Marxist & Social Constructivist Approaches to Place

Henri Lefebvre

Main Source: Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

excerpt here

Lefebvre argues that there are three aspects to our spatial existence, that exist in a kind of triad:

Perceived space (Spatial practice): "The spatial practice of a society secretes that society's space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it." (38)

Think of this as physical place.

Conceived space (Representations of space): "Conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers, as of a certain type of artist with a scientific bent -- all of whom identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived." (38)

Think of this as mental place.

Lived space (Representational spaces): "Space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols." (39)

Think of this as social place.

These exist dialectically. That means that identifying exactly what physical place is in itself is not too useful. The point is to consider how the various modes of spatial production relate to each other.

The problem is that we cannot see that "(social) space is a (social) product", because we live under a double illusion about space:

The illusion of transparency: space "appears as luminous, as intelligible, as giving action free rein." (29) We imagine that there is nothing hidden about space - it is just out there, the domain in which we conduct our free actions and lives.

Lefebvre links this to writing and speech. We can speak about our actions, and presume to that extent that we have acted.

The realistic illusion: The "illusion of natural simplicity" (29) We think that space is just out there. It does not need explaining, and does not come from anywhere. This is connected to the other illusion, in that since we think that space is not something for consideration but simply the context in which we conduct our free lives, we also think that it is unquestionably real.

What's wrong with thinking of the world like this? Basically, it ignores that our supposedly free actions take place in a context that already orients them in a particular direction. We believe ourselves to be free, but in fact we have conditioned our reality to be a particular way, so that some choices just seem "right" and others "wrong". We have to think about the conditions in which those choices occur - the condition of space, which is produced by social action, not just the context in which social action happens.

Lefebvre thinks there are several implications of regarding space as a production:

1. "(Physical) natural space is disappearing." (30)

2. "Every society - and hence every mode of production ... produces a space, its own space." (31)

3. "If space is a product, our knowledge of it must be expected to reproduce and expound the process of production." (36)

4. History matters: "The history of space, of its production
qua 'reality', and of its forms and representations, is not to be confused either with the causal chain of 'historical' (i.e. dated) events, or with a sequence, whether teleological or not, of customs and laws, ideals and ideology, and socio-economic structures or institutions (superstructures). But we may be sure that the forces of production (nature; labour and the organization of labour; technology and knowledge) and, naturally, the relations of production play a part." (46)

David Harvey on Lefebvre: A Grid of Spatial Practices