(2017) Spatialities and Historicities [ENG]

Thursday 24 August 2017, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

Spatialities and Historicities

One key article on the discussion of society-space relationships that made a great effort to systematise them came out a few years ago: Bob Jessop, Neil Brenner & Martin Jones, 2008, “Theorizing sociospatial relations”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, pp. 389-401. They “suggest that territories (T), places (P), scales (S), and networks (N) must be viewed as mutually constitutive and relationally intertwined dimensions of sociospatial relations. We present this proposition as an extension of recent contributions to the spatialization of the strategic-relational approach (SRA).” This kind of theoretical arguments are not very easy to grasp for newcomers or outsiders of the discipline, and even less for those unfamiliar with Lefebvre, Harvey and neo-Gramscian approaches about power and politics, such as Jessop’s SRA framework. Nevertheless, their critiques sounded quite familiar to my own concerns on socio-spatial fetishisations (see my previous post). For example,

One-dimensionalism is evident in all four sociospatial lexicons, albeit in different forms and to different degrees. Each falls into the trap of conflating a part (territory, place, scale, or networks) with the whole (the totality of sociospatial organization), whether due to conceptual imprecision, an overly narrow analytical focus, or the embrace of an untenable ontological (quasi-)reductionism. This trap is notoriously present in methodological territorialism, which subsumes all aspects of socio-spatial relations under the rubric of territoriality. This is manifested, for instance, in state-centric approaches to globalization studies and in narrowly territorialist understandings of cities, states, and the world economy.

As an alternative, they suggest a sort of holistic articulation of all those socio-spatial features in order to draw more reflexive and complex pictures of reality. In particular, I very much endorse their following claim:

For us, sociospatial theory is most powerful when it (a) refers to historically specific geographies of social relations; and (b) explores contextual and historical variation in the structural coupling, strategic coordination, and forms of interconnection among the different dimensions of the latter.”

However I wonder how many multiple spatialities should be articulated with each other, and also what kind of “historicities” we should connect to them. Not the least, what dimensions of society are also significantly associated to them in order to properly attempt a socio-spatial(-and-historical) understanding of reality? Even more problematic is the risk of falling under the umbrella of too much holistic “grand theories” (as coined by Charles Wright Mills in “The Sociological Imagination” although with a very different target, Parsons’ functionalism), without much attention to “middle range” theories and concrete social structures.

These concerns came back to my mind recently while reading a special issue of the journal Mobilization on “space and contentious politics” (2003) and the book “Spaces of Contention. Spatialities and Social Movements” (2013, edited by W. Nicholls, B. Miller and J. Beaumont; Ashgate). A number of times I found an uncomfortable complicity with to the notion that “space (or place) shapes” peoples’ actions and ideas. Although it is fair to admit that many authors also recommend looking at the intersections and interplays between space and society, that notion derives from the assumption that “multiple spatialities” may come first and independently from the examination of social phenomena. I would have liked to come across with more specific understanding of those spatialities in line with Jessop, Brenner & Jones’ scheme, but also with the simultaneous “multiple historicities” and “multiple socialities” (to name it in an equivalent manner, but take ‘social relations and structures’ in short) at play. As in the dilemmas about structure and agency, the main challenge is to find out how all those dimensions are articulated with each other and can be illuminated in empirically grounded studies. I do not have an answer to this puzzle, but I remember Harvey’s chapter 13 in “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1990) where he combined Lefebvre’s analytical triad (spatial-material practices, spatial representations and imagined-experienced spaces) with four spatialities (distance-accessibility, spatial appropriation-use, spatial domination-control and production of the space) quite different from the TPSN ones, and also from his own triad (absolute, relative and relational spaces) he was somehow incrementally elaborating over decades (see his “Space as a Keyword”, from 2006, as one of his latest attempts). I am particularly pleased with this much more sociological note in order to interpret his categorical grid:

Spatial practices derive their efficacy in social life only through the structure of social relations within which they come into play. Under the social relations of capitalism, for example, the spatial practices portrayed in the grid become imbued with class meanings. To put it this way is not, however, to argue that spatial practices are derivative of capitalism. They take on their meanings under specific social relations of class, gender, community, ethnicity, or race and get ’used up’ or ’worked over’ in the course of social action.” (p.223)

Therefore, Harvey suggests considering all social relations and structures within the context of capitalism that can help us to make sense of all the “spatial practices”. A few pages later, surprisingly, Harvey mentioned a quite creative but loosely systematic classification of “historicities” (more exactly, meanings of time according to different social groups and societies) proposed by Gurtvitch in 1964. More originally in my view about time-space articulations “as sources of social power” is Harvey’s elaboration on Marx’s prescient “annihilation of space by/through time” (mainly due to the extension of the means of transport and communication), translated into the concept of “time-space compression” (chapters 14-17). Harvey links money, value creation and the historical development of capitalism, especially as the “general speed-up in the turnover times of capital”, to the time-space compression, and also explores various cultural implications of the last period of “flexible accumulation” from 1973 onwards. However, we still miss a more thorough and systematic repertoire of articulations between society, space and history. Regarding the latter, I am thinking on categories such as ‘protest cycles’, ‘path dependence’, strategic planning, and memory, but also on other forms of “socially produced time” reviewed by Harvey such as rhythms, labour and leisure time, synchronicities, ephemerality, discontinuities, and revolutionary changes. If “time is money” was the original motto of capitalism (Max Weber also elaborated on this), it would be illuminating to figure out what socio-spatial-historical perspectives, both theoretically and politically, might guide alternatives to a capitalist world.

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