25. Tim Cresswell, Place: An Introduction

by breavman99

cresswell place


It took me a long time to finish reading Tim Cresswell’s little introduction to the concept of place. It wasn’t because it’s a difficult book—it isn’t—but because it’s the middle of the semester and I’m tired and distracted. I have to start studying for my Cree midterm today, so I won’t get back to this reading until the middle of next week. Perhaps I’ll discover that a change is as good as a rest.

According to Cresswell, place is perhaps the most important term in the discipline of geography (1). It’s also an interdisciplinary concept as well, however, and possibly the key term for interdisciplinary research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences (1). For that reason, Place: An Introduction is “both a disciplinary account of a key geographical concept and an interdisciplinary introduction to an issue that transcends geography, philosophy, or any other discipline,” Cresswell writes (1). Place is a challenging term to define, because it’s not a specialized word, but one used by ordinary people every day. For that reason, Cresswell writes, “[i]t is the purpose of this book to scrutinize the concept of place and its centrality to both interdisciplinary academic endeavor and everyday life” (6-7).

Cresswell begins with political geographer John Agnew’s argument that there are three fundamental aspects of place: location, locale, and sense of place (12). Locations are physical spots on the surface of the planet where things exist, although those physical locations are not always stationary (13). Locale, on the other hand, refers to “the material setting for social relations—the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals” (13-14). Finally, sense of place means “the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place” (14). These three aspects of place are central to Cresswell’s ideas about place.

Place needs to be distinguished from two related terms: space and landscape. Space, as Yi-Fu Tuan argues, is more abstract than place: spaces have areas and volumes, but places have spaces between them (15). “Space,” Cresswell writes, “has been seen in distinction to place as a realm without meaning—as a ‘fact of life’ which, like time, produces the basic coordinates for human life. When humans invest meaning in a portion of space and then become attached to it in some way (naming is one such way) it becomes a place” (16). However, since the 1970s, this distinction in human geography has become confused by the notion of social space, or socially produced space, particularly as articulated by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space; social space is, in many ways, similar to notions of place (16-17). Landscape, on the other hand, is a term that derives from landscape painting. It refers “to a portion of the earth’s surface that can be viewed from one spot” (17). It is an intensely visual idea, Cresswell argues. Moreover, in most definitions of landscape, the viewer is positioned outside of the landscape. “This is the primary way in which it differs from place,” he suggests. “Places are very much things to be inside of” (17). “We do not live in landscapes—we look at them,” he concludes (18).

For Cresswell, one of the important themes in this book is the idea that “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world” (18):

When we look at the world as a world of places, we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience. Sometimes this way of seeing can seem to be an act of resistance against a rationalization of the world that focuses more on space than place. To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment—as a place—is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures. . . . At other times, however, seeing the world through the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism, and bigotry. . . . This book is as much about place as a way of knowing as it is about place as a thing in the world. It is as much about epistemology as it is about ontology. (18)

Place, Cresswell continues, “is how we make the world meaningful and the way we experience the world. Place, at a very basic level, is space invested with meaning in the context of power. This process of investing space with meaning happens across the globe at all scales, and has done throughout human history” (19). One of the main tasks of geography as a discipline, in fact, has been to make sense of place. At the same time, Cresswell notes, place is a contested concept, and what it means is the subject of debate in many disciplines; the purpose of this book is to think through these various ways of defining place (19).

Cresswell’s second chapter explores the genealogy of place as a concept and a theme. This exploration, he notes, requires considering place as “a philosophical object of enquiry as well as a geographical one” (23). Place, he reminds us, can refer both to an object—“a thing that we can look, research, and write about” (23)—and a way of looking at and knowing the world (23), so place is “both an act of defining what exists (ontology) and a particular way of seeing and knowing the world (epistemology and metaphysics)” (23). Place is therefore “not simply something to be observed, researched, and written about but is itself part of the way we see, research, and write” (24). 

The first explicit philosophies of place appear in the work of Plato and Aristotle; place was the fundamental basis of existence for anything else, according to Aristotle, because in order for something to exist, it had to be somewhere (26). However, it wasn’t until the work of Martin Heidegger that place regained its importance as a philosophical concept, particularly in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” and his book Being in Time (27). Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, or being there, evokes a strong connection between a thing and its place, and dwelling, which suggests a continuity between a thing and its place, describes being as being-in-the-world (27). For Heidegger, place invokes nearness and care in relation to the world, and those qualities result “in an authentic being-in-the-world—a kind of being based on humility and nurture” (29). Heidegger’s notions of dwelling and building are picked up by Gaston Bachelard, who suggests that the interior spaces of a home provide appropriate places for the psyche (29-30). 

The phenomenology of Heidegger and Bachelard become important for humanistic geographers in the 1970s, particularly the work of Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph (35). Tuan argues that place is the product of a pause, and that it is therefore presents a chance for attachment (35-36). Relph, on the other hand, argues that the characteristics of place include visuality, a sense of community, a sense of the time involved in developing an attachment to a place, and rootedness as a value (36-37). For Relph, consciousness is situated, and place determines our experience (38). For these (and other) humanistic geographers, home was an exemplary kind of place—one “where people feel a sense of attachment and rootedness” (39)—a claim that feminist geographers, like Gillian Rose, resist. Those feminist geographers represent only one form of critical engagement with ideas of place. Marxist and poststructuralist geographers also questioned the celebration of place in the work of humanistic geographers (41). For example, geographer David Harvey argued that notions of place are ambivalent: they are threatened by the mobility inherent in postmodern forms of capitalism, but at the same time “struggles for place identity also appeal to the parochial and exclusive forces of bigotry and nationalism” (41-42). Harvey claims that place is a social construct, which places him at odds with philosophers of place, such as Edward Casey and J.E. Malpas, and geographer Robert Sack, who argue that place “is a force that cannot be reduced to the social, the natural, or the cultural. It is, rather, a phenomenon that brings these worlds together and, indeed, in part produced them” (47). However, there is little empirical detail in the work of Sack, Malpas, or Casey; their discussions tend to be generalized rather than specific (50). Cresswell’s position attempts to bridge these various approaches to place; he argues that place “is a construction of humanity but a necessary one—one that human life is impossible to conceive of without. In other words there was no ‘place’ before there was humanity but once we came into existence then place did too” (51).

Cresswell next turns to assemblage theory: the idea that there is a process of gathering—of things, emotions, people memories—which suggests a relationship between the inside of a place (which gathers) and an outside (from where things are gathered). This conception of place underlines its relational nature, Cresswell suggests: “the necessity of a place being related to its outside” (52). This notion also therefore suggests a relationship between place and things that are on the move, or between place and mobility (52). Assemblage theory is derived from the work of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly A Thousand Plateaus (and that sound you just heard was my realization that I’ll have to read that difficult and lengthy book as part of this project), but it is developed by Manuel DeLanda in his book, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. An assemblage, in Cresswell’s summary, is a unique whole, and its properties emerge from the relationships that exist between its parts (52). Assemblages are distinct from organic structures, however, which are also composed of parts. Organic structures depend on each part in order to exist, and if a constituent part is removed, an organic structure will cease to exist in a recognizable way (52). In an assemblage, on the other hand, “constituent parts can be removed and replaced,” and those parts “can then enter other assemblages and contribute to new ‘unique wholes’” (52-53). “The ways in which parts are combined in an assemblage are not structurally necessary of preordained,” Cresswell suggests. “They are not directed by some higher force. Their combination is contingent” (53). Places, Cresswell continues, “are ideal candidates for the status of assemblages” (53). Assemblages involve two key axes. The first axis connects the two key roles played by elements of an assemblage: expressive roles and material roles. “[T]hese are easily mapped on to the ways we [think] about a place having a material existence (locale, landscape) and an expressive existence (in so far as places are meaningful, cultural entities),” Cresswell writes (53-54). The second axis, Cresswell suggests, “links forces that make a place cohere (territorializing forces) and those that pull it apart (deterritorializing forces)” (54). In a home, for example, there are forces that stabilize its identity (both legal and physical—a deed, a main beam) and processes that make that identity less stable (entropy, the lines that lead out from the home to the wider world) (54). For Cresswell, the poststructualist notion of assemblage suggests a way of seeing “how places are syncretic wholes made up of parts and how any particular place is connected to the wide world beyond from which things are gathered and to which things are dispersed. Any consideration of the unique collection of parts that makes up a place has to take into account the relations between that place and what lies beyond it” (54).

In the conclusion to this chapter, Cresswell argues that these various approaches suggest that place can be apprehended at three levels. The first level consists of a descriptive approach to place, which focuses on the distinctiveness and particularity of places. The second is the social constructionist approach to place, where the particularity of places are instances of more general underlying social processes. Finally, there is a phenomenological approach to place, which “seeks to define the essence of human existence as one that is necessarily and importantly ‘in-place’”; this approach is not interested in specific places at all, but in place as a general phenomenon (55-56). According to Cresswell, in creative writing about place “we see all of the three levels of place theory in action simultaneously” (58). Place-writing practices provide descriptive accounts of individual places, but at the same time they also grapple with the phenomenological significance of places to their inhabitants and the ways in which power and society produce and are produced by places (58). I like the sudden shift to writing practices at the end of this theoretical chapter, and I will remember Cresswell’s remarks when I start reading examples of place-writing later on this year.

One of my interests is the connection between place and mobility—particularly walking—and so I was most interested in Cresswell’s third chapter, which addresses this topic. How is the idea of place, and actual places, related to the idea of mobility, and to actual mobilities? he asks (62). He begins to discuss this question by referring to David Seamon, a phenomenological geographer who, drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, believed that bodily mobility, rather than rootedness and authenticity, was “the key component to the understanding of place” (63). Seamon’s aim was to give an account of place as embodied (63), and he argued that “[t]he mobilities of bodies combine in space and time to produce an existential insideness—a feeling of belonging within the rhythm of life in place” (64). Seamon developed a notion of “place-ballet”: a way of thinking about how “many time-space routines” combine in “a particular location,” which Cresswell describes as “an evocative metaphor for our everyday experience of place” which “suggests that places are performed on a daily basis through people living their everyday life. . . . It is through participating in these daily performances that we get to know a place and feel part of it” (64). 

From Seamon’s “place-ballet,” Cresswell moves to Lefebvre’s arguments about the way rhythm is produced in a city—both the rhythm of individual bodies and the rhythm demanded by advanced capitalist society (64). Lefebvre was primarily interested in the rhythms that are imposed on bodies, rather than the ones they develop themselves. “Clearly the things people do in place—the practices that, in turn, produce a lively sense of place—are not always the result of free will,” Cresswell notes. “Some actions are freer than others and it is therefore necessary to take into account restraints on action that are the product of social hierarchies and power relations within society” (65). Lefebvre’s account of urban rhythms became the subject of geographers influenced by structuration theory. Allan Pred, for instance, argues that place is too often thought of “in terms of fixed visible and measurable attributes,” and instead of this kind of fixity, place should be thought of in ways that emphasize “change and process” (65). Structuration theory, which Cresswell associates with the work of sociologists Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, is an attempt 

to describe and understand the relations between the overarching structures that influence our lives (ranging from big structures such as capitalism and patriarchy to smaller-scale structures such as national and local institutions) and our own ability to exercise agency in our everyday lives. Structurationists say that our actions are neither determined by structures above and beyond us, nor completely the product of free will. Structures depend on our actions to exist and our actions are given meaning by the structures that lie beyond them. (66)

Applications of structuration theory to geography acknowledge that we inhabit material landscapes that we had little say in constructing. “These landscapes have walls, doors, windows, spaces of flow (roads, paths, bridges, etc.) that we have to negotiate in order to live,” Cresswell writes:

We cannot walk through walls and we are unlikely to wander down the middle of the road without endangering our lives. Places also have less concrete structures. Laws and rules pervade space. . . . At any given moment in time, place provides a geographically specific set of structures. But even with layer upon layer of structuring conditions no one can safely predict what you or I are going to do. (66)

Desire lines (or desire paths) across lawns are one everyday example of the way that agency is expressed in places. At this point, Cresswell returns to the work of Allan Pred. “Places are never finished but always the result of processes and practices,” Cresswell suggests, summarizing Pred’s argument. “As such, places need to be studied in terms of the ‘dominant institutional projects,’ the individual biographies of people negotiating a place, and the way in which a sense of place is developed through the interaction of structure and agency” (68). Along with Pred, geographers Nigel Thrift and Derek Gregory have been influential in developing notions of process and practice in human geography (69).

The distinction between place and space is what poststructuralists call a binary opposition, and Edward Soja’s work, according to Cresswell, represents a challenge to the binaries that have been at the centre of geographical discourse. Soja argues that “Thirdspace,” or lived space, disrupts the opposition between Firstspace (positivist space, which is empirically measurable and mappable phenomena) and “Secondspace” (humanist space, which is perceived, perceived, subjective and imagined, the domain of representations and image) (69). “Thirdspace, or lived space,” Cresswell writes,

is therefore a different way of thinking. Thirdspace is practiced and lived rather than simply being material (conceived) or mental (perceived). Thirdspace is always both/and—always in excess of the ability of dualistic space to discipline it. The focus on the lived world does seem to provide theoretical groundwork for thinking about a politics of space based on place as lived, practiced, and inhabited space. (69-70)

“In these terms,” Cresswell continues, “places are never established. They only operate through constant and reiterative practice” (70). Places are like desire paths, then, or even footpaths, which grow over, eventually, if they are not used. They are practices, rather than things.

Another writer who focuses on place as a practice is Michel de Certeau, whose book The Practice of Everyday Life is, Cresswell suggests, “[o]ne of the books that has proved most useful to thinking about the issue of practice in relation to space and place”—even though de Certeau uses those terms in ways that upend the normal distinction geographers make between those two terms. For de Certeau, “place is the empty grid over which practice occurs while space is what is created by practice” (70). For Cresswell, the “central tension” in de Certeau’s work “is between a systemic grammar of place—an order that we inhabit and is not constructed by us—and our ability to use this grammar in ways which are not predetermined” (70). The work of Soja and de Certeau, Cresswell writes, 

shows us how place is constituted through reiterative social practice, how place is made and remade on a daily basis. Place provides a template for practice—an unstable stage for performance. Thinking of place as performed and practiced can help us think of place in radically open and non-essentialized ways, where place is constantly struggled over and reimagined in practical ways. Place is the raw material for the creative production of identity rather than an a priori label of identity. Place provides the conditions of possibility for creative social practice. (70-71)

Place becomes an event, rather than a thing, and is therefore “marked by openness and change rather than boundedness and permanence,” Cresswell continues. “This significantly alters the value put on place as it is constructed from the outside rather from the inside” (71). 

Another geographer who has written about place and mobility is Marc Augé, who suggests that in postmodernity, which is marked by circulation, consumption, and communication, has revealed the traditional definition of place as being anchored in one location as a fantasy (78). Rather than places, “non-places” are typical of the postmodern world—sites marked by transience and a preponderance of mobility, by the fleeting, temporary, and ephemeral (78). Tuan suggested that such experiences of place are superficial (78-79), but in the 1990s, geographers like Augé and Thrift abandoned Tuan’s and Relph’s implicit moral judgements about the inauthenticity and lack of commitment involved in mobility (80-81). “Augé’s thesis of non-place as a new kind of spatial arena, distinct from the deep map of anthropological place, is mirrored in the work of anthropologists and others who locate the production of identities in cosmopolitan forms of mobility rather than in stable and bounded places,” Cresswell writes, noting that terms like “transnational,” “diasporic,” “hybrid,” and “cosmopolitan,” which imply a critique of the idea that identities are formed in specific places, became central to geographical discourse. However, Cresswell argues, such terms are complicated. For example, a “cosmopolitan identity may be formed through mobility and a decrease in the importance of one’s own place, but it simultaneously depends on continued variation in the world—the existence of recognizably different places inhabited by ‘locals’” (83). Cresswell cites the work of anthropologist Anna Tsing in this regard, who argues that there is friction in the encounter between “mobile universals” and “the ‘sticky materiality of practical encounters’” (83-84). Cresswell concludes that mobility has always been part of place, citing Lucy Lippard’s suggestion that when we enter new places, we become one of the ingredients of their existing hybridity, since that’s what local places consist of (84-85). It’s an interesting thought, and it suggests that I need to reread at least the introduction to Lippard’s The Lure of the Local as part of this project.

Cresswell’s fourth chapter focuses on the way place has been thought about in one influential reading: Doreen Massey’s “A Global Sense of Place,” which has been described as “a plea for a new conceptualization of place as open and hybrid—a product of interconnecting flows—of routes rather than routes,” according to Cresswell (88). Massey’s “extroverted notion of place,” he continues, “calls into question the whole history of place as a center of meaning connected to a rooted and ‘authentic’ sense of identity forever challenged by mobility. It also makes a critical intervention into widely held notions of the erosion of place through mobility, globalization, and time-space compression” (88). Cresswell chose this reading, he continues, “because it allows for reflection on all of the central themes surrounding the notion of place, and points towards a new way of thinking” (88).

Cresswell begins this discussion with a description of the context of the early 1990s, when Massey’s essay was first published. “It seemed that two complementary changes were occurring at a global scale—the repetition of outlets owned by multinational corporations everywhere across the globe (homogenization) and the flowering of a diverse array of international cultural products in urban areas everywhere,” he writes. “Both of these appeared to threaten the notion of unique places” (89). One response to this situation was David Harvey’s argument that while the idea of place is ambiguous: it is both a potential resistance against global capitalism, but it can also be an exclusionary force in a world when people define themselves against threatening others “who are not included in the particular vision of place being enacted” (96-97). According to Cresswell, Massey’s essay is a response to that kind of thinking; it “hinges on a redefinition of place as an inclusive and progressive site of social life” (97). 

Massey’s first move—her essay, by the way, is available online and is well worth reading—is to question the assumptions about time-space compression and globalism that were dominant at the time. Global processes, she notes, involve gender and race as well as capitalism, and the reasons people move are not homogenous: some are forced to move, while others are forced to stay still. The point, she argues, is to recognize the specificity of people’s experiences of mobility (99). “To simply see place as a static and rooted reaction to a dynamic and mobile world holds several problems for Massey,” Cresswell writes. “First, it may be the case that people do need some sense of place to hold on to—even a need for rootedness—and this need not always be reactionary. Second, the flow and flux of global movement might not necessarily be anxiety-provoking” (102). A reactionary sense of place is marked by at least three interconnected ways of thinking, according to Massey: “a close connection between place and a singular form of identity”; “a desire to show how the place is authentically rooted in history”; and finally, “a need for a clear sense of boundaries around a place separating it from the world outside” (102). However, Massey argues, using her own London neighbourhood, Kilburn, as an example, there are no singular identities; history is a complex series of “journeys and connections”; and boundaries are not places but rather divisions between “them” and “us” (102-04). Kilburn, according to Massey, is “a celebration of diversity and hybridity” (105). Massey’s extroverted, progressive, global sense of place sees it as a process, defined by the outside, a site of multiple identities and histories, with a uniqueness defined by its interactions with other places (108). This idea, Cresswell notes, is a very different definition of place than the ones that went before it—both in the phenomenological geography of Tuan and Relph, where place does not involve movement, and in the work of Augé, who contends that movement creates non-places (108). 

However, Cresswell argues, there is a problem in Massey’s definition of place: “it is hard to point to anything specific about it” (108). Massey’s version of Kilburn as a place is “no more than an accidental coming together of many different flows in one location” (108). Moreover, he continues, people do “invest (in non-reactionary ways) in a search for comparative fixity,” and there exist places where “a little more globalization would be welcome” for the people who live in them (108-09). Cresswell turns to Jon May’s research in another London neighbourhood, Stoke Newington, to suggest that we ought to be careful about “putting all our eggs in one theoretical basket in regards to place” (110). Some residents of Stoke Newington see that neighbourhood as possessing an “iconography of Englishness,” while others see it as lacking those very qualities (111). Some residents enjoy the neighbourhood’s diversity in an aestheticized way: “the stand back from the crowd and enjoy it in all its variety,” so that the diversity they behold becomes “a picturesque scene that gives those who look on a sense of cultural capital—a sense of their own self-worth in being able to appreciate difference” (112). This aesthetic appreciation can’t be reconciled with either Harvey’s or Massey’s sense of place, Cresswell argues (112). “May’s engagement with Stoke Newington and its residents provides a third example of the politics of place in a globalized world,” he writes, one in which “[t]he simple, observable, fact of diversity does not necessarily produce a progressive sense of place and the search for roots in history does not have to be reactionary” (113).

Cresswell’s fifth and sixth chapters are of less interest to me. Chapter five looks at the ways that place an be used in research and practice (115). In the work Cresswell discusses in this chapter, place is used “as an analytical concept in accounts of the process of shaping meaning and practice in material space”—in other words, the ways that meanings, practices, and material spaces are produced and consumed (115). Places are in process, in this work; they are never finished and “produced through the reiteration of practices—the repetition of seemingly mundane activities on a daily basis” (116). Among the examples of research Cresswell discusses are Geraldine Pratt’s examination of the lives of Filipina contract workers in Vancouver, anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s research into the ways that global processes can be questioned by a focus on place, and Nina Wakeford’s study of a cybercafé in the 1990s. He also looks at Miwon Kwon’s discussion of site-specific art, in which she suggests that “site” or place can be understood in three different ways: phenomenological or experiential, social or institutional, and discursive (154). The sixth chapter looks at things and people that are out of place—on anachorism, to use Cresswell’s neologism (165-66). Among the examples he thinks about here are sexually diverse people in public spaces, the homeless, refugees, tramps, and animals that are out of place. Interestingly, he refers to anthropologist Liisa Malkki’s notion of “sedentarist metaphysics”—the notion that there are fixed, bounded, rooted conceptions of culture and identity (173-74). I’d read that phrase before, in Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, but I didn’t realize that he hadn’t coined it himself. The conclusion to this chapter functions as a conclusion to the rest of the book: “Place is constantly evoked in the world at large and has an extraordinary impact on the way in which people, animals, and all manner of things are represented and treated,” he writes (191). While place is not just an academic preoccupation, it is “one of the most important interdisciplinary concepts for the twenty-first century” (191).

The last chapter is an extended bibliography, which lists books and articles on place that aren’t included in the bibliographies Cresswell provides at the close of each chapter. I found this bibliography quite useful, particularly the short list of creative non-fiction about place, and although I really don’t need more books and articles to read, I’ve managed to find cheap used copies online. Once again I’m reminded of the need to rework my reading list—to incorporate some of the texts I’ve learned about in my reading, and to demote others to the “secondary” list—the books, in other words, I’m not likely to get around to reading this year.

Cresswell’s discussion of place is helpful, because it adds to what I’ve learned by reading Tuan. In fact, as a primer on place, it helps contextualize Tuan’s work, and it identifies critiques of that work—and both of those are very important for me. I’m working on a proposal for a conference paper on pilgrimage, walking, and place, and Cresswell’s book has given me a wider sense of the literature on the topic of place that is extremely valuable for that project. So for that reason alone I’m happy I read this book.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. Routledge, 2006.

———. Place: An Introduction. 2nd ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today, June 1991, pp. 24-29. http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/91_06_24.pdf