Anthropology Space and Place
Denise Lawrence-Zuniga
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0170


The study of space and place as distinct dimensions of culture apart from ethnographic accounts has since the 1990s spawned a number of areas of anthropological research. Space is often defined by an abstract scientific, mathematical, or measurable conception while place refers to the elaborated cultural meanings people invest in or attach to a specific site or locale. Anthropologists’ own interests in space and place have intensified during late-20th-century global economic restructuring, migratory flows, and deterritorialization that have undermined assumptions about the fixity of people they study in space/place. Although spatial and environmental factors have always been present in ethnographies, they have appeared most often as background without being problematized. Recently anthropologists, armed with theoretical concepts inspired by scholars in other disciplines, have consciously sought to demonstrate the relevance of new concepts in ethnography. Authors such as Lefebvre, Foucault, de Certeau, Deleuze, and Baudrillard have inspired new lines of inquiry. Structuralist analyses focused on unconscious symbolic structures have given way to practice theories. Inquiries into how cultural phenomena as representations of multiple and often quite contradictory meanings have been complemented by studies of agency and embodiment. Coping with mobility and displacement, studies now consider migration, place-making, and identity construction. Notions of hegemony, surveillance, and the actions of the state interpenetrate local ethnographic sites that now must consider context in more complex ways than simply adapting to the physical environment. This review is organized to reflect early syntheses according to themes on social and symbolic dimensions, psychologies, and the social production of larger urban space, but it defers to those review works to provide details. This review focuses more on new areas of research that have emerged where a concentrated emphasis on space and place concepts can be found—the literature on place-making and design; on indigenous knowledge and development; indigenous rights and land claims; and food. By no means is this review comprehensive, but it does sketch the outlines of some of the developments in new areas of research that take space and place concept seriously. This overview draws substantially from previous writings co-written with Setha Low.

General Overviews

General overviews of “space and place” are seemingly scarce in large part because the field itself is highly fragmented. Whether it concerns the materiality of the built environment or the mobility of bodies across space or disrupting traditional borders and polities, space and place concepts pose challenges to theorizing in completely coherent ways. Rather, anthropologists inspired by different disciplinary trends have offered different perspectives. Lawrence and Low 1990 reviews the historical development of spatial consciousness among anthropologists, and the ethnographic problematization of built forms and spatial orientation. They identify social organization and symbolic analyses, as well as psychological and social production theories. Two anthologies addressing more specific themes introduce new considerations. Olwig and Hastrup 1997 brings together anthropologists who challenge the ethnological assumption that their “natives” are rooted in place. Gupta and Ferguson 1997 offers papers that critically examine the postcolonial condition of globalization where locals and immigrants remake themselves in new places, engage in resistance or rework local sociopolitical systems. Low 1999, an anthology on the city, presents diverse works by scholars on urban segregation by race and class, the role of fear and hegemonic forces in organizing the city, and disrupting effects of global, modern, and postmodern urban influences. Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003 updates an original review with a substantial overview of the field’s growth and includes selected readings. Ingold 2000 argues that one cannot understand space, or place, without moving through it. His emphasis on practice moves the field toward a more sensory view of space. A contrasting view is offered in Dawson, et al. 2014 whose collection of case studies emphasizes the concept of territoriality, a social construction of land tenure, control, and identity that invests space with contrasting notions of legitimacy. Finally, Haenn, and Wilk 2016 provides an anthology of articles covering environmental anthropology from earliest theoretical foundations in cultural ecology to the most recent developments in indigenous initiatives, environmental management, and consumption.

  • Coleman, Simon, and Peter Collins, eds. 2006. Locating the field: Space, place and context in anthropology. Oxford: Berg.

    Anthropologists confront the “simultaneous prominence and disappearance of place” in ethnographic studies in the age of globalization. Calling on efforts to salvage “place” in the face of super- and post-modernity, the authors intentionally focus on field sites, the conduct of ethnography, and acknowledge that each site adapts to globalizing influences. While place is an important element in ethnography, it is not the primary dimension of ethnographic practice.

  • Dawson, Allan Charles, Laura Zanotti, and Ismael Vaccaro, eds. 2014. Negotiating territoriality: Spatial dialogues between state and tradition. New York: Routledge.

    Authors examine a territorial concept of space emphasizing the social construction of land tenure, control, and identity. The book includes case studies exploring the contrast between tradition and modernity by considering European, settler and mestizo, and post-colonial societies. Different types of territorial appropriations collide with governments based on ownership regimes that inscribe space with contrasting notions of legitimacy.

  • Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson, eds. 1997. Culture, power, place: Explorations in critical anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke.

    Critical anthropological studies focused on the effects of postcolonial globalization on countries and their populations that increasingly migrate to new locations. The ethnographic studies challenge and explore the unquestioned assumptions relating place making, identity, and resistance and find that local communities, subjected to political process of the dominant society, rework and transform local cultural forms.

  • Haenn, Nora, and Richard Wilk, eds. 2016. The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture and sustainable living. 2d ed. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    An introductory reader with a broad sampling of environmental issues ranging from development, biodiversity, environmental management to consumption and globalization. First published in 2006.

  • Ingold, Tim. 2000. The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203466025

    Exploration of the relationship humans establish with environments, perceptually and in practices organized around subsistence activities. Drawing on his research among Finnish Lapland hunter-gatherers, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and James Gibson’s environmental psychology, he advances a sensory theory of space, of making and inhabiting places by moving in and through them to become one with them. Uses biological and geological knowledge, as well as insights from archaeology and sociocultural anthropology.

  • Lawrence, Denise, and Setha Low. 1990. The built environment and spatial form. Annual Reviews in Anthropology 19:453–505.

    A review of literature in anthropology and related disciplines addressing built form and spatial plans and their expression of sociocultural phenomena. Critique reviews the variety of theories proposed to explain how and why built forms conform to society and the effects they have. Major themes include ethnographic traditions, social organization, symbolism and ritual, psychological approaches, and the social production of built form.

  • Low, Setha, ed. 1999. Theorizing the city: The new urban anthropology reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    A general overview of the city with articles addressing diverse cases of divided and contested cities, and global modern and postmodern cities.

  • Low, Setha, and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga, eds. 2003. The anthropology of space and place. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Compilation of articles delineating different theoretical perspectives on space and place. A comprehensive introduction focusing on embodied, gendered, contested, inscribed, transnational spaces, and spatial tactics that link space to emerging trends in globalization, surveillance, and power asymmetries.

  • Olwig, Karen Fog, and Kirsten Hastrup, eds. 1997. Siting culture: The shifting anthropological object. New York: Routledge.

    Collection of essays focused on the shift in anthropological considerations of space and place in the context of globalization, economic restructuring, and deterritorialization. Essays address anthropologists’ taken-for-granted notion that the people they study are “naturally rooted” in specific places and challenge the reconsideration of their subjects’ understanding of their place. Individual studies review issues of constructing identity in the nation-state and in incidents of displacement.

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