Thesis: Space and Place Literature Review

This post is one of a serialisation of key (edited) extracts of my thesis, “Digital Ethnography and a Virtual Orkney: The Role of Folklore in Creating an Online Orkney Place”, submitted and completed in 2018. You can download the full text below, with all footnotes, full data quotes, and list of references. I have left the original numerical chapter navigation in this post, for ease of reference.

2.2 Space and Place

Gabbert and Jordan-Smith, introducing a special issue of ‘Western Folklore’ in 2007, state that:

Anyone interested in space and place soon discovers a vast body of scholarship so broad in scope it easily becomes unmoored. If we have learned anything, it is that spaces and places essentially are conflicted: they are sites of struggle, not the least among academics over proper theoretical and methodological models for studying such subjects.

(2007, p.217)

Humanistic and phenomenological geographers have not yet agreed on a single definition of either space or place, and there is a substantial body of work on defining at what point space becomes place, and the features of space from different perspectives. Whereas space is broadly thought of as a more abstract concept, place is considered to be shaped by the engagement of individuals (or groups of individuals). Place, therefore, is something “mixed with human values and principles. As a result, place is a particular space which is covered with meanings and values by the users” (Najafi & Shariff 2011, p.1054).

Tuan, writing ‘Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective’ in 1974, was one of the first academics to make place as defined by lived experience the primary focus of their work. Tuan described place as being something more than merely the sum of its academic parts: both sociology (one’s place within society) and geography (spatial location):

The emotion felt among human beings finds expression and anchorage in things and place. It can be said to create things and places to the extent that, in its glow, they acquire extra meaning.

(1974, p.241)

Of sense of place, Tuan states that “[p]eople demonstrate their sense of place when they apply their moral and aesthetic discernment to sites and locations” (1974, p.235). Tuan also differentiates between ‘public symbols’, those which “can be seen and known from the outside”; and ‘fields of care’ (a term introduced by John Wild in 1963), which “carry few signs which declare their nature.”

Relph’s ‘Place and Placelessness’ was first published in 1976 and, as with Tuan, Relph focussed on phenomenological interpretations of geography and the nature of place. Rather than focussing upon descriptions of place, Relph instead considered what it was that created a place, in terms of lived experience. “[M]y concern,” he wrote, “is with the various ways in which places manifest themselves in our experience or consciousness of the lived-world, and with the distinctive and essential components of place and placelessness as they are expressed in landscapes” ( 2008, p6-7). As with many earlier texts which have come to define their discipline, not all interpretations of place as detailed by Relph in 1976 have entirely stood the test of time, but the importance of the text to the field of place studies remains. Relph’s earlier binary approach of place being equated with meaning, and placelessness with a negative homogeneity stemming from destruction of individuality, was acknowledged and critiqued by Relph himself, in the preface to the 2008 reprint of ‘Place and Placelessness’:

In this postmodern era things are not so clear. Mobility, commercialisation, disneyfication, museumisation, all of which I proposed as roots of placelessness, have developed a potential to be sources of enhanced diversity.


Both Tuan and Relph, as geographers approaching space and place from a phenomenological perspective, were continuing Heidegger’s work on Being; with Heidegger’s approach to authenticity being interpreted in Relph’s writings on place and placelessness, and in Tuan’s approach to ‘fields of care’ (Wollan 2003). Wollan, discussing Heidegger’s philosophy of space and place, highlights the role of lived realities in defining space and place:

Distance and closeness, high and low, within and without are lived realities, while geometric space is a limited abstraction from the primarily lived reality. Physical space therefore depends in a certain sense on the space character in our understanding.

(2003, p.36)

Creswell, precising Agnew’s 1987 definition of place (1987), states that:

Place is a meaningful site that combines location, locale, and sense of place. Location refers to an absolute point in space with a specific set of coordinates and measurable distances from other locations. Location refers to the ‘where’ of place. Locale refers to the material setting for social relations – the way a place looks. Locale includes the buildings, streets, parks, and other visible and tangible aspects of a place. Sense of place refers to the more nebulous meanings associated with a place: the feelings and emotions a place evokes.

(2009, p.169)

Complications arise from Agnew’s definition of place when trying to establish how to define sense of place, and the extent to which this interacts with the broader definition of place. Sense of place is one way in which academics have attempted to define the idea that a place holds certain value which space cannot hold. Other definitions include place attachment, place identity, and even spirit of place (referring to the genii loci of Roman mythology).

Hay focusses upon place attachment, noting how the relationship between a physical environment and the length of time individuals have spent there or are rooted in the environment shapes the depth of such attachment:

I have devised five sub-groups: superficial connection to place (tourists and transients); partial connection (cottagers and children); personal connection (new residents without roots in the place); ancestral connection (residents with roots); and, cultural connection (indigenous residents with both roots in the place and spiritual ties, as affirmed by culture).

(1998, p.9)

Though this may suggest some ways in which the concept of place attachment can be approached and investigated, the five proposed sub-groups are not easily applicable to the consideration of the online environment. The concept of online place attachment was developed by Schwartz, sixteen years later, in ‘Online Place Attachment: Exploring Technological Ties to Physical Places’:

I argue that these type of interactions and the resulting personal attachment they create can be best described as “Online Place Attachment,” online–offline interactions that carry the same characteristics that create people’s connection to places, but at the same time represent sets of factors that result from their simultaneous online existence: extensive documentation, collective attachment, and mutual connection.

(2014, p.86)

There has been significant discussion regarding the ways in which space is changed and place is created, and the way in which social constructs – the global as well as the local – are introduced into the concept of space and place. Both embodiment and presence have been suggested as appropriates terms for the ways in which space becomes place.

Low, approaching place from an anthropological point of view, argues that it is through embodied space that the global plays a part and is given meaning:

By moving toward a theory of space and place that identifies the embodied spaces of individuals and groups as sites of translocal and transnational space and place as well as of personal experience and perception, we solve some of the problems of the current anthropological concepts with their misplaced rootedness.

(2009, p.22)

Farman, from the perspective of mobile interface theory, discusses the simultaneous location of one’s self in both digital and geographical (‘material’) space; embodiment as something co-created alongside space:

These examples point to another defining component of embodiment in the age of mobile computing: once enacted, embodiment does not always need to be located in physical space.

(2012, p.21)

A number of academics have focussed upon place (Kyle & Chick 2007) and space as a social construct, with the politics of space taking prominence in the field over the last thirty years, during which time there has been a move toward the consideration of place and space within a global context. Nearly twenty years ago Massey called for consideration of a progressive sense of place, and critical analysis of boundaries and multiple identities in relation to defining a place:

If it is now recognized that people have multiple identities then the same point can be made in relation to places. Moreover, such multiple identities can either be a source of richness or a source of conflict, or both.

(1991, p.28)

This need for place to be considered in the context of the global environment was reiterated by Relph in 2009, who proposed a need for a pragmatic sense of place, where the local was interpreted specifically in relation to the global:

A pragmatic sense of place combines an appreciation for a locality’s uniqueness with a grasp of its relationship to regional and global contexts. It is simultaneously place-focused and geographically extended.

(2009, p.30)

The social constructs which are applied to physical environments also play a role in the digital environment. Renò states that “[t]he virtual space is similar to the natural space, not because of the reproduction of physical features, but because it generates a social context” (2005, p.192), noting that:

When the mediated space is treated as a place, researchers focus mostly on the affective, social and cultural aspects of the experience in the mediated environments and the way in which its characteristics help to convey it.

(2005, p.184)

The work of Wellman is of particular interest to the research described, specifically given the revisiting of earlier data sets and research questions in light of the changing landscape of place-based studies. The discussions relating to the adult residents of East York, Toronto offer an interesting iterative narrative in terms of technological developments over the last forty years. ‘The Community Question: The Intimate Networks of East Yorkers’ was published in 1979 and sought to use social network analysis to investigate the extent to which urban community is lost, saved, or liberated. Wellman describes social network analysis as being “principally concerned with delineating structures of relationships and flows of activities. By looking directly at linkages rather than at solidarities, the network perspective enables us to focus directly on the basic structural issues posed by the Community Question” (1979, p.1203). Now nearly forty years old, Wellman’s original paper is still regarded as a key text in terms of both community sociology and social network analysis (something which, in the twenty-first century, is more commonly to be found referenced in social media analysis and big data projects).

Wellman was also one of the first few English-speaking academics to encourage use of the word ‘glocalisation’, something which was described in Wellman’s 2010 paper with Mok and Carrasco as being “at most, a halfway house on the route to the supposed death of distance” (2010, p.2749). In relation to the concept of a geographical understanding of distance, it should be noted that, considering the role of digital technologies (specifically email), Mok et al noted that “despite the advancement in telecommunication technologies, face-to-face contact has increased substantially. Its sensitivity to distance has increased post-Internet. This result supports the assertion that phones and e-mails might have played a complementary role in facilitating face-to-face contacts” (2010, p.2778). Investigating to what extent the statement that ‘distance is dead’ could be corroborated, they concluded that “[d]istance is dead only if e-mail is looked at in isolation. E-mail contact is insensitive to distance” (2010, p.2778). It is worth noting, however, that the study related to data from 2005, before the expansion and widespread adoption of key social media platforms.

The cross-discipline nature of the academic study of the concept of place – or rather the lack of sufficient cross-discipline interaction of the last forty years – has caused many challenges in terms of theoretical approaches and interpretations. Though early phenomenological discussions of the specific study of place in its own right can be linked to geography – particularly human geography –place as a field of study is best considered interdisciplinary in nature, and should be encouraged to allow theoretical approaches and methodologies more commonly associated with other disciplines to be used to better critique the notions of places as defined by lived experiences.

Outwith academia, there has been a surge of interest in place-based literature via the medium of nature writing. The ‘placing’ element of such literature has provided place as a field of study with a series of perceptive and accessible texts which describe and interpret places, often with a detailed knowledge which is only made possible by long-term engagement and affiliation with the place in question; something which is increasingly important, given the interest in a pragmatic (Relph 2017) approach to the study of place, combining “an appreciation for a locality’s uniqueness with a grasp of its relationship to regional and global contexts” (Relph 2009, p.30). It is not surprising that many nature writers have a background firmly associated with the importance of landscape. Macfarlane has contributed much to the understanding of place, both via the medium of language (Macfarlane & Morris 2017) and the writer’s place within a landscape:

I imagined the wind moving through all these places, and many more like them: places that were separated from one another by roads and housing, fences and shopping-centres, street-lights and cities, but that were joined across space at that time by their wildness in the wind. We are fallen in mostly broken pieces, I thought, but the wild can still return us to ourselves.

(Macfarlane 2007, p.320)

Other writers have focussed more specifically on the concept of spirit of place, or genii loci, whether in fiction (Aaronovitch 2011) or as experienced personally. Reppion, introduces ‘Spirits of Place’, a collection of essays from twelve authors and creators ranging from Pérez Cuervo to Moore, by noting the lack of clear definition of the concept:

How can I best define the concept of “Spirits of Place”? It sounds good, but what do I even mean by the phrase? These are some of the questions I was asking myself last week. You might well think I should already have answered them quite a while ago; before commissioning the twelve pieces for this book, or indeed organising the conference/ritual mash-up thing which led to its creation. But no. And least, not exactly. It’s easy enough to give people a rough idea of what you mean about something, especially if you’re trying to give them just enough to spin their own ideas out of it.

(2016, p.6-7)

Specifically in relation to Orkney, Liptrot’s ‘The Outrun’, published in 2016, offers an insight into Orkney as a place in relation to both the physical and human environment, channelled through the rehabilitation of the writer:

I find my favourite place: a slab of rock balanced at a precarious angle at the top of a cliff. I’d come here as a teenager, headphones on, dressed up and frustrated, looking out to the horizon, wanting to escape. From my spot on the stone I would watch the breakers crash, the gulls and fighter jets flying out over the sea.

(2016, p.3)

The success of the ‘The Outrun’ – well-received by both the people of Orkney and those outwith Orkney – demonstrates the role that place writing continues to hold in the public consciousness, and the importance of the contribution of such literature to place as a field of study.

In the twenty-first century landscape, in a technological and economic climate whereby the study of place and exercises in place-branding have taken hold exponentially in recent years, and in which there has been a resurgence in more literary texts focussing upon place and nature, it is important that a more nuanced discourse regarding place is encouraged.

2.2.1 The Digital Environment

The explosion of digital communication, and specifically personal use of social media platforms, has significantly changed how space and place are interpreted and studied. Much has been written over the last thirty years on how the internet has affected the concept of space, but much less has been written about the concept of place in relation to the internet. In general, academic writing on space and place, where it refers to geographically understood places, has a tendency to focus on the urban environment (see Graham et al. 2013, for example) rather than the rural environment which, in the increasingly connected western world, is becoming a significant oversight:

[W]e will exist in a broadband world in which the internet will be a permanently available ‘cloud’ of information able to be called up through a number of appliances scattered through the environment.

(Thrift & French 2002, p.315)

Thrift and French, in 2002, discussed ‘The Automatic Production of Space’, linguistically drawing to mind Lefebvre’s ‘The Production of Space’ ( 1991), even if the 1974 work is not directly referenced. Based firmly within the discipline of geography, they encouraged an extension of the concept of space by considering “new landscapes of code that are now beginning to make their own emergent ways” (2002, p.309). Miller and Slater argue that we can no longer consider digital media to be separate from other physical spaces:

[W]e need to treat Internet media as continuous with and embedded in other social spaces, that they happen within mundane social structures and relations that they may transform but that they cannot escape into a self-enclosed cyberian apartness.


Historically, there has been a tendency for the internet to be discussed as a singular space. Graham, writing in 2013, criticises this reductive notion of the internet, highlighting the need for a plurality of space to be discussed:

[T]here isn’t some sort of universally accessible ‘cyberspace’ that we are all brought into once we log onto the internet. The internet is not an abstract space or digital global village, but rather a network that enables selective connections between people and information. It is a network that is characterized by highly uneven geographies and in many ways has simply reinforced global patterns of visibility, representation and voice that we’re used to in the offline world.

(2013, p.180)

It is reasonable to hope that an increased willingness to consider the multiple spaces that exist in the online environment will further encourage subsequent analysis of instances of places online, and places which exist both offline and online.

Place (as opposed to space), in the context of the internet, is substantially different to that which was first discussed from a phenomenological perspective in the mid-1970s. Where place in the context of the internet has been discussed, it has usually been discussed solely in the context of the internet: that is, such discussions predominantly take place in the context of online places rather than places which are both online and offline. Such discussions more commonly arise in the context of the broad field of media and communication studies (Meyrowitz (1985), Arora (2014), Wilken and Goggin (2012)). Increasingly the view of “cyberspace as a pale reflection of “real life,” where people related through low bandwidth” (2008, p.165) is being challenged. There is still, however, a significant gap, comparatively, in the literature relating to the phenomenological interpretation of places lived online, but relating to a geographical place. Differentiation is needed between virtual places with a concept of tethered geography in a non-virtual sense, and virtual places (or spaces) understood solely online, such as individual social media platforms. With the increased usage of geo-technology, however, this is starting to change. Mapping tools such as global positioning systems (GPS) facilitate a crossover between the offline and the online environment. Increasingly within (and, indeed, outwith) the arts, augmented spaces are being used to bridge the gap between online and offline worlds; to expand and enhance the understanding of space, and potentially redefining our expectations of place.

Given their pervasive nature (Farman 2012), digital technologies, especially those associated with geo/locative technology, have indeed changed our concept of space and place. Analysis of such points where place and technology intersect – particularly when usage moves increasingly beyond the arts – will likely be one of the next big resource endeavours in relation to the concept of space and place. Already, there is a growing body of work on geomedia and locative media; and the concept of mediated space is increasingly being discussed in relation to architectural design. As Dourish stated, in ‘Re-Space-ing Place: “Place” and “Space” Ten Years On’:

The technologically mediated world does not stand apart from the physical world within which it is embedded; rather, it provides a new set of ways for that physical world to be understood and appropriated. Technological mediation supports and conditions the emergence of new cultural practices, not by creating a distinct sphere of practice but by opening up new forms of practice within the everyday world, reflecting and conditioning the emergence of new forms of environmental knowing.

(2006, p.304)

Miller and Slater address the same point from an anthropological point of view:

In fact this focus on virtuality or separateness as the defining feature of the Internet may well have less to do with the characteristics of the Internet and more to do with the needs of these various intellectual projects.


There is, however, a tendency to focus on being in the offline environment and experiencing such enhancements via online technologies; either simultaneously or after the event. Less has been written about being in the online environment, and having this defined and enhanced by the offline environment: that is, a place being created online and experienced (solely, in that moment) online, but stemming from an offline geographical counterpart. It is this phenomenon which will be explored further in this thesis.

In the bid for clarity of academic discourse, it is common in literature to find frustrations relating to internet-based terminology. Graham, writing in 1998 about ‘The end of geography or the explosion of place? Conceptualizing space, place and information technology’, lists several internet-related spatial metaphors, noting that, from a positive perspective:

Such spatial metaphors help make tangible the enormously complex and arcane technological systems which underpin the Internet, and other networks, and the growing range of transactions, social and cultural interactions, and exchanges of labour power, data, services, money and finance that flow over them.

(1998, p.166)

He goes on, however, to acknowledge the problems of perception this causes:

Too often, then, the pervasive reliance on spatial and technological metaphors actually serves to obfuscate the complex relations between new communications and information technologies and space, place and society.

(1998, p.167)

Graham concludes that there is a need to be careful to reference both technological and geographical related terminology to avoid confusion and reliance upon one or the other. With regard to the internet, they can only exist together: and, therefore, the terminology employed must reflect this. Fifteen years later, a suitable alternative method of discussing space and place online was still yet to be found:

The internet is characterised by complex spatialities which are challenging to understand and study, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to fall back on unhelpful metaphors which ignore the internet’s very real, very material, and very grounded geographies.

(Graham 2013, p.181)

Unfortunately, there is little consensus as to standard terminology when describing and discussing such phenomena. Such an approach at attempting to reach an appropriate definition or approach could borrow from the theoretical concept of chronoptic identities: though this would further complicate the timespace challenges already highlighted by Blommaert and De Fina in calling for “ethnographic precision in analysis” in the online environment (“the largest social space on earth”):

There are specific timespace challenges raised by online culture: contrary to the social imagination of classical sociology and anthropology, the social practices developed online involve no physical copresence but a copresence in a shared “virtual” space of unknown scale-dimensions, involve often an unknown number of participants (also often of unknown identities), combined with a stretchable time frame in which temporal copresence is not absent but complemented by an almost unlimited archivability of online communicative material.


The availability of metadata and the potential longevity of social media posts and interactions recorded on the internet, and the ease at which such data can potentially be accessed via search functions and scraping tools, changes the role and function of time and memory when applied to digital platforms.

Even if there were a desire to forget Tree, it might not be answered by what I call the ‘mnemonic immediacy’ of the ongoing digital (discursive and (audio)visual) reproduction of the public artwork that was once ‘temporary’ in a physical setting.

(Zebracki 2017)

Whether considering a dual technological/mapping approach or a dual time/space approach, it is precisely the ever-expanding growth of the internet – the sheer scale – which causes the biggest problem when trying to define parameters for academic discourse, as noted by Graham (2013) and Blommaert and De Fina ( 2015). Academic discourse relating to such extent of scale would benefit from being further analysed with reference to the work of Simandan, combining both geography and experimental psychology:

By appropriating into geography the rich concept of distance proposed by construal-level theory we can learn not only to make the important conceptual connection between distance and imaginative geographies, but also to grasp how the former determines the properties of the latter.

(2016, p.251)

Once again, this highlights the need for inter-disciplinary approaches to concepts of space and place; to better allow space and place to develop not just as theoretical concepts, but ones which can be applied in a range of disciplines to better understand places and people. Much as academics such as Massey have stated about space and spatiality (1994), there is a lack of clarity about to what the concept of place and sense of place actually refers. Similar to Ehala’s comments on the concept of identity – a not entirely dissimilar field of study – our academic understanding of place could be said to leave much to be desired, given related issues have become “increasingly contentious in the modern world” (Ehala 2018). From Relph’s early binary approach to defining place and placelessness, to current speculative articles across an increasing range of disciplines, after forty-five years it feels like the academic field of place is only just being considered without boundaries (no pun intended). Including artistic disciplines within the study of place is also important, given that, by using geo-technology, they are capable of creating new place in the “fold between virtual and physical, data space and geographical space” (Hemment 2006, p,354).

Thielmann et al, in their discussion paper ‘Dwelling in the Web: Towards a Googlization of Space’ state that “[t]he critical mapping research approach is meeting communication and mediation (media sciences), as well as mapping (cartography) and spatial approbation (geography)” ( 2012). Place is an interdisciplinary field, claimed and interpreted by a variety of academic disciplines. To extend mapping to the understanding of the sense of a place or people requires an even wider interdisciplinary approach.

Other disciplines and fields of study have made inroads and developments into digital spaces and places in terms of environments which are linked to physical activities or places. The field of education studies, particularly research undertaken in relation to blended learning and the virtual classroom (Nagel & Kotzé 2010), offers some interesting parallels with key points raised throughout this thesis, albeit focussing upon digital linkages with physical places such as classrooms which are not necessarily identifiable as unique geographical areas. Kraglund-Gauthier acknowledges this in her response to Friesen’s phenomenological analysis of online and offline education:

Of course, online and physical classrooms cannot be equated. Similarly, one physical classroom can be a completely different experience from another physical classroom.

(Kraglund-Gauthier 2011, p.144)

Developments relating to virtual reality, such as those increasingly being used in the heritage sector, make available representations of a physical place to those who are not in that immediate physical environment. Specifically from a research perspective, related technology allows for enhanced representations of a physical place to be captured using a variety of technologies and data fusion tools, incorporating site-specific context into data relating specifically to the physical environment (Hess et al. 2015). Social media sites encouraging user-generated content allow for a different, less overtly curated approach to capturing and presenting sites of importance, and offer the “potential to document and shape intangible heritage [as] forged through human subjectivity and interpretation” (Pietrobruno 2014, p.756).

Though out of scope for the purpose of this research, further exploration into educational and heritage related theory and practice would offer a complementary approach to the themes and theoretical development outlined in this research.

This need for the study of place to continue to develop as an interdisciplinary field of study is something Grydehøj has stressed specifically in relation to the study of island space and place. The sheer breadth of such places in terms of academic fields of study, however, remains one of the biggest challenges faced when analysing space and place (cf. Grydehøj 2017).

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