Preliminaries on Place and Theory
The breakdown of theoretical approaches to place listed below are rough. That is, few thinkers will fit unambiguously into these categories (and indeed, it is rare that any categorization for any purpose is neat). However, the fact that the categories are rough could mean one of two different things: 1. The categories are not as well thought out as we would like, or 2. The people who do not fit well into one of the categories either have to account for their use of approaches that are not reducible to each other, or they have just ignored the fact that the approaches do not fit easily together.
The categories themselves are pairs of contrasts:
1. The phenomenological & hermeneutical, and the symbolic & structural, are related as "inner" and "outer". Specifically (and again, roughly), they deal with the location of the meaning of place.
- The Phenomenological/Hermeneutical assumes that meaning is ontological. It is held "inside" the person, or subject, and in fact, it just is what constitutes the self. It is not just felt, but known in such a way as to make other knowledge possible. It is the way we "know" through and with our bodies, and because of this the world becomes transparent and meaningful to us. Example: our sense of nationalism. We often do not just think of ourselves as living in the US, but rather as being American. The place defines who we are.
- The Symbolic/Structural assumes that meaning is textual. It is located in the interaction of signifiers outside of the person. So, we "read" place, and that reading tells us something about those who "authored" that text. The best examples are in anthropology. As we look at traditional forms of life, distant in either time or cultural space, we come to understand what those people valued by looking at how they organized their space, and how they "inscribed" it.
2. The social constructivist & Marxian, and the psychological & causal, are related as "after" and "before". Specifically (and again roughly), they deal with the question of how place is produced, or what it produces.
- The Social Constructivist/Marxian approach assumes that place is constructed, or produced, by something else. It is located after the material or symbolic structures in the world. Therefore, we use place as an indicator of those social forces. This may use symbolic means or phenomenological means; that is, we may assume that place is textual, and reading the text shows us the social forces that created it. Or we may assume that place is ontological, held as meaning inside the subject, but that meaning is itself created by social forces and is evidence of their nature.
- The Psychological/Causal approach assumes that place produces subjectivity. It is located before the self. So, place is assumed to "create" our emotions and our very natures. Environmental psychology works under these assumptions.
But we can find another relationship, this time one of similarity. This has to do with how we assume place is related to the self.
1. The phenomenological & hermeneutical, and the psychological & causal, are related. Both assume that place or space tell us something about ourselves, that knowing about place really means knowing about the self.
2. The social constructivist & Marxian, and the symbolic & structural, are related. Both assume that knowing about place is a textual affair, located outside of the self. The self is implied by place, but not understood directly.