The Neglected Spatial Dimension in Modern Social Theory

Until the first decade of this century, one of the key shortcomings of modern social theory was the nearly total neglect of the spatial dimension of agency (Giddens, 1984), communication, social actions (Werlen, 1993b), and social relations. Systematic social theories and action theories in particular have so far widely ignored the spatial dimension of the social. This blindness for the spatial is embedded in more general features of modern social theory that have important implications not only in the field of theory, but consequently also for current societal problem constellations.

According to Giddens (1984), one of the chief reasons for the underrepresentation of spatial issues in social theory is the overemphasis on time. Time, not space, has been pivotal for philosophy (Hegel, Bergson), the social sciences (Marx, Spencer, Durkheim), biology (Darwin), and history. Time—the sequential ordering of events—is obviously central in action theory. The implementation of action plans and intentions lies in the future, whereas the present situation of actions has resulted from actions of the past. Another notable reason that space aspects have not figured greatly in social theory is that the spatial dimension refers first to the ordering of physical objects and artifacts. It is thus allied somewhat more closely to immediate visual experience and is therefore less “abstract” than is the case with the temporal order. But the main explanation for the relative neglect of the spatial dimension pertaining to social realities in the action-centered perspective certainly stems from emphasis on the subjective meaning of action. The theory of social action as formulated by Weber (1912/1988, 1913, 1922/1980) implied that the embodied actor and the physical world were largely left out of the biologistic and functionalist tendencies in the social sciences (Werlen & Weingarten, 2003, pp. 205-207). This exclusion essentially arrested the development of concepts that could have integrated the spatial dimension and avoided the pitfall of biologistic or materialistic reductionism.

However, when the spatial dimension is taken into account, the word space is often not understood as a theory-dependent term but rather as a given fact. The social sciences commonly refer to notions of geographic space that are considered rather traditional or outdated in current social and cultural geography because they conceptualize space as a material object, a container, or projection plane of material and immaterial social life. Although lack of a systematic theoretical reformulation of space in a more sociotheoretical compatible way is detectable in the work of Pierre Bourdieu as well as in substantial parts of Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration, it is primarily found in social and cultural studies after a shift toward acceptance of the spatial dimension occurred. Exponents of this “spatial turn” claim to have overcome the spatial ignorance identified in their fields and disciplines of study. Their assertion is often unconvincing, however, because space continues to be thought of as a material object or container, with little progress toward a conception of space that is firmly grounded in social theory in a manner compatible with action.

The continuing overemphasis on the container or geographical earth-space in cultural studies and the social sciences leaves the spatial turn incomplete, inflexible, and myopic. These limitations also underlie fields of research and social policies in which it is not apparent at first glance, especially when “nature” is taken into account. An especially prominent example is the sustainability research based on the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), known as the Brundtland report (Gabler, 2015; Werlen, 2015), and on purportedly environmental policies derived from it. Casting the environment as a container space conceived in terms of Newton’s mechanics, the recommendations for environmental policies are the product of a mechanical world view. They advertise the idea that it could suffice to turn some screws of the world machine to, say, decrease the global temperature by 2.0° Celsius, as propagated by the COP 21.[1]

Reconceptualization of the spatial dimension is imperative in the study of the interrelation of knowledge and space. When focusing on the role of places, spaces, spatial settings, environments, milieus, and fields of communication for cognitive processes, learning, knowledge production, and action, one must be careful to use the appropriate concepts of place and space in order to avoid implicit determinism and reductionism. When the concept of space as used in the natural sciences becomes a primary category of social research, it has major and problematic implications. In keeping with Newton’s theoretical construction of space as a container, the two most relevant ones are the underlying spatial determinism and the likelihood that values, norms, and other nonmaterial entities will be reduced to earth-spatially positioned material objects. The morphing from immaterial to material or physical form will certainly not improve the results of social sciences and social politics, for all it does is falsify the real nature of sociocultural realities. Social research needs to find its own conceptualization of the spatial dimension of societal realities, including the generation of knowledge (for details see Schwan, 2003; Steiner, 2003; Weichhart, 2003, pp. 19-39).

For decades, unfortunately, subject-oriented action theory neglected the link between action and space, that is, the knowledge, competence, experience, skills, and learning processes of individuals, social systems, and institutions. Vague allusions to cognitive processes and reflective systems or ascriptions of meaning and value to material objects do little to explain why actions succeed or fail, why goals are achieved or missed, why some agents are competitive and others not, or why interactions with and adaptations to the environment vary so greatly in the spatial dimension. The focus should be more on different preconditions and outcomes of cognitive processes. To what extent do different levels of knowledge, educational achievement, occupational skills, experience, and scientific and technological standards influence the results of cognitive processes—from perception and situation analysis to decision-making and acting.

Material artifacts and spatial configurations acquire a social or symbolic meaning only through symbolic appropriation, through processes of learning, evaluating, interpreting, and using them. The results of such ascriptions, evaluations, and interpretations range from knowledgeable to ignorant, depending on the degree of experience brought to these processes, and the results change over time. It is therefore crucial to take into account the social, spatial, and cultural disparities of knowledge, competence, and experience as well as the level of research and technology when analyzing relations between space and action.

Geodeterminism emerges when the learning and evaluation processes between space (as a material object) and action are skipped. For instance, a geodeterminist would argue that a mountain range is a natural border; a specific terrain or a gorge, an optimal location for a fortification. A social geographer would argue that it is not the terrain, gorge, or mountain pass itself that has induced people over the centuries to build one fortress after the other at the same place. It is rather the result of knowledge accumulation and experience over many generations that led to the firm conviction or knowledge that a specific place is an ideal location for a fortress given the available transportation and military technologies. As soon as hitherto existing technologies are disrupted or political territories are expanded, the situation will be evaluated differently and people will conclude that other locations are more suitable.

In human geography the adventurous sense of reconceptualizing space and spa- tiality suffuses the publications of Belina (2013), Gregory (1994, 1998), Harvey (2005), Lippuner (2005), Lippuner & Lossau (2004), Massey (1985, 1999a, 1999b, 2005), Paasi (1991), Schmid (2005), Soja (1985), Tuan (1977), Weichhart (1996, 1999, 2003), and Werlen (1987, 1993a, 1993b, 1995, 1997, 2010a, 2010b, 2013, 2015), to name just a few. Geographies of knowledge, education, and science (Freytag, Jahnke, & Kramer, 2015; Jons, 2008; Livingstone, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003; Meusburger, 1998, 2000, 2008, 2009, 2015a) and creativity studies (Amabile, Conti, Coon, Lazenby, & Herron, 1996; Amabile, Goldfarb, & Brackfield, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 1999; Hennessey & Amabile, 1988; Meusburger, 2009; Sternberg & Lubart, 1999) contributed to that discussion by documenting how educational achievement, occupational skills, research, and creative processes influence actions of individuals and social systems, how research and creative processes are the result of interactions between agents and their environment, and why various spatial disparities of socioeconomic structures persist for long periods.

  • [1] Conference of the Parties (COP 21) held in Paris, 15-16 April 2016, was part of the cycle ofmajor UN conferences on climate change.
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