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How the Space Theory Transformed the History Discipline

January 01, 1970
Oxford University
Rebecca Vitenzon

Abstract: Gender, labor and race historians have made a strong case for space as a social construct. A Foucauldian framework of analysis of space has allowed historians to reveal histories of the subaltern, which are otherwise often ignored. Interactions in space are social relations, as individuals relate to the space around them in response to other individuals and societal norms. Even so, the materiality of space cannot be understated, as the built space impacts how those interactions are produced and unfold. The consideration of the materiality of space as an additional layer to social space, make spatial history a more effective and illuminating methodological approach.   

Keywords: space theory, societal construct, social space, gender, labor, and history


Introduction

Although historian Leif Jerram has criticized historians for overusing imagined space, stating that space is the material physicality of location, gender, labor, and race, historians have used space as a social construct to successfully unearth otherwise hidden transcripts of power relations and resistance [1]. Rather than looking at ‘imagined space’ as in competition with ‘built space,’ a layered definition of space must be adopted. As Sewell has argued, space is imagined, experienced, and built [2]. Discursive imagined space can be defined as the ways in which individuals understand their environment, while experienced space is the ‘material interactions between people and their environment’ [2]. Finally, the built environment can be defined as the physical structures that occupy spaces [2]. These overlapping layers must be examined through a social constructivist Foucauldian lens, as space is fundamentally interlinked with the production and reproduction of ‘economic, political, and cultural power,’ and the reaction of those in power and of the subaltern to that power [3].  This relationship of space with power means that ‘spatial relations are social relations’ [4]. The extent to which spatial theory has effectively been applied by labour, gender, and race relations historians must be examined to establish its use in the discipline of history.


Capitalism and Class Division

When space is considered through the socially constructivist lens, individuals who would otherwise be seen as passive become agents, since the ways in which they relate to space impacts that space. This is especially evident when labors’ relations to space are considered. Lefebvre argued that space is produced socially by the hegemonic class, asserting their dominance in society [4]. Thus capital becomes the ‘primary maker of the geography of capitalism.’ [5] Lefebvre’s theory was influenced by his Marxist approach, which became popular in economic geography in the 1970s in questioning the relationship between capital and space [5]. Lefebvre’s focus on economic geography does not give enough agency to subaltern people existing and resisting within such elite-dominated spaces. In contrast, Herod has argued that in response to capitalist space, workers construct landscapes in a way which increases their social power and diminishes the power of capital [5]. Judith Butler similarly argued that public protests not only take place in the built space, but they also “reconfigure the materiality of space.” By occupying spaces controlled by capital and those in power, the subaltern ‘performatively lay claim’ to the space and assert their right to it.

The reclaiming and coopting of space by workers in times of strikes has been explored by Percy. By comparing strikes in early twentieth century Chicago and London, Percy found that workers asserted their existence and attracted attention to their cause by claiming public space [3]. Their alternative use of public space strengthened collective action as it impacted how they related to one another, strengthening working-class consciousness and solidarity. People understand space in relation to other people, even as the physicality of the space also impacts their relationship to space. For example, there were some crucial differences in how the strikes played out in London and Chicago due to the different physical configurations of these urban spaces. In Chicago, the grid street layout allowed strikes to spread faster and made maintaining picket lines easier. In contrast, the web of streets in London meant that workers used parades and mass meetings for more effective resistance [3]. In this case study, space was produced socially as strikers constructed an alternative public sphere in which they asserted their right to be in middle-class neighborhoods and to dominate the streets. Percy demonstrates how the materiality of space impacted that production. This demonstrates the effectiveness of thinking about space predominantly as socially constructed, but also considering built space.


Gender and Conceptualization of Women

Historians of gender have also made effective arguments for space as a social construct. Traditionally, public space has been constructed as belonging to men, with women being confined to the private sphere. Women breaking this barrier by entering public spaces was often thus seen as a trespass, both by those who sought to police them, and by women themselves. For example, in Chicago in the late nineteenth century, public drinking was seen as a masculine act, with only ‘disreputable’ women drinking in public [6]. Only the rise of commercial gender segregated spaces, gave upper and middle-class women the ability the ability to drink and push the boundaries of the private sphere. Such spaces still belonged predominantly to white, middle-class women, as African American women were often barred from entering them, as were working-class women [6]. This demonstrates the extent to which capital does play in a role in space formation, as Lefebvre has argued. The rise of consumerism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to the creation of spaces which expanded the private sphere into the public one for women, demonstrate the power capital plays in determining spatial relations, even though such relations remain socially constructed.

Due to the conceptualization of women as belonging to the private sphere, women striking in public spaces has traditionally been treated both more severely and seriously. During the Polish Solidarity resistance strikes in Lodz in 1980, women marched with strollers and babies. These women not only claimed the physical public space, but also impacted how that space was imagined (both by them and others) by bringing objects of motherhood and the traditional private sphere into the public. As a result, the march in which they participated in was one of the most successful actions of the Solidarity Movement. The success of this march was predicated on a societal understanding of the streets as a public space in which mothers did not belong. By examining women in the Solidarity movement and their interactions with space, Kenney unearthed how women used popular understanding of public space to their advantage, reconfiguring the streets into sites of protest which shocked authorities and led to positive action.

Although Rosa Parks has been the traditional image of the American Civil Rights Movement, Kelley used space as a social construct in order to reveal an otherwise hidden transcript of resistance [7]. Kelley’s examination of space has broadened the understanding of historians about the Civil Rights Movement, leading Hall to conclude that there was a ‘Long Civil Rights Movement’ which spanned decades rather than beginning and ending in the 1960s. Kelley used police reports to analyze how public transportation in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1940s became a theatre of daily resistance [7]. Driven by white drivers and policed by them and by white passengers, the bus was a white space in which race relations were rigidly maintained. Drivers controlled who entered the supposedly public space, often passing by black passengers at stops [7]. Further, the space was hierarchical, as black passengers were forced to sit at the back of the bus or to stand. Kelley found that in response, black passengers would often speak loudly and cause a ruckus, aiming to make the white passengers, who were trapped in that space for the duration of the ride, uncomfortable [7]. Police records showed that black passengers could be arrested for any action that asserted their right to being in the space – from making noise, to sitting in the white-only seating area, to arguing with fellow white passengers or the bus driver [7]. Such resistance aligns with Butler’s theories about ‘performatively laying claim’ to space in the struggle for freedom [9]. Kelley’s analysis of the bus as a socially constructed space which reflected and reproduced the race relations present in American society deepens our understanding of those race relations, reconfiguring the struggle for Civil Rights from landmark moments like the March on Washington to the everyday spaces of black working-class resistance, like the bus.

Further, the eventual seeming acceptance of segregation in the United States by white middle-class people is also deepened by a spatial analysis predicated on social construction. Kruse found that white middle-class Americans in Atlanta in 1950s and 1960s responded to the desegregation of ‘public’ spaces by deciding they no longer wanted to participate in such spaces [8]. As a result, cities like Atlanta seemingly accepted desegregation – as a result of the reconfiguration of how public spaces were imagined. White middle-class Americans retreated to the private sphere and moved out of urban centers to the suburbs, essentially re-segregating cities. There was also an economic dimension to this conception of space, as white Americans refused to pay their tax dollars to spaces which African Americans could also use [8]. In contrast, the white working-class virulently remained opposed to desegregation because they used public spaces and did not have the economic power to leave them [8]. Desegregation thus exacerbated the divide between middle and working-class whites. Kruse’s analysis upends the narrative of the successful Civil Rights Movement leading to the sudden end of segregation and change in opinions of white Americans, demonstrating that just as the African American struggle for freedom was a constant for decades, so was the white resistance to that struggle.


Conclusion

Ultimately, gender, labor and race historians have made a strong case for space as a social construct. A Foucauldian framework of analysis of space has allowed historians to reveal histories of the subaltern, which are otherwise often ignored. Interactions in space are social relations, as individuals relate to the space around them in response to other individuals and societal norms. Even so, the materiality of space cannot be understated, as the built space impacts how those interactions are produced and unfold. The consideration of the materiality of space as an additional layer to social space, make spatial history a more effective and illuminating methodological approach. 


References

  1. Jerram, Leif. “Space: A Useless Historical Category for Historical Analysis.” History and Theory 52 (2013) p. 400-419.
  2.  Sewell in R. Percy, ‘Picket Lines and Parades: Labour and Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century London and Chicago’, Urban History, 41/4 (2013), p. 457.
  3. Percy, Ruth. “Picket Lines and Parades: Labour and Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century London and Chicago.” Urban History 41 (2014): 456-477.
  4.  Lefebvre, Henri. “Space: Social Product and Use Value.” In State, Space, World: Selected Essays, edited by N. Brenner and S. Elden, translated by J. W. Freiberg, 185-195. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  5. Herod, Andrew. “From a Geography of Labor to a Labor Geography: Labor’s Spatial Fix and the Geography of Capitalism.” Antipode 29 (1997): 1-31.
  6. Remus, Emily A. Remus, Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago (2014).
  7. R. Kelley, “‘We are not what we seem’: Rethinking black working-class opposition in the Jim Crow South” (1993) p. 99.
  8. Kruse, Kevin M. “The Politics of Race and Public Space: Desegregation, Privatization, and the Tax Revolt in America.” Journal of Urban History 31 (2005): 610-633.
  9. Butler, J. 'Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street'