RE-PLACED: Transformations of Spatial Description in the Twenty-
University of Warwick
ROUGH DRAFT ONLY
Why such a revival of interest in place, and why now? These are the questions I want to address in this paper. For wherever one looks now in the humanities and social sciences – in anthropology, in archaeology, in
architecture, in economics, in education, in history, in law, in politics, in sociology and social policy – it is possible to find the signs of what might be called spatial life: place recurs more and more often as both a problem and as a solution. In other words, I want to suggest that we are living through a remarkable revival of interest in place, comparable to and probably surpassing the burst of interest at the turn of the nineteenth century when environment, diffusion, crowd formation, imitation, and similar topics formed a common spatial problematic in many areas of knowledge.
This revival is often portrayed as a theoretical rediscovery of the importance of space and place. Certainly that has been a powerful element in the story. But, in contrast, I want to argue that it equally stems from the application of different methods of understanding place by many and various agencies. Over time, or so I will argue, the application of these methods has been producing a new kind of placeness which is just as complex and variegated as what went before but equally forms a new kind of landscape with its own forms of experience. Once we finally get away from the idea that methods are not just reports back from the found and uncorrupted reality of what is there but are themselves parts of the situation so we can start to see the full richness of this new prospect. It is something of the sweep of this prospect that I want to outline in this paper and the kinds of organs that are becoming possible as a result (Thrift, 2005). In effect, what I will be trying to outline is a fundamental transformation in the description of objects, akin to that which occurred in the eighteenth century (Wall, 2006) which constitutes a shift in what we know and what we want to know, enabled by how we know, one occasioned, exactly as in the eighteenth century, by a set of uncannily similar major cultural changes;
experientially, [by] technologically new ways of seeing and
appreciating objects in the ordinary world through the popular
prostheses of microscope, telescope, and empirical analysis;
economically, [by] the expansion of consumer culture in the
increasing presence and awareness of things on the market, in the
house, and in daily life; epistemologically, [by] the changing attitudes
toward the general and the particular, the universal and the individual;
and, narratively, [by] the perception and representation of domestic
space (Wall, 2006, p2).
The paper is therefore in three parts. In the first part of the paper, I will outline the qualities of the sweep of a new generation of research methods that are now being applied to place. The proliferation of research methods, as marked by seemingly endless compendia and book series – for example,
the Sage Advanced Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences is up to
Number 146 while the Sage Introducing Qualitative Methods in the Social Sciences series is at Number 21 - is itself part of the process I want to examine. I will argue that these methods are making places into what I will call dynamic laboratories, environments which constitute laboratories in the field (combing the qualities of both) which are simultaneously engines that allow the production of truths.
In the second part of the paper, I will argue that these methods are not just internally constructed but also arise from wider social pressures. I will fix on one of these pressures, the rise of individualised consumption and its socio-spatial correlate, a new kind of worlding, one through which new kinds of inhabitation are being produced. Following on from the work of Lazzarato and Sloterdijk in particular, I will outline how, driven by the demands of individualized consumption, a new kind of spatial atmosphere is being created which allows different kinds of subjects, objects and worlds to come into existence through the construction of what I will call the ‘inhabitable
map’. In making this argument I will not be arguing that research methods are simply an affirmation of prevailing values; they are a means of exploring and interrogating the world with their own agency. They are not only a social construction, therefore, but an active presence in their own right. But I will also argue that moves afoot in various methodological camps to produce greater attention to place and to values like recursivity, reflexivity and participation cannot just be seen as emancipatory. In part, they are also an element of and driven by a more general zeitgeist of the generalized interrogation of subjects and objects and the construction of spaces that will allow that interrogation.
Of course what exactly this all might mean for us – do these developments 1signify the emergence of a new kind of digitalised Palladian landscape or
1 After all, it was Repton who argued that ‘ a knowledge of arrangement or disposition is, of all others, the most useful’ (cited in Wall, 2006, p6).
the construction of a new outer circle of Hell? – is still opaque. I will top the
paper off by turning to these political questions, since they are not just about how our environment is able to attain grip on our lives but also about how our environments are becoming our lives so that grip has itself become an inadequate term because it implies one thing operating on another rather than a melding of the two - or the creation of a third term. In turn, I will suggest that what is needed politically is a project of what Peter Sloterdijk calls ‘ventilation’ or ‘air-conditioning’ in which spaces are loosened up so
that they provide resources for political thinking and responsiveness.
2. The Rise of Place-Based Research Methods
It is often argued that place has been rediscovered because of the strong theoretical push of the so-called ‘spatial turn’ that has tracked across most of the social sciences and humanities. Certainly, it has, I think, become clear that the old categorical ways of thinking which simply aggregated populations up into general classes which were distributed across space in varying proportions are no longer adequate. In part, this is because these categorical ways of thinking are echoes of a bygone form of discipline which is now being superseded by much more individualised forms of discipline which take in many more variables in characterising character (for example, increasingly, various indicators of biological well-being). These individualised forms of discipline which arise out of a mixture of technique, changes in the nature of commodity production (Zuboff and Maximin, 2003), and shifts in the mode of subjectivity, have highlighted the importance of place understood as more than context in that they make it much easier to see its operation once individuals become more than the sum of their parts. Place is then no longer seen as an incidental correlate but as a crucial element in human flourishing. Place is in us all. Thus, for example, place is clearly an important factor in how happiness and health is constituted (Marmot, 2005). Certainly, these changes have been one of the prompts to a more general theoretical reconsideration of place which has arisen out of dissatisfaction, amongst other impulses, with categorical ways of proceeding which make it difficult to discuss the generative powers of place as being anything other than a by-product, a generalised prefix with no powers of its own. This theoretical reconsideration has arisen from a successive mixture of phenomenological, poststructuralist, and latterly posthuman perspectives (Thrift, 1999) and has positioned place in a quite different way. So, for example;
This is a quite different way of thinking about humans as ‘in place’, in
which we discover ourselves as being in place, not only in virtue of a
social role, but in virtue of our being placed as processes of being in a
processual web of natural, social and cultural life. This sense of place
as mobile, processual, creative, and as inter-related and intersubjective,
of course reintroduces an ethics. It is the semiotic ethic of responding:
both responsibility and responsiveness (Wheeler, 2006, p156).
The point is that place is now seen as a process, not a static frame, but capturing this process is by no means an easy task for it signifies a shift in what counts as relationality, since all entities are portrayed not only as in constant flux but also as having different capacities to endure within this flux. Instead of one time signature, there are many, and the endurance of these signatures depends on the kinds of spaces each of them can capture.
Whilst this theoretical recasting has clearly been important, its impact has perhaps been overstated compared with the more general empirical recasting of the world which has brought place to the fore. In particular the sheer mobility of the contemporary world, signalled by phenomena like the rise of logistical knowledge and the prominence of migration, which mean that places have become coupled together and that one place is always shadowed by others, coupled with a more and more complex spatial environment (as indexed by, for example, the rise of so-called super-diverse places (Vertovec, 2005)) and a general increase in place awareness (as indexed by, for example, the sheer number of publications on places, let alone the expansion of environmental concern) has surely been as important in foregrounding place.
Much neglected, however, has been the role of specific research methods in this recasting. Research methods, understood as nothing more and nothing less than a series of technologies, may arise from particular theoretical backdrops but they cannot by any means be reduced to them. It is the proliferation and profusion of place-based or place-sensitive methods that I therefore want to examine. In a sense, I want to argue that the boys (and girls) in the back room have been as responsible for the production of descriptions of the modern world as any theorist.
Gieryn (2006) has noted that there are many ways in which researchers can build methodological relationships to place and to the people in them, and these have varied over time. Thus the Chicago School of urban studies -
arguably the first modern School of place-based research – deployed three
main ‘shuttles’ in order to demonstrate that it was constructing a ‘truth spot’
which guaranteed both the knowledge it was producing and Chicago as a laboratory within which knowledge could be produced and guaranteed, namely ‘found and made’, ‘here and anywhere’, and ‘immersed and
detached’. These shuttles constituted oscillations which also constituted means of authority. Thus ‘found and made’ described the oscillation
between the city as found in a natural state and the city as a laboratory specimen, ‘here and anywhere’ described the city as a singular location and
yet as having a general story to tell, while ‘immersed and detached’
described the way in which the researcher is positioned as both immersed in the city (and thus as open to surprise, emotion, vulnerability and empathy) and yet also able to distance themselves from its circumstances when necessary. As I shall point out, the nature of these shuttles is changing. The city is now naturally a laboratory, continually being put to the question. Its inhabitants are in a state of perpetual survey and assume that this is a part of life. Because of the high degree of all but instant linkage between locations and people occasioned by the media, each part of the city is likely to contain traces of itself: it is naturally both singular and general. And the city has been the object of myriad self-conscious exercises in place-making which have forever muddied a distinction between observer and observed (Sheringham, 2006), not only in the guise of travellers’ tales but also in the
form of the kinds of orientations that can be adopted, whether these are faux-realist or lost but with style (as in that strand of work that stretches from the earliest situationist experiments to the latest artistic commentaries which mix method technology and place in unholy ways). Indeed, with the rise of the internet, this kind of observation is - to an extent at least - being democratized, with myriad observers constantly reporting back on places.
What I want to do first in this section is to briefly survey the shifting landscape of social science methods, understood as a series of technologies for not only understanding the world but operating on it. In doing this, I want to show how the shuttles that guarantee knowledge of truth and place now assume quite different relationships between ‘home’ and ‘field’ than
was current at the time of the Chicago School, producing a quite different form of inquiry which presupposes a world of places which has not existed in the same form before. This does not seem to me to be about the old and hackneyed divisions between qualitative and quantitative methods, or synchronic and diachronic approaches, or other such oft remarked-upon contrasts, important though these may be. Nor is this a matter of the
undoubted differences in research cultures, given that these are often 2extreme, between different bands of social researchers. Rather, I want to
show that this shift is a part and parcel of a more general change in the character of methodological study whose ambitions are only now becoming clear. These ambitions are concerned with producing inhabitable maps which will continuously report on themselves as they evolve. In other words, both data and research methods increasingly work at levels which allow place to have a say.
These changes in the character of methods depend on a dialectic between data and methods. Most importantly, data has expanded its reach both quantitatively and qualitatively and this expansion arises out of a convoluted and sometimes unpredictable interaction between data and methods; new methods generate new data and vice versa. Thus, first of all, there is the sheer amount of data that is now available to be operated on, whether this is quantitative or qualitative in nature which is, simultaneously, redefining what is counted as primary or secondary information (as in the growing vogue for ‘netnography’ which uses blogs and personal websites freely available on the web, or interventions into various discussion groups or web communities as means of creating various kinds of listening posts). The sheer amount of data available on places has been particularly pushed by the growth of the commercial domain, with some of these data now entering the public domain (as in the case of some Experian data; see Webber, 2007). Second, datasets have also become more complex, containing more
information which can be related in more and different ways. These data sets often arising out of the ability to use various government and other data in ways which heretofore would have been difficult. A good example is provided by the use by economists and geographers of schools and health service data to consider issues like segregation or the outcomes of particular government policies (eg Burgess and Johnston, 2005). Third, datasets often involve much more complex orientations to time. Thus, more comprehensive longitudinal datasets have arisen around the world, datasets which have often become multinational (as, for example, in work on time use or world values or labour force involvement). These datasets are a continuous investment, often mutating slightly with each pass as new questions are added. In them, data are either continuously collected or are linked over time.
2 I am struck by how few commentators have likened these differences to the kinds of difference in scientific culture that are now routinely observed in social studies of science and which seem to me to be both extreme and likely to make it impossible to provide general groundings in research methods as if methods were just some kind of cookbook.
Fourth, the rise of new kinds of methods is leading to an extension of the sensory registers that are worked in. For example, most commonly, visual methods of all kinds have proliferated, often in line with technological advance. For example, the ubiquity of cameras has allowed visual research methods to be extended in all kinds of ways: allowing respondents to use small disposables, the use of camera phones, the use of small video cameras, and so on. But, increasingly, other registers are also being invoked. Thus sound, taste, touch and various kinaesthetic information (like gait) are now being sought, often taking a leaf out of work done in the humanities, as a means of capturing forms of experience like emotion which constitute primary forms of data in modern life. As one dancer put it, ‘feelings are
facts’ and the challenge has become how to represent them as data. Fifth, the parallel turn to material culture has produced a wide variety of data sets which did not exist before or were simply not considered to be operable data. Thus, not only has a host of consumer data become available but museums and galleries can now be viewed as sources of social science insight. Sixth, datasets increasingly contain place-bound information as more than simply an illustration of variation. More and more datasets either systematically build in place or start from it. And finally most methods are no longer, if they ever were, just the preserve of academic researchers. To the extent that this has ever been true, it is quite clear that research methods now exist in a web of use which stretches from academe and government through to business and civil society. There are thriving methods communities in areas 3like market research and political consultancy, for example. To summarize,
new methodological ambitions have become possible because what counts as data has changed, not least because new hybrid classes of objects can be created out of these ambitions such as objects that were heretofore regarded as impermanent and/or highly localised - for example, goods for sale, in transit or in storage, vehicles on the road, events, discarded items, pollution, weather – and also because it is more and more possible to obtain data on ‘individuals’. Knowledge of these things expressed as methods and data both redefines what counts as objects and individuals and by making them visible alters their relationship to us.
These changes in data are both driven and being driven by technological change. Thus, the ability to record and transcribe has been speeded up by all kinds of technological aids. Similarly, the ability to permanently archive
3 An interesting study would be to look at the commerce between these different communities and how, in particular, methods move between them.
data cheaply and in a form that it can be easily re-used is at least in sight. Importantly, these changes do not only produce more speed and memory. They also extend analytical range. Thus, calculations that would have heretofore been impossible become attainable. Again, it becomes possible to use simulation as more than a tool but as an instrument in its own right. And increasing store and speed also allows text, pictures, and other image information to be presented and analysed in ways not before dreamt of, and to be integrated with each other. The result is a plethora of possibilities, many of which are only beginning to be explored as the social sciences begin to intersect with performance. For example, it seems clear that, so far as grid computing is concerned, one of its main uses will turn out to be the construction of vast archives of text and visual data of the kind currently used predominantly in the humanities to exactly consider place-based phenomena like landscape and site.
As I have pointed out, the generation of new data has proceeded in lockstep with the invention of new methods. There is no space here to review each and every new area of social methodology. All that needs to be said is that they are multiple and multiplying. Rather, I want to suggest that most new methods – from the new work in ethnomethodology to recent advances in sequence analysis – share some common aspirations. If we were to describe these ambitions, rather than their rougher and readier reality, then I think we would have to pull out five main characteristics. First, these methods are reactive. That is, they are no longer understood as an end point but are cross-sections of a continuing process, pulled out to infinity. They can be repeated, though often with alterations. Second, they are historical, in the sense that they acknowledge path dependence and emergence. They are tracks over time, rather than fixed point analyses. Third, they are increasingly technologically driven by software. Software can be used to order and analyse ethnographic transcription, to understand turn-taking and the patterns of conversation, to focus on the key moments in focus groups, or to zero in on where visual attention is being directed, as well as to run laboratory tests or make multilevel modelling or methods imported from genetic sequencing into something even unskilled researchers can grapple with. Fourth, they can be used to maintain and repair data. Thus, new techniques have made it easier to utilize particular kinds of data that heretofore would have been opaque to analysis, brush up data that would have been too incomplete to use, link data that are of different types, use data that would have been thought not to constitute a proper sample, and so on. And, finally, they acknowledge complexity. That does not mean that the
methods can always describe the vagaries of that state but it does mean that they understand that the world is complex and cannot be reduced. Instead the ambition is to understand emergent patterns, playing to the idea of a generative social science (Epstein, 2006).
There is also a much more relaxed approach to what these methods are achieving. The wave of critiques of positivism in the 1960s and 1970s, the postmodern critiques of the 1970s and 1980s, the ethnographic absolutisms of the 1980s and 1980s, have, or so it seems to me, dissolved into something more forgiving. There is a general emphasis on rigour but not at the expense of a narrow sectionalism. There is a general emphasis on sophistication, but not at the expense of appropriateness. Though methodological approaches do still clearly differ, still there are also much greater commonalities. For example, economists are no longer ashamed to be caught mining extensive datasets. Anthropologists are willing to countenance redefining ethnography so that it can include objects that cannot answer back, and need to be approached at an angle, as in various para-ethnographic excursions (Riles, 2006, Marcus, 2005). Sociologists and geographers have become interested in the insights that can be gleaned from work in performance. In other words, the world is increasingly recognised to be a dappled one (Cartwright, 1999). This is not an age for truth fanatics, even though the dividing lines between methodological communities are often still well-defended.
The renewed interest in place does not just emerge, then, from place suddenly getting its just desserts. It also emerges from a change in how methods themselves are being thought of, the result of theoretical changes in how methods are conceived of (Abbott, 1999) which make place easier to understand, the rise of new and speedier technologies and a slow but sure redefinition of what counts as truth, resulting from the methodological history of the last forty years.
But the tendency towards considering place has also clearly been boosted in four ways. First, there is intensive mapping on a scale never before seen. Thus Cosgrove (2005, p149) points out that;
[Large North American cities] are some of the most intensively
mapped spaces in the history and geography of the planet: every
square metre is geo-coded by government and private or commercial
agencies for purposes ranging from environmental protection, public
health, and safety, efficient transportation and transportation to