Marxist & Social Constructivist Approaches to Place

David Harvey

From "The Social Construction of Space and Time" in Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference. Blackwell, 1996: 210ff

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Space and time, it is generally agreed, are social constructs. But all sorts of confusions and misconceptions attach to this conclusion. So I begin with four points of clarification.

1.
Social constructions of space and time are not wrought out of thin air, but shaped out of the various forms of space and time which human beings encounter in their struggle for material survival. For example, night and day, the seasons, lifecycles in the animal and plant world, and the biological processes which regulate human reproduction and the body, are typical encounters with various kinds of temporality. But each of these stands to be modified or even transcended as we harness sources of energy to turn night into day, as we use an international division of labour to put fresh produce into our shops at all tiems of the year, as we speed up the lifecycles of chickens and pigs through genetic engineering and as human life expectancy rises with improved living standards and medical knowledge. ... To say that time and space are social constructs does not deny their ultimate embeddedness in the materiality of the world.

2.
Conceptions of space and time depend equally upon cultural, metaphorical, and intellectual skills. The rise of a doctrine of "deep time" (the idea that "there is no sign of a beginning and no prospect of an end" in the famous formulation of the geologist James Hutton, writing in 1788) from the mid-seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries was as much fueled by metaphorical visions as it was by any observation of rocks and outcrops. ... Time and space maybe "facts of nature" but, as with "values in nature" we cannot know what those facts are outside of our own cultural embeddedness in language, belief systems, and the like.

3. Social constructions of space and time operate with the full force of objective facts to which all individuals and institutions necessarily respond.
To say that something is socially constructed is not to say it is personally subjective. ...

4.
Social definitions of objective space and time are implicated in processes of social reproduction. Bourdieu shows, for example, how in the case of the north African Kabyle, temporal and spatial organization (the calendar, the partitions within the house, etc.) serve to constitute the social order through the assignment of people and activities to distinctive places and times. The group orders its hierarchies, its gender roles, and divisions of labour, in accordance with a specific mode of spatial and temporal organization. Its choice of material embeddedness for social constructs of space and time internalizes social relations (as well as institutional and social power). The role of women in Kabyle society is, for example, defined in terms of the spaces occupied at specific times. ... Representations of space and time arise out of the world of social practices but then become a form of regulation of those practices: which is why, as we shall see, they are so frequently contested.