December 14, 2010

Simmel and space

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was a German sociologist living during the period of time I am studying.  As such, he should be an interesting person to read, but it is frustrating that he never makes explicit reference to telecommunications; how could he not take a scientific interest in the new communications medium?  He lived through what was, for us, an exciting era but he remained tantalisingly silent.  By way of contrast, Walter Benjamin wrote of his childhood memories in Berlin at the turn of the century with a wealth of detail about his domestic arrangements, with frequent references to the telephone.

Simmel did write, however, about space.  What follows is based on an interpretation of Simmel's work by Lechner.

Space is not just a place where individual can "be together" [reminiscent of Thrift's whales - see earlier post] but this interaction of "being together" is what fills the space and thus, the individuals share the space.

Simmel adopts a via media between social construction and spatial determinism.  Space is to some extent socially formed but not a complete social construct, nor does space determine or have causal effects on society. 

He elaborates on five social aspects of space:
  1. Exclusivity - social groups want exclusive rights to 'their' space.
  2. Partitioning of space - boundaries are important.  A social order that occupies a space with a clear boundary makes that order more concrete (less abstract).  "High fences make for good neighbours" - a partition effects relations with those on the other side.  Simmel stresses that boundaries are sociological, not spatial.
  3. Fixity - space offers fixity to social forms.
  4. Distance - physical proximity has consequences.  
  5. Movement through space has social significance - e.g. a nomadic tribe has strong integration.
Effects of social forms on spatial conditions
  • Political forms of organisation are spatially ordered - people are classified by location and not by ties of kinship.
  • Authority over people is exerted as territorial control.
  • Sharing a place with someone affirms communal ties - sometimes being bound to a particular place denotes members of a social group.
  • Even an empty place has social significance.
Simmel observes that societies deal with space as an abstraction.  This means you don't have to be physically present, concrete spatial settings are no longer so important.
Spatial abstraction - we don't have to share space in order to be together, because we're always together in the same global space.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.