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Critical and Cultural Approaches to Space : An Introduction[Notice]

  • Brian Rusted

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Throughout the opening pages of his 1991 study of Calvert, Newfoundland, Gerald Pocius elaborates a distinctive argument about material culture and space. Although A Place to Belong is based on several decades of research on Newfoundland material culture, Pocius makes it clear that he does not share in a tendency of material culture research to isolate particular classes of objects and artifacts from the spatial and social activities that give them meaning. In order to tackle the “ethnography of cultural space” (1991: 11), he had “to start with space and discover the social relations that individual objects fostered within that space” (8). What does such an ethnography of cultural space achieve? Pocius is unequivocal: reversing the analytic relation between material culture and space offers an investigative model for the social production of vernacular landscape and the spatial organization of consumption. The result gives the reader a glimpse into an ongoing dialogue between tradition and modernity. Calvert is not portrayed as a traditional community moving down the inevitable road to modernity, nor does Pocius merely reveal the quaint features of a geographic marginality. Pocius demonstrates how people appropriate the present in the ongoing articulation of their sense of spatial order. He also reveals the consequences of losing a sense of space and its social demands. This research model lets him move towards what some might have identified a decade ago as a postmodern space in representation. In the same year that A Place to Belong was published, Rob Shields published Places on the Margin, a linked collection of his essays that brought critical research traditions to bear on a variety of spatial case studies. Looking at topographic locations like the Canadian north or Brighton beach, Shields explores how such spaces acquire social significations and circulate as representations. Shields uses the phrase “social spatialization” to describe this discursive complex of spatial representations. Unlike the disciplinary emphasis that Pocius places on material culture and vernacular landscape, Shields sees his approach to space as contributing to “human geography, environmental psychology, and semiotics” (11), as he seeks antecedents from sociology and anthropology for dealing with the social labeling of space. Yet he too feels that prior research has contributed to space being analyzed as “context-less assemblages of objects” (26). Shields does not move towards an ethnography of cultural space. Drawing on Lefebvre, he turns instead towards “the culturally mediated reception of representations of environments, places, or regions which are ‘afloat in society’ as ‘ideas in currency’ ” (14). Why compare these books by way of introducing this collection of essays? I have stretched out the comparison for several reasons. First and foremost, Pocius and Shields suggest something of the range of spatial research encompassed by the individual projects in this issue. Their concurrent publication a decade ago is indicative of creative ferment happening in a variety of fields reengaging the concept of space. They demonstrate the broad, interdisciplinary currency that cultural research on space had and continues to have. Such scholarly work extends from the ethnographic study of quotidian practices (drawing predominantly on folklore, material culture, cultural geography, and landscape studies) to the critical analysis of spatial representations (emerging more from critical geography, sociology, and political economy). These two books also embody the polemic energy of spatial research in their respective fields, and they demonstrate some of the innovations of spatial research paradigms. Given the diverse and often divergent disciplinary approaches to space, is it possible to trace common antecedents? This is another reason for comparing these two books: their publication in the same year undermines a tendency to imagine a linear narrative that …

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