Into space

Looking for concept

The study of my topic (the forms of engagement related to space in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon) always raises a lot of questions. What do I mean by “engagement”, what is life like in these refugee camps… and mostly, one that I have always failed to answer plainly: What the hell do I mean by space?

The question is good and, in a way, my luck as a student. Take any sociological question or topic, you will find in front of you concepts and ideas that we take as granted. A concept is a simple thing when you consider it right. Howard Becker explains in The tricks of the trade how to approach them: trying to describe some situations or things without using any direct reference to it. Everyone can try doing it themselves: describe a street, a family dinner or a rally without the keywords that would allow a direct identification of what specific event you are talking about. By doing so, one creates a simplified abstraction, a concept, that could be used to describe a class of phenomena and generalise it. Of course, this is also the trick, against which Herbert Blumer took stance: theory – the ensemble of all these abstractions and the relations between them – is only here to guide the investigation of isolated facts, understandable in the point of view of said theory, and to be changed by them. In other words, a theory is only an abstraction that has not only to be set aside, but to be actually changed by what it studies. Good sociologists are capable of constructing the concepts with which they think their topics in a way such as they are devoid of any naive inductions, and to keep them at bay when analysing. Bad ones are… well, basically, just unable to make the distinction between the necessary reduction that is a concept and reality. They live in a world in which “income”, “social classes”, “culture” or “political opportunities” exist. And really bad ones just imagine things about society, that correspond at best to fantasies (I remember a colleague in training being baffled when, after explaining his research topic, “Can trust cure our society?”, the teacher had just asked “Why, are we sick?”; he had never thought about the imposition of meaning there was in imagining society could be “sick”, and just took it for granted).

But this is not the topic of the day. The topic of the day is, what do I mean by space? And, as it is, there is indeed an admittance of what “space” means in my study that requires clarification, would it only be because I am not talking about “space” in a “conventional” way, but in a sociological one.

The domination of mathematical space

“Space” is an interesting notion, because it rings an incredible amount of bells. If I asked someone, at random, to close their eyes and tell me what they imagine when they think of the word “space”, I would be ready to bet that two main images will be almost always summoned. The first one will be the stars, planets and asteroids floating in a wide, black stuff, which will be called “space”. The second will be any colossal landscape one can imagine, be it a cliff, a sea or a very wide plain, almost empty. This emptiness will also be called “space”. If I go back to my everyday use of the notion, I realise it is almost always connected to some form of emptiness. If I visit an apartment that is very packed with furniture and not well ventilated, I will regret that it is “empty of space” (which is an absurdity, it is full of space, by definition). One of my informants regretted recently that her very narrow-streets neighbourhood had “no space”, meaning more or less the same thing: no empty locations.

We have developed that idea of space as a bowl full of emptiness and, if I believe one of the best specialists of the notion in social sciences, Henri Lefebvre, have developed it rather recently, at some point after the beginning of the development of what he calls “abstract space” around the turn of modernity, in what we usually call “the Renaissance”. Lefebvre calls this conception of space the “logico-mathematical” conception of space, which is particularly present in geometry. Space is conceived in it as an infinite, isotropic (it is similar in all directions) void, in which a grid similar to a Euclidian or Cartesian model can be applied to divide it in parts of equal size. In this void, we can put stuff: bananas, planets, yo-yos, paper, demonstrations, factories and galaxies are basically filling this big box of space, which is at the same time where they can be found and the unit that allows to measure them.

Of course, this conception is extremely simplified by me, and there is a much more subtle and intelligent way to conceptualise space in the mathematical sciences as well as in Lefebvre’s analysis. It all nonetheless relies on the idea developed by Immanuel Kant, that space, like time, is a category of perception, that is, a predicate that allows us to perceive phenomena, through a mathematical grid. This model is largely dominant when we think about space, and is thinking itself as the only way to think about it. In the current hierarchy of sciences, it emerges from the queen (mathematics) and is followed by the princesses: physics, astronomy, and so forth.

For this reason, it is only logical that social sciences would, at some point, follow the trend. This point can more or less be dated in 1953 with the publication of an article by Fred Schaefer titled “Isolationism in Geography: A Methodological Examination”, which aimed at opening the gated of geography to science. Before that date, there was of course a geographical science, which had been developed since the end of the 19th century as a modern social science, and was mostly focused on the description and definition of a concept, “the region”, that is an ecological whole with a specific identity. We find most of the remnants of this form of geography in what we learn of geography at school before high school and the discovery of political, economical, or social geography: geography was conceived as the study of the different regions, and was a cataloging science. It focused on the “environment”, understood as the relation between minerals, animals, plants, humans that gave to this “whole” its specific “flavour”. To Schafer, this was only cheap literature. His article is long and involves a certain number of misquotations and anachronisms, but still fruitful in its perspective: geographers, he argues, are conceiving their own science as “exceptional”, because they do not think it as related to a specific “field” of the real. Therefore they transform themselves into list-makers, instead of assuming their mission, which is – for Schaefer – the study of space, as separate from any other element. This can be done by relying largely on what other sciences, mostly physics, which Schaefer quotes as “unquestionably the most developed” of all sciences do: isolating facts, finding patterns, enunciating laws that apply to the specific “field” of geography, and sticking to that. It may be worth saying that Schaefer was not a geographer, but an economist and a statistician, and that at the same time a “quantitative revolution” was also occuring in other social sciences, aimed at applying mathematical models to the study of humans.

And, for more or less a decade and a half, it worked quite well. Schaefer’s article was followed by a milestone of modern geography, William Bunge’s Theoretical geography, which aimed at posing elements for the study of Schaefer’s “flat world” and at applying his idea of space as a geometric grid on which stuff took place. The big problem of that conception, as explained by Lefebvre as well as many of his later followers, was its fundamental void of any relation to the empirical world.

The production of space

If “space” is a separate realm of the world, which can be studied by pure mathematical examination, how can one integrate the real in this study? In the end, the Bunge-style of geography relied on a tautology: space exists as a pure, mathematical realm, that influences the world, and me must therefore separate it from the world in order to prove its existence as a pure, mathematical realm. Lefebvre has a much more elegant formula to describe this perspective: “The epistemologico-philosophical reflection did not give an axis to a science that has been searching itself for a long time, through multiple works and publications: the science of space. Research leads either to descriptions (without reaching an analytic, let alone theoretical moment), or to fragmentation and separations of space. Yet many reasons indicate that thinking only of descriptions and separations lead to inventories of what is in space, at best a discourse on space, but never a knowledge of it”. In other words, thinking space separately, as requires a geometrical perspective, is very inefficient when it comes to studying humans.

A complete development on what Lefebvre proposes would take a long time, and this article has already started departing on the shores of abstraction, so let us cut to the chase. What would, on a very simplified Lefebvrian perspective, compose a “productive” conception of space? Some elements can be said about space that should put more or less everyone that relies on Lefebvre on agreement:

  1. Space designates the respective location of material stuff. It is the very strength of the concept when it comes to social sciences: people, buildings, institutions, wealth and roads are somewhere in general, and are somewhere when related to one another. The somewheres look like something: they can be a narrow street, a public plaza in which children come to play, an amphitheater, a large street, a bedroom, and so forth. We assume that these locations do not provide the same possibilities according, at first, to their shape. Let us face it, starting a demonstration in the men restroom of a restaurant is more complicated than, say, on a public square.

    All this is what Lefebvre calls the perceived space. Perceived because of obvious reasons: we can physically perceive it, see it, touch it, taste it if it pleases us. A common image, when talking about it, is to hit one’s palm with their fist, to show that we are talking about “solid” space, one we can concretely get in contact with. This space has a history, says Lefebvre, and does not emerge out of the nowhere. Because Lefebvre is a Marxist, he believes that the origins of the specific arrangement of perceived space can be found in the history of class struggle and in the evolution of the relations of production. At every moment, the power relation which is fundamental to every society deals with what it inherited from the past as well as its proper needs: needing factories, it separates industrial neighborhoods. Needing centers of consumption, it separates malls, and so forth.

  2. Not only does space involve what material stuff we can be in contact with, but also what discourses we have on it, and, since Lefebvre is still a Marxist, what is the dominant conception about it. These discourses are literally discourses, mostly the ones of architects, planners, and every profession which specifically works on space. They constitute an ideal space, the space as it should be, not in abstract, but in relation to what exists now. If one thinks as an idea such as “community” or, for the French readers “mixité sociale”, such ideas can be approached to a perception of space and a discourse on it.

    Conceived space, since it is as Lefebvre calls it, is no less “real” than perceived space: take the separation between “public space” and “private space”, which is typically a form of “conceived space” (there can be no difference whatsoever in the physical aspect of a private and a public space). You have here an essential element in how space works. In the very everyday perspective, conceived space determines also what place is for what, despite their physical appearance.

  3. Finally, Lefebvre does not forget that people do stuff in space: they go shopping, have sex, or play ball. This practice is not without effect on space as well. In a city like Beirut, the lived space, since this is how it is called, can be found in the importance of neighbourhood distinctions: Gemmayzeh, Rmeil, Downtown or Verdun are defined as such because they correspond to local practices and mapping realised by the inhabitants, not by the state. In Paris, the administrative distinction in “arrondissements” has been accompanied by the fact that different uses of these big neighbourhoods have been made, which is why the 4th of Paris, for whoever knows it, carries a different identity from the 16th.

    “Lived space” is the space conceived by practice. You do not have any unified or scientific discourse on space realised by the users. It matters poorly to them to enounce universal laws on how space should be, they are, as De Certeau would say, in “the sight of the other”, they just make do with what they have in order to go by the day. De Certeau represented this “writing” of the cities by the practice of walking: by simply walking in a city to go to work, to friends, to the café or wherever, the walker does influence what the city will be like, and in a very intense fashion.

These three things define what Lefebvre calls “the production of space”: through their constant interaction, which is influenced by social and economical practice, social space is produced. This space is much more meaningful for social scientists than the mathematical space of quantitative geography, since it involves the very way in which a society interacts with its territory, if you want to use the term, but also how its territory interacts with it. As Doreen Massey explains it, space is both a result and a cause of the social activity.

So, what do you mean by space again?

Of course it didn’t stop with Lefebvre, but this is the basics that are needed to see where I am going. When I say space (and this is of course not my idea, I am merely using it), I mean exactly that: a social group occupies a piece of territory, but its geometry matters poorly. What matters is the tangle of social and, for what it’s worth, power relations that influenced that piece of territory into being what it is, and the contrary. The Palestinian refugee camps look like they do because they are the consequence of a dynamic relation between the concrete reality of the Lebanese cities before and during their development, of what the different powers thought of them, and about what the Palestinian refugees and other camp dwellers did of them. And this explains the “That’s just how it is!” my interviewees give me when I ask the origins of the situation.


(Behold social space)

Space thought of like that is really hard to conceptualise materially or to represent, at the contrary of a map, or a globe, or a Cartesian grid. More than a given, it appears like an elastic ball, something negotiated between many different elements and that just “sticks together”. This is a very stupid comparison, but it is more or less as it appears.


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