Theorising Space in Education

Space and place are much discussed and researched in education, but are often un- or under-theorised. Here are some thoughts on theorising space drawing upon the wider geographical and social scientific literature.
Soja and Hooper (1993: 197) pointed out almost two decades ago that there is a general agreement that ‘space makes a difference in theory, culture and politics’. There is a consequent bringing to the fore of the significance of ‘the spatiality of human life’ and recognition of the difference that space makes. Space is seen as having been under-theorised and marginalised in relation to the previous emphasis on time and history. As a feature of the valorisation of time, space was constructed as neutral, fixed and immobile, unrelated to the social and without impact on the formation of subject identity and biography. Space was framed as a container or backcloth within or against which activity took place through time.

Broadly, we can identify four threads in contemporary interest in space in social theory. Each is subject to multiple interpretations. First, there is a political economy framing of space. This draws upon Marxist traditions of analysis, in particular those emerging in Western Europe, post-Gramsci. It is associated with such writers as Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (1989). Such analyses focus on the orderings and representations of space as manifestations of changing economic conditions and its effects on everyday life. Development, industrialisation, urbanisation, globalisation and the inequalities they engender through the re-orderings of production and consumption are key themes in such analyses.

Second, there is a feminist framing of space. Emerging from the analysis of the public-private binary as unequally gendered and associated with writers such as Massey (1994, 2006), a key focus is on the analysis of the gender inequalities in changing orderings of space-time and, more broadly, the power-geometries of their particular orderings.

Third, there is broadly what we can refer to as the post-structuralist framings of space, emerging from the work of, for instance, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and associated with writers such as Soja (1989). These analyses have been influenced by the linguistic and culturalist turns in social theory from the 1980’s and the associated form of ‘post-’ theorising. Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) notions of the rhizome as a way to deterritorialise a contrast between striated spaces– closed and bounded – and smooth spaces –open and nomadic – has been increasingly influential. Key themes in such approaches are questions of subjectivity, representation and power. Associated with this thread are attempts to examine the spaces of marginalised others, with concern being focussed on, for instance, margins (Spivak 1993), interstitial third space (Bhabha 1994), nomadism (Braidotti 1994) and diaspora space (Brah 1996). In such approaches, there is often an implied set of binaries between mobility, openness, cosmopolitanism and freedom on the one hand and place, closure, parochialness and constraint on the other.

Fourth, there is what is referred to as a materialist turn in framings of space (Anderson and Wylie 2009). The materialist turn takes many forms, some of which might be seen as rejections of ‘theory’ articulated in post-structuralist framings of space. The significant work in this thread is associated with the (im)mobilities paradigm (Urry 2007), in part, influenced by post-humanist and non-representationalist theories, such as actor-network and complexity theories. This work has focussed on space as material (dis)orderings, as enactments and performative. Here there is a movement away from framings that assume and reproduce traditional subject-centred epistemologies wherein human intention and action is assumed and given primacy. Spatial orderings are not about human subjects per se, but are material assemblages of subjects-objects that interrupt and affect, question and promise.

A focus on mobilities points us towards a tracing of the movements, relations and networks of objects, people, information and images, and the ways in which flux is regulated, made possible and constrained, as ‘all mobilities presuppose large scale immobile infrastructures that make possible the socialities of everyday life’ (Urry 2007: 19). For instance, computers require power stations to make electricity, aircraft require airports and timetables, mobile phones require transmitter masts.
It is important to bear in mind the connections between the four threads of spatial theorising, as, for instance, in different ways, both Harvey and Soja were influenced by Lefebvre’s work on urbanization. Lefebvre himself influenced and was influenced by the Situationists, like Debord, who have also influenced strands of ‘post-‘ theorising. He was also more interested in the material than in debates about epistemology. Massey was initially much influenced in her writing by Marxist feminism, although this shifted somewhat with time.

So in theorising space in education we enter a complex web of theorising. Enjoy.

Richard Edwards

To read more on spatial theory, see R. Edwards and R. Usher (2008) Globalisation and Pedagogy: Space, Place and Identity, London: Routledge and T. Fenwick, R. Edwards and P. Sawchuk (2011) Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial, London: Routledge.

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