“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 theoretical analysis of the similarities and differences between people living in other societies, or to use an anthropological expression “ to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange”. Traditionally, early 19thc classical anthropological studies were associated with the study of religion or kinship structures of far-flung ‘exotic’ people and landscapes. However, there are many anthropologies, and contemporary 21st c research is now often based at home. In the UK, ethnographic fieldwork often explores the global impact of cultural and migratory experiences, ranging from food, to language, body tattoos, music and the meaning of home upon local societies and diaspora groups. For example in linguistic anthropology there is currently major global research upon endangered languages; but research may fall across the same multicultural society, where regional dialects are compared between Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Or as one of my students explored, the study of slang from 1990’s American hip-hop music to the community streets of South London today.
The term ‘Culture’ is associated with the shared language, beliefs, values, behaviour and knowledge of a society, and 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 sub-culture, multicultural). Similarly, our concept and understanding of Space is equally a multi-layered, slippery 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 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 reflected upon in new ways and 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) and migratory spaces of displacement.
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 to be explored. In some shape or form, the articles in this blog aim to reflect these spatial issues and hopefully bring some thought to 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, you may want to register for an anthropology course, get in touch via my Talking Streets contact form or social media.
January 2022 I deliver two 10 week Anthropology of Space courses over three terms.
I also run Spatial Rhythm workshops that explore indigenous art styles with various dates and times.
For further course information please see and click below.
Yasmin Hales: All copyright reserved 2021.