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Although one of the central, basic organizing concepts in the social sciences, “space” is one of its most notoriously difficult to define. Unlike our sense of everything happening in time, we have not been acculturated to paying attention to space, even though we know that everything happens and exists in space and time. Some ideas about space seem self-evident. For example, one conventional way of understanding space is that it is a surface measured in coordinates such as longitude and latitude, distance and direction. In many disciplines, geography included, this view lends itself to thinking about space as a “container,” a taken-for-granted packaging of social activities into de facto units such as states, regions, and cities.
Geographers talk about space in other ways as well. ‘Relative’ space gives us a way to think about the connectivity between things, events, and people. It is a concept that has been used mostly to explain economic patterns and urban growth. ‘Cognitive’ space, defined in terms of people’s values and perceptions, has helped us interpret people’s experiences, common bonds, and feelings towards the places they inhabit.
Recently, geographers have developed a more nuanced understanding of space and its relationship to other social processes. In part this new understanding evolved within geography in response to rapid developments in social theory, and in part it developed as a critique of how scholars in related disciplines were using spatial concepts in a metaphorical manner. Often such scholars talk about one's “social location” or personal or group “boundaries” as infused with ideas about gender, race, and other social signifiers, without acknowledging these as lived in the real world.
This year's social science colloquium is devoted to a critical reevaluation of how we think about space. We want to ask what it really means to think spatially about the world. We do not think space is just a blank template or a neutral backdrop upon which events unfold. We think space plays an active role in the manner in which those events unfold. As such, space is deeply social.
This colloquium series profiles geographers whose work is on the cutting edge of the current “spatial turn” in the social sciences (and humanities). Brought about by social and cultural theorists such as the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, scholars have begun to view society and space as mutually constituted, inter-active and reciprocal. This understanding views space as part of society, rather than as its passive backdrop. It also views space as a dynamic agent of change, thus complementing the more common perception that change occurs (mostly or only) through time.
What does it mean to think about space as an actor in – and not just a backdrop for – social events, processes, and struggles? From prisons to churches, city streets to office parks, shopping malls to university campuses, space produces, reflects, and reinforces worldviews and identities. People see themselves not only in history books and family trees, but also out there, in everyday spaces that inform us of who we are, but also who we are not. There is a politics to daily life and that politics is spatial, since struggles over identity and meaning are almost always struggles over space.
Geographers have much to offer this current spatial turn in the social sciences, and the four contributors to this colloquium series will help us – force us – to think critically about space.
—Karen Morin and Adrian Mulligan, Faculty Coordinators