The Power of Place and Space

By Sack, Robert D. | The Geographical Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview

The Power of Place and Space

Sack, Robert D., The Geographical Review

Everyone assumes that being in one place rather than another makes a difference, as does being near rather than far. This means that geographic place and space affect everyone. Until recently, much of geography has ignored these effects. Rather, it has examined place, space, and landscape as though they were outcomes of processes. Geographers have asked what made a place or an area what it is and why things are as they are. But they have paid little attention to the effect of landscape or location on people. Yet they are reminded of these effects every day in choosing to be one place rather than another. Geographers have taken up these issues in new proclamations such as "place matters" or the "power of place and space," as well as in new, complex concepts about spatiality, territoriality, and a general sense that space and place as well as nature and culture are mutually constitutive.

To proclaim geography's importance this way is one thing, but to understand what is meant is another. The self-evident powers of space and place are really complex and elusive. In this brief space I can touch on only some of the complexities. What does it mean to say that geographic place and space have such powers? How can they help produce anything? How can they be causes? I do so primarily by focusing on place, which is the more accessible concept, and then include space.

Consider an outdoor social history museum. It is a place that attempts to

display how life was lived in some specified period and place in the past. Museum visitors are subject to a series of rules about what they are and are not permitted to touch, where they may walk, what they may eat, when they may enter, and when they must leave. Another set of rules applies to museum employees. And yet other rules apply to what artifacts should and should not be exhibited in this place and where. The museum could not exist without such rules, which receive authority from the force of custom and from local, state, and federal laws and statutes. Rules about what is and is not to be in place--territorial rules or territoriality--pertain not only to the museum but also to every place that can be imagined, from streets and roads, which stipulate types of vehicles and their speeds; to houses, which define residents, guests, and strangers; to factories and offices, which define and arrange workers, managers, and owners; to cities and states, which define citizens.

Territorial rules about what is in or out of place pervade and structure lives and provide specific examples of how place has power. It may appear in these cases that the power of place is secondary to social power, in that the latter seems to impart the power to place. This is not the case, as the theory of territoriality reveals, precisely because the various forms of social power cannot exist without these territorial rules. Territorial and social rules are mutually constitutive, which is the concrete meaning of the new, often overused term spatiality.

Yet another set of issues arises when these territorial rules are initiated, in part because of thoughts about what would happen if they did not exist. The museum has specific hours and regulations for the conduct of visitors because of what someone in authority imagined would occur if people were at liberty to enter and leave at will. The same could be said for all other places. There are rules about conduct in classrooms and access to them and rules about behavior in streets and citizenship in nations, because of what is imagined would be the case if there were no such rules.

Imagining behavior in the absence of such rules leads to the second way in which place or space has power, for it emphasizes that people and objects interact in space and that there could be laws of behavior which govern these interactions. It forces the building of models of how distance and the relative locations of people and things affect behavior. This line of thinking leads, in other words, to the familiar geographical enterprise of spatial analysis, with its central-place models, the von Thunen model, and gravity and potential models, all of which emphasize that space has an effect on interaction and that this effect is most clearly expressed as a function of distance. …

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