Place In Geography Research Paper

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‘Place’ is vivid in experience, yet elusive as a concept. As a general term it embraces an aspect of the diversity of the world that is necessarily experienced though countless unique places. In spite of this ambiguity, ‘place’ in geography was considered for a long time to be more less synonymous with ‘region’ or ‘settlement’ and so obvious that it needed no clarification. In the last half of the twentieth century this apparent obviousness has been brought into question as ideas about ‘place’ have been subjected to critical theoretical interpretation, and as changes in the character of actual ‘places’ have suppressed or distorted diversity. This research paper describes this sequence of change and the relationships between them.

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1. ‘Place’ And ‘Places’

Aristotle, in his Physics, noted that ‘The question, What is Place?, presents many difficulties for analysis,’ then concluded that it refers to the precise dimensions of the space that contains something—‘place’ is a neutral container (McKeon 1941). This is a flexible but not very edifying definition since a container can range in scale from the space on my desk where I keep my dictionary, to Canary Wharf, to Paris, to Australia, to the earth as the place of humankind.

In contrast, Strabo (1917) wrote about 5 BC in the introduction to his Geography that ‘A knowledge of places is conducive of virtue.’ He believed that geographers, with their habits of travel and knowledge of the specific parts of the world, were qualified to distinguish good settings for human activity from bad ones, and by implication that content was more important than the container. The difficult question of ‘place’ faded into the background for almost 2,000 years, and, while it became acceptable to describe geography as ‘the study of places’ (Hartshorne 1959), this was left unexplained because ‘a place’ was apparently an unproblematic concept. The issue of scale was left, and remains, unresolved.

So ‘place’ has an enigmatic character, partly general and partly specific, midway between objective fact and subjective feeling. Entrikin (1991) calls this ‘the betweenness of place’ and proposes that it is best viewed from a point in the middle. From this perspective, ‘a place’ appears as a combination of objects and meanings that distinguishes somewhere from its surroundings, regardless of scale. For Walter (1988) it is a ‘location of experience; the container of shapes, powers, feelings and meanings,’ and for Cresswell (1996) it is ‘a meaningful segment of space’ and a ‘container of social power.’

2. Experience And Sense Of Place

In the 1960s a new theoretical and scientific approach to the spatial geometry of location, known as central place theory, served as a catalyst for more rigorous thinking about ‘place.’ This approach considered towns and villages in terms of measurable properties and relative locations, and thus implicitly adopted an Aristotelian perspective that emptied places of content.

Geographers interested in specific places were dismayed by the aridity of central place theory but recognized that it was impossible to continue to use the concept of ‘place’ uncritically. Phenomenology was identified as a philosophical method that allows rigorous interpretations of place without denying diversity and meaning. The writings of M. Heidegger and M. Merleau-Ponty were used to argue that ideas of place are rooted in experiences of dwelling in specific places, and that these precede all abstractions about location, environment, or geography. Places are aspects of everyday experience, territories of symbols, memories, and associations; they are centers of being and belonging that connect people with their worlds.

Phenomenology discloses several elements of ‘place’ and place experience, including identity and sense of place, topophilia, and home. These insights have been absorbed into most subsequent discussions of place in geography, first in humanistic approaches and more recently in arguments which view place as a social construction.

2.1 Identity And Spirit Of Place

Identity is what makes somewhere distinctive; it also suggests similarities, as when it is claimed that a particular fast-food restaurant is identical with one elsewhere. The term ‘identity of place,’ therefore, acknowledges that every place simultaneously differs from and has similarities with other places. This apparent contradiction requires clarification.

From an abstract perspective, it is possible to distinguish four essential components of place identity: location; an appearance of hills, rivers, buildings, and other objects; a community engaged in various social and economic activities; and a set of meanings and symbols. These are distinct and are not reducible one to the other (one cannot discuss location in terms of architecture, and so on), but these components are, in real places, always closely interwoven. Oaxaca in southern Mexico is a colonial city that shares its architectural tradition and town plan with numerous cities in Latin America, and there is nothing unusual about its role as a center of regional government or its passion for fiestas. However, its location is unique, as are its elegant streets and buildings, and it seems unlikely that anywhere else has a annual festival—La Noche de los Rabanos—dedicated to carved radishes. In all places, even unremarkable ones such as new suburbs, some aspects are shared and others are distinctive, though the balance of these can vary widely. Even if appearance and activities are ordinary, meanings and symbols are always in some way distinctive.

Somewhere with exceptional place identity, like Oaxaca, is sometimes said to possess ‘spirit of place.’ This expression comes from the Latin genius loci, but the idea is derived from the ancient and widespread belief that certain places are inhabited by their own gods or spirits. In ancient Greece almost every hill-top, spring, grove, and outcrop of rock had its own guardian spirit; the Acropolis was the home of the goddess Athena. In this more secular age ‘spirit of place’ has lost its association with gods, and now refers to the immediately apparent yet rather elusive aesthetic quality of striking distinctiveness. Spirit of place is what makes particular places attractive and memorable.

2.2 Sense Of Place

Sense of place is the capacity to recognize and respond to diverse identities of places. A place affects us directly through sight, smell, sound, and touch and sense of place is the synthetic faculty that combines these impressions with memory, imagination, and reason. (Note, however, that ‘sense of place’ is popularly and confusingly used to be synonymous with ‘spirit of place’; thus, it might be said that ‘Provence has a wonderful sense of place’).

Sense of place is not a uniformly shared and undifferentiated faculty. Many people are uninterested in places, some have an instrumental view of the world that regards places as resources to be exploited, while others are finely tuned to genius loci and place diversity. These variations have been clarified by making a distinction between an outsider’s sense of place, which looks at the world mostly in terms of objective qualities, and an insider’s sense of place, which seeks to grasp the distinctive properties of particular places in terms of their meanings for those who live and work in them. An outsider’s perspective pays scant attention to distinctiveness and is inclined to impose judgments on the basis of previously formed opinions; it is manifest, for example, in colonialism and in the propagation of placelessness (see Sect. 3.1). In contrast, an insider’s sense of place is responsive to the idiosyncracies of environment and culture. While it comes with knowing and being known somewhere, and is most apparent in home places, it is also an ability that can be learned or enhanced by developing skills of careful observation and imagination.

2.3 Topophilia And Home

‘Topophilia’ lies at the intersection of spirit and sense of place. Literally it means ‘love of place,’ though Tuan (1974), who has given the term currency, defines it as ‘the affective bond between people and place or setting.’ There are, he suggests, ‘landscapes of persistent appeal,’ such as mountains and seashores, islands, carefully tended farms, and small towns. These are perceived through lenses of culture, familiarity, memories, even personal moods. Topophilia blends the inherent qualities of landscapes and places with the attitudes that different individuals bring to it. There are no fixed relationships in this. Sometimes a beautiful setting can be soured by ill-temper, yet at other times that same beauty may displace ill-temper.

Underlying an insider’s sense of place and topophilia is the notion and experience of ‘home.’ It is in ‘home’ where the significance of individual lives is most concentrated, where people feel they belong, where love of place is strongest. Home is a powerful emotional bond that can, for example, draw back refugees and those who have been uprooted in spite of the most adverse circumstances. Because of the intensity of these associations, in phenomenological interpretations ‘home’ is identified as the archetypal place.

2.4 Corrupted Sense Of Place

Phenomenological interpretations mostly have been concerned with clarifying the subjectivity of place experience. In emphasizing roots and home they imply that ‘place’ and ‘sense of place’ are positive and provide the foundation for a deeply rooted yet balanced outlook on the world. This is not always the case. Harvey (1989) argues that consequences of a strong sense of place include sectarian politics and parochialism. This is apparent in local and neighborhood practices that resist anything which might upset racial homogeneity or promote social equity. There is a fine and unclear line between such intolerance and efforts to protect a place from massive redevelopment and equivalent changes that might destroy its identity, but when that line is crossed sense of place can be said to have become corrupted. A corrupted or poisoned sense of place selectively stresses local identity and home to the virtual exclusion of shared values (Relph 1997). It is always unpleasant, and at its worst, in xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, it can be brutally violent.

3. Modernist And Postmodernist Changes In ‘Places’

At the beginning of the twentieth century most peoples’ lives were, as they always had been, largely confined to within about one day’s walk of where they lived. Nowhere was entirely isolated from outside contact, but with lack of mobility social changes dispersed slowly and usually adapted to specific contexts, so the local distinctiveness and geographical diversity were continually reinforced. This diversity was created under social and technological conditions dramatically different from those which now prevail. Since the mid-nineteenth century technologies of electronic communications and mass travel, coupled with rapid cultural and economic changes, have collapsed distance. The ways places are made, and the ways they are experienced, have both changed. Old places may be regarded with great affection, but they are historical fragments; geographies that are being made now consist mostly of placeless or arbitrarily fabricated settings.

3.1 Placelessness

Placelessness is the condition in which different places look much the same, and, more importantly, offer the same opportunities for experience. It is the erosion of geographical distinctiveness and diversity. Examples are legion: shopping centers, apartment buildings, airport terminals, expressways. Auge (1995) calls these ‘nonplaces.’ The new high-rise Okura Hotel in Kobe in Japan could equally well be in Houston or Mexico City and the adjacent shopping center is so dislocated from its context that much of it only has signs in English.

In part, placelessness is the expression of modernist styles of architecture and planning that were conceived in the 1920s to take advantage of new building materials of glass, steel, and concrete. These styles are functional, standardized, and international. They respond to the essential sameness of people everywhere and can be applied anywhere, regardless of climate or culture. Placelessness is also the child of transnational corporations and a global economy that strive to provide familiar goods and services to consumers in the most profitable and efficient way possible. Modernist design and corporate capitalism fit together well. The result is that the same products, the same companies, similar buildings, and similar landscapes can be found almost everywhere.

3.2 Place Exploitation And Postmodernism

Since about 1980 placelessness has developed a more subtle and complex character. As uniformity replaces diversity, distinctiveness becomes increasingly valuable and worth maintaining. Sometimes, as in heritage preservation, the aim may be to protect intrinsic local identity, but the larger consequence has been to turn place identity into a commodity. Distinctiveness sells. In tourism, historical districts and unique landscape features are obviously attractive place qualities. Less obviously, in a global economy in which capital is mobile and businesses can locate anywhere with educated workers and reasonable land costs, a distinctive place identity can be decisive factor for a city trying to attract investment.

Once place identity is regarded as a commodity rather than an intrinsic property of somewhere, it can be exploited in many ways to promote tourism and attract other business. It can be selectively enhanced either by reconstructing destroyed buildings or historical districts, as in Place Royale in Quebec City, or by converting former industrial areas into festival markets of restaurants and galleries, as in Covent Garden in London. Links with celebrities or events, real or fictional, can promote marketability, so Atlanta is associated with Gone with the Wind; and Wigan has a Wigan Pier shopping center with an Orwell restaurant. If local identity is too bland elements of more distinctive places can be copied. Las Vegas, which excels in place plagiarism, has design fragments of Egypt, Italy, the tropics, New York, Ireland, and Japan in hotels and casinos on its main strip. More restrained copying is to be found in the restaurants, shopping centers, and entertainment districts of most cities, so gondolas ply the otherwise placeless waterfront in Toronto.

The exploitation and fabrication of place identity erodes distinctions between local history and contrived heritage, between fiction and reality, in order to allow capital to pursue its relentless aims. Harvey (1989) argues that these are processes of postmodernity. Their consequence is a placelessness achieved not through uniformity, but through what Sorkin (1992) calls ‘ageographical variety.’ Place identities have been uprooted, turned into transportable goods, and rearranged without regard for context.

4. A Progressive Or Critical Sense Of Place

These changes in the character of actual places raise questions about the notion of ‘sense of place.’ Phenomenological accounts imply that sense of place is constant across space and time and unaffected by electronic communications and increased travel. A different interpretation, based in critical social theory and political economy, proposes what Massey (1993) calls ‘a progressive sense of place.’ Instead of viewing places as bounded settings rooted in home and local traditions, a progressive sense of place looks outward from a specific geographical context to connections with wider processes. It sees each place as a unique point of interaction within networks of social and economic relations. From this perspective places appear as distinctive social spaces of inclusion or exclusion, within a broad and changeful geographical context (Cresswell 1996).

A progressive or critical sense of place offers a possible foundation, that is neither nostalgic nor exclusionary, for understanding recent social and urban changes (Harvey 1996). It recognizes the global processes at work in place exploitation and, therefore, can provide insights into cultural ‘displacements’ and unanticipated juxtapositions of mosques, Chinatowns, and protestant churches that are the consequence of the intercontinental population movements of the last 50 years and which have turned many cities and towns into multicultural and multicentred places.

5. Place-Making

As a concept, ‘place’ has evolved rapidly from a background, neutral term to one that is an important theoretical and empirical subject not only in geography, but for many of the social sciences (Walter 1988, Auge 1995, Casey 1997). A simultaneous, possibly coincidental shift from distinctiveness to placelessness and ageographical variety has occurred in the identity of actual ‘places.’ A repeated theme in recent discussions of these changes in ‘place’ and ‘places,’ regardless of discipline and regardless of whether the approach is theoretical, empirical, or phenomenological, is the need for individuals and local communities to be involved in making and maintaining their own places. Places have ceased to be objects for description and have come to be regarded as complex theoretical phenomena, as foundations for social resistance against remotely generated economic forces, and as centers of stability in world of change.


  1. Auge M 1995 Non-places: Introduction to the Anthropology of Super-modernity. (trans. Howe J) Verso, London
  2. Casey E S 1997 The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  3. Cresswell T 1996 In Place Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN
  4. Entrikin J N 1991 The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  5. Hartshorne R 1959 Perspectives on the Nature of Geography. Rand McNally, Chicago
  6. Harvey D 1989 The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  7. Harvey D 1996 Justice, Nature and the Geography of Diff Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  8. Massey D 1993 Power-geometry and a progressive sense of place. In: Bird J, Curtis B, Putnam T, Robertson G, Tickner L (eds.) Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change. Routledge, London and New York
  9. McKeon R (ed.) 1941 Aristotle: Basic Works. Random House, New York
  10. Relph E 1976 Place and Placelessness. Pion, London
  11. Relph E 1997 Sense of place. In: Hanson S (ed.) Ten Geographical Ideas that Changed the World. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
  12. Sorkin M (ed.) 1992 Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. Hill and Wang, New York
  13. Strabo 1917 The Geography of Strabo, 8 Vols. (trans. Jones H L). Heinemann, London
  14. Tuan Y-F 1974 Topophilia. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  15. Walter E V 1988 Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC


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