Robin James Smith

Interactionist1 sociology has, in different waves, emphasised the importance of locating the social actor in their physical, spatial, and, more recently, mobile world. This chapter traces something of that tradition, from its roots in phenomenological and pragmatist philosophy to recent empirical research. It outlines three general treatments of space and mobility in interactionist work: interactions and relations as taking place within space, the relationship of space and social settings to the self and social organisation, and, finally, work that aims to describe space as accomplished and managed in motion. The chapter aims to demonstrate how:

  • • Space and mobility are not to be reduced to a background context of interaction but form conditions and resources for doing interaction.
  • • Space and mobility are contingent factors in any given interaction, managed by the participants, in particular ways that characterise that interaction.
  • • Space and mobility are made sense of, organised, and accomplished as social orders through practical methods, in highly specific ways, tied to particular contexts.

Social organisation, spatial relationships, and interactionism

The development of the interactionist tradition was grounded, historically and conceptually, in the movements of people and the changing organisation of space in rapidly expanding industrial conurbations. An abiding concern for the formative sociology developed by the Chicago School was the impact of social change upon individuals, groups, and communities and the ties that were understood to hold them together (e.g. Wirth, 1938). This history is dealt with elsewhere, but it is worth briefly restating to emphasise how the shifting spatiality, formed in and through the increased fluidity of social relations, formed a primary aspect of the work of the Chicago School. In the opening pages of The City, for instance, Robert Park (1925: 8) observed that:

human geography has been profoundly modified by human invention . . . under these circumstances the concept of position, of distance, and of mobility have come to have a new significance. Mobility is important as a sociological concept only in so far as it ensures new social contact, and physical distance is significant for social relations only when it is possible to interpret it in terms of social distance.

Note that Park’s concern is not movement and space perse but how mobility is relevant for social relations and interaction. The orientation to the ‘natural’organisation of urban space and movements within and between different zones of the city, was, of course, further explored in the “Chicago ethnographies” (e.g. Zorbaugh’s (1983 [1926]) research on the ‘natural’ production of distinct areas in the city and cultural segregation). In addition to new forms of spatial organisation, the public realm increasingly comprised a shifting population of individuals who, to differing degrees, did not personally know one another but, nonetheless, had to negotiate together a fluid and fleeting series of encounters. As Lyn H. Lofland has it (1985), whatever might be said of the city, one of the fundamental aspects of urban life is that it is experienced as a “world of strangers”. This “problem of strangers” formed a site of intellectual encounters between the empirical programme of the Chicago ethnographers, the sociology of Georg Simmel, and pragmatist philosophy, particularly that of George Herbert Mead. Simmel’s (1908 [1950]) writings on the impact of urban living upon the mental processes of individuals (who adopt an increasingly blasé attitude towards their surroundings and fellow citizens) are well-known, as are the essays on “The Stranger” and “The Sociology of the Senses”. A key contribution of Simmel’s (1908(1950): 402) work is the notion — the influence of which can been seen in Park’s position cited earlier — that spatial relations are “only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations”. As such, changing conditions and practices of mobility demand different relations between co-present others, for example, in managing gaze and visual contact Qensen, 2006).

Mead’s writings on space and time developed a critical engagement with the philosophy of Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, among others. Mead shared a processual view of reality — and, of course, of mind, self, and society — yet rejected the dualism at the heart of the Bergsonian treatment, which led to a differential status for space and time. Indeed, despite the appeal for this chapter of the oft-cited Bergson (1911 [2007]: 22) quote “movement is reality itself ”, the fuller discussion goes on to position intellect as starting out from serial immobilities, which are assembled to give the impression of movement, with movement being related, instead, to intuition. For Bergson, then, space is treated as external and abstract. Time, and duré, are seen to be ‘closer’ to reality.

Mead’s critique drew from his engagement with the theory of relativity and the conceptualisation of space-time. Importantly, for Mead, absolute space-time was to be treated as a scientific construct, and, therefore, it is necessary to recognise how referents to ‘space’ and ‘time’ have meaning within a specific reference system and corresponding objective present (Mead, 1969; also, Brogaard, 1999). From this position, Mead developed his discussion on the development of intelligence and the constitution of experience in the act. The social significance of an object is realised in ‘contact’ and ‘distance’ relationships within a specific spatialised present, through a ‘distance stimulus’ leading to contact or avoidance. In contact, the “hand fashions the physical or perceptual thing”, and it is in this way that “Physical things are perceptual things. They also arise within the act” (Mead, 1969: 394).

These early inspirations for the serious treatment of space and mobility as relational aspects of social experience have a legacy — although often an unstated one — in various elements of core interactionist theory and research. Erving Goffinan’s sociology, for example, was centrally concerned with the rules and structures and rituals of face-to-face encounters in social settings. Across his writings, space, distance, and mobility are abiding themes, and 1 return to these later. At the same time, a range of related and commensurate studies were conducted, including the development of proxemics (Hall, 1966) and the environmental psychology' of Robert G. Barker and Herbert F. Wright (1951).2

Other approaches, most notably Harold Garfinkel’s (1967 [1984]) ethnomethodology, drew on a (deliberate mis-)reading of phenomenological philosophy in attending to and describing how space and movement are embodied and accomplished as part of the phenomenal field, rather than abstract or ‘structural’, properties of the life-world. Edmund Husserl’s (1913(2012]) phenomenology provided for objects as apprehendable in terms of their relation to a background of different scales not immediately available from which the object “detaches itself”. Indeed, a common thread across the various iterations of the phenomenological attitude towards space and mobility is an attention to the reflexive organisation of experience in terms of “categories of acquaintance and strangeness” (Schutz, 1966: 10) in which the “sharing of space and time” forms a key component of the intersubjective life-world in terms of “reach” (118—119). This is further developed in Maurice Merleau-Ponty s (1962 [2000]) philosophy of embodiment and experience and, specifically, his distinction of a spatiality of situation in which “bodily space can be distinguished from external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading them out, because it is the darkness needed in the theatre to show up the performance” (100). For Merleau-Ponty, “We must therefore avoid saying that our body is in space or in time. It inhabits space and time” (1962 [2000]:139). The notion of inhabiting space and time is significant in offering an alternative view of the body and experience, space and time, and motion as intertwined, relational, and as mutually constitutive orders. In pursuing this perspective, the question becomes not one of simply locating bodies in space and time but of exploring the practices through which space and mobility are ongoingly accomplished. Space is also, of course, accomplished in and through language, and spatial categories are found in use in the accomplishment of many activities — telling a story being a prime example (Sacks, 1986) — although there is not room for a discussion of this here.

In sum, the contribution of interactionist theory and research to the understanding of space and mobility can be organised in to three key elements. The first is that all interactions happen somewhere, and they all take place — even when mediated by technology — in actual settings consisting of material, spatial, and motile resources. The second contribution is a direct relation of the classic tenets of interactionism, in that the meaning of any given social setting or place is produced and modified in joint interaction and will be acted toward in relation to that meaning. The third is that social settings are ongoingly accomplished as an “interaction ecology” (see, e.g. Nevile et al. [2014]) as actors recruit, negotiate, adapt, and organise objects, mobility, and the materiality of settings.

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