What Can Notions of Space Contribute to Our Understanding of Power?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


Spatial theorists and historians have long acknowledged that space is not something we simply pass through, nor is it merely about physical and material space. Rather, the production of space is, above all, political and a central part of the reproduction of social relations. This has been acknowledged by Marxists who have argued that space, in particular the urban city, is the creation of a dominant bourgeoisie interested in the production of capital. The ‘spatial turn’ has also emphasised the discursive and cultural creation of ‘imagined’ space and its role in the reproduction of social relations along the lines of race, gender, and class.

Marxist theories of power have contributed to historical analysis of urban space. Spatial theorists such as Lefebvre, for example, have argued that space has become implicated in the process of capitalist development. In this understanding, the state is seeking to advance the interests of ‘capital’, which is the key agenda of the modern historical and contemporary political economy. Central to this analysis is the explosion of the historical city and the general urbanization of society, as we have moved away from simply the production of ‘things’ in space to the production of space itself. Hence, ‘the planning of the modern economy [now] tends to become spatial planning’. The processes of urban development are essentially ‘interposed’ by the dominant bourgeoisie. Historians also need to recognise that the production of abstract capitalist space is part of the process of production, including vast networks of banks, businesses, and great centres of production, as well as the spatial invention of highways, airports, and information networks.

However, this analysis has arguably distorted our understanding of power and agency and its relationship with space. Too few analyses of space, for example, have acknowledged labour’s role in making the geography of capitalism, presenting economic geographies as devoid of workers as active geographical agents. However, historically it has been the case that workers have worked within capitalist frameworks to ensure their survival and social reproduction. Hence, ‘the production of the geography of capitalism is not always the prerogative of capital’, as workers might desire to create particular ‘spatial fixes’ in particular locations and at particular historical junctures.

An example of this includes the workers' reaction to the introduction of containerization in the U.S. longshore industry in the 1950s, which served as a catalyst to transform the political and economic geography of the industry. Containerization raised the possibility that in some ports wages might be undercut and strikes broken as shippers were increasingly able to use other, more distant ports to serve traditional markets. To address this problem the dockers’ union adopted a specifically geographical strategy aimed at producing a new spatial fix in the industry and beginning in the mid-1950s, the dockers’ union fought to replace the system of local bargaining with one which was coastwide in scope. This reconstructed the very geographic scale at which negotiations were carried out and agreements were implemented.

The ’spatial turn’ has focused more explicitly on the social construction of space through discourse and ‘culture’. However, ‘culture’ here is understood as inherently political and contributes to historians’ understanding of the exercise of power in the past through an analysis of the construction of ‘meaning’ and its application to space to reinforce social hierarchies of race, gender and social class. The distinction between the private and the public sphere, for example, is culturally specific and socially constructed to uphold patriarchal gender relations. A historical example of the way the gender hierarchy has been reinforced spatially is clear in Remus’ analysis of the public space in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century. Remus focuses on the rise of the ‘lady tippler’, women who came from respectable families and ‘publicly quaffed spirits’, prompting a clash over the legitimacy of emerging forms of pleasure-seeking in the city’s new commercial public spaces. The social construction of space is clear in the way spatial boundaries of the home and the public sphere were implicated in the construction of masculinity and femininity. Thus, by stepping into the public sphere and consuming alcohol, these women were simultaneously contesting the construction of femininity in the process. This also demonstrates the fragility of ‘imaged space’ and the ways in which it can be subverted to empower historically oppressed social groups.

The subversion of the ‘imagined’ space is also clear in Percy’s analysis of the use of the ‘imagined’ and ‘physical’ space by strikers in twentieth-century London and Chicago, in 1912 and 1910 respectively. In both cities, the strikers subverted urban power relations by challenging the conventional uses of public space, claiming collective rights, and refusing to bow to employers’ or police pressure to go back to their homes and workshops. London’s strikers often had the greatest impact when they gathered in parks and large theatres, challenging their imagined cities in the process ‘by seeming to appear out of nowhere and taking workers to places they did not belong’. Many young women’s presence on the streets also subverted the conventional gendering of the public space, while picketing women workers in Chicago presented a more aggressive femininity.

Moreover, the essentially political nature of space in Lefebvre’s analysis informs historians’ understanding of the economic dimensions of power at play in the physical and abstract production of space. The ‘spatial turn’ has also contributed to our understanding of power, and the way culture creates meanings that are mapped onto the physical and abstract space. Central to this analysis is the way ‘imagined space’ constructed through culture reproduces the social hierarchies of race, gender, and class. Subordinated groups can also subvert imagined space and contest social relations in the process.

Further reading:

  1. A. Herod, ‘From a Geography of Labor to a Labor Geography: Labor’s Spatial Fix and the Geography of Capitalism’, Antipode 29.1 (1997): 1-31

  2. Doreen Massey’s overview of the value of thinking critically about space at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Quj4tjbTPxw

  3. E. A. Remus, ‘Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago’ Journal of American History 101.3 (2014): 751-777

  4. H. Lefebvre, ‘Space: Social Product and Use Value’, trans. by J. W. Freiberg in State, Space, World: Selected Essays, eds. N. Brenner and S. Elden (Minneapolis, 2009), 185-195

  5. R. Percy, ‘Picket Lines and Parades: Labour and Urban Space in Early Twentieth Century London and Chicago’ Urban History 41.3 (2014): 456-477

  6. R. Percy, ‘Picket Lines and Parades: Labour and Urban Space in Early Twentieth Century London and Chicago’ Urban History 41.3 (2014): 456-477