Book Review: The Anthropology of Space and Place

The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture edited by Setha M. Low and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga

Space and place are words that architects use without second thought to their exact meanings, even though they mean many things to many people. Architects tend to focus on the former (which I will do here), thinking that space is created and defined by buildings, by walls, ceilings, floors, columns, as well as landscape and other elements. Solid-void diagrams and the Nolli map are classic examples of how architects see the world: solid and void, mass and space.

But for the anthropologist space is not so simple, so physical. It is a complex and basically indefinable thing created not only by the physical parts of the world but the abstract parts also: the movement and interactions of people, the flow of goods and information, the power structures limiting all these, and the meanings inscribed upon space through action, memory, and writing. Even this description doesn't touch upon all the ways space is created, and neither does this collection of essays on the anthropology of space and place. Of course, this reader doesn't attempt to be exhaustive. Rather it illustrates the variety of ways academics attempt to decode how space and place are created via people's interactions with each other and their environment.

The editors break down the twenty essays into six sections: embodied spaces, gendered spaces, inscribed spaces, contested spaces, transnational spaces, and spatial tactics. Naturally, the essays weren't written to neatly fit into these categories, so overlap occurs frequently, something acknowledged by the editors. For both those new to the subject and academics within the profession (the clear audience for the book), this parcelization helps anchor the various essays and also give an indication of what's important and where things are headed, for society as well as for the field.

Bookended by Edward T. Hall's seminal -- though now outdated -- essay on Proxemics and Setha M. Low's recent piece on gated communities, we can see how much (or little) things have changed in the last 35 years, from the spaces immediately surrounding us being created by our cultural history to the spaces around us created by fear and class, race, and ethnic distinctions. The essays in between give great breadth to the subject, making clear that an understanding of space and its creation cannot be limited to walls and roofs, or even the aspects presented here. An understanding must encompass a wide range of interactions on multiple scales in multiple places, a difficult task for an architect, but one that is more and more necessary every day.