Review: Spatializing Culture

Setha Low. (2017).  Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-94561-6.

(Setha Low, 2017)

Setha Low is an anthropologist long recognized for her contributions to the study of space and place.  In her most recent book, Spatializing Culture, Low draws on over twenty years of research to outline, clarify, and expand upon the concept of “spatializing culture,” which she has been developing since her 1996 article in American Ethnologist: “Spatializing culture: The social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica.”  While Low claims that her most recent book is not a review of space and place in anthropology (p. 11), in many ways, it functions as a survey of key formulations and theories that have influenced and generated current ethnographic research on space and place, providing illustrative examples of such ethnographic research from around the world.  Consequently, Spatializing Culture would be especially useful as an introduction to space and place for undergraduate and graduate students across various disciplines, particularly those that already utilize or would benefit from ethnographic methods such as anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, urban studies, and environmental psychology.

Low’s systematic organization of the material lends itself well for a textbook.  Apart from the requisite introduction and conclusion that highlight the importance and relevance of ethnography, space, and place, the second chapter, “Genealogies: The concepts of space and place” draws on the tradition of Foucault’s genealogies to structure the discussion of major influences.  Low loosely ties together ideas and theories that have influenced one another, whether through French social theory or disciplinary traditions such as architecture, geography, or anthropology as opposed to presenting a historiography of space and place. Her use of Venn diagrams of space and place to represent the relationship of these concepts as they are used and understood within different genealogies exemplifies her attempt to make the differing theoretical orientations accessible to novices.

As Low, herself, explains:

This book is organized around spatializing culture as a framework made up of various conceptual frames.  Each is examined with three objectives in mind.  The first is to trace its scholarly development and discuss its strengths and limitations….The second objective is to demonstrate how ethnography can elucidate each and provide insights into a range of places and problems….The third objective…is to show how the different conceptual frames overlap and intersect. (pp. 8-9)

Chapters three through eight explicate the six conceptual frames that constitute her framework for spatializing culture, titled 3) the social production of space, 4) the social construction of space, 5) embodied space, 6) language, discourse and space, 7) emotion, affect and space, and 8) translocal space.  The first half of each chapter provides the theoretical grounding that scholars have developed and used to understand space and place through the particular lens or frame of embodiment or language, for example, while the second half provides ethnographic examples of how these frames are operationalized.  The use of ethnographic examples, apart from being a major methodological contribution of Low’s anthropological background, serves to address two interacting methodological questions.  “How does the conceptual frame shape a particular research project,” and how, in turn, “ethnographic research help[s] to clarify and enhance the utility of the approach?” (p. 9)

It is clear that chapters three and four on the social production and social construction of space occupy what Low sees as the most significant or established ways in which space and place have been traditionally framed.  Moreover, her choice to begin with social production over social construction reveals her own political leanings that highlight materialist approaches to power, hegemonic processes, and relationships of inequality.  Where many scholars of space and place might begin with social construction as a departure point for understanding space and place in which social interaction and symbolic processes take the lead, Low’s attachment to an “engaged” anthropology demands a political alignment with those who have been systematically excluded, rendering their limited ways of constructing space practically invisible.  Low’s ethnographic examples for social production in Costa Rica and Taiwan demonstrate the strength of a social production frame that offers insights into unequal development, surveillance, and incursions of capitalism while her examples for social construction in Philadelphia and Beirut reveal how local communities contest redevelopment that ignores local meanings and attachments to places and spaces.

Chapter five on embodied spaces is Low’s response to the limited binary of social production and social construction.  In it she defines terms such as body, embodiment, and sensorium and places them within the complex literature that moves from proxemics, to phenomenology, to mobility.  Her ethnographic examples highlight how space can be located in the body, whether individual or collective, and provides avenues for coalescing social production and social construction within the body.

With subsequent chapters six through eight, the overlap with previous theoretical underpinnings becomes more pronounced and it appears that while ethnographic approaches within these frames certainly focus on discursive, affective, or translocal approaches, they play a more supportive or extending role tied to social production, social construction, or embodiment. This, of course, speaks to Low’s objective of demonstrating how these frames overlap and intersect, but also reveal the limitations of using these conceptual frames as an organizing structure for an ethnographic textbook. Nevertheless, the review of literature within each chapter is extensive, with ample examples of how different scholars theorize space and place through these frames.  Consider Low’s referencing Ben Anderson’s and Kathleen Stewart’s work to discuss how affective atmospheres circulate spatially through bodies and also extend beyond the body as a kind of sensory attunement to others’ worlds.  Their work demonstrates how Low’s conceptual frames of embodiment and affect can intersect.  The ethnographic examples in these chapters again offer an array of global research that takes us from New York  to Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Low acknowledges that her conceptual frames are not exhaustive, drawing particular attention to the largely absent notions of mediated and virtual frames.  While it may be true that such a treatment could easily fill another book, it is not difficult to imagine another chapter in which she traces the scholarly work in this area and provides one or two key ethnographic examples of how this plays out in understandings of space and place.  Could it be that an examination of virtual space challenges notions of traditional ethnography’s hold as a particularly useful method or that textual and mediated approaches push the boundaries of what constitutes ethnography? More likely, such an approach may be outside of Low’s own experiences as ways of understanding space and place, unlike the other six frames that are all born out of her own struggles to make sense of her ethnographic research.

This is a minor critique when we consider that as a textbook on space and place, Spatializing Culture offers much as a reference guide to key theories and demonstrates the contributions of an ethnographic approach. The organization of the text has its benefits and limitations with some redundancy in overlapping and intersecting approaches, but ultimately serves its student audience well.  Setha Low continues to make an important contribution to current understandings of space and place and makes complex ideas accessible through numerous examples that underscore the significance of studying space and place.  For those interested in a survey of ethnographic approaches to the study of space, place, and culture, Spatializing Culture is a worthwhile departure point.

Jessica Montalvo (University of South Florida)

 

References:

Low, S. M. (1996). Spatializing culture: the social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica. American ethnologist, 23(4), 861-879.