The Ghetto:

Concept, Conditions, and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective, from the 11th Century to the Present

The concept of the “ghetto,” or of the enforced spatial segregation of part of an urban or national population into a closed, demarcated space for habitation, work, and life, has a long and painful history. Indeed, as a political and social practice, it has persisted for almost a millennium, surviving great transformations in economy, government, and nation. Few modes of control have been applied to so many different purposes and groups, from the walled areas of medieval Europe to apartheid South Africa to the Nazi killing depots to the segregated slums of the United States. Deployed in different ways and invested with varied meanings, the concept has proved useful in maintaining social, religious, and racial hierarchies throughout centuries.

The aim of this Sawyer Seminar is to explore the remarkable tenacity of the “ghetto,” its uses for those in power, the lived experience of those locked within its physical and economic confines, the unique cultures it created, and the resistance it spawned. The word itself has featured prominently in discourses of power and of resistance, as a descriptor of concrete policy and as an abstract signifier of repression.

In tracing state policy, lived experience, and conceptual discourses of the ghetto, the Seminar will bring together a diverse interdisciplinary, international community of scholars to examine the ghetto through an approach that spans centuries and nations. The transnational, interdisciplinary approach will enable us to uncover similarities, differences, and most strikingly, connections in a practice that traverses markedly different periods and places.

Using a chronological and transnational focus, the seminar will examine the ghetto in four separate contexts:

  • as a place for confining the Jewish population of Europe, originating in 1500 and ending in the 1870s.
  • as a key element of the spatial segregation established by colonial policy in the apartheid state of South Africa from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century.
  • as part of the Nazi policy of genocide against the Jews of Europe and the former Soviet Union
  • as a cornerstone of the racial segregation of African Americans in the cities of the United States.

Continue to the Case Studies

September 2014-May 2015


Wendy Z. Goldman

Joe W. Trotter