What is the Spatial Turn?

The Spatial Turn in Sociology

By the end of the nineteenth century, the term “space” had a radically promiscuous career: “space” slipped between the “social space” that fin-de-siecle sociologists discovered around the Paris Commune; the “personal space” of midcentury psychologists; and the “Cartesian space” that Marxist geographers after 1968 associated with the liberal government and the rule of capital.[1]

In the spatial literature that followed, the slippage of the term “space” from body to neighborhood to state was far from accidental. As nineteenth-century discussions of “human geography” shifted to twentieth-century discussions of “place” and “space,” scholars in a range of disciplines played upon exactly this facility of landscape to bring the small and large under the same heading. In the 1940s and 50s, modernist urban planners like Chombart de Lauwe, Maximilian Sorre, and Edward T. Hall developed the study of “proxemics” to explain the study of how individual bodies move in relationship to the built environment around them.[2] By the 1960s, another generation of historians and sociologists were attracted to the logic of “space” precisely because of this emphasis on multiple scales and multiple agency.[3] That easy synthesis of personal and political, of multiple scales and temporalities offered a radical alternative to the methods of hierarchical analysis, documentary history, and biographies of great men that dominated the traditional teaching of most disciplines.

[1] Philip J Ethington, “The Intellectual Construction of ‘Social Distance’: Toward a Recovery of Georg Simmel’s Social Geometry,” Cybergeo (September 16, 1997); Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988); H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1991 [1974]). J.A. Jakle, "Time, Space, and the Geographic Past: A Prospectus for Historical Geography," The American Historical Review 76 (1971): 1100. Anne Buttimer, "Social Space in Interdisciplinary Perspective," Geographical Review, 59 (1969): 417-26;

[2] Maximilien Sorre, Rencontres de la Geographie et de la Sociologie (Paris, 1957); Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe et al., The Sociology of Housing: Research Methods and Future Perspectives (Rotterdam, 1959); Edward T. Hall, "Proxemics: The Study of Man's Spatial Relations," in lago Gladston, ed., Man's Image in Medicine and Anthropology (New York, 1963), 422-45; and Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York, 1966); Robert Sommer, Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design (Englewood Cliffs, 1969); C. R. Carpenter, "Territoriality: A Review of Concepts and Problems," in Anne Roe and George C. Simpson, eds., Behavior and Evolution (New Haven, 1958), 224-50; and Stanford M. Lyman and Marvin B. Scott, "Territoriality: A Neglected Sociological Dimension," Social Problems, 44 (1967): 236-49; Gerald D. Suttles, The Social Order of the Slum (Chicago, 1968); Sanford Labovitz, "Territorial Differentiation and Societal Change," Pacific Sociological Review, 8 (1969): 70-75.

[3] Erving Goffman, Behavior in Public Places; Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963).  John A. Jakle, “Time, Space, and the Geographic Past: A Prospectus for Historical Geography,” The American Historical Review 76, no. 4 (October 1971): 1084-1103.