(2017) The Social Production of Space: Pitfalls and Warnings [ENG]

Monday 21 August 2017, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

The Social Production of Space: Pitfalls and Warnings

Over the last two months I have been writing about the concept of ’urban movements’, which is one of the challenges I am facing once and again since I started my PhD in the mid-1990s. Theoretical exercises of clarification are always quite rewarding to me, although my ideal would be to attempt definitions in close relation with well-grounded and comparative empirical analysis. While reading through most of the classical works of this sub-discipline and checking my handwriting notes about them, I decided to widen my scope and explore books and articles I had accumulated but without much time to delve into them -in particular, a definition of ’space’ by David Harvey as the last chapter of a collection of reviews about his own intellectual work (Noel Castree & Derek Gregory, eds., “David Harvey. A Critical Reader”, Blackwell). This led me to another Marxist geographer, and tightly connected to Harvey, whose books filled my shelves in the recent years, although I read him frequently in the past because of his ’rent gap’ theory on gentrification: Neil Smith (“Uneven Development. Nature, Capital and the Production of Space”, Verso). Both recall the notion of the ’social production of space’ and provide inspiring meanings to it, especially when conceived within the context of a dominant capitalist mode of production, relations and practices. Far from summarising their arguments, in this post I just would like to focus on various but essential theoretical aspects that I miss in many scholarly works. I will identify them because, otherwise, they may easily mud and entangle the study of the socio-spatial phenomena.

Harvey visited Uppsala a couple of months ago and I had the chance for a few minutes during a lunch to ask him about a series of concerns I always raised about his views on the state and decentralised politics, and also about Castells’, Sassen’s and Lefebvre’s contributions. From Lefebvre he certainly borrowed a great array of ideas, being ’the right to the city’ and ’the social production of space’ among the most fortunate ones (in spite of today’s vagueness carried by these two expressions after being broadly popularised). However, it is obvious that Harvey prefers a more straightforward and clear approach than the philosophical and often ambiguous discourse of Lefebvre (or “conceptual indeterminacy” as it was criticised by Smith, p.124). The French and also Marxist philosopher was a pioneer in proposing fruitful insights for urban sociology. Lefebvre was also closely associated, for a while, with the group of politically engaged (leftist) intellectuals called the Situationists. What I appreciate the most about Harvey is how he picks up some of those tenets and incorporate them into an increasingly coherent theoretical framework -although one would expect more dedication to case-studies than his often-cited examination of Paris in the times around the revolutionary experience of the Commune (1871) (this is one of the critiques also addressed by Charles Tilly once, for example; Chris Pickvance was also disappointed with Harvey’s generalisations about neoliberalism in China). Some time ago, Harvey’s book released in 1996, “Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference” (Blackwell) was where I found the best translation of Lefebvre’s key worries -’dialectics’ and ’historical materialism’- into a set of guidelines, far from conclusive, to analyse socio-spatial phenomena. Although Harvey does not often discuss the sociological stuff, I did not find any objection to build upon his own theories in order to define my own concept of ’socio-spatial structures’ (something I have been working on since 2010, more or less, when aimed at identifying patterns of constraints and opportunities for political squatters across Europe).

In short, after reading Harvey and Smith along others (Mayer and Boudreau, Miller, Martin, Nicholls, Tilly, etc.) who also formulated various approaches to society-space relations, and thinking on beginners and newcomers to the field of urban sociology, a number of pitfalls and warnings may be introduced.

1/ Not every space is socially produced / constructed, but social scientists (especially urban / rural sociologists and geographers) are mainly interested in those spaces subject to and resulting from human action. Certainly, even wild areas of the earth untouched by humans are part of social discussion, property relations and political arrangements, which turns oneself to question more about “how” each natural space (or even physical notions of space-matter) is produced / constructed, and to what extent, rather than asking about “which” spaces are freed from human intervention or appropriation (in this respect, see, for example, among others, the volume edited by Noel Castree and Bruce Braun in 2001: “Social Nature. Theory, Practice, and Politics”, Blackwell).

2/ Phenomenological approaches assuming the ultimate “social construction of reality” have pervaded social sciences to a degree in which it seems that realist and structural accounts are secondary. My viewpoint is that the opposite is healthier (i.e. it holds more enlightening value in order to know social phenomena). This means that natural and physical aspects of spaces (material features, distances, scales, positions, boundaries, etc.) are crucial in understanding some social relations, although they cannot be neither taken for granted nor as the causal explanation of society (see next point). Society and space are intertwined. This applies to time as well. Accordingly, some prefer to name them as territory and history, instead. Every materiality of space, then, is defined, interpreted and negotiated between social groups. At the same time, people, while being part of intersecting social groups, use, alter and shape natural spaces.

3/ Spatial determinism is a temptation on the other pole of the spectrum. I reject it for the same reason Durkheim did with psychological and biological explanations of social phenomena (although I don’t agree with him in his positivistic demarcation of social phenomena, where historical processes, economic contexts and social struggles came quite late after his main attention to social cohesion, cultural norms and institutional stability). Therefore, as a bottom line, we can recall Durkheim’s principle that only social facts cause social facts. However, if society is intertwined with material and historical conditions, we should enhance the principle by arguing that only socio-spatial-historical phenomena cause other socio-spatial-historical phenomena. As pollution, climate change and the accelerated extinction of species have dramatically shown, there are obvious environmental constraints to human actions, but those conditions were previously and substantially created and modified by specific social groups and specific types of relations among them, and with nature. More blatantly, for example, we shouldn’t point to the lack of traffic lights as the cause of someone’s death after being hit by a car; instead, the social plans and decisions about building a road, a street and setting up traffic lights, and the management of speed limits, policing traffic and coexistence of different vehicles, at least would need to be examined in order to determine a potentially evitable human casualty.

4) A corollary of these concerns is the usual disclaimer that the mere fact that everything occurs somewhere, at a certain location, does not mean that a socio-spatial analysis is necessarily required. An emphasis on the spatial dimensions of social phenomena may contribute to illuminate them in a very innovative manner, but it may also mislead the observer’s primary goal. Take for instance “virtual relations” in which online communication unfolds in a mainly cognitive, symbolic and rootless “space”. Of course, servers, computers, wires, antennas and people involved are attached to specific places, and a spatial analysis might be helpful to understand the “offline” social production of online communication, but usually there are many other contents of the latter that are more relevant for researchers (for instance, censorship, commercial advertising, manipulation of big data, the spread of hate discourses, political campaigning and organising, etc.) fundamentally away from material spaces.

I would be delighted to designate the above as “social fetishisation” (without identifying the key components of how social processes evolve in #1 and without sufficiently integrating material dimensions articulated with social processes in #2), “neglecting the anthropocene” (in #3), and “spatial fetishisation” (in #4) if these terms helped someone to frame the initial steps of their research. However, in rather quite clear ways, I also like to remind Harvey’s call for a very basic research programme in his early writings: “The question ‘what is space?’ is therefore replaced by the question ‘how is that different human practices create and make use of different conceptualizations of space?’” (quoted again in the aforementioned chapter “Space as a Keyword”), which serves him to introduce the distinction of ‘absolute’, ‘relative’ and ‘relational’ spaces that I won’t develop here for the sake of not stealing more of your time (anyhow, I recommend to supplement that entry with Smith’s reflections on space as both a means of production and a condition for capitalist production). Let’s assemble social concepts, practices, relations and processes with specific spatial and historical features (either related to our human interventions to matter and nature, or to the contexts and structures that significantly affect our interactions and power structures), and we will have a less problematic departing point than the so frequently ignored pitfalls and warnings I pointed out.

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