The rhythm analyst will come to “listen” to a house, a street, a town, as an audience listens to a symphony”

 (Lefebvre:2004 cit Beaumont and Dart: 2010, Restless Cites xi).

How do we define the relationship between culture and space?



The definition of Social Anthropology is the cross cultural study of human behaviour. Integral to the birth of the discipline is the cultural and theoretical analysis of people living in other societies.  Traditionally, early 19thc classical anthropological studies were associated with the study of religion or family structures of far-flung ‘exotic’ people and landscapes in Borneo. Today however, contemporary 21st c anthropological research is often based at home in the UK, and fieldwork, for example the study of contemporary language, may fall within or across the same multicultural society, where regional linguistic dialects are compared between Manchester and Liverpool.
The term ‘Culture’ is associated with the shared language, beliefs, values, behaviour and knowledge of a society, and has been described by Raymond Williams (1973) in ‘Keywords’ as one of the most complex words in the English language. We know that Culture is not a ‘thing’. It is not static, nor does it only operate from 9-5 pm. The concept of Culture is a unique, dynamic flow of multi-layered human experiences that shifts its meaning globally, nationally, communally and individually, between people from different ages, classes, genders, socio-economic and ethnic groups (hence the terms sub-culture, multicultural). Similarly, our concept and understanding of Space is equally a slippery, multi-layered term to define.



How do you define your experience of space?




Space is often associated with outer space – linked to astronomy or physics, but consider the social spaces we share on a daily basis but never acknowledge. Our language is littered with spatial metaphors as people live, dwell, and construct ‘within’ a spatial environment, public spaces are ‘separated’ from private ones, and we walk, and even fly ‘through’ physical and virtual spaces (Salmond:1982). I often reflect on how our bodies connect with the landscape to create our spatial rhythms and individual narratives of daily city life. The urban, mundane spaces which create a spatial restlessness that is almost tangible within todays society. Or conversely, the quiet familiarity of rural, village community spaces.
When travelling I am always struck by the performance, cultural sounds and aromatic smells of ritual ceremonies that produce that sense of sacred stillness associated with religious architectural spaces. Curiously, however,  our experience and expression of these spaces are completely ignored. Space doesn’t appear to have any significance at all. In general, we don’t talk or think about it, and if we did, our western concept of Cartesian space would appear as one large, natural, homogenous mass. However, as Lefebvre (1974) states in his seminal publication ‘The Production of Space’ the concept and experience of space, like culture, is not an abstract, passive container of human activity. Space needs to be thought about in new ways with new perspectives. Our experience of space is neither natural nor neutral.

Our experience of space is neither natural nor neutral.




Consequently, within academia, since the 1990’s there has been a ‘Spatial Turn’.  This term is used to describe an intellectual movement that places emphasis on a current concept such as ‘place and space’ in the social sciences. It is closely linked with studies of history, literature, cartography, and geography and has resulted in a wide ranging selection of interdisciplinary academic texts, from urban planners to psychologists who explore the relationship between space and human behaviour. At the core of my anthropology research is an interdisciplinary analysis of space, place and the cultural landscape in India, South Asia. I question how people decorate domestic spaces in relation to vernacular architecture in South India, (anthropology of architecture), or those contradictory in-between spaces, whether rural or urban markets to domestic thresholds (boundaries, marginal, liminal and contested spaces). Equally important are spaces of  ‘otherness’ (colonial and post-colonial spaces) the relationship between space and place (anthropology of landscape) and how spaces are mapped, politicised and classified from a western and indigenous perspective (cartographic spaces). I am particularly interested in how our relationship with space is created through our daily lived experience and the senses (phenomenological) and our physical movement through space, (environmental perception, way finding) which relates to how we think about and mentally perceive space (mental mapping, cognitive space, psychology of space, spaces of memory). The way we inhabit and carve up space domestically (anthropology of the home) and how space is experienced  by men and women cross-culturally (gendered space), ritual and ceremonial spaces (performative, religious spaces) to the aesthetics of space within photography and film (visual anthropology) are all themes I aim to address.

 Central research questions are :
  • How is the cultural concept of space experienced and expressed within society?
  • Why do different cultures decorate their homes in different ways?
Whilst these spatial theories may be applied globally, it is the local, lived experience of space, place and the landscape that will provide the shifting  context that aims to be explored. In some shape or form,  the articles in this blog aim to reflect upon these spatial issues and hopefully bring some thought to my cultural research on the Anthropology of Space.
If this text inspires you, do share your thoughts and experiences. And if you are really interested in the rich diversity of social anthropology and the spatial trajectories of human experience, you may want to register for an anthropology courseget in touch via my Talking Streets contact form or social media
From October 2018 and January 2019 I am delivering two 10 week Anthropology of Space courses in two academic locations. over three terms.
I also run Spatial Rhythm creative workshops with various dates and times.
For further course information please see and click below.
1) Anthropology Dept, Short Courses Goldsmiths University
Monday 1st October 2018
2) Anthropology of Space at City Lit Adult College
Monday 13th May 2019.  
Yasmin Hales: All copyright reserved 2018.