Sociology Public Space
Gordon Douglas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0262


Sociology has an oddly imperfect, even problematic, relationship with public space (and space in general). Taking public space to mean any site that is, at least in principle, open and commonly accessible to all, it is of course the location for an enormous amount of all social interactions that occur outside of the intimacy of home or the professional context of work. It is the stage on which Goffman’s actors perform their presentations of self. From Simmel’s Metropolis and Mental Life through the research of the early Chicago School to countless contemporary ethnographies, urban space in particular is central to sociology. So much of social life takes place on streets or plazas, in public libraries, markets, and subway cars, or in so-called third spaces like cafes and pubs (public houses, after all). Public spaces have countless social characteristics and sociological implications. And yet relatively little sociological research focuses on public space itself, often relegating it at best to context—a crucial variable perhaps, certainly often a field site and the setting for a study, but rarely the object of analysis. Some sociologists who have followed a “spatial turn” are in truth interdisciplinarians by training (e.g., Herbert Gans, Neil Brenner); others began as sociologists and wound up rather outside of the discipline altogether (e.g., William H. Whyte). Still, public space is a natural domain of social research and ought to be a comfortable home to the sociologist. Whether for the pioneering community studies of the 20th century or today’s graduate students conducting surveys and observing daily life, the street corner, the park, the library are essential elements of study.

General Overviews

Most general overviews of public space in the social sciences come from geographers, anthropologists, and urban planners rather than sociologists. Lyn Lofland is one of the most prominent sociologists to have focused specifically on public space throughout her career. Her review piece on “social life in the public realm” (Lofland 1989) provides a valuable sociological overview. Sociologist and urbanist William H. Whyte also produced one of the seminal studies of public spaces and how they are used in his Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Whyte 1980). More recently, Van Melik and Spierings 2020 provides a useful recent overview of the history of social science research approaches to studying public space. The authors’ review is part of an interdisciplinary collection by Mehta and Palazzo 2020 that assembles forty-one original essays on public space.

  • Lofland, L. H. 1989. Social life in the public realm: A review. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 17.4: 453.

    DOI: 10.1177/089124189017004004

    This article provides a review of the social science literature on the “public realm” (public or non-private areas where people tend to be in the company of many others that they don’t know). Lofland examines the characteristics of the public realm in comparison to other types of social space and describes its defining features, rules, and relationships. She argues that the public realm is a unique site of social life and social interaction.

  • Mehta, V., and D. Palazzo, eds. 2020. Companion to public space. New York: Routledge.

    A multidisciplinary edited volume collecting new commissioned works addressing public space from all angles. The book includes contributions from scholars in sociology as well as anthropology, architecture, art, geography, philosophy, political science, and urban planning. Collectively, these works bring everything from the design and management of public spaces to their deeper political and philosophical underpinnings up to date in one overview. The introduction by the editors provides a useful contemporary overview.

  • van Melik, Rianne, and Bas Spierings. 2020. Researching public space: From place-based to process-oriented approaches and methods. In Companion to public space. Edited by V. Mehta and D. Palazzo, 16–26. New York: Routledge.

    The authors review a wide array of literature on public space, as well as empirical case studies and research examples to develop a relational and “processual” understanding of public space. In making the case for giving users of spaces an active role in their research, van Melik and Spierings argue for a more dynamic and interactive approach to studying public spaces.

  • Whyte, William H. 1980. The social life of small urban spaces. New York: Project for Public Spaces.

    Classic analysis of how people use public spaces conducted through a photo and film analysis of corporate plazas and pocket parks in Manhattan. Whyte finds the essential ingredients of what makes spaces work and not work, including places to sit, attention to sun and shade, and food and other programming.

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