30. Edward W. Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination”

by breavman99

human geography today

Tim Cresswell’s book on place could send its readers in any number of different directions. It sent me in at least two, and possibly three: I read Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life because of Cresswell’s discussion of it, and I just finished an essay by Edward Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination,” for the same reason. The third text I want to read as a result of reading Cresswell’s book—Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space—is a big part of Soja’s argument as well, which reinforces the need for me to read it sooner rather than later. Our library, unfortunately, doesn’t have a copy of the anthology which contains Soja’s essay, and it took ages for a used copy to find its way to me, so while I would rather have read “Thirdspace” back when I was reading de Certeau, better late than never. Right?

Soja’s essay is a condensation of the argument he makes in his 1996 book Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. That book sounds interesting, but because I’m on a deadline, I’m happy to have this compressed version available to me. Soja establishes his purpose at the very start of the essay: he intends “to encourage the development of a different way of thinking about space and the many associated concepts that compose, comprise and infuse both the inherent spatiality of human life” and in the contemporary study of human geography (260). He encourages geographers to question “familiar notions” like “space, place, territory, city, region, location, and environment,” with the aim of “opening up and expanding the scope and critical sensibility of your already established spatial imaginations” (260). That’s a tall order, perhaps, but in this essay Soja presents five theses or “summative arguments”: “Each is rather boldly stated, addressed specifically to an audience of human geographers, and expansive and open in its implications for human geography today” (260). Moreover, Soja intends to provide “cumulative and fugue-like variations on the many ways of defining Thirdspace,” a term which is (as his title suggests) at the centre of his argument. “There is no singular definition presented for this different way of thinking about space and spatiality, but rather an open-ended set of defining moments, every one of which adds potential new insights to the geographical imagination and helps to stretch the outer boundaries of what is encompassed in the intellectual domain of critical human geography” (260). I’m not a human geographer, of course, and so I am not part of the essay’s audience, but I will forge ahead anyway, to see what I can take from Soja’s five theses.

Thesis number one argues that there has been “an unprecedented spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences (261). “In what may in retrospect be seen as one of the most important intellectual developments in the late twentieth century,” Soja writes, “scholars have begun to interpret space and the spatiality of human life with the same critical insight and interpretative power as have traditionally been given to time and history (the historiality of human life) on the one hand, and to social relations and society (the sociality of human life) on the other” (261). This turn, Soja continues, constitutes “a third critical perspective”; it represents “a growing awareness of the simultaneity and interwoven complexity of the social, the historical and the spatial, their inseparability and often problematic interdependence” (261). This spatial turn, for Soja, is associated with “the emergence of a Thirdspace perspective and an expansion in the scope and critical sensibility of the geographical imagination” (261). It is part of “an ontological shift, a fundamental change in the way we understand what the world must be like in order for us to obtain reliable knowledge of it” (261). Spatiality is being recognized as “an assertive third term” in “the ontology of human existence” (262), creating “an ontological trialectic of spatiality-sociality-historicality, or more imply, a three-sided rather than two-sided way of conceptualizing and understanding the world” (262). In other words, “the social production of human spatiality or the ‘making of geographies’ is becoming as fundamental to understanding our lives and our life worlds as the social production of our histories and societies” (262). For Soja, none of the three terms he identifies here—spatiality, sociality, or historicality—is privileged. “Studying the historicality of a particular event, person, place or social group is not intrinsically any more insightful than studying its sociality or spatiality,” he writes. “The three terms and the complex interactions between them should be studied together as fundamental and intertwined knowledge sources, for this is what being-in-the-world is all about” (262). A combination of perspectives is the best way to make “theoretical and practical sense of the world” (262). All three perspectives are equivalent, and there is always a possibility that they are “working interdependently together” (263).

Soja’s second thesis argues against the “encompassing dualism, or binary logic, that has tended to polarize spatial thinking around such fundamental oppositions as objectivity v. subjectivity, material v. mental, real v. imagined, things in space v. thoughts about space” (264). “Expanding the scope of the geographical imagination to the breadth and depth that have been achieved for historicality and sociality,” he writes, “and hence rebalancing their critical empowerment, requires a creative deconstruction and rethinking of this bifurcation into two modes of spatial thinking and analysis” (264). The “trialectics of spatiality,” according to Soja, identifies “‘lived space,’ an alternative mode of spatial enquiry that extends the scope of the geographical imagination beyond the confining dualism of . . . spatial practices or ‘perceived space’ on the one hand, and the representations of space or ‘conceived space’ on the other” (265). 

Perceived space, for Soja, is “Firstspace”: it “refers to the directly experienced world of empirically measurable and mappable phenomena. This materialized spatiality, which presents human geographies primarily as outcomes, has been the dominant and familiar focus for geographical analysis, often to the exclusion of other ways of thinking about space and geography” (265). Firstspace, Soja continues, “forms the geographer’s primary ‘text’ or subject matter,” and it is read in one of two ways. The first mode of reading is constituted by endogenous approaches, which provide “accurate descriptions of patternings and distributions,” “the search for recurrent empirical regularities,” and “the correlation or spatial covariation of one geographical configuration with another” (265-66). In endogenous approaches, “empirical analysis, theory building and explanation remain internal to geography, that is, geographies are used to explain other geographies” (266). In comparison, exogenous approaches “explain material geographies by focusing on the underlying social or physical processes that produce them” (266). In exogenous approaches, human geographies are seen “as the product or outcome of forces which are not themselves geographical or spatial, but are derived from the inherent sociality and historicality that lie behind empirical patternings, distributions, regularities and covariations” (266).

“Secondspace,” on the other hand, is conceived space. It is “more subjective and ‘imagined,’ more concerned with images and representations of spatiality, with the thought processes that are presumed to shape both material human geographies and the development of a geographical imagination” (266). Secondspace “concentrates on and explores more cognitive, conceptual and symbolic worlds. It thus tends to be more idealist than materialist, at least in its explanatory emphasis” (266). Therefore, Secondspace focuses on discourses and ideologies about space (266). According to Soja, Henri Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space that conceived space is not secondary; rather, it is dominant, because “it powerfully controls the way we think about, analyse, explain, experience, and act upon or ‘practice’ human spatiality” (266). The word “practice” here reminds me of de Certeau’s argument that “space is practiced place” (de Certeau 117), and I wonder to what extent Cresswell’s claim that Lefebvre’s notion of social space—and I think that’s what Soja is talking about here—is very close to the typical definition of place in human geography (Cresswell 19). It’s possible, then, that “conceived space” is related to place, but I’m reluctant to make that claim, because Soja is trying to break out of binary oppositions like space versus place, and I don’t want to jam his ideas back into that  kind of dualism—at least not right away: I would want to be very sure that Soja’s conceived space is actually place before trying to make that argument.

“Most human geographers do not work at the extremes of these two approaches, but somewhere in between, conceiving of ‘pure’ materialism/objectivity and idealism/subjectivity as opposite poles of a continuum of approaches,” Soja writes (267). There has been a tendency, though, to see Firstspace and Secondspace as a dualism, a situation which “has been primarily responsible for the difficulty many geographers have in accepting the deeper meaning of the ontological restructuring” that is required in order to understand “Thirdspace,” or lived space (267). “Instead of responding to the growing spatial turn as a profound challenge to develop a new mode of understanding the spatiality of human life . . . that is commensurate in scope and critical insight with life’s intrinsic historicality and sociality,” Soja concludes, “many geographers, pleased with the growing attention being given to their discipline, simply pour the new wine into the same old double-barrelled containers, thus reinforcing the constraints and illusions of the Firstspace-Secondspace dualism” (267).

That comment leads to Soja’s third thesis: “A radical break from this confining dualism was initiated in France in the late 1960s, largely through the works of Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre,” and Soja attributes “to their challenging geographical imaginations the origins of Thirdspace as a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (267). Confined within the Firstspace/Secondspace dichotomy, “the geographical imagination could never capture the experiential complexity, fullness and perhaps unknowable mystery of actually lived space,” Soja continues (268). Thirdspace, as lived space, 

is simultaneously (1) a distinctive way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the spatiality of human life (or, if you will, human geography today); (2) an integral, if often neglected, part of the trialectics of spatiality, inherently no better or worse than Firstspace or Secondspace approaches to geographical knowledge; (3) the most encompassing spatial perspective, comparable in scope to the richest forms of the historical and sociological imaginations; (4) a strategic meeting place for fostering collective political action against all forms of human oppression; (5) a starting point for new and different explorations that can move beyond the “third term” in a constant search for other spaces; and still more to come. (269-70)

Clearly Soja has immense, even utopian, hopes for the possibilities of Thirdspace; the possibilities it offers are, in his conception, nearly limitless.

Soja’s fourth thesis suggests that “the most creative explorations of Thirdspace, and hence the most accomplished expansions in the scope of the geographical imagination, ahve come from the broadly defined field of critical cultural studies,” rather than geographers, particularly “the work of feminist and post-colonial critics who approach the new cultural politics of class-race-gender from a radical postmodernist perspective” (270). As a result, human geography has become more transdisciplinary than ever before (270). The most important figure in this transdisciplinary work is bell hooks, whose work, particularly the essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” “enriches our understanding of lived space by infusing it with a radical cultural politics and new political strategies to deal with the multiple axes of oppression built around race, class and gender” (270). (You may recall that I wrote about that essay here.) For Soja, hooks’s work “does this in part by empowering lived space with new communicative meaning and strategic significance” (270). It provides

many glimpses of a different kind of human geography, one that combines the grounded and politically conscious materialism of Firstspace analyses and the rich, often metaphorical representations of space and spatiality characteristic of Secondspace geographies; and at the same time stretches beyond their mere additive combination to create “Other” spaces that are radically open and openly radicalized, that are simultaneously material-and-metaphorical, real-and-imagined, concretely grounded in spatial practices yet also represented in literary and aesthetic imagery, imaginative recombinations, epistemological insight, and so much more. hooks literally cracks open lived space to new insights and new expectations that extend well beyond the long-established boundaries of the traditional geographical imagination. (271-72)

Other exemplars of Thirdspace analysis include Rosalyn Deutsche, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Hooper, Gillian Rose, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha (271-75). Most of those writers and thinkers are not geographers, but that speaks to the transdisciplinary nature that Soja sees in Thirdspace analyses. 

In his fifth and last thesis, Soja suggests that “the new human geographers emerging from critical cultural studies” whom he identifies with Thirdspace analysis have continued and expanded Henri Lefebvre’s work. They are

explicitly spatializing radical subjectivity and political practice, imbuing both with a critical spatial consciousness that extends far beyond what has existed in the past. Reflecting what was earlier described as an ontological shift and a critical thirding-as-Othering, these scholars are opening up a new and still relatively unexplored realm of radical political action centred and sited in the social production of lived space, a strategic choice that is aimed at constituting a community of resistance which can be as empowering and potentially emancipatory as those formed around the making of history and the constitution of human societies. (275)

The best contemporary human geographies, Soja continues, are

more comprehensive in scope, more empowered and potentially empowering, more explicitly politicized at many different levels of knowledge formation, from ontology to praxis, from the materially concrete to the imaginatively abstract, from the body to the planet. They are made more “real” by being simultaneously “imagined.” The metaphorical use of space, territory, geography, place and region rarely floats very far from a material grounding, a “realandimagined” that signals its intentional Otherness from more conventional geographies. Thirdspace as Lived Space is portrayed as multi-sided and contradictory, oppressive and liberating, passionate and routine, knowable and unknowable. It is a space of radical openness, a site of resistance and struggle, a space of multiplicitous representations, investigatable through its binarized oppositions but also where il y a toujours l’Autre, where there are always ‘other’ spaces, heterotopologies, paradoxical geographies to be explored. It is a meeting ground, a site of hybridity and mestizaje and moving beyond entrenched boundaries, a margin or edge where ties can be severed and also where new ties can be forged. It can be mapped but never captured in conventional cartographies; it can be creatively imagined but obtains meaning only when practised and fully lived. (276)

This is high praise, but Soja has a tremendous belief in the capabilities of this radically postmodern “new socio-spatial movement or ‘community of resistance’” that “is beginning to develop around what I am describing as a Thirdspace consciousness and a progressive cultural politics that seeks to break down and erase the specifically spatial power differentials arising from class, race, gender, and many other forms of the marginalizing or peripheralizing . . . of particular groups of people” (276-77). This movement represents “a shared spatial consciousness and a collective determination to take greater control over the production of our lived spaces that provide the primary foundation—the long-missing ‘glue’—for solidarity and political praxis” (277). The “new coalitions” represented by this movement add to previous “empowering sources of mobilization and political identity” a “reinvigorated spatial consciousness and subjectivity, an awareness that the spatiality of human life, the making of human geographies, the nexus of space-knowledge-power also contain the sources of continued oppression, exploitation and domination” (277). That sentence might be a surprise, but Soja is tempering his optimism with the recognition that “the new spatial politics is not exclusively confined to progressive forces” (277). Therefore, there is a need for “progressive thinkers and activists” to “recognize and participate in the expanding sites and communities of resistance and assertion that bell hooks and others invite us to enter, to move in consciously spatial solidarity and begin a process of re-visioning the future” (277). Soja concludes, “[t]his opportunity to reassert the expanded theoretical and strategically political importance of the critical spatial imagination may be what is most new and different—and most challenging and exciting—about human geography today” (277).

Twenty years later, I wonder if Soja is as excited about the possibilities offered by Thirdspace geography. Cresswell’s discussion of this essay in Place: An Introduction suggests that other geographers may still find Soja’s intervention valuable. But what do I make of it? I have been working with the dualism of space/place for several months now, thinking about the distinction that Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place and considering what is necessary for space to be transformed into place. Soja would probably say that thinking about spatiality through such a binary is a problem. Does the notion of Thirdspace, lived space as opposed to perceived or conceived space, help me to break out of that binary? Isn’t lived space just another way of referring to place, as Tuan defines it? Or can place be thought of using the combination of these approaches, which Soja calls a “trialectic”? I’m honestly not sure. One thing I am certain of, though, is that I definitely need to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Perhaps by studying that text, which has been so influential for Soja, I will begin to be able to find answers to my questions about his argument. I am also curious about the other essays in this anthology, and what they might have to offer for my research. Perhaps it contains more challenging and provocative essays and ought to be added to my reading list. There’s only one way to find out.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.