plan and characterized the population. The wall is thus essential to the definition of a city, specifying it as a place that walled out the non-city.

Though the wall existed for military defense and the main ways of the city were usually planned to facilitate rallying to the main gates, the psychological import of the wall must not be forgotten. One was either in or out of the city; one belonged or one did not belong. (Mumford, 1938: 54)

The wall of the city possessed both a functional and a symbolic value. It indicated both social status and technological skill–a combination of forces of both wealth and prestige and the corresponding might to protect it. This contributed to a feeling of unity for the inhabitants, but also to a detrimental sense of insularity for the collective.

The use of walls in an urban environment has always been doubled-sided, if not entirely duplicitous. Walls achieve their goal as an obvious means of defense against excluded group(s), but in addition perform an ancillary, yet not exactly subordinate, use–the control of the inner population. Mumford explains this dynamic:

Thus both the physical form and the institutional life of the city... were shaped in no small measure by the irrational and and magical purposes of war. From this source sprang the elaborate system of fortifications, with walls, ramparts, towers, canals, ditches, that continued to characterize the chief historic cities... The physical structure of the city, in turn, perpetuated the animus, the isolation and self-assertion, that favored the new institution. (Mumford, 1938: 45)

Social order is predicated on spatial order. The internal structure of the city is guaranteed by the limits of the outer wall and urban confidence is induced by the blending of the concepts of benign protection or destruction.

Principals and Patterns

It is clear from the above discussion that both beyond and within the walls, a city is a place of sharp definitions. Two principal planned forms of division are present–the separation of the city proper from its hinterland and the segmentation of inner space. With that one can also see the two characteristic social patterns of urban life which give rise to those forms and are further conditioned by them. The walls of the city provided both defensive and practical zoning measures. Security consciousness and protective means assuaged fear of attack and created a sense of urban confidence. Sub-divisional procedures maintained order through a system of external customs and internal taxation.

Less overtly though one can also see in this development a profound impulse to segregate, a pattern that relates to the traditional and ubiquitous nature of outlining and fencing off a controlled land. The primary tendency to delineate property, establish ownership and regulate space–while marked by physical walls and enacted via a variety of cultural, economic and political schemes–is more fundamentally a social process of exclusion and inclusion. The next section traces the modern evolution of that process in the transition from a social boundary, to the gated perimeter wall, and finally to the urban border.

The City with Walls

As discussed in the previous section, the boundary of the city for many centuries took form of an outer wall, securing and protecting that space. The process of industrialization and technological advance, and its effects on urban socio-economic relations and modern warfare, rendered the city wall useless. No system of fortification could continue to repel an advance, whether that be solely military or a matter of in-migration from the hinterland.

In most cases, the extant city walls scattered about the world, standing in whole or in part, continue to exist with only a picturesque value–lending the city a valid yet quaint historical veneer. In other examples, the area once taken up by the wall made a transition in its spatial properties, whether through deterioration or deliberate modification to a more practical use–the vestige of such walls survives in the contemporary plan of the city as administrative boundaries, ring roads and greenbelts.

The necessity of a defensive wall faded with time, but more importantly, the fear that gave rise to that structure changed from being an overt external threat to a series of more subtle internal risks. Processes of inclusion and exclusion were now enacted within the city itself and dovetailed with the arrival of planning as an urban practice.

The cohesive identity and multiplicity of land use of the medieval city experienced extensive social stratification and spatial distribution. Interior walls and other physical forms and tactics appeared to enforce those divisions as part and parcel of redevelopment and new growth schemes. This period of transition to internal divisions follows three trends in the history of the modern city: the nineteenth century design of the ghetto; the post-war development of the “divided” city; and the post-modern version of the gated community.

Ghettoization in the 19th Century


Post-War Divisions

In the period following World War II, a series of long contested urban sites fractured both socially and physically–a few examples acquired walls in that process. In the case of Allied-occupied Berlin, the city was divided immediately. This resulted initially in a four-sector plan until 1961 when the city was split in two parts, East and West Berlin, by the Wall. Following closely on the heels of the situation in post-war Germany, massive population shifts of Jews to Palestine coincided with the establishment of the state of Israel. This declaration brought military conflict to the city of Jerusalem and resulted in the walling off of portions of the old city in 1949. The city of Nicosia experienced similar partition in 1974 when a bid for political unity with Greece from Greek-Cypriots was resisted by the Turkish-Cypriot community and supported by armed troops from Turkey. And in Belfast in 1969, the British Army installed a wall to quell communal strife. At present, only Nicosia and Belfast still have their walls.

The idea of a “divided city” is a historically fluid concept since almost all examples are predicated on long-standing cultural difference in the urban arena yet correspond in their modern incarnation to conflicts over national determination and political status. Each example mentioned above has in its course of development to physical partition a preceding and conditioning period of social division. For instance, the phase between 1945-61 in Berlin, between 1955-74 in Nicosia and in Belfast from 1921-69. This developmental phase incorporates new bids for autonomy and closely connects in a transformation from an urban to a political identity–that is from a minority resident in a city to a state citizen. Not surprisingly, this transition occurs outside of the city as well, but physical division has, rather curiously, proved to take place largely in the capital cities of the respective states.

Post-modern Divisions

At the same time that certain cities were fracturing in the post-war period, other urban sites were benefitting in the wake of new global political orders and economic systems from a relative prosperity. Overall growth rates increased and cities spread outward and encompassed large metropolitan regions. Intensive urbanization does not however produce a seamless conurbation space, but results in even more strictly defined social worlds. These circumstances result, somewhat paradoxically, in a decisive fragmentation of the urban system–one that is greatly stratified along racial and economic lines.

In this process of urbanization there is remarkably a reemergence of the theme of a rural-urban contrast, however this time around it works within the bounds of urban saturation. One sees at varying times in the past 50-odd years a new distinction surface, that of the inner city vs. the edge city. In a rehash of the tension between the countryside and the town, the inner-city is conceptualized as the likely scene of violence, social disorder and anxiety. In contrast, suburban life is associated with peacefulness, social order and calm. In reaction, social groups with the requisite resources begin a mass exodus of sorts–what has been referred to in New York City as “white-flight”–from the center city to the newly developed urban fringe.

Piggy-backing on the suburban trend, is the the development of the restricted-access neighborhood–the so-called “gated community.” Or as Mike Davis has chosen to describe it in terms of Los Angeles as the “housing-project-as-strategic-hamlet” motivated by the “security-driven logic of urban enclavization” (1990: 244). This process leads us almost inexorably back to the idea of defensible and carceral space and the historical form of the city wall and the compound.
The ostensible issue for the gated community is one of security in response to crime levels and as a probable solution to guarantee of personal safety. Phases of defense range from the individual fortification of homes, to the organization of local community watch programs, to the eventual manning and cordoning off of entire neighborhoods:

It begins with high fences, heavy gates and barred windows, then proceeds to the hiring of private police to patrol the neighborhood. …whole subdivisions, entire condominium developments, or apartment complexes protected from the outside world by armed guards or electronic security. (Leo, 1997)

Secondarily, Davis has described an even more sinister agenda–the privatization of public space within the urban field of expansion. The shopping mall as panopticon prison. A consumer habitat–antiseptic, standardized and policed. Retail sales is, however, an organized business and and this type of purposefulness is largely what consumers have come to expect from from the brand-name establishment. Even the general store and the early department store were streamlined spaces, designed for maximum display and the swift and effective circulation of potential purchasers and so in effect were also highly controlled environments.

As the previous sections have illustrated, the requirements of defense and control in the city are most definitely not recent phenomena. What is important in the general pattern of social change in the post-modern period is a renewed sense of class polarization and spatial apartheid. The social divisions of the gated community and the fortress-mall now have a seriously economic edge and create a decisive link between private investment and physical security. Yet the obvious result is still a cityscape of walls.

Having reviewed the successive developments of the walled city, the next section returns to the the example of Belfast and the peacelines to draw comparisons with those historical stages and the previously discussed sociological theories used to represent the city.

3.3 The Example of Belfast


In light of the above discussion of sociological representations of the city and the historical development of walled cities, an explanation is in order to reconnect with the topic of the study–urban borders and the case of Belfast’s peacelines. The following section reviews the sociological theories and how they bear on the issues of social boundaries and built barriers in Belfast. In conclusion, comparisons are made with the historical phases of development of the walled city and the example of Belfast.

The Rural-Urban Contrast

Although it would appear that early, and now outmoded, theories would have little to lend to a contemporary urban sociological study, there are in fact some ideas which still have a bearing on the example of “divided” Belfast. To begin with, the tendency of initial theorization to highlight the tension between the city and the countryside, and thus between urban social relations and community-based associations, can be applied to Belfast in two ways. FIrst, that Belfast is situated in a predominately rural regional setting. This has been the case historically, despite some urban saturation along the Belfast-Lisburn and Belfast-Ballymena routes, and remains so today (Jones, 1952; Buchanan, 1987). Secondly, the concept of the urban village with its closer kinship ties and neighborhood affiliation is still largely the case for inner-city Belfast (McNamee and Lovett, 1987) and, more to the point, is especially applicable for the example of the peaceline and interface areas. The rural-urban contrast then is an enduring model and can continue to be used for the case of Belfast.

The Structured City

There are other considerations to take into account with specific regard to social and physical divisions in the city. Simmel’s theory of external forces and human adaptation, while arguing for the structurally determinate city and the passively receptive urban resident, applies to this case nevertheless because it still manages to make a strong link between psychological and physical conditions. Cities constitute a socially defined environment that contributes to individual decision-making and those choices in turn shape the environment–agency can still exist here. In Belfast particularly, where the shape and content of the city has experienced radical change from both above and below, there is an overwhelming presence of this mix of influence. The peaceline system of implementation, which combines local and governmental input, is a prime example.

Likewise, land and labor issues of territory and competition can be set against Weber’s theory of civic identity which posits a new set of social relations based on the interests and investments of the economy and politics. The precise analogy here in the case of a divided city is more complicated than Weber set out to describe–a situation made more difficult in Belfast by disenfranchisement and discrimination–and would thus only partially support the character of Belfast’s population set amidst religious sectarianism and the hotly contested national question. In any case, that dynamic of social division, which includes disorder and dissent, can still be understood through Weber’s conceptualization of identity formation in the city–albeit with challenging affiliations and group convictions. The peaceline areas would be considered by most to represent the extremes of territory and working-class identity in the split issue of Unionism and Nationalism.

The Ecological City

There is also much that can still be said for Wirth’s ecological factors of size, density and heterogeneity in relation to Belfast’s growth rate. These patterns of segmentation and specialization continue to be an enduring feature of urban space and social roles here. As Jones mentioned in The Social Geography of Belfast (1960), Burgess' theory of ecological segmentation can still be used a s a comparison for greater Belfast and in particular the model of a “zone of decay” closely resembles the conditions of West Belfast (1960: 199). Factors of religious distribution and social rank, the related type and evolution of certain sectors, and the inter-spatial relations of these sectors with one another follow the concentric zone theory too (1960: 204). The persistent historical and environmental character of Belfast has in many ways withstood the weakening of urban ecological theory and maintained that sense of rational order.

An ecological explanation of spatial distribution remains a meaningful concept for understanding the social geography of Belfast, but it is not without its problems. While each zone is defined by its internal homogeneity, the city on a whole is predicated on heterogeneity–a problem for the divided city which conveniently bisects. In addition, social organization in this context depends on culture as mechanisms of integration–mass culture, media, and urban politics–and is further predicated on a system of communication, consensus and cooperation. Such an understanding would fall short of explaining the dual forces of marginalization and connectivity in a state of division. However one can still learn from Park’s idea of natural areas and Burgess’ very accurate concepts of invasion, domination and succession which form locations and characterize stages of change through pressure. This social and physical dynamic plays out in Belfast’s segregated space in terms of residence, competition for territory, local loyalty and community ties based on area, scale of neighborhood and repetition of contact.

The Networked City
Interestingly enough, it seems that a model of social networks has the least to offer the example of divided Belfast. This research agenda promotes the idea that community is not a “place”–an opinion that seriously contradicts a socio-geographic conception of the city and the peaceline areas. In a mental image of a social network, the range of contact and influence is generated from the individual and radiates out of that “egocentric” structure to connect with other individuals and sets of relationships across, and regardless of, space. This social life is independent, intricate and multiple–a variety of which is rarely observed in greater Belfast and most certainly not in the interface areas. Such a theory could seriously compromise the basis of community identity and territory in peaceline areas. Seen in a more positive light though, network theories could raise new questions about relations in a divided city. For instance, are there extra spatial features to Belfast? Are there individual-to-individual relations that contradict predominately sectarian society? Are there connections which transcend the rather dense and closely circumscribed peaceline areas? This line of inquiry could lead to important exceptions to the rules of sectarian society and segregated space–furthermore, it can be used to “test” those ideas.

Change in the City

The previous discussion has made an argument for the case of Belfast having somehow resisted the paradigm shift in urban sociology. Yet it is clear in the literature on modern urban centers that a divided city is considered unique in its historiography and sociological conception. However, Belfast as a case study can be regarded as one that aligns closely with the modern trends of the technological advance of industrialism and the economic progress of capitalism. Only in its divided state and in direct relation to the peacelines is the city disconnected from that general pattern of social change and dominant historical narrative. Given that fact, there are very particular processes and space-specific characteristics present in the example of Belfast. It is for this reason then that the more recent debates in urban sociology surrounding the issues of structure and agency can be convincingly applied to it.

It was determined in the previous section on the problematic that historical studies and sociological interpretations fail to recognize the exact process by which the peacelines came to be built and continue to be maintained. As such, causation is attributed to aberrant social conflict and speedy government intervention, i.e. acts of disorder and responsive efforts to reestablish order. From there on the matter of the peacelines is effectively dropped. In a more in-depth analysis–one that looks at locally-induced factors and deliberate action on the part of the local population–it becomes apparent that the peacelines are really less a matter of authorized partition and a condition of urban pathology. Instead, the concepts of locality and agency assist in an expanded interpretation of strategies of resistance and alternate forms of accommodation.

In this study it is not argued that there is a clear cut division between the two theoretical schools of thought of structure and agency–that there is only one choice to be made between the fixed product of deterministic forces and mediated agential force–but rather that a more flexible model is available and can facilitate an analysis of divided Belfast and the peacelines.

Comparative Phases

The example of Belfast connects to the major historical trends of the walled city and displays striking similarities in its social and physical traits. For instance, the earliest evidence of settlement and architecture found in Ireland reflects the need for both enclosure and defense. The island is literally dotted with ring-forts, in a myriad of shapes and styles, and a huge archaeological heritage industry has been created from these remains. However, it has been suggested that the entire growth scheme of urban centers on the island can be attributed to the development of garrison settlements by invading and competitive groups. Following the trend in the plantation of Ulster, Belfast was established in that network of fortifications as a corporate borough and chartered city which utilized a wall to protect its municipal investments and the population.

In the modern period further relationships can also be established. For instance,through the ghettoization phase in the nineteenth century there was a comparable growth in the creation of the Falls/Shankill mill complex and the subsequent segregated populating of that industrial wedge along the main flanking arterial routes radiating out from the city center. This crucial distance of working-class from the administrative center is a result of both available and proximate space, but also the product of key reorganization strategies of slum clearances. Over time the initial cultural boundaries established in the city made an analogous transition to political divisions on a national scale much like other divided cities in the post-war period. Like in Berlin, Jerusalem and Nicosia, permanent walls were installed in Belfast between rival groups following armed conflict. One can also see the corresponding changes in the urban plan as a part of population shifts and redevelopment programs during the post-modern phase. The cul-de-sac estates which form the peaceline areas resemble in many ways the physical and social structure of the gated community. Likewise, the non-residential and heavily guarded commercial space of the city center finds a parallel in the secured and surveilled fortress-mall.

A Final Question

If it is the case then that sociological representations of the city can duly explain the circumstances of social and physical division in Belfast and that Belfast follows the historical pattern of most western cities in their early, modern and post-modern conditions, then it needs to be asked why this “divided city” and its peacelines are either neglected or given uncertain evaluations–and thus is relegated to exist in an academic limbo. If Belfast’s peacelines are cast in this light, it is no longer possible to avoid an in-depth analysis nor elude evaluation and explanation. The next section describes the way in which the research is conducted in order to achieve that objective.

4.0 The Research Design


The proposal began with the problematic of “divided” Belfast and pinpointed the need for an expanded understanding of historical causation and an extended sociological interpretation of the peacelines. Chapter two looked at the dynamic of social and physical division in a city in an urban-sociological context and reviewed the particulars of the case of Belfast within that frame of reference. In the following chapter the research design of the study is discussed in terms of the chosen analytical framework, method, and key sources.

The first section looks at the way in which a revised view of urban borders can address the example of the peacelines in terms of design and social space. The method section indicates the kind of evidence that is used in the application phase of the study. The literature review section designates and evaluates related research which supports the theorization of the study. The research design refers back to the objectives of the study and attempts to draw up a viable work plan which can sufficiently meet those research goals.

4.1 The Analytical Framework


This research project examines the physical and social geography of Belfast–a city divided in both its urban layout and population. The study explores the historical development and the patterns of change in this city, in terms of its urban planning and social composition, but pays special attention to the creation of physical borders in that urban setting–in particular the peacelines.

A focus on such divisions entails an analysis of both the social construction of segregated space and the actual design of the material environment. Following these considerations, it is necessary to examine the transition that has occurred from social boundaries to built barriers in this case. For this reason, the study uses a socio-historical framework of analysis to analyze the cumulative effect of division in which the influence of formal and social characteristics–referred to here as design and social space–are considered in tandem at each stage in the development of Belfast. The study contends that a mutual impact exists between those elements in that the present state of the city was formed over time by both the organizing principles of municipal planning efforts and spatial conditioning as a result of local level social practice.

Planning Policy and Social Practice

The analytical framework employed for this study is based on the idea that there are two modes of shaping the urban environment: authorized planning and local level use and modification. Examples of the first would follow municipal investments like housing, road works and urban renewal projects, or would incorporate state-organized efforts like security installations and defensive planning schemes. Examples of the second would involve decision-making on an individual or group basis, i.e. choices of residence, voluntary activities, commercial area, and the transportation routes to arrive at all of the above. Modification would also include more grass-roots effort at changing the city, such as the erection of barricades or the painting of murals and graffiti slogans.

The factors of planning policy and social practice are found manifest in the design and reflected in the social space of the city. The stages of influence can overlap, and even coincide, with the result impacting on the recurrent development of that design and social space construction. The causal argument to be made is that this comprehensive process of forming the city is not exclusive to either authority or community action, but instead combines to a mutual set of productive contingencies.

The shape of Belfast city is clearly a product of both modes of influence. As examined earlier, the literature tends to privilege authoritative versions. In order to better address that mix, this study engages the analytical model of structure and agency in an urban setting to expand both a general understanding of a “divided city” and the specific interpretation of the circumstances of division in Belfast. Conceptualizing urban borders in this way can lead to a clarification of the often misunderstood example of the peacelines. The investigation of both structural and agential influences in that setting can go some way toward understanding the complex interaction of both institutions and local communities. In addition, such an examination can also help to explain the result of this type of interaction in the designed space of the city.

A Definition of Design

As a point of departure, the idea of design is to be understood not necessarily as the aesthetic composition or shaping of physical objects, but as the intentional act of forming both structures and schemes towards an end. To further elucidate this point it is helpful to borrow the following working definition of design as

the conception and planning of the artificial, that broad domain of human made products which includes: material objects, visual and verbal communications, organized activities and services, and complex systems and environments for living, working, playing, and learning. (Margolin, 1995: 13)

Such a definition makes clear that the emphasis is not only in the outline and the manufacture, but in the use and result of the thing or the system.

Design by its very nature is in a process of perpetual invention, but it suits the objectives of this study to regard it rightly as both a far-reaching, organizing principle of social life and a direct physical manifestation of that social system. If design is considered from an “enlarged conception of the artificial” (Margolin, 1995) and is in no way seen as arbitrary, or as a natural state of being for society, then it is apparent that it is at the heart of many social analyses.

The connection between design and the social sciences has a long shared history, but it is an account that is usually found piecemeal in the literature. Curriculum studies in design education have for some time emphasized the importance of incorporating social science methodology as a component of professional training in the allied fields of design (Zeisel, 1975; Lauber, 1989; Salmon and Gritzer, 1992). Design has also rightly deserved mention in key sociological texts: through environmental forces and institutionalization (Simmel, 1901; Weber, 1921); in the meaning of artifacts (Park, 1925); as a part of the physical description of socially significant places in many community studies (Whyte, 1943; Gans, 1962); and the production and consumption of material culture (Bourdieu, 1984). The relationship of design and the social sciences is often described in parallel development. The nature of design as a process of defining problems and conceiving of solutions looks to the contribution of the social sciences to provide the social, economic and cultural setting for the practice. Likewise, the contributory factors of the built environment and manufactured goods present social researchers with a concrete surrounding for their analysis of spatial organization and social interaction.

Using design as a lens for a historical and sociological analysis is not without problems of its own. It should be noted that many critiques of design are predicated on a criteria of aesthetic achievement and quality of manufacture, which produces a progressive tone that intellectually conditions one to think of the material world in terms of “good” and “bad” design. That standard of appreciation transfers to both economic and ideological conceptions of urban space, and disregards alternate or negative factors that might corrupt the “success story” of a modern city. Aesthetic evaluation alone is thus quite similar to a social theory of the city which relies on the very same modernist paradigm. Yet binary concepts of design and the city still combine to form the totality of the organized space–the polarity of good and bad design and the utopic and dystopic city. Instead of limiting the analysis then, the city is regarded as a more holistic entity.

The idea of design as a social and environmental system, if treated properly, can broaden the terms of discussion for the shaping of a city and, in particular, can allow for moments of both structure and agency in that formation.

Design and Social Space

A treatment of design and social space looks at both the physical and social geography of the city as parallel and mutually reinforcing elements. This type of approach necessarily incorporates a claim–that a reciprocal relationship exists between design and society. Operating in combination, the relationship of design and society closely resembles the paradigm of agency and structure. In much the same way that structure is conceived in a historio-sociological framework as an ordered and recurring pattern of relationships, design is understood in this context as planned and stable spatial organization–if not strictly determined, then at the very least, strongly guided. Agency, in contrast, involves conscious intention on the part of an individual, group or organization to initiate a new interaction or level of independence in an established network of social relations. Agency translates for design as a number of gestures that can modify or radically change planned space.

The use of a historical and sociological method in this context overlaps the theoretical issues of design and social space and requires that they be taken up in two stages. In the first case, the historical origins and development of the urban plan are examined. The city is “typed” according to the particular topographic and geographic circumstances that might have initially determined part of its pattern of growth. It is also necessary to account for a variety of external features that contribute to that progress, such as a rerouting of trade corridors or foreign investment. In the second stage, the people that reside in the city are described as groups in order to understand the sociological composition of that community. An outline of identity categories is sketched, according to class, religion, gender, etc., based on the general makeup of the urban population and patterns of immigration and emigration. Taken together, the two factors of design and social space set the conditions for the place and make it possible to establish patterns of change over time.

Causation and Process

An important point complicates traditional resolutions of specific cause and effect situations for divided cities. In order to grasp the overall circumstances under which a divided city has developed as both a material and social site, it is important to admit that the social structure was somehow separately composed prior to any accepted date of physical division. Foremost, this calls into question the idea of a previous unity or formerly shared area and demands a clearer understanding of process. Process in this case avoids causality as oversimplified oppositional categories of identity. Attention to process also resists an end effect that is understood as a top-down political solution of arbitrary partition and an institutional triage-based directive of military border maintenance. Instead, the city must be reviewed according to a more complicated, and thereby more inclusive, series of changes. This approach necessarily demands both a historical and sociological treatment, in that the conditions of a divided city are a cumulative product of difference and an existing state of ongoing conflict.

Causation is challenged in this case by questioning the sequence of events that are tied to structural and agential properties, and asking additionally which specific design features and exact social gestures precipitate those occurrences. This study contends that local social actors have determined their space long in advance of actual material division. Such decisions are made by individuals and groups and occur in everyday life such as work, shopping, and leisure pursuits. This peculiar type of social order disintegrates only when that conceptual mapping loses its meaning–when a threat exists to erase or absorb the inured distinction. Thus, an entrenched, yet functional, oppositional arrangement resorts to confrontational logic and becomes armed and violent. Outside intervention is sought and “newly” authorized limits are installed to keep the groups apart. However, walls merely serve to reinstate a prior order, they do not supersede it. In addition, they follow the existing boundaries.

What happens to a divided city in terms of process is a curious mixture of action and reaction that alters conventional cause and effect. This course occurs as a series of events, over a longer period of time than usually detailed by other studies, and concerns itself with both the structural and agential properties of the city plan and social relations (see figure 6, next page). For instance, in a top-down scheme the urban plan is embedded and can be considered design by committee insofar as a number of institutions are responsible for its ongoing development and present outcome. Governments–whether local, national or international–monitor this space with the aid of security and military forces. Both of these structural features represent an existing state of power and order in a city. In a bottom-up scheme, that same city is inhabited by actors who possess a fluid conceptual mapping and a personal logic of the urban plan. Individual or group efforts create ways and means that delimit their space within the above mentioned structural constraints. These features of agency represent a power-play and a move toward reorder. Importantly, both structural and agential efforts converge at defined points–that is to say at urban borders.

Urban Borders

In a divided city, the nexus of social relationships between communities occurs at borders–understood here as both cognitive and built divides. These lines act as contiguous, yet imbricated, points in the design and social space of the city. Such borders can be located as a distinct position of convergence in the plan or can be recognized apart from a specific locality in the way individuals or groups experience a chance encounter. These physical sites and social meeting points represent at once shared and contested spaces. Prior to structural division, however, that space is moderately flexible in that it can accommodate a number of transgressions by discordant groups. Appropriate rules of territory are established and adhered to by way of tacit agreements–a social contract of sorts that permits limited conflict but allows for the possibility of resolution. Segregation is simply a way of life.

Partition eliminates that previous state of resilience–urban development and spheres of activity are secured to either side of the divide. Subsequently, and in its de facto divided state, the design and social space of the city undergo a paradoxical transformation in that they display patterns of both disruption and stability. The conditions of the built environment and the social make up of that area are alternately disturbed and maintained–there is a type of arrested development in the plan and in the behavior of the community and, at the same time, a redirected growth of the city and a solidification of group identity.

With regard to changes in design, space is altered in each situation from its original purpose and intent to accommodate a border. That alteration subsequently effects the landscape and produces a series of features that are unique to the situation. The by-products of division take shape in the physical environment in two ways–both spatially and visually. First they materialize as dead spaces, no-go zones, and militarized or policed areas. Secondly, those spaces are further represented by an apparatus of objects and markings. These things can be of an official nature–such as signs, banners, and flags–or can be of a grassroots nature–that is graffiti, murals, memorial wreaths and plaques. The border signifies change and yet remains static. It becomes a point of reference in two ways, as a geographical marker that newly delimits the city and redirects its flow, and as a symbolic site that is always reminiscent of its previous “whole” state.
The above described changes in design have a direct impact on the social space. Whether in disuse or reuse, the original purpose and employment of space is displaced and the community changes as a result through displacement of another kind–the redistribution of the population and the restructuring of life. These factors determine group alignment within the community in a renewed and concentrated sense and these attitudes subsequently reinforce the division. As a result, segregation is no longer a matter of choice. Walls obstruct the city plan from developing as a whole and block further community action and interaction.

The social phenomenon that occurs in terms of the physical environment and social attitudes is what this study describes as a dynamic of voluntary segregation and design opportunity. That is to say, it is both a perceived requirement of a group(s) to live amongst their own and a physical possibility inherent in the city plan to make such territorial claims. Belfast displays this dual pattern in a variety of compelling ways. This study explores the set of conditions that determine the nature of both material and social space in this city. These conditions are reviewed to assess the type and degree of interaction between groups before physical division and the process by which built borders later effect communities and individuals.

Structure and Agency in Belfast

A focus on agential features in the development of the peacelines necessitates a revised understanding of accepted historical accounts and sociological interpretations of Belfast. For instance, while general history is usually explained through social, political and economic change–which naturally leads to shifts in population composition and increases in number, new municipal policy and ongoing urban development–a conventional interpretation of key events directly involving city residents tends to regard these incidents as occurring within the above structures and does not necessarily see individuals or groups as playing an active part in this history. This study goes further to ask at each of the acknowledged turns in Belfast’s history whether area residents contributed to that change or likewise whether specific local response to a structural change helped to alter subsequent events.

In order to describe the physical and social divisions in Belfast, it is necessary to note both the formal and informal circumstances under which the city is divided, and to understand to what degree that division effects everyday life there. At the onset, two important factors can illustrate the role of agency in the history of divided Belfast and in the shaping of life there–the two co-existing processes of sectarianism and segregation. Sectarianism, as a social process of religious difference and limited interaction, can be found to manifest itself in a spatial process of segregation–leading to a materialized and quantifiable division in housing, education and employment. Each of these formal aspects of the social divide can be located in the physical geography of Belfast via the distribution of neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. This urban structure is further supported by an assortment of active social groupings, an informal network of social actions, and an apparatus of objects and markings–what is termed in this study as parties, paths and props.

Parties, Paths and Props

In an attempt to understand the design and social space of Belfast, three key operational definitions are used to classify the overall social structure and physical plan of the city. These terms create the main categories by which the city is inter-relationally shaped through identities and investments, directions and decision-making, and coded symbols and edifices–that is to say via key groups, routes and objects (see figure 7, next page). Each category includes both structural and agential features and overlaps to a degree to form both authorized and locally produced space. The design and social space of the city is a system of multiple construction–one that utilizes existing natural frontiers, optimizes social boundaries and creates man-made barriers, but in turn is further formed by those features.

Parties are defined as the selective groupings of people who share cultural values and political views with regard to the city and within the space of the city. Such a cooperative view would combine to organize exclusive design and social space agendas in terms of territory and resources. Paths are understood as the courses of action that take place in both a spatial and a temporal order in the city. This circuit includes travel of both ordinary types, such as work and leisure time routes, and ritualized practices such as the tradition of parading and communal rioting. Props are defined as gestures, both physical and visual, that primarily result in a material form, that is to say structures and artifacts such as barricades and roadblocks, murals and graffiti, or badges and clothing.

In each case, parties, paths and props serve to delineate the identity formation, physical territorialization and conceptual mapping of the social processes of sectarianism and segregation in Belfast. Parties, paths and props also assist the study in understanding agency by illustrating social and spatial decision-making as it is guided by collective understanding yet ultimately relies on individual choice.


The analytical framework of design and social space promotes the idea of a mutual relationship between society and the built environment. In this way the peacelines can be analyzed from a position that engages the total population and the space of the city and not as it were from a viewpoint which is partial and disconnected. The operational terms of parties, paths and props substantiate that claim through the comprehensive and delineated space of structure and action. The results of such a study not only add to our knowledge of Belfast, but promote a more in-depth understanding of the processes involved in the “making” of such a place–and hence entail the telling of a more balanced and nuanced history of Belfast’s peacelines.

In the next section, the method employed for this type of study is outlined and discussed.

4.2 A Discussion of Method


By virtue of the fact that this research project seeks to integrate both historical and urban sociological method, this analysis is best served by both intensive study and direct contact–a combined effort of archival research and ethnographic fieldwork. For this reason, documentary analysis is used in tandem with participant observation and unstructured interviews. This type of approach attempts to ensure both historical accuracy and the validity of contemporary opinion with regard to Belfast’s past and present state as a divided city and inclusive of its peacelines.
As mentioned in the first introduction, the method employed for this study is based on the idea that there are two modes of understanding the urban environment: from first-hand and secondary experience. That includes a resident’s intimate knowledge and a visitor’s external opinion. Those two aspects combine to form an idea and an image of place. Therefore it is not only necessary to define the city as an urban sociological and historical concept from secondary sources, but it is equally important to depict it from primary material and participation. For this reason, description and visuals are used to account for the social and physical divisions in Belfast and in order to effectively narrate and illustrate the peaceline scene.

Some Initial Points on Data Collection

Bearing that approach in mind, it is important to note that while the quantitative data of statistics and records are required to describe the city from a factual and non-interpretive standpoint, a more essential component of this study is to conceive of the city as a multiply constructed social reality–the city as a set of relations and as both a produced and consumed environment of cultural artifacts and meaning. This of course requires the “hard data” of area and groups profiles, which are generally used in an urban study, but also necessitates more serious qualitative fieldwork–an effort that entails a more interpretive level of analysis. In the final course of the research period both quantitative and qualitative findings are compared on a regular and consistent basis. With this method of triangulation, of testing both the numbers and impressions, the study is controlled in a way that should prevent the unfortunate academic predicaments of either dry factual detail or runaway romantic emotions. So, while existing quantitative research is referenced for each time period when necessary, this study looks ultimately toward a more qualitative assessment of spatial and social conditions in Belfast over time.

This decision with regard to method is an important one and hence needs further clarification, if only for the sake of argument. One could easily form a working hypothesis with the dependent variable as a “divided society” and the independent variables of religion, ethnicity and class–each providing ample evidence of covariance with degrees of sectarianism and levels of segregation in that divided space. The findings of such a study would surely demonstrate a neat and tidy causal inference. However, it is the opinion of this study that the city of Belfast at this time would not be better understood through numbers–in addition to the fact that “it’s been done” and, in many ways, continues to be periodically redone in the form of Northern Ireland Social Attitude Survey and the annual census reports. Furthermore, this type of method would bring little to bear on the matter of the peacelines. For this reason, another approach is used.

A Design and Social Space Approach

Most urban researchers would agree that cities are, in essence, buildings and people. This study agrees with that proposition, yet adds to that idea the point that neither property is fixed in space, but exists instead as a malleable entity and population. A city is defined in many ways by the mutual relationship of the two–the give and take of things and bodies. A city, therefore, is a place of action and such reciprocal interplay is examined to identify the principal characteristics of the physical environment and the behavior of city residents. It is for this reason that the operational definitions of parties, paths and props are considered the three most important traits in this realm of action and subsequently function as the decisive factors in the design and social space of Belfast.

Statistics can clearly support the early phase of the research and writing, in which a structural and objective reality in Belfast is established–via proven measured relations and distributions, and well-tried sequences of events. However, the type of evidence present in the factors of parties, paths and props–the subjective reality of Belfast, which entails moments of agency–is simply not testable in the same way. Nor does such evidence depend entirely on fixed laws of causation that need to conform to a positivist method of explanation and process of validation. Instead, it relies more on a phenomenological interpretation in order for the city to be fully realized as a a system of meaning and practical reasoning that results in both a set of negotiated social interactions and a variety of materialized forms.

Documentary Analysis

The archival phase of the research entails the use of both primary material and secondary sources. With regard to the latter, this has meant, in short, reading all available material there is to be had on Belfast and the conflict in Northern Ireland as it relates to its capital city and the peacelines. This task has been made more manageable by narrowed searches of the indices and bibliographies for the following specific key terms: segregation, residential segregation, housing, urban planning, social geography, sectarian conflicts, riots, barricades, peacelines, murals, etc. With that accomplished, there is now a fuller conception of the body of literature that exists in this context and a clearer view toward which sources are needed to reference. The material is grouped into three categories of documents–those that are maintained by official record-keepers, quasi-official agencies, and unofficial groups and individuals.

Official Sources

In the first category, reference is made to government and state security agencies, the main ones being the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and the Department of Environment (DOE). Some of these official documents include: publications of the Housing Executive, such as the annual reports, but in particular any information on the peacelines and related issues; the General Register Office’s census reports and census data tables of statistics; the DOE's planning proposals and Urban Area Plan; the reports of the “Making Belfast Work Program” of the N.I. Information Service; the reports of the Scarman and Cameron Inquiries from 1969; and finally any relevant police and army reports. Less formally, but still authoritative, are publications from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), which portray an approved image of Belfast and thus exemplify official policy internally and abroad.

Quasi-official Sources

Documents from quasi-official sources include the following independent reports from the design industry: the Building Design Partnership’s work on the Belfast Urban Area Plan, Project Team’s work on the Belfast Areas of Special Social Need, and the Environmental Design Consultants’ Belfast Peaceline Study. This list of sources also includes past and contemporary news accounts from the main local papers The Belfast Telegraph, The Irish News,The Belfast Newsletter; other local dailys that have since gone out of circulation and additionally relevant periodical articles. Travel guides which detail alternate itineraries through the city, and thus differ greatly from sanctioned NITB routes, are also used here. Publications of local political parties and neighborhood associations, such as community centers and district councils, are also included in this category.

Unofficial Sources

Unofficial documents consist of published or collected biographic, documentary and even fictional accounts. Some titles are oral histories and diaries, citizen defense committee communiques,1 and small press accounts from urban redevelopment protest groups. Included in this group is the host of novels and poetry which describe Belfast and refer to its social divisions from individual literary standpoints. Non-fiction titles from travel writers and journalists come under this category as well. Each of these latter examples incorporate at least a paragraph description of the city to establish the “setting”. These characterizations reveal both the surroundings and sentiments and are particularly fascinating in comparison.

Most, if not all, of the above listed material is located within Belfast at the Queen’s University Main and Science Libraries, the Political Collection at the Linenhall Library, the Belfast Public Library system, and the Northern Ireland Public Records Office (NIPRO). In the event that a particular unofficial document proves difficult to find, further inquiries are made at local cultural centers, churches and parish centers, or at political offices. In total this material has created the context in which to understand the dynamic of society in Belfast and to theorize the social and physical divisions there.

The Merit of Maps and Visuals

Documentary analysis in this case also involves reviewing other non-textual print material. Visual representations of Belfast depict not only the objective physical space of the city, but a perspective of place as understood by the author or agency involved in that representation. In this way, an image of Belfast is transmitted via either a documentary or fictional likeness–one that further contributes to internal and external interpretations of the city.2 For instance, the recurring media image of war-torn West Belfast3 can be compared to postcards of the “tourist city” which depict a series of approved locations. Such a comparison reveals a great deal about the divergent views in Belfast and thus the multiple realities of physical space in this divided city.

Relevant maps and photographic documentation of key areas of the urban plan bring to light the subtle and overt changes that have occurred over time in the city. Comparisons are made to the present plan of Belfast and cross-referenced to key events. These documents exhibit the extent to which the peaceline areas were formerly composed as separate or combined entities–in some cases as long-term divisions and in others as newly formed frontiers. Official maps and photos are also a good counter-point to the quasi- and unofficial subjective realities of Belfast as they are written in individual and group histories or represented through the voice of murals and graffiti. A good example of this contrast is the way in which the peacelines, or for that matter the Westlink roadway, are described as having crudely fragmented the configuration of the city. In some cases, maps and photos disclose the way in which the walls are in fact positioned within an already riven space and as such have taken their place rather seamlessly on the course of a long-standing buffered line.

The inconsistencies in maps are of particular interest to this study as the peacelines are not indicated on official diagrams of the city, like the Streetfinder and the Gazetteer. This fact is attributed to both common sense knowledge of the city and to the wider mind set of avoidance in relation to the walls–an interesting fact in either case. The so-called British Army Tribal Map, used initially in 1969 and refined over the years of the Troubles, is also found to be inconsistent in its coverage. This document actually purports to depict the social geography of Belfast through color overlays, which signify the Protestant, Catholic and Neutral areas–shown respectively as orange, green and yellow. However, in an effort to display distinct areas, a large part of the city is erroneously shown to be under the influence of these categories, i.e. vast tracts of void space are shown to be “religious” and several key interface areas are recorded as neutral. In addition, the peacelines are entered by hand with a black marker (!) even though they are long-standing features on the map.

The preceding examples are just a small indication of the merit of maps and visuals in understanding the image of Belfast and its peacelines and, moreover, how much can really be read from the landscape of the city.


The ethnographic phase of the research employs participant observation, informal interviews, and personal photographic and design work.4 Because I have had the opportunity to live in Belfast and study at Queen’s for an extended period of time, this has allowed for a more in-depth analysis in that I have been in the very fortunate position to evaluate the conditions of the city first-hand as they are represented in the built environment and voiced as local sentiment. In particular, I have been able to observe historical changes as they occur in the city–in seeing how the Peace Process has unfolded in the past 20 months in Belfast and how peacelines have continued to be modified and built in the course of that time.

I conduct physical reconnaissance tours in the style of many urban studies of the total area of the city, however special effort has been made to associate myself with the peaceline areas of working-class Belfast. In becoming familiar with the city, I better understand the mass of secondary sources I have read and the primary documents I have reviewed. At the same time, I have begun to understand the composition of the population through steady exposure and ongoing social contact.


In the process of the fieldwork, I am able to continually refine the needs of the archival part of the research design. As each new piece of information is recorded–heard, overheard or otherwise observed–I cross-reference both the chronological listings of the primary sources and the analytical frameworks of the secondary sources. In many ways then, the study has evolved inductively from my combined experience in the field and in the archive. Patterns of development in design and habit in social space are noticed during both my “walks” in the city and time in the library. This contact to place and events has coalesced to form the core of the research problem–the type of questions I am asking and the form of analysis that I am proposing to undertake to answer them.

Reading about the city is only one way to go about a process of learning. Moving about the city is a history lesson in itself as the plan is inscribed with the actions of the past. There are of course the obvious examples of prominent civic edifices, but there are also those that are partially hidden, such as a simple dated cornerstone or memorial plaque which allude to another presence and influence in the area. The continuity of history displays itself in contemporary Belfast as well, through overt, and usually provocative, displays of political allegiance. Murals, curb-painting and flags demarcate corresponding territory, yet this type of boundary-drawing occurs as smaller domestic gestures also, like window sill ornamentation, or personal items of clothing, such as a sports jersey. Each of these artifacts, the bold and the subtle, function as key indicators of division in the designed and social space of the city.

The important “facts” of urban history are also embellished by critical personal anecdote. This type of information can be acquired in chance encounters with residents or can be had from the kind of repeat performance of a city tour. A number of tours of Belfast are given by both official and unofficial groups. Citybus runs the popular “Living History” tour which is comprehensive in that it includes East and West Belfast, walking tours by the NITB detail the circumscribed space of the city center, and the shared black-taxi association tours cover the dedicated routes of the Falls and Shankill Roads. Apart from the Citybus tour, which is meant to cross the boundaries, these tours confine themselves to the divided space of the city. In any case, I never cease to be amazed by the remarkable facility for recall that Belfast people possess, whether scripted or improvised. The rather telling aspect of this trait is that while the city and population appears to be divided, it is still inextricably interconnected as a part of these narratives.


The process of fieldwork has been greatly facilitated by contact with individuals and organizations in Belfast. I have interviewed the key agencies and personalities involved with the peacelines and have resided with families in interface areas. This type of access to organizations and individuals has been without a doubt an unparalleled and rewarding aspect of the research experience. In conversations with local residents I am able to gauge social attitude toward the peacelines, as well as to ascertain both the positive and negative effect the walls have had on the residential areas. This kind of information is vital to a broader understanding of “life on the interface” and a key contribution to an expanded interpretation of the peacelines.

The mechanisms of the peaceline system are quite coordinated and yet, at the same time, rather ad hoc. Key figures in the following agencies have elaborated on that complicated process: a spokesperson for the Security Policy & Operations Division of the Northern Ireland Office; an RUC sergeant in charge of peaceline policy in North Belfast; an NIO civil representative, who acts as a liaison officer between the security forces and the local community; a designer in the department of Programme Planning in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive; press officers for Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP); and community activists from interface areas. These initial interview sessions were quite difficult to come by and usually got off to a slow start. Levels of suspicion run high with regard to “security issues” and the general disposition of aloofness towards the peacelines was also in evidence. I found though, that once under way, the interviewee relaxed and even took to their topic. This also led to a number of other contacts being provided and pursued.

The numerous peaceline policies that I encountered in these meetings attests to both a consent and an agreed upon means by the agencies and individuals involved, but does not always coordinate to purpose and ultimate application. This is a particularly fascinating part of the peaceline process, especially in terms of unintended uses. The walls serve society in a number of ways and these multiple circumstances.

Photographic and Design Work

An important component of this research project is tied to my background as a graphic designer and photographer. I have a vested interest in not only describing the historical and existing conditions of Belfast’s peacelines, but in depicting these unusual locations as well (see appendix B). I approach this in three ways, with a dual image series of the peacelines, a comparison series of artifacts, and location maps. Each sequence shows the complex arrangement of parties, paths and props in the designed and social space of the city.

The peacelines are usually photographed in part and in isolation. The series that I have documented captures them in their totality and duality by showing the entire length and both sides of the walls. Due to what I call my “diplomatic immunity”, I am able to access the peaceline areas in a way that is barred, or perceived to be blocked, to the general population. As a complete stranger to these parts, I can move around the peacelines without having either side of the wall determine my position as an insider or outsider in the segregated space of Belfast–or more crudely put as either a Taig or a Prod. The photographs I have taken generate a great deal of interest among people who live in the interface area due to a natural curiosity about the other side–a world I have now made accessible through these images.

The way in which I depict these structures exhibits the striking facts of their position and monumentality. These divisive elements are only one way in which space is delimited–the surrounding areas are further supported in that division with an apparatus of distinctive visual markers. In collecting these examples, however, I have noticed a telling similarity among the assortment of props. This lead to a comparison series which displays that resemblance in a remarkable juxtaposition.

In the location maps, the city is illustrated as an organized network of use and negotiation on and around the peacelines. These maps display concentrations of built space and social activity–diagrams of a merged symbolism and practicality. Examples of such clusters connected along the grid are grouped as: riot sites, RUC stations, and British Army barracks; murals and color displays; churches, schools, hospitals; party offices, lodges, pubs, private clubs, and youth/community centers. These convergences demonstrate the coexistence of planning and social practice that is key to this study. More importantly, however, these combined images show that social practice in a divided city is often formed through common action, and furthermore that while walls divide a space, they are in that act essentially a shared structure.


The dual approach of archival research and ethnographic fieldwork brings together historical and urban sociological methods. This chosen procedure is an integral process in that it both generates the inquiry and produces the evidence needed to support the thesis. The essential argument of the study promotes the idea that the dynamic of division in Belfast, with specific regard to the peacelines, occurs in a dialectical state of difference and commonality–a process of social inclusion and exclusion that causes and is caused by the physical means of barriers and walls. As such, the peacelines are a distinct product of the culture of division.

Through archival material, print documentation and interviews with individuals, I hope to portray a more vivid visual and narrative portrait of the peaceline areas–one that complements the written text and captures a more tangible and immediate sense of place. The ultimate objective of this combined research method is to establish Belfast as material and social entity, to understand it as such in its historical process of transformation, and to finally fix it in our sociological imagination as a discursive space in which people act and create change.

4.3 Literature Review


In this section, key related research is reviewed in order to designate and evaluate the secondary sources of academic literature. A variety of texts are useful in reconstructing a sequence of significant events, determining instrumental social conditions and then building a solid base from which to pursue theoretical points for this study. In order to manage this bulk of material, the main categories are grouped according to the subjects of History, Sociology, and Urban Theory, and are then further subdivided those terms for themes relevant to each field such as cultural practice and production, social space theory and design, and nationalism and state formation. Each group includes both general and specific titles that refer broadly to a thematic issue or to Belfast and the peacelines specifically.


Major works of history are considered not only to grasp the chronology, but to aid in the theorization of alternate cause and effect situations. As such, it is of interest to this study to not only gain a full understanding of the events that occurred in Belfast, but to also assess the telling of that story and the attributed causal factors–that is to critically analyze the historiography as well.

In terms of existing literature, there seems to be no shortage of publications on the state of Northern Ireland nor in studies on the city of Belfast. However, the available information on the more specific aspects of spatial and social division which this study seeks to address–such as urban planning and social relations, sectarianism and segregation–narrows in comparison. Unfortunately the authors of the classic historical works on Belfast (Bardon, 1982, 1996; Barton, 1989; Beckett, 1967, 1983; Benn, 1877; Jones, 1960; Maguire 1993; Munck and Rolston, 1987; and Owens 1921) and those authors who have written books on Northern Ireland (Arthur, 1996; Bardon, 1992; Barton, 1996; Buckland, 1981; Farrell, 1976; Hennessy, 1997; Wichert, 1991), while telling interesting and notable histories, often treat those features of spatial and social division as either accepted facts or foregone conclusions in the sequencing of events. However, they still provide the context for the circumstances in which those traits occur.

In order to better understand the specific events of August 1969, three texts are closely reviewed. Select primary documents like the inquiry reports are included in John Magee’s book Northern Ireland: Crisis and Conflict, in addition to the chapter “Revolution and Change” which describes local level efforts. Max Hastings’ book, Barricades in Belfast: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland (1970), is an eye-witness account of the events leading up to and the through the installation of the peacelines inclusive of the action of the defense committees and their barricades. Politics on the Street: The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland (1990) by Purdie is another example which chronicles formative episodes.

Any analysis of Belfast necessitates both a vertical and telescopic view of the city, the surrounding state structure and the international arena. Tied to the analysis of state formation in an urban context is the level of interaction of external actors in the national and international arenas. The states of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are regarded as contesting parties who are still further represented by the respective international interests of Great Britain. The example of Belfast underscores the complex transition that Europe has experienced, and is currently undergoing, in a post-colonial phase. That aspect necessarily entails a larger perspective–each city being a place that tests the political ties and cultural foundations of the UK. A handful of titles on these international aspects are available to the study, most notably Guelke’s Northern Ireland: The International Perspective (1989), Frank Wright’s Northern Ireland: A Comparative Analysis (1988) and Lustick’s Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland… (1993). Each example helps to set the stage for what transpires on the local level and identifies which extenuating circumstances impact on urban identity and action.

Apart from these direct historical accounts, there are a number of intriguing titles that elucidate the idea of the nation-state and nationalism in a historical context–issues of central importance to an understanding of the combined social and political construction of both the local and national identity of the city inhabitants. These sources include, but are not limited to, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) and Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition and Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990). The value of these texts lies primarily in the attention that each author pays to a more complex process of nation-building and state formation–one that examines the combined concepts of political territoriality and ritualized or institutionalized sets of cultural practices. This provides the crucial link between political identity and daily practice in an urban setting, and particularly in the case of a capital city.

In terms of historiography, Ferdinand Braudel’s essays on history (1980) elucidate theories of time and structure as they relate to sociological analysis. Braudel’s series of three historical levels–events, conjunctures and structure–are able to reach past the surface of political events to reveal and engage the more nuanced effects of collective existence. As such, the cataclysmic, comparative and seemingly inexhaustible permanence of historical action can take its place in a broader social momentum. An understanding of this process can go some way toward detailing the nuanced history of social changes in divided Belfast and in an expanded account of the peacelines.


The conflict in Northern Ireland has generated volumes of dedicated research from the discipline of sociology. Some are comprehensive works such as John Darby’s series of books Conflict in Northern Ireland: The Development of a Polarised Community (1976) and Northern Ireland: The Background to the Conflict (1983), which are useful as introductory titles. Darby has also produced a more relevant and specialized study of local interaction in Intimidation and the Control of Conflict in Northern Ireland (1986). By far the most encompassing book which treats the conflict is the broad survey of research conducted by John Whyte in Interpreting Northern Ireland (1990). This text is a rather nice short-cut to the key issues involved. Several subsequent titles stem from the field of political science, like Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images (1995) McGarry, John, and Brendan O’Leary and the combined efforts of a sociology and politics in Ruane and Todd’s The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict and Emancipation (1996). These are very proactive works in that they focus quite specifically on conflict resolution.

As mentioned earlier, there are handful of community studies which focus on Belfast. Four come from the social sciences: Burton’s Politics of Legitimacy (1978), Sluka’s Hearts and Minds (1989), Feldman’s Formations of Violence (1991), and finally Artexgna’s Shattering Silence (1997). Two other titles are historically derived studies: A Past Apart: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast by A. C. Hepburn (1996) and Ballymurphy and the Irish War by Ciaran DeBaroid (1990). While these works have been considered earlier as having problems in their historical and sociological conception of the peacelines, they are, nevertheless, useful in that they engage urban issues in Belfast.

With regards to texts that can be considered socio-anthropological, there is some overlap of the previous historical sources that look to the state and other works which choose to examine so-called border communities–places that lie on the edge of both political borders and cultural divides. I begin with Henri LeFebvre’s etymological article “Frontiere: The Word and the Concept,” published in A New Kind of History, to conceptualize the origin and meaning of boundaries. Again, this more expansive view towards divisions permits a more nuanced historical and sociological interpretation of the transition from social boundary, to community barricade to state border. That point is pursued further with a series of edited work on borders by Thomas Wilson and Hastings Donnan: Border Approaches: Anthropological Perspectives on Frontiers and Borders; Border Identities: Nation and State at International Frontiers (1998); and Borders: Frontiers of Identity, Nation and State (1999).

Unfortunately, few of the studies on border communities look to the city for examples of such social groupings, concentrating instead on the formation of a cultural and national identity at state borders. Yet this and the other references still offer solid theoretical perspectives and methodological points from which this urban study has learned a great deal in terms of an inter-related sense of social and political belonging. For instance, Wilson and Donnan have also edited the book Irish Urban Cultures (1993), which explores that theme and features an article on Belfast. In addition, Wilson has written the article “Frontiers Go but Boundaries Remain: The Irish Border as a Cultural Divide,” which is especially valuable for its method of experiential description used to lead one through the physical space of the border and ultimately to an understanding of that social divide.

A selection of works are reviewed that treat the culture of division through concepts of community and the symbolic construction of boundaries. Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality (1966) places an emphasis on the everyday aspects of social life and typified social interaction of individuals and groups. A dialect of objective and subjective realities is formed through processes of institutionalization and socialization. The social world is at once an active and created environment in those spheres. Social constructionism thus questions essentialist conceptualizations of society and looks to the social and historical roots of phenomena. In Anthony Cohen's work, The Symbolic Construction of Community (1985), community is expressed as a relational construct in that it explains both the commonality of the group and the distinctive features which separate that group from others. While this being at once similar and different is employed for the most part at times when there is a need to make that distinction and thus called up in situations of opposition. A "sense of discrimination" is interpreted here as a boundary. That contest is located at the point of social interaction in space and the marking of such boundaries can occur through statutory, physical or cultural forms.

Additional texts from the field of sociology are brought in to the study to support an understanding of both cultural practice and production in an urban environment as they relate to identity formation. Of particular interest are studies which attempt to move within or past structuralist formulations of culture and look instead to individual acts of agency and smaller group initiatives. While most of these are rural examples they are still useful in application to an urban setting. Three collections of work worth pursuing for this aspect are Maurice Halbwach’s writings in On Collective Memory (1992), Clifford Geertz’s essays on local culture and cultural systems (1983), and Bourdieu’s articles on culture in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977).

According to Halbwachs, memory possesses a dual quality in that it is not only a direct recollection of the past, but is also a collective tradition informed by knowledge of the present. As a significant event in a community occurs, it takes its place in that society’s system of ideas and evolves in time as a meaningful tenet, precept or symbol. Historical facts and contemporary social thought easily dovetail to express an appropriate and approved collective identity. Identity then is transmitted in a dimension of social action–through both language and gestures, a type of performative storytelling. In that light, Geertz points toward an ethnographic method that allows the interpreter to get to the root of that symbolic construction of the “paradigmatic communicative act” through discriminating observation and the nuanced telling of “thick description.” In a similar fashion, Bourdieu’s intimate description of the detailed use of artifacts in a Kabyle home in Algeria leads us not only through the physical properties of the home but introduces us to the essence of their social life as well.

Because a large portion of social practice and cultural production in cities involves matters of design–that is material objects and visual reproductions which mark off space and indicate variant ideologies–I return to the work of Anderson and Hobsbawm to review their respective nationalist constructs of the Census-Map-Museum and “invented traditions.” In the case of Anderson, a site is sketched via systematic and administrative measures: quantitative documents generalize group membership according to categories; maps depict a cartographic classification of spatial reality; and collections of artifacts and data historically legitimize a valid past and strong lineage. Following that atavistic tendency, Hobsbawm’s idea of secular furniture further illustrates how a variety of civic props and rites–street names, flags, uniforms, monuments, anthems, holidays, festivals and parades–provide the site and its inhabitants or visitors with a solid referential apparatus for orientation.

Two sources available to the study, which already detail the way in which these “things” are employed, is McCartney and Bryson’s Clashing Symbols?: A Report on the Use of Flags, Anthems and other National Symbols in Northern Ireland and Jarman”s Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland. The evidence of the presence and use of such social artifacts in Belfast is overwhelming and deserves serious attention. In order to treat facets of identity formation that fall outside the realm of the state or municipality, a number of works are reviewed to explore more informal grass-roots efforts of the same kind. I am particularly interested in sources which elaborate on the tension between art and politics, although I reinterpret visual representation here as design. One such work that tests the relationship between propaganda and public opinion is Politics and Painting: Murals and Conflict in Northern Ireland by Bill Rolston. Another example is the two part series by Belinda Loftus, Mirrors: William III and Mother Ireland and Mirrors: Orange and Green, which draws comparisons between the competing socio-political alignments and contrasting styles of vision. More general titles which are worthwhile are works on street art, political graphics and historical genre painting in the fine arts. These subjects make a nice comparison between local voice and contribution and official and funded representations.

Urban Sociology and Theory

As mentioned earlier, the specificity of social function in the urban arena has been frequently overlooked in works on Belfast. The particular aspects of spatial and social division which this study seeks to address are taken somewhat for granted in straight historical analyses and socio-political interpretations. Two exceptions to that rule however are F.W. Boa and Emrys Jones, who have published a series of both articles and books on Belfast. Working out of the department of Geography at the Queen’s University, Boal and Jones have gone to greater lengths to attempt to root out cause and effect with regard to issues of space and society. In addition, recent work by Brendan Murtagh at the University of Ulster has examined socially segregated space and city planning in Belfast, with particular emphasis on the peacelines. While these works are commendable however, these examples are still only a partial telling in that they rely on period-specific community studies and thus do not approach a historical scope.

Urban theory has withstood a series of changes in the past few decades–sometime small leaps in anticipation of a larger paradigm shift–that has provoked scholars to rethink fundamental conceptions of the city. A review of those conceptual debates provides this study with a way in which to trace urban sociological thought from the classic to the postmodern theorists. It is not the intention to radically dispense with earlier models of the city, but rather to synthesize both sets of theories and research methods to meet the specific needs of a divided city and the peacelines–instead of simply following the current “PoMO” trend.

A good example of this effort to fashion a suitable mix of the two is the way in which Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City can be contrasted to de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. It comes as no surprise that Lynch’s concept of urban legibility is referred to less and less in favor of de Certeau’s idea of “walking in the city” as a fragmented and unstable trajectory. However, it does not serve the study accurately to disregard Lynch’s measures nor to be in complete agreement with de Certeau’s meanderings–principally because neither idea in and of itself can calculate the intricacies of Belfast’s urban network nor the alternating rigidity and resilience of the peaceline areas. Instead, they offer this study a means through which to grasp both clarity and diffusion in an urban locale.

Another polemical rift in urban studies involves arguments about structure and agency in the urban system. Since this paradigm is crucial to the treatment of design and social space in the study, it is necessary to have a full grasp of the ongoing debates surrounding social space theory. This study covers those points by beginning with Foucault’s notion of the “disciplinary society” and then challenging that idea with the anti-structuralist gestures of LeFebvre and considering the more up-to-date work of Giddens’ structuration theory.

The significance of the study rests in the fact that the majority of work on Northern Ireland and Belfast concentrates on a conventional historical method and top-down political analysis. In contrast to that effort, this study looks to an eclectic assortment of sources to explain both the social and physical phenomenon of urban borders. Once fully under way, this study uses a stricter method to evaluate the exact contribution of the store of reference works assembled here and in the bibliography. Each text is directly translated to the needs of the case of Belfast and the exigencies of a theoretical and methodological framework of this urban, historical and sociological analysis of the peacelines.


For the most part the final dissertation will retain the structure and outline of this proposal, but will expand to include a thorough chapter on the case of Belfast’s peacelines. I expect the problematic to be refined in the course of this time and the analysis to successfully accommodate those changes. I also anticipate the chapter on the urban sociological context to cover the history of walled cities in more detail. I consider it necessary to extend the case with comparison of variant models of urban division, such as divided cities with and without walls and examples with and without a violent component.

If the chapter on the urban sociological context is eventually sub-titled Understanding Urban Borders, then the case study of Belfast would appropriately be called Confronting Urban Borders. This important chapter, comprising the bulk of the analysis, will examine the city as a case study of social and physical division in three stages. First, in a review the origin of Belfast as a divided city and the development of the peacelines within that history. Secondly, in an examination of alternate situations of integration in urban space through the role of shared space in the city center. And finally with a description of the key investments, actions and artifacts over time in the overall network of the city.

In terms of a timetable or schedule for the remaining work, there is much that is already complete, but still quite a lot that needs to be organized from that effort. For instance, while the transcription of field notes and interviews is done, that information needs to be synthesized and merged into the content of the dissertation. Likewise, the collection of supplementary photos and maps that have been collected need to be incorporated into the structure of the paper. Such tasks include the scanning, design of the layout, and color printing of the images. However, I do not find these activities burdensome. In fact, they will more than likely facilitate the progress of the paper in that the text and images will ultimately find a “fit” and will form both a cohesive portrait and narrative of Belfast’s peacelines.