This is part of a new blog series I will be writing called Everyday Anthropology. The goal of this series is to introduce concepts of anthropology that can be seen in everyday life, in a way that a wide audience of readers can understand and relate to.
Let’s dive right in! Hope you enjoy.
Note: The examples that I use in this blog post are U.S. American spaces/places, as this is what I am most familiar with and can describe with the most detail. However, the idea of space and place is something that can be applied anywhere in the world.
Space vs. Place
In anthropology, as well as in geography and other disciplines, there is a concept of “Space” vs. “Place.”
Space is location, physical space and physical geography.
Place is what gives a space meaning, “personality” and a connection to a cultural or personal identity. It is the culturally ascribed meaning given to a space. It is the “vibe” that you get from a certain space, and it exists for a reason.
More About “Place”
The concept of place is often associated with sacred or religious sites, but it can exist anywhere with any number of connotations. The idea of place can be applied to very large areas, such as nation-states, or very small areas, such as a local building or park.
You can find many sensationalized examples of place and place-making in media. Many spaces take on more meaning and a larger-than-life persona when they are portrayed on screen (think of American shows set in New York, L.A., or Miami).
For example, if we were to describe New Orleans as a space, we might say:
New Orleans is a city located in the state of Louisiana in the Southeast United States. It is on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is about 349.8 square miles, or about 910 square kilometers, in size. It experiences a warm, humid climate during most of the year.
But if we were describing New Orleans with notions of place, we might say:
Shaped by the influence of Native American, French, African-American and Spanish cultures, New Orleans is the home of jazz music and spicy Cajun cuisine. The spirit of New Orleans is vibrant, joyful and resilient. It is known as a place where the people are friendly, and the party never stops.
Of course, not all the food in New Orleans is spicy, and not every person who lives there is a friendly party-animal. There is much more to this place than that. These are just examples of ideas of place that are often associated with the city.
What Makes A Space into a Place
Based on what I have studied in anthropology, there are many layers of meaning attached to any given place. Here are a few of these most significant layers:
Knowing what happened in a certain space is a huge part of defining it as a place.
This idea can easily be sensed in areas of historical significance, such as sites where battles were fought, or important government documents were signed. But it can also be felt on a smaller scale, for example, in the case of one’s family history in a home or town.
Cultural memory (similar to, but not completely the same as collective memory) is how groups of people view their cultural history in a certain way, usually with a certain level of emotional attachment. This memory can be attached to specific events in history, or in this case, specific places. Cultural memory is a way people define themselves, their story, and where they belong. It is one way of answering the question; who am I and where do I come from?
Character and Characters
The overall perceived character of the people who inhabit a space serves to create ideas of place. This character is often formed through cultural memory. Shared cultural memory allows groups and individuals to visualize their role in the bigger story of a culture and a place.
In addition, the “characters” we know to be attached to a certain space flavor our notions of place. A friendly face, a quirky personality or an angry glance can shape our overall feelings about the area we associate them with.
Place in the Everyday
The point of the concept of “place” is not to stereotype or downplay the importance of individuals. Instead, it is a way to analyze why we see certain places the way we do– why we identify with some places and feel strange in others. Like other concepts in anthropology, it is a way of exploring how we define ourselves, and those we view as “others.” It can be a useful tool, especially for those who travel.
When you explore the divisions that exist between people and why, you seek a better understanding of your fellow human beings. You make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. You may also discover the potential to break down some of the barriers that separate us.
What are the places that mean the most to you? How do you define them?