What is place and space?

Place and space, two terms used so commonly and casually by most people, are remarkably challenging concepts to define. Space tends to be thought of in the abstract, an infinite, continuous expanse – from the vastness of the cosmos to the depths of the mental space in which we think. Place on the other hand, is bounded and local. It is defined by a human narrative and experience; it is a material demonstration of some social practice, or a memory of such, which marks it out from other spaces. It is a place to which we feel we belong.

Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu was one of the first scholars to discuss the understanding of space through meaning and action, rather than strictly in structural terms. He argued that space has no meaning apart from practice – actions which interact to define and reinforce cultural knowledge and social behaviours. This system of generating dispositions, habitus, “constitutes and is constituted by actors’ movements though space” (Bourdieu 1984). This in turn means that the interpretation of space can not be fixed, as it is the social practices of the actors within the space who provide the spatial meaning.

Also on this line of thinking, Henri Lefebvre in the Production of Space (1991), proposed that space is socially produced, rather than being a pre-existing volume or environment. He described a tripartite division between material space (that which is experienced through our primary sense perceptions via human practices), the representation of space (spaces as we conceive them through language, maps, diagrams, concepts or codes), and spaces of representation (space as lived – physically, affectively, emotionally through imagination, dreams, fears).

David Harvey, whose social critique builds on the same Marxist theory as Lefebvre, offers a more comprehensive framework to define space, using Lefebvre’s tripartite division as one dimension, and offers a second dimension of another three co-existing definitions of space and time (Harvey 2005). First, absolute space and time, a mathematical reference location which identifies the individuality and uniqueness of every person, thing and process that has ever, or will ever exist. This is the space of Newtonian Mechanics and Euclidean spaces – with all events measurable and predictable. The second definition is of relative space, where space and time cannot be understood separately – the space-time of relativistic physics, and non-Euclidean geometries. These are the spaces of process and motion (a journey, an exchange of information), where what is observed varies according to what is relativised and by whom. All forms of measurement (including observation itself) depend upon the frame of reference of the observer. The third and final definition is relational space, where meaning is attached to space through interaction and memory. Space and time are internalised within matter and process, in other words, the process itself produces its own space and time.

Harvey goes on to ask, “how do can we understand things, events and processes in terms of the relational spacetime they produce?”. Harvey offers that any event, thing or process cannot be solely understood by what exist at a single point in space and time. An object may be understood to crystallise out of a field of flows into “an event”. The object is formed of everything within that field of flows from all past, present and future events. Identify becomes multiple and indeterminate and direct measurement impossible. Influences flow from everywhere to everywhere else.

This conjecture is based upon the writings of British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead rejected the idea that an object has a single, simple spatial or temporal location. Instead, he concluded that all objects should be understood as fields which have both a spatial and temporal extension. He surmised that the ‘absolute’ point in space-time that we can conceive is in fact a simplified abstraction, arrived at as a limit of a series of volumes (like an infinite series of nested Russian dolls). “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world” (Whitehead 1925, p114). Whitehead elaborates this line of thinking by concluding that it is process, rather than substance, that is the most fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world.

At the core of Whitehead’s metaphysics are many ideas which are contrary to the traditional view of material substance. In Western scientific cosmology, matter is a senseless, purposeless material which follows a fixed set of reactions when acted upon by external relations, which do not emerge from the nature of its being. According to Whitehead, the recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is essential for anyone wanting to develop a comprehensive account of nature. “Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events. The result is that nature is no longer thought to be simply atoms in the void, but instead a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process”. (As quoted in Irvine 2015).

If we question what is the space of an immaterial object (such as an experience, a thought or memory), then it is seemingly impossible to offer a concrete, material answer. There is no absolute point in space and time to reference, nor any way to quantify and measure the space relative to something else. The ideas of relational space offer a way to describe the immaterial. We must consider all of the things, events, processes and social practices that have produced this specific place in spacetime.


Bourdieu, Pierre, 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Harvey, David. 2005. “Spacetime and the World”, in Cosmopolitanism & Geographies of Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press, pp 135-165

Irvine, Andrew David, “Alfred North Whitehead”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/whitehead/>.

Lefebvre, Henri, 1991. The Production of Space, trans Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1925. Science and the Modern World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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