Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Is the "social production of space" a bad concept?

I spent years trying to figure out what the "social production of space" means. I read the works people were citing and recommending (Lefebrve, Setha Low, Gottdeiner in sociology, etc.). Lefebvre was a wash-out: incomprehensible. (And when I read his statement that humans only reach their full potential when living in cities, the anthropologist in me barfed. So all those poor slobs, our ancestors, living in the world before the urban revolution. They couldn't reach their potentials. Give me a break.) The other authors seemed to make sense while I was reading them, but then 30 minutes later I couldn't for the life of me recall what the concept meant. I had a real block about this idea. Finally, in talking with an archaeologist colleague who was fully committed to the social production of space, it dawned on me why I had so much trouble with the concept.

After hearing her explanation, I asked whether there was such a thing as space that was NOT socially produced. Space, that is, that had been the setting for some kind of human activity, not space on Mars or in Greenland 30,000 years ago. No, of course not! Space is always socially produced. Aha! If space is always socially produced, then how is this a useful concept? Space is socially produced by definition. Fine, but how does this advance our understanding of variation among human spaces? This marketplace and that ceremonial plaza are both socially produced. But I want to know how they differ, as well as how they are similar. This platform was once a ceremonial structure, and then it became a housefloor in a later period. I'd like to understand that process of change. But if the space of that platform was always socially produced, how can that concept help me understand change through time?

The problem, for me, is that the social production of space is a humanities concept, and I think like a social scientist (in case you haven't guessed). The social production of space is one of those highly abstract, philosophical concepts that describes the way the world works in general; it is not a concept that explains specific social contexts on the ground. For fans of Abend (2008), this concept is theory type 5, and/or perhaps theory type 3; it is certainly not a workhorse causal concept that pertains to theory types 1 and 2. See my discussion of Abend here., or better, go read the paper yourself. It's a great paper that will open the eyes of archaeologists. As I detail in my paper on arguments in archaeology (Smith 2015), abstract and philosophical social theory is not useful for explaining social processes on the ground (see also Smith 2011). It is for high-level musing about how the world is structured in general

For the social production of space, see Lefebvre, Low or Soja. Unwin provides a critique (references below)

I was reminded of my original reaction to the social production of space while reading an excellent treatment of social science methods (6 and Bellamy 2012). In their chapter on concept formation, they discuss "four closely related methodological reasons for ensuring that concepts are sound and appropriately structured" (p. 131). And, guess what? The social production of space is NOT a sound and appropriately structured concept from the perspective of social science epistemology. It may be a fine concept in the humanities; I couldn't say. What are the four reasons?

(1)  "If we define and/or operationalise concepts wrongly, then our research questions will lack precision, and we shall not be able to choose the right cases or population to test them. That is to say, our research will lose external validity." [SPS is not a very precise concept]

(2)  "If we specify and structure our concepts poorly, we cannot develop appropriate research instruments and apply them accurately and consistently. So the reseach will not achieve measurement validity and reliability."  [Does the social production of space have any research instruments at all?]

(3)  "Without getting concepts right, we cannot select appropriate populations and cases and thus make appropriate comparisons between them:"

(4)  "Quite simply, if we specify concepts wrongly, we will draw incorrect inferences in explanations and interpretations."  (all quotes, pp. 131-133)

So, quite simply, the social production of space does not make the grade as an adequate social science concept. Gerring (2012) has a nice discussion of concept formation in the social sciences, even better than 6 and Bellamy (and yes, the surname is "6"). I didn't have the heart to trot out Gerring and evaluate SPS in terms of his criteria.

If you view archaeology as part of the humanities, then much of what I write in this blog may not make much sense. But if you view it as a social science--a discipline that can contribute to the task of understanding human societies and their transformations over time in a rigorous fashion that will be accepted by other social scientists--then you should pay attention to your concepts, and think about whether they can carry real explanatory weight or whether they are just abstract hot air.

6, Perri and Christine Bellamy
2012    Principles of Methodology: Research Design in Social Science. Sage, New York.

Abend, Gabriel
2008    The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26: 173-199.

Gerring, John
2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Lefebvre, Henri
1991    The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell, Oxford.

Low, Setha M.
1996    Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica. American Ethnologist 23: 861-879.

Smith, Michael E.
2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.

2015    How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4): 18-23.

Soja, Edward W.
2000    Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Blackwell, Oxford.

Unwin, Tim
2000    A Waste of Space? Towards a Critique of the Social Production of Space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 25 (1): 11-29.

1 comment:

Michael E. Smith said...

I just realized that I did not actually define the "social production of space" in my post. In the interest of saving time, here is some text from the entry on Henri Lefebvre in Wikipedia:

"Lefebvre contends that there are different modes of production of space (i.e. spatialization) from natural space ('absolute space') to more complex spatialities whose significance is socially produced (i.e. social space).[19] Lefebvre analyses each historical mode as a three-part dialectic between everyday practices and perceptions (le perçu), representations or theories of space (le conçu) and the spatial imaginary of the time (le vécu).[20] His conception of "imaginary" draws from the work of Cornelius Castoriadis.

Lefebvre's argument in The Production of Space is that space is a social product, or a complex social construction (based on values, and the social production of meanings) which affects spatial practices and perceptions. This argument implies the shift of the research perspective from space to processes of its production; the embrace of the multiplicity of spaces that are socially produced and made productive in social practices; and the focus on the contradictory, conflictual, and, ultimately, political character of the processes of production of space.[21]"

19 - "Place, A Short Introduction", Tim Cresswell

20 - Shields, Rob Places on the Margin, Routledge, 1991, ISBN 0-415-08022-3 pp. 50-58.

21 - Stanek, Lukasz Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, p. ix.

Some archaeologists colleagues enamored of the production of space have told me that Setha Low's concept is more accessible:

(Low 1996:861) “The social production of space includes all those factors—social, economic, ideological, and technological—the intended goal of which is the physical creation of the material setting. The materialist emphasis of the term social production is useful in defining the historical emergence and political and economic formation of urban space. The term social construction may then be conveniently reserved for the phenomenological and symbolic experience of space as mediated by social processes such as exchange, conflict and control.”

I find this problematic in that social and economic factors cannot have "intended goals." Her concept of "social construction" is closer to the wy many archaeologists use the "social production of space" as a concept.