SPACE THINKS? Sociological concepts of space.

—Sergej Stoetzer

Lecture, Berlin, 18 April, 2008 — [download pdf—1.6Mb]

Space Thinks – on the one hand, this title refers to the possibility of understanding space as something more that just the background against which societal developments take place and of granting the term ‘space’ a dynamic of its own. On the other hand, the title also plays on the phonetic similarity to the name of another central concept in the field of relational spatial theory, namely spacing. The fact that a space is constantly being restructured by people living their everyday lives there means that it does not remain a backdrop, and is instead actually an integral component of societal processes. This text will attempt to briefly present an approach, which will lead to a sociological treatment of space, and will also deal in more detail with the theoretical concepts of Pierre Bourdieu and Martina Löw and their practical application. The question of ‘plannability’ also arises here: how can spaces be designed and to what extent one can redefine and give new directions to (planned) public space and to private living quarters. Practical examples will be used to demonstrate methods of analysing space-related behaviour, which have their origins in a range of disciplines (art, psychology, information technology, sociology), each of which has its own perspective on the phenomena which shape a given space.

Alongside modern, pluralistic concepts regarding space, there are also older normative definitions of space as a discrete unit, which have their origins in ancient history – for example in Aristotle’s idea of a finite space whose limits were defined by fixed stars, termed a “container” by Albert Einstein.

Alongside modern, pluralistic concepts regarding space, there are also older normative definitions of space as a discrete unit, which have their origins in ancient history – for example in Aristotle’s idea of a finite space whose limits were defined by fixed stars, termed a “container” by Albert Einstein.

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton expanded these ideas: his space was one reality independent of the material world, infinite in its expanse, but still allowing one to define positions relative to one another within this absolute space.

Typical for absolutist notions of space is the assumption of the duality of matter and three-dimensional (infinite) space, where Euclidean geometry holds.

A limited variation of this spacial logic (finite, absolute space) – as result of a transformation of spacial concepts originated in physics and philosophy to everyday notions – can be of found in the concept of space as a container, in which social actions take place (Löw 2001, page 27). Urban planning and architectural designs that ignore the future “function” of the space being built or (re)designed can be said to be based on this tradition.

The absolutist understanding of space still has prevalence in everyday experience and in much scientific debate too. It has a long tradition in western-influenced philosophy and has thus gained a foothold in the modern natural sciences. To the present day, this idea of space is still being passed on in educational institutions, even though a number of difficulties and antagonisms in this approach have become apparent: societal transformations based on modern information and communications technology and on the increased speed and availability of transportation are treated by normative-unitary understandings of space as phenomena which dematerialise and fragment space; the space which was thought to be a unit breaks up, and this apparent disintegration is regarded as problematic.

This understanding of space has long been a guiding influence on (urban) sociological practice. Works in this tradition have either treated “space” as being defined by place (space = place, in general) or by a territory (the space is equated with a tangible territory), and have tended to reject the notion of space as a sociological factor.

The relativist understanding of space

After the Euclidean paradigm had dominated for almost two millennia, new conceptions of space became possible in mathematics with the development of non-Euclidean geometries free of contradictions around 1830 and the work done on them by the mathematician Bernhard Riemann.

The theories of relativity subsequently developed by Albert Einstein have been well documented in the context of mathematics and physics. However, the dependency of observable events on the relative position of the observer is the most significant element of relativity as regards the sociological treatment of spatial phenomena. Space and time are no longer absolutes, but are instead dependent on the observer. Since the duality of space and the material world no longer holds, space is now a result of the position and state of the bodies present relative to the observer’s frame of reference, and since the state of a given body is constantly changing, space too can no longer be treated as unchanging.

This physical-scientific understanding of space has had a significant influence on the concept of space prevalent in the social sciences, since many social process can be better explained using a theoretical system that treats motion, dynamics, continuous processes and transformations as being the normal state of affairs.

Relativistic understandings of space are characterised by the consideration of space as constituting of the positions of various elements relative to one another; the material properties of the arranged elements themselves are relatively unimportant in comparison.

Absolutism in spatial theory has thus been shown to be outdated: the relativistic approach allows spaces to present a variety of appearances depending on the standpoint of the observer. The progress made in shaking off the restrictions of a normative, universal approach is, however, to tempered by the somewhat problematic assumption that space is solely the result of the relative positions of the various elements to one another. This raises the (epistemological) question as to whether spaces as material arrangements can exist even in the absence of observers. This method is not useful in dealing with the relationships between material circumstances which differ from place to place and spaces formed by relational arrangements, because this method is still based on the duality of space and matter.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued vehemently against a rigid understanding of space in sociological theories of social space. According to Bourdieu, sociology must break with a number of ‘established’ assumptions, for example, with the emphasis on substances (groups), and it should instead focus on relational arrangements. The oversimplification of expressing social circumstances merely in terms of economic production, and objectivism, which does not take symbolic confrontations relating to ranking and (self-)projection into account, should also be jettisoned.

Bourdieu extends the relativist viewpoint on spatial production by treating the relationships between objects and the objects themselves (i.e., their material appearance) as being equally important.

This represents a major theoretical leap in the understanding of space, and also in terms of research logic itself: Bourdieu grants both perspectives (the analysis of the structure of relationships and the influence of the objects themselves) equal stature, and deems them both necessary in sociological research by making use of the idea of the “field”.

“I have to ask myself whether the object I am dealing with is part of a network of interrelationships and whether the object’s properties are largely a result of this network. The idea of the field goes back to the first rule of analysis, namely that our initial inclination to treat the social realm with the tools of realism or substantialism (…) is to be resisted at all costs – we have to think in terms of relations” (translated quote from Löw 2001, page 157).

He treats social space multi-dimensionally as an abstraction that can only be understood in terms of its effects on agents and its positioning of these participants in their (adopted) physical space. He calls the individual dimensions ‘fields’, in each of which a particular balance of power holds: In this context, sociology works in a social-topological manner, analysing the relative states of the agents in these ‘fields’ in order to determine from these states the position of each agent within the social space.

The individual fields each have their own means by which power is expressed: In the economic dimension, capital in its objectivised form (material possessions) is the means in question; on the other hand, personal and cultural capital (knowledge, educational degrees and qualifications, books, paintings, other works of art and other cultural items) comes into play in the cultural field – necessary, for example, for someone who wants to be taken seriously as an art connoisseur or art critic. Social relationships play an important role in the third field if social networks provide access to information or are important in organising certain activities or dealings, or if belonging to an elite clique is beneficial with regard to one’s position in the field (commonly known as “vitamin B”).

There is a multitude of interactions between the various fields, and these function in a manner similar to exchange rates between various currencies: with economic capital one can increase one’s relative position in the cultural field by using wealth to acquire knowledge, which in turn can open up previously inaccessible social circles where a certain minimum level of cultural capital (e.g., qualifications) is required. It can be seen that these effects could in turn influence the original economic capital and thus improve one’s standing in that field. These interactions can of course also turn out for the worse, for example if qualifications lose their value over time thus reducing cultural capital, or if somebody invests too much time and effort in the wrong social circles.

The social stature of a given agent in a multi-dimensional social space can be described using a “multi-dimensional coordinate system” (Bourdieu 1991, page 11), where the coordinates correspond to the values in each field. The amounts of each type of capital at a person’s disposal, as represented by the relative positions on the various field ’scales’, describe the person’s social standing. These various types of capital define and also place limits on the prospects and opportunities open to the person. Thus Bourdieu gives us a method of quantifying the positions of the various agents in a given (social) milieu, and of grouping the agents based on similarities in their coordinates.

This method of social positioning thus also deals with the distances between theoretically defined groups (“likely classes”, Bourdieu 1991, page 12); these are the distances which have to be ‘bridged’ if one is to climb the social ladder. To illustrate this, Bourdieu presents an analogy with geographical space, where distances can only be bridged by physically moving, i.e., by working and investing time and effort. Using the concept of “habitus”, Bourdieu links the social space in which an agent has a particular standing (depending on his or her amounts of the various types of capital) to the principle of perpetuation of this practice of differentiation (see the habitus concept in Krais/Gebauer 2002). Habitus is thus determined by social class – in other words, social background and biography are critical to habitus – and operates as an embodied system for classifying the various social strata. Early childhood events, language, values and standards all play a role in shaping habitus, and even architecture (the spaces/rooms inhabited, their layout, style of interior decoration) can be influential. Besides its function as an opus operandum, habitus has another dimension to it, namely as a guiding principle for the generation and perpetuation of forms of practice (habitus as a modus operandi). This means that schemes of action, perception and thought are precast (by the embodiment of classification systems) and that this structure is largely reproduced by our actions. In his or her judgements and actions, the agent falls back on class-specific schemes, even though in practice the agent can also break free of these. Thus habitus gives structure to situations and also helps to reproduce the underlying structure, although it is not deterministic. According to Bourdieu, the concept of habitus can be used to explain the relative stability and durability of social stratification and of the associated social order.

In this way, Bourdieu also accounts for the stability and constancy of social space: One’s position as defined by relative levels of the various types of capital is a product of past symbolic encounters – thus, this position is the product of an ongoing process and is also passed on from generation to generation to a certain extent. This leads to a reproduction of the objective distribution of power (the distribution of capital in the various fields and the resulting structure of the social space); social inequality caused by the unequal distribution of capital types in each field is also perpetuated.

The fact that these fields can be superimposed in a social space and the ‘feedback’ effects on the observable physical space all explain the concentration of rare, desirable goods and of their owners at certain locations… and also explain the existence of the opposites of these elite locations, namely ghettos.

Similarity and closeness in a social space are accompanied by common worldviews, and common cultural backgrounds and behaviours – in short, with similar habitus.

This relative, one could also say “regional” homogeneity in a social space does not necessarily imply that positions far removed from each other cannot be brought together. Apart from the formation of clusters which are based on the nature of the social space generated by capital distributions, there are also groups formed on other principles; as examples, Bourdieu quotes national and ethnic groups, even though he doesn’t accord these groups the same degree of stability as others.

Bourdieu uses social space as a means of describing a social reality which is useful for empirical studies and other practical applications. Taking as a starting point the fields in which the various types of capital play a role, a multi-dimensional social space is created, and the relative positions and the balance of power amongst the agents are reproduced and perpetuated by sets of habits and opinions which are both the product of an ongoing process and are also passed on from generation to generation. For Bourdieu, cultural capital is represented by tastes and the possession of cultural artifacts and qualifications.

Social spaces, which can be represented in an abstract manner as a multi-dimensional set of relations, work in a similar way to geographical spaces as regards closeness and distance.

The same relationship between closeness and distance can also be found in a physical space, which Bourdieu juxtaposes with social space and which he more precisely terms the adopted physical space (epistemological differentiation).

These two spaces do not exactly correspond to one another, as pointed out in 1927 by the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin. Physical closeness alone is not sufficient to be able to draw any conclusions regarding social closeness, and Sorokin used the example of a king and his attendants to illustrate this (see also Funken/Löw 2003, page 84f.). Important here is Bourdieu’s comment that a certain capital (total amount and structure) must be present in order for agents to be able to appropriate the current location for themselves in line with the applicable social norms.

Thus residential spaces have an average probability of the (material and cultural) items and services present being ‘appropriated’ – whether this will actually happen or not depends on the available power capabilities (the potential in the various fields). This means that one can physically reside somewhere without actually really living there, if one does not possess the means which are required according to an unwritten set of rules. The means mentioned here start with the required habitus. (Bourdieu 1991, page 31).

Families might decide to invest the money at their disposal in an idyllic terraced house in order to be able to give their children an ‘intact’ social environment where there is nature close at hand. However, if the family’s financial means are limited, meaning that there is no money for attending cultural events (e.g., taking the children to concerts) or for buying a certain style of clothing, then the family’s social position will be quite different from that of the neighbours despite the apparent closeness in terms of physical space.

In this thinking, social space remains an abstract concept since it cannot be related exactly to the observable physical space which is there to be appropriated and participated in. Bourdieu characterised this relationship as a one-way process of influence:

To a large extent, social space tends to affect the physical space in terms of a certain distribution of agents and characteristics.” (Bourdieu 1991, page 26).

Thus, the study of the relational distribution of people and the analysis of their physical environment and their respective locations enables us to deduce important conclusions about their standing in the social space. Bourdieu offers a methodology which is backed up by numerous studies on habitus and lifestyle and which enables us to define spaces sociologically and make them amenable to empirical treatment.

The extent to which the production of spaces depends on habits and preferences, and to which matters of lifestyle and taste depend on social status and membership of a social class can be determined by investigating private spaces – especially since agents are more free to alter their own private spaces.

Application: Analysis of private spaces using Bourdieu’s lifestyle concept

In 1994, Ulf Wuggenig investigated the connection between lifestyle, habitus and the selections of objects on display in people’s homes by studying photos that the subjects made of their own homes (four photos of aspects of the living room which the subject viewed positively, four which were viewed negatively, and photos of other rooms). Home interiors are often a means by which we express our sense of ourselves, and thus one can determine the position of a subject in his or her social space based on an examination of the layout of the person’s private living space. In his analysis, Wuggenig confines himself to reconstructing the meanings assigned to material objects (semantic distances) as a function of the social status of his subjects, and does not consider the relations between the objects, i.e., the spatial distances between them. This approach yields information about the relevance of the objects in the overall structure of private space:

Wuggenig employed correspondence analysis with the following inputs: the objects identified in the photos (37 categories of objects, which are in turn each classified as either furniture, (objectivised) cultural capital, rooms/parts of rooms, or other objects), the social class (identified based on profession) and qualifications, and was thus able to show that books, desks and sculptures were an important part of living space for the academic-intellectual elite, whereas members of the ‘new bourgeoisie’ and those with an intermediate level of education concentrated on posters, photos, musical instruments and other sound media. Cultural objects were seldom of relevance for members of the lower classes (as defined in terms of profession) and for those with a lower level of education, and their private spaces were instead defined by everyday, functional objects.

When the same issues are examined in terms of social mobility (with the educational capital of the father as a reference point) and of the photographed objects which were viewed positively, an interesting correlation emerges. Those who were upwardly mobile in terms of education were the only ones to attach particular importance to cultural objects; for them, these objects took on a function of self-representation within their private space. Members of the better educated classes were also in possession of cultural goods, but were less likely to assign particular meaning to them: for these people, membership of the educational elite is so self-evident that cultural and aesthetic symbols are no longer need to underline this membership. In the less educated classes, objects associated with cultural capital hardly appear in the photos: such objects are of little importance in the subjective definition of the living space, and are not present in any case.

Wuggenig’s study shows that objects in the home, in private space, play very different roles in the subject’s conception of space (self-portrayal) depending on his or her mobility and social status. His investigation tends towards a conception of space in line with Bourdieu’s ideas (even though it does not explicitly refer to these). However, because of the rigid instructions the subjects had to follow and the standardised analysis method, some important subjective tendencies of the agents studied are not captured. There is also no reference made to the overall collection of objects from which the subjects made their selection of a few objects – the objects omitted are not included in the analysis.

Issues within the theoretical framework mask an important component of the production of space. Since Bourdieu draws a clear distinction between abstract social space and physical space in which modifications occur, he employs two conceptionally different spatial logics: The relational social space is juxtaposed with the territorially conceived physical space, which is thought of as a container, and changes in the former result in a redistribution of the relational order in the container ‘physical space’ or else in a modification of the objects present; these results must in turn be examined for their impact on the original changes (the underlying sociological processes).

The effect on material structures is used to explain the durability of locations, although there is no way of analysing interrelationships: Bourdieu’s model assumes that all changes are a result of a modification in the social space.

External constraints on this effect, such as the pre-existing order of objects and their properties, which in turn are the result of previous effect processes, are treated as not being relevant to current locations and are excluded from the analysis. Material objects thus have no influence on social processes.

Relational understanding of space

Martina Löw offers an understanding of space that is difficult to implement empirically, but which neither demands that social, physical and geographical space be treated separately, nor relegates the external influence of the material environment to being a mere left-over from past actions.

She classifies her spatial understanding as relational, and differentiates between two processes which constitute space: Firstly, “the positioning of social objects and people and of primarily symbolic markings in order to denote as such ensembles of objects and people” (Löw 2001, page 158). She calls this process spacing.

Secondly, a synthesis effect is necessary in the structuring of space: People and objects are combined producing spaces through processes of perception, imagination and remembering. These two processes do not operate in an arbitrary fashion, and instead observe predefined conditions.

Further noteworthy aspects of this spatial understanding include:

  • Shaping of space by the interrelationship between structure(s) and action
  • The reproduction of societal and spatial structures in repetitive, everyday life
  • Regularity and deviation
  • The external influence of social objects and people: Atmospheres
  • Practical consciousness – reflexive contexts
  • The dependency of space-shaping processes
  • The forming of location and space
  • Epistemological and methodological consequences.

Spaces are created by the arrangement of bodies – both living beings and social objects – which are the products of current and of past (symbolic and material) action.

“Space is the relational arrangement of social objects and people (living beings) in locations” (Löw 2001, S. 224)

The term ‘arrangement’ refers to the process of placement, that is, the active and structural dimensions which are interdependent on one another (the feedback action of the material on actions, which Bourdieu discounted) and, as a duality of space and material, reproduce the production of a given space.

Spacing and the synthesis process are both subject to predefined conditions and depend on the nature of actions: Societal notions of space, and class-specific, gender-specific and culturally specific habitus all influence these processes; they are also affected by the location of the synthesis process and the external influence of the social objects and people already present. In addition, one can only ‘place’ that which is available in a given action situation – in other words, spacing processes are negotiation processes based on the symbolic and material goods (and beings) present in a given location; these processes do not take place in a power vacuum (see also Löw 2001, page 228).

Abbildung 1

Figure 1: Relational Space - Sociological Model © Sergej Stoetzer

Spatial arrangements thus have a forming influence on actions and are simultaneously (re)produced by these. This happens in the case of routines in repetitive, everyday life. In describing the constitution of spaces, Martina Löw refers back to the differentiation made by Anthony Gidden between practical and discursive consciousness: The latter allows us to put our own actions and behaviour into words when we reflect on and consider these – for example, in interviews where residents talk about their neighbourhoods, about their perception of the city or town where they live or about the layout and decoration of their homes. Depending on habitus, these reflective examinations of the one’s own spatial behaviour will exhibit varying degrees of sophistication. In order to ‘create’ such a situation, both time and trust are necessary; visual material can often be an effective aid. For example, residents might describe their neighbourhood with the help of photos that they have made themselves, or might comment on a selection of images or newspaper cuttings.

Practical consciousness is concerned with the knowledge that is updated in everyday behaviour, but is not directly accessible.

In repetitive, everyday life, spaces are generally formed from the practical consciousness – people rarely talk about how they generate spaces. However, when this subject is brought up, for example in reflexive contexts, a part of knowledge from the practical consciousness is transferred over to discursive consciousness and can thus be communicated: the constitution of space can then be described in words.

Routine, everyday actions that we don’t consciously reflect upon give form to space – that is, certain positioning (actions) and synthesis processes are repeated, and societal structures are reproduced by habitual actions. The resulting spaces in turn influence the actions (perception of a generalised arrangement, e.g., normed synthesis process)

This duality of space is termed spatial structure if the production of the space is formed independently of point in time and location according to rules and resources, and is embedded in institutions. Structures are thus anchored in institutions, in “routines of social action which become permanent” (social entity, organisational form: authorities, etc., and also societally pre-ordained patterns of action; Löw 2001, page 169).

Spatial structures, alongside legal and economic structures and the structural principles of class and gender which are rooted in these structures, make up the overall structure of a given society – the spatial is thus not separate from the societal, the former is in fact a part of the latter.

Institutionalised spaces are created when spacing and the process of synthesis continue to function regardless of individual actions – normed synthesis processes and spacings are the consequences. For example, class-specific arrangements of furniture in homes may be identified –Fächergruppe Designwissenschaft has pointed out that the layouts of living rooms in furniture catalogues are often similar (see also Löw 2001, page 169). The layout of libraries is also strongly standardised, and can be faithfully reproduced with a rudimentary knowledge concerning the positioning of objects (partial view of the experiment space) – this was the result of an investigation by Günther Kebeck and Mark May into the stability of spatial ideas ().

Abbildung 2

Figure 2: Scene from the film “Fight Club” (1999, copyright Fox Movies)

The institutionalised arrangement that practical consciousness treats as something self-evident leads to space being perceived in terms of objects (and generally in three dimensions). The everyday notion of space as a container can thus be included in a relational spatial model.

Because of experiences of being an outsider (alienation effects), insight into necessity, bodily desires or the behaviour of others, changes in institutionalised spatial production can take place on two levels: they can cause deviations which, when they deliberately oppose institutionalised arrangements, can be termed countercultural, and can give rise to once-off or permanent countercultural spaces. These can also lead to changes if the deviations are on-going and are not just individual deviations – modifications to institutionalised spaces are thus possible, and can go so far as modifications to the spatial structure.

Locations are the target of positioning processes, which always act relative to other positionings. People participate in this spatial production in two ways: they can be grouped with other beings or social objects to make up spaces; they also take an active role themselves in the positioning processes. The presence of an academic observer can often systematically distort the spatial situations at a location.

Besides the usual state of affairs whereby the processes of spacing and synthesis interact, it is also possible to have synthesis processes without spacings, for example in scientific studies, as an act of abstraction, or if no physical location for positioning is available:

When designing buildings or homes on the drawing board or virtually using CAD software, possible arrangements of the elements constituting the space can be visualised, even in the absence of a concrete location.

The positioning of walls, windows, fittings, the inclusion of the surroundings (as a digital image) and of the intended users (using figures to represent people) is all carried out virtually.

The spacing occurs later on if the spaces designed on the drawing board or using the computer are actually realised and built.

In this particular case of spatial constitution where the positioning in real space has not yet occurred, two spaces exist simultaneously at one location: A space is designed “virtually” (and, by means of synthetic process, can also be perceived as a space) while one is actually occupying another space – thus one is actually forming and influencing two spaces at once.

The possibility of creating overlapping, plural spaces on a theoretical level is a significant aspect of this extended notion of space: In this way, conflicts concerning the usage and appropriation of a space, which are the cause of differing spatial constitutions, can be easily explained. The confrontation between those who would like to see the internet further reglemented and the resistance offered by net activists can be seen to be a conflict between differing spatial logics – between legal structures generally organised on a national/state/territorial basis and the relational logic of the medium itself.

The following epistemological and methodological consequences arise from the use of a relational understanding of space:

“Since most social objects and all persons are at the same time elements which go to make up a space, and (viewed from a different perspective) could also be space themselves, the point of view of the synthesising person is essential for the structure of a space. The synthesis of social objects and persons to constitute a space and the associated perspective of the agent can be treated by scientific analysis or by the self-analysis of each individual. In reflexive analysis, the process of formation is analysed from a certain perspective, meaning that further, new spaces are created in the course of the analysis. [...] As a result, scientific analysis does not depict the reality of a space, but instead creates a new space, and this creation process can itself become a subject for research.” (Löw 2001, pages 26f.).

Spatial design – buildings as technological artifacts

The analysis of spaces becomes more sophisticated if one considers that certain, positioned objects are not only subject to a modification process, but have also been produced for a specific purpose within a space. The design process behind such technological artifacts is itself a negotiation process between competing ideas, technological necessities and specifications, and aesthetic demands; the design process also influences the possible uses for the item.

This status quo is, however, by no means the end of this issue. The actual uses can differ from the intended uses, and the way in which a person ‘adopts’ the artifact is linked to certain forms of capital accumulation; however, there are limits to the deviations possible (e.g., material, technological or legal limitations).

Tom Gieryn (2002) suggests that the analytical ideas in technological sociology developed for technological objects could also be applied to buildings:

A building’s creation process involves decisions concerning arrangement and design which are made as part of a complex process of spacing and synthesis (often further complicated by the interplay of virtual and real during the design stage) and of the inclusion and exclusion of certain functions and uses.

Gieryn assumes that buildings have a stabilising influence on social life since they provide a structure for social institutions; however, buildings cannot provide complete stability because wear over time, damage and modifications (either to society’s use of the building or to the physical building itself) can all reduce this stabilising effect. Agents too can alter buildings by using space in ways which were not intended. An interesting example of the modification of a religious building is Church of St. Afra in Meißen, near Dresden, which is now the subject of a competition to find a concept for alternative uses because the church was not being used very much by religious community. The ideas include a preservation of the status quo, artistic installations (4 elements) and conversion to a health spa.

Gieryn describes in great detail how the social structure of a building is shaped by decisions made during its conception, design and erection. As a technical artifact, a home affects the structures of actions and of the possibilities for action: The ground plan often specifies the indented usage of each room – for example, a three-room apartment will have a children’s room, a living room and a bedroom. Other apartments may not be suitable for flat-sharing because of a certain room being used to access others and would thus not be suitable as a bedroom.

The materiality (the walls) of the technical artifact ‘building’ give it a constant quality, and to change this, a certain capital accumulation is necessary: financial capital, and probably social and cultural capital too.

One’s legal status – sub-tenant, tenant or owner – also strongly determines the uses and modifications possible (a sub-tenant is unlikely to knock down a wall or build a new bathroom). The material constancy of the artifact is also upheld by the law. Legal, spatial structures (public versus private) again come into play here.

By treating homes and apartments as technical artifacts, one adds to the analysis of spatial-formation phenomena by considering otherwise neglected external influences, which are the result of past negotiation processes, the specifications and the goal of future structuring by human agents. It is exciting to investigate how compromises between intended and non-intended or subversive use of technological artifacts function, and to study the effects of the inclusions and exclusions which were a part of the design process.

Research practice: Analysis of space-specific action

What opportunities does an extended sociological understanding of space, such as that of relational space, open up in practice? Firstly, through a theoretical sensitisation, it increases the range of ways in which space-specific action can be observed and conclusions can be drawn in a methodically controlled manner from spatial behaviour and negotiation processes regarding the details and interpretation of spatial arrangements: How are spaces percieved; how can one’s own behaviour be defined in relation to others?

Time-space diagrams

The geographer Törsten Hägerstrand suggested a very practical method of recording and visualising actions in regard to their spatial and temporal classification. A three-dimensional coordinate system is used, with a spatial abstraction, for example, a map or aerial photograph, on the flat (i.e., the x-y plane) and with time represented on the z axis. This allows the use of locations and routes to be recorded in a standardised way and to be depicted cartographically. For example, everyday movement patterns in a city or town can be shown separately for each gender. Using this method of recording and presenting such patterns, the dynamic reference systems of space and time can be shown together (see also Löw 2001, pages 38ff.)

Eyetracker: Measuring line of sight

The analysis of lines of sight has been around for a number of decades now, but has only begun to be put to real use with the advent of modern computer technology. Typically, cameras record eye movements and another camera captures the overall scene. By tracking the movement of the pupils, one can determine what part of the overall scene the subject was actually looking at. Perception psychology already tells us that the consciously perceived field of vision is actually made up of a large number of details, each of which is focussed on for a short period of time. Eyetracking can be used to measure the distributions or scattering of visual attention, which occurs before conscious interpretation begins. Applications include the evaluation of websites, the positioning of goods in shops and basic research in the field of perception psychology.

“Intelligent” video surveillance

The evaluation of video images, such as those from surveillance cameras located in public places, also makes use of visual data. Modern computer software is capable of recognising people and faces in video footage and of marking these in the image.




The movements of persons in a public place can thus be tracked from one camera to the next. The range of applications includes security technology and artistic installations that recreate people’s tracks in public spaces and then treat and play with these images (e.g., Memory of Space:

Analysis of spatial arrangements: Panoramic photography

Using complex spatial arrangements for analysis in an environment in which actions are taking place is one aspect of a research approach which uses 360° panoramic photographs of private spaces from a single photo. In the context of the analysis of visual spatial structures, this method is used together with the subject’s biography to investigate how space-formation processes actually function. Photos that the subjects themselves take are used, and they subsequently provide stimuli in a narrative interview. Compared to other research that uses visual data from private homes (e.g. Wuggenig 1994) the 360° panoramic images – taken in one shot using special optical technology – are used to capture individual rooms in a home or apartment, framing the subjects’ choice of what to picture of that space within a multitude of possible perspectives and making even visible what was not included in the subjects’ photos (compare Fig 3: Subject’s photo of shelf, panoramic picture). The various perspectives can be combined in a computer reconstruction (for more details see Stoetzer, K. 2004 and

Figure 3: Photo of an interview subject (series of seven images)

Figure 4: 360° panoramic photo

© K. Stoetzer (2004, page 364)

The biographical element of the structure of the space comes mainly from the analysis of the interviews (background information such as: history of the apartment and of the flatmates; incidences of compromises dictated by the space or of reconfiguration of the space).

Photo collages as a virtual spatial structure

Virtual spacings by means of photo collages can juxtapose visual representations of one’s own city.

Abbildung 5

Similar to the way a hyperlink works, the actively created links can lead the observer through a visual, abstract version of urban space. This method was developed as a way to depict people’s image of their own city. Photos taken by the city residents themselves were linked using software; the links are based on the same people or objects appearing in photos (serial photography), and on similar subject matter.

Abbildung 6

The links can be interpreted interactively based on their structure, or can be presented in the form of an overview (for more details,


The sociological theories regarding space presented here are merely a selection – other methods have other focal points, such as the role of spaces in societal production mechanisms, eg. Henry Lefébvre (see Löw/Steets/Stoetzer 2007)

An extended sociological understanding of space cannot provide deterministic, predictive models that offer a teleologically motivated evaluation and optimisation of planning and design practice up to now. However, it can provide a precise description of the complexity of spatial production, starting with design (virtual spacings, superimposed spaces), and including real-world applications (negotiation processes, use conflicts, spatial logic conflicts), the adoption of the built environment within the interplay dynamics of stabilising structure and structuring actions in the perception and production of spaces; such an understanding can also open up this complexity to sociological analysis.


(Approximate English translations of titles are given in italics)

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Physischer, sozialer und angeeigneter physischer Raum. (~Physical, social and adopted physical space.) Stadt-Räume. Die Zukunft des Städtischen. (~City-Spaces. The future of the urban.) M. Wentz. Frankfurt am Main: 25-34.

Funken, C. / M. Löw (2003). Ego-Shooters Container. Raumkonstruktionen im elektronischen Netz. Raum - Zeit - Medialität. interdisziplinäre Studien zu neuen Kommunikationstechnologien. (~Spatial structures in electronic networks. Space - time - mediality. Interdisciplinary studies on modern communications technologies.) C. Funken and M. Löw. Opladen, Leske + Budrich: 69-91.

Kebeck, G. and M. May (1991). “Invarianz gegenüber Transformation. Ein Vergleich von Raumwahrnehmung und Raumvorstellung.(~Invariance and transformation. A comparison of spatial perception and notions of space.)” Zeitschrift für experimentelle und angewandte Psychologie (~Journal for experimental and applied psychology) 38(2): 226-247.

Krais, B./Gebauer, G (2002): Habitus. Bielefeld.

Löw, M. (2001): Raumsoziologie. (~Spatial sociology) Frankfurt/Main.

Löw, M/Steets, S/Stoetzer, S (2007): Einführung in die Stadt- und Raumsoziologie. (~An introduction to urban and spatial sociology)Opladen & Farmington Hills.

Stoetzer, K. (2004): Photointerviews als synchrone Erhebung von Bildmaterial und Text. (~Photo interviews as synchronous recording of images and text.) In: Zeitschrift für Qualitative Bildungs-, Beratungs- und Sozialforschung. (~Journal for qualitative educational, counselling and social research) 5th year, H2, pages 361-370.

Wuggenig, U. (1994). Soziale Strukturierungen der häuslichen Objektwelt. Ergebnisse einer Photobefragung. (~Social structures in terms of objects in the home. Results of a photo survey.) In: Mörth/Fröhlich: Das symbolische Kapital der Lebensstile. Zur Kultursoziologie der Moderne nach Pierre Bourdieu. (~The symbolic capital of lifestyles. On modern cultural sociology as per Pierre Bourdieu’s theories.) Frankfurt/Main, pages 207-228.

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