De Certeau on space and place

In a recent blog post on Places, Spaces, Teaching, Learning, Planning, Donna Lanclos (Library Anthropologist) talks about her research into active learning classrooms at UNC Charlotte. This included her reflections on how building the spaces is just the beginning and that:

“…these spaces without people, without programming, without communities of practice making them living breathing growing parts of the university’s mission, become accessories, mere performances of teaching, and learning opportunities lost.” (Lanclos, 11th August, 2015)

This is an absolutely key point in relation to learning spaces regardless of whether this involves online/digital and physical spaces. (And yes, I realise they are not distinct or separate. If you are interested in this, you might want to look at what Nathan Jurgenson has written on Digital Dualism).

However, my point is that Donna’s blog post reminded me of the difference between space (espace) and place (lieu) that Michel de Certeau writes about in ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’:

“A place is…an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs, as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. On this view, in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken…In short, space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.” (de Certeau 1988:117)

I confess that I find the writing incredibly difficult to grasp (so please don’t ask me to explain the many terms in the quote) and convoluted (could be the translation I guess) but I think there is some useful insight here. After all the reference has been lodged in my mind as a useful idea since I first read this as an MA student in social/cultural anthropology (a fair few years ago).

So my main insight from this quote is really the notion that ‘space is a practiced place’ by which I understand that it is really people interacting in and with the place that makes it into a space. I think this is a powerful way of understanding how spaces are constructed (or maybe produced?) and takes into account that this could be in different ways and for different purposes and perhaps with different meanings and outcomes depending on who (and maybe what) is happening. Anyway, I will carry on thinking about the processes and characteristics of learning spaces…

More on Digital Dualism:

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