A Theoretical Primer on Space

A Theoretical Primer on Space

Robert P. Fairbanks II


The following paper chronicles a recent movement in the study of urban environments toward an appreciation of space and spatial theory. In recent years, urban anthropology has undergone a transformation by integrating a broad array of spatial theoretical perspectives from cultural geography, political economy, urban sociology, and regional and city planning. In order for the discipline of social work to gain access to these developments, this paper seeks to introduce and facilitate an advanced understanding of the roots of spatial analysis and spatial theory. Subsequent to this undertaking, a review of the interdisciplinary literature based on the tenets of spatial and geographical analysis will be provided. The latter review will proceed along the following two separate lines of categorical analysis: 1) Marxist geography; and 2) Cultural geography.

Knowledge of space is critical to understanding the production and transformation of social relations, and in this regard the built environment is an important concept for any endeavor in social analysis, including those undertaken by the discipline of social work. Space is a multi-dimensional concept that is at once economic, political, semiotic and experiential, and in this sense it is an integral component of social interaction and an indispensable vector for critical theory, particularly when added to the vectors of time and being. Yet the questions raised by Henri Lefebvre’s postulations that daily life depends on the production (and consumption) of space remain largely unanswered, even in academic works coming out of Marxist geography that hold the category of space as their primary raison d’etre (Gottdiener, 1994). By reviewing a subsection of the growing academic literature on space and spatial theory, this paper seeks to demonstrate how the consideration of socio-spatial relations can enhance our understanding of people in their spatial environments. By introducing an appreciation of culture in relation to material forces such as space, and by emphasizing the social relations that these material forces evoke,  spatial theory allows social work theorists to forge a relationship between the analytical categories of political economy, space, and culture. The challenge of such an undertaking is to consider the reciprocal construction of culture within certain spatial locations, particularly in relation to processes of capital accumulation and politics. The purchase of this challenge is profound, however, particularly for social workers seeking more cogent strategies for deploying concepts such as ecology, geography, and the “person in environment” approach.

As Michael Dear contends, “space is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening in the same place” (Dear, 2000, p.47). Henri Lefebvre staked much of his intellectual life on this simple proposition, yet the core of his work becomes infinitely more sophisticated when he draws our attention beyond mere inventories of what exists in space or a basic discourse on space – neither of which can produce a true knowledge of space (Lefebvre, 1974). In contrast, Lefebvre’s ontology asserts a greater importance for space as being present and implicit in the acts of creation and being, whereby the process of life itself is inextricably linked with the production of different spaces (Dear, 2000). Contrary to the idea that space is merely a reified alembic that boxes things in, Lefebvre implores us to appreciate the built environment as being structured through social relationships. People create space; thus the production of space is an inherently political project in which space is a mediating force that integrates an infinite number of active and dynamic cultural processes. In appreciation of Lefebvre’s prolific writings on space and the virtual revolution in critical thought that he has catalyzed, the purpose of this paper is two-fold: 1) To advance a foundational understanding of spatial theory; and 2) To explore a number of recent interdisciplinary writings that attempt to integrate a broad array of spatial theoretical perspectives with an appreciation of the political economies of geographical landscapes and the politics of everyday life. The second section of this undertaking will be broken down into two separate subsections in order to facilitate a more nuanced exploration of spatial analysis: A) Marxist Geography; and B) Cultural or human geography. It is hoped that this review paper will catalyze further discussion and eventual integration of spatial theory into the discipline of social work.

Space as a vector of Social Analysis: A discussion of Time and Space in the Abstract

Did it start with Bergson or before? Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic.

Michel Foucault, 1980

Space is never empty: it always embodies a meaning.

Henri Lefebvre, 1974

In his 1989 groundbreaking work titled Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Geography, Edward Soja advanced a compelling argument for the primacy of spatial analysis in social theory (Soja, 1989). He decried the fact that the nineteenth-century emphasis on historical epistemology continued to pervade the critical consciousness of modern social theory at the direct expense of a spatial imagination in the contemporary present:

So unbudgingly hegemonic has been the historicism of theoretical consciousness that it has tended to occlude a comparable critical sensibility to the spatiality of social life, a practical theoretical consciousness that sees the lifeworld of being creatively located not only in the making of history but also in the construction of human geographies, the social production of space and the restless formation and reformation of geographical landscapes (Soja, 1989, p. 10).

Soja moved on to chronicle a movement taking place primarily in the 1980s among postmodern and critical geographers to reassert the interpretive significance of space “in the historically privileged confines of contemporary critical thought.” Soja’s sentiments are actively manifesting in disciplines as wide-ranging as sociology, urban studies, critical geography, history, and anthropology, all of which have seen a veritable explosion in the realm of spatially informed scholarship and criticism. This ferment in critical discourse has introduced a new emphasis on spatial concepts and metaphors such as simultaneity, domain, horizontality, place, and heterotopia in attempts to counterbalance the previous dominance of temporal notions such as sequentiality, linearity, history, and utopia.

What is to be made of these recent arcane developments in critical discourse, and why have they become so prominent in contemporary urban theory? It should first be noted that social theorists and philosophers have long recognized that the rhythm of the day (time) and its localization (space) are two of the most important parameters of everyday life. However, as Soja notes, these new developments in spatial geography are reflections of and reactions to Western social theory’s longstanding tendency to take space for granted, thus constructing a perception of passivity in space as merely the stage upon which humanity forges its world through time. The longstanding separation of history from geography and the dominance of time over space has had the effect of producing images of societies as being cut off from their material environment, “as if they were fashioned out of thin air” (Coronil, 1997, p.24). In this deceptive light, the social appropriation of space, as well as the ways in which space acts upon society, appears as immaterial, irrelevant, or lacking in terms of revolutionary valence and interpretive significance.