Global Sense of Place by Doreen Massey

Global Sense of Place by Doreen Massey
From Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
This is an era — it is often said — when things are speeding up, and spreading out.
Capital is going through a new phase of internationalization, especially in its financial
parts. More people travel more frequently and for longer distances. Your clothes have
probably made in a range of countries from Latin America to South-East Asia. Dinner
consists of food shipped in from all over the world. And if you have a screen in your
office, instead of opening a letter which – care of Her Majesty’s Post Office – has
taken some days to wend its way across the country, you now get interrupted by email.
This view of the current age is one now frequently found in a wide range of books and
journals. Much of what is written about space, place and postmodern times
emphasizes a new phase in what Marx once called ‘the annihilation of space by time’.
The process is argued, or – more usually – asserted, to have gained a new momentum,
to have reached a new stage. It is a phenomenon which has been called ‘time-space
compression’. And the general acceptance that something of the sort is going on the
marked by the almost obligatory use in the literature of terms and phrases such as
speed-up, global village, overcoming spatial barriers, the disruption of horizons, and
so forth.
One of the results of this is an increasing uncertainty about what we mean by ‘places’
and how we relate to them. How, in the face of all this movement and intermixing,
can we retain any sense of a local place and its particularity? An (idealized) notion of
an era when places were (supposedly) inhabited by coherent and homogeneous
communities is set against the current fragmentation and disruption. The
counterposition is anyway dubious, of course; ‘place’ and ‘community’ have only
rarely been coterminous. But the occasional longing for such coherence is none the
less a sign of the geographic fragmentation, the spatial disruption, of out times. And
occasionally, too, it has been part of what has given rise to defensive and reactionary
responses – certain forms of nationalism, sentimentalized recovering of sanitized
‘heritages’, and outright antagonism to newcomers and ‘outsiders’. One of the effects
of such responses is that place itself, the seeking after a sense of place, has come to be
seen by some as necessarily reactionary.
But is that necessarily so? Can’t we rethink out sense of place? Is it not possible for a
sense of place to be progressive; not self-closing and defensive, but outward-looking?
A sense of place which is adequate to this era of time-space compression? To begin
with, there are some questions to be asked about time-space compression itself. Who
is it that experiences it, and how? Do we all benefit and suffer from it in the same
For instance, to what extent does the current popular characterization of time-space
compression represent very much a western, colonizer’s, view? The sense of
dislocation which some feel at the sight of a once well-known local street now lined
with a succession of cultural imports – the pizzeria, the kebab house, the branch of the
middle-eastern bank – must have been felt for centuries, thought from a very different
point of view, by colonized peoples all over the world as they watched the
importation, may be even used, the products of, first, European colonization, maybe
British (from new forms of transport to liver salts and custard poweder), later US, as
they learned to eat wheat instead of rice or corn, to drink Coca-Cola, just as today we
try out enchilades.
Moreover, as well as querying the ethnocentricity of the idea of time-space
compression and its current acceleration, we also need to ask about its causes: what is
it that determines out degrees of mobility, that influences the sense we have of space
and place? to movement and communication across
space, to the geographical stretching-out of social relations, and to our experience of
all this. The usual interpretation is that it results overwhelmingly from the actions of
capital, and from its currently increasing internationalization. On this interpretation,
then, it is time space and money which make the world go around, and us go around
(or not) the world. It is capitalism and its developments which are argued to determine
out understanding and out experience of space.
But surely this is insufficient. Among the many other things which clearly influence
that experience, there are, for instance, ‘race’ and gender. The degree to which we can
move between countries, or walk about the streets at night, or venture out of hotels in
foreign cities, is not just influenced by ‘capital’. Survey after survey has shown how
women’s mobility, for instance, is restricted – in a thousand different ways, from
physical violence to being ogled at or made to feel quite simply ‘out of place’ – not by
‘capital’, but by men. Or, to take a more complicated example, Birkett, reviewing
books on women adventurers and travellers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,
suggests that ‘it is far, far more demanding for a woman to wander now than ever
before’. The reasons she gives for this argument are a complex mix of colonialism, excolonialism, racism, changing gender relations and relative wealth. A simple resort to
explanation in terms of ‘money’ or ‘capital’ alone could not begin to get to grips with
the issue. The current speed-up may be strongly determined by economic forces, but it
is not the economy alone which determines out experience of space and place. In
other words, and put simply, there is a lot more determining how we experience space
than what ‘capital’ gets up to.
What is more, of course, that last example indicated that ‘time-space compression’ has
not been happening for everyone in all spheres of activity. Birkett again, this time
writing of the Pacific Ocean:
“Jumbos have enabled Korean computer consultants to fly to Silicon Valley as
if popping next door, and Singaporean entrepreneurs to reach Seattle in a day.
The border of the world’s greatest ocean have been joined as never before.
And Boeing has brought these people together. But what about those they fly
over, on their islands five miles below? How has the mighty 747 brought them
greater communion with those whose shores are washed by the same water? It
hasn’t, of course. Air travel might enable businessmen to buzz across the
ocean, but the concurrent decline in shipping has only increased the isolation
of many island communities … Pitcairn, like many other Pacific islands, has
never felt so far from its neighbours.”
In other words, and most broadly, time-space compression needs differentiating
socially. this is not just a moral or political point about inequality, although that would
be sufficient reason to mention it; it is also a conceptual point.
Imagine for a moment that you are on a satellite, further out and beyond all actual
satellites; you can see ‘planet earth’ from a distance and, unusually for someone with
only peaceful intentions, you are equipped with the kind of technology which allows
you to see the colours of people’s eyes and the numbers on their number plates. You
can see all the movement and turn in to all the communication that is going on.
Furthest out are the satellites, then aeroplanes, the long haul between London and
Tokyo and the hop from San Salvador to Guatemala City. Some of this is people
moving, some of it is physical trade, some is media broadcasting. There are faxes, email, film-distribution networks, financial flows and transactions. Look in closer and
there are ships and trains, steam trains slogging laboriously up hills somewhere in
Asia. Look in closer still and there are lorries and cars and buses, and on down further,
somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a woman – amongst many women – on foot,
who still spends hours a day collecting water.
Now I want to make one simple point here, and that is about what one might call the
power geometry of it all; the power geometry of time-space compression. For
different social groups, and different individuals, are placed in very distinct ways in
relation to these flows and interconnections. This point concerns not merely the issue
of who moves and who doesn’t, although that is an important element of it; it is also
about power in relation to the flows and the movement. Different social groups have
distinct relationships to this anyway differentiated mobility: some people are more in
charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement, others don’t; some are
more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it.
In a sense at the end of all the spectra are those who are both doing the moving and
the communicating and who are in some way in a position of control in relation to it –
the jet-setters, the ones sending and receiving the faces and the e-mail, holding the
international conference calls, the ones distributing films, controlling the news,
organizing the investments and the international currency transactions. These are the
groups who are really in a sense in charge of time-space compression, who care really
use it and turn it to advantage, whose power and influence it very definitely increases.
On its more prosaic fringes this group probably includes a fair number of western
academics and journalists – those, in other words, who write most about it.
But there are also groups who are also doing a lot of physical moving, but who are not
‘in charge’ of the process in the same way at all. The refugees from El Salvador or
Guatemala and the undocumented migrant workers from Michoacan in Mexico,
crowding into Tijuana to make a perhaps fatal dash for it across the border into the US
to grab a chance of a new life. Here he experience of movement, and indeed of a
confusing plurality of cultures, is very different. And there are those from India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, who come half way round the world only to get
held up in an interrogation room at Heathrow.
Or – a different case again- there are those who are simply on the receiving end of
time-space compression. The pensioner in a bed-sit in any inner city in this country,
eating British working-class-style fish and chips from a Chinese take-away, watching
a US film on a Japanese television; and not daring to go out after dark. And anyway
the public transport’s been cut.
Or – one final example to illustrate a different kind of complexity – there are the
people who live in the favelas of Rio, who know global football like the back of their
hand, and have produced some of its players; who have contributed massively to
global music, who gave up the samba and produced the lambada that everyone was
dancing to last year in the clubs of Paris and London; and who have never, or hardly
ever, been to downtown Rio. At one level they have been tremendous contributors to
what we call time-space compression; and at another level they are imprisoned in it.
This is, in other words, a highly complex social differentiation. There are differences
in the degree of movement and communication, but also in the degree of control and
initiation. The ways in which people are placed within ‘time-space compression’ are
highly complicated and extremely varied.
But this in turn immediately raises questions of politics. If time-space compression
can be imagined in that more socially formed, socially evaluative and differentiated
way, then there may be here the possibility of developing a politics of mobility and
access. For it does seem that mobility, and control over mobility, both reflects and
reinforces power. It is not simply a question of unequal distribution, that some people
move more than others, and that some have more control than others. It is that the
mobility and control of some groups can actively weaken other people. Differential
mobility can weaken the leverage of the already weak. The time-space compression of
some groups can undermine the power of others.
This is well established and often noted in the relationship between capital and labour.
Capital’s ability to roam the world further strengthens it in relation to relatively
immobile workers, enables it to play off the plant at Genk against the plant at
Dagenham. It also strengthens its hand against struggling local economies there world
over as they complete for the favour of some investment. The 747s that fly computer
scientists across the Pacific are part of the reason for the greater isolation today of the
island of Pitcairn. But also, every time someone uses a car, and thereby increases their
personal mobility, they reduce both the social rationale and the financial viability of
the public transport system – and thereby also potentially reduce the mobility of those
who rely on that system. Every time you drive to that
you contribute to the rising prices, even hasten the demise, of the corner shop. And
the ‘time-space compression’ which is involved in producing and reproducing the
daily lives of the comfortably-off in First World societies – not just their own travel
but the resources they draw on, from all over the world, to feed their lives – may entail
environmental consequences, or hit constraints, which will limit the lives of others
before their own. We need to ask, in other words, whether our relative mobility and
power over mobility and communication entrenches the spatial imprisonment of other
But this way of thinking about time-space compression also returns us to the question
of place and a sense of place. How, in the context of all these socially varied timespace changes do we think about ‘places’? In an era when, it is argued, ‘local
communities’ seem to be increasingly broken up, when you can go abroad and find the
same shops, the same music as at home, or eat your favourite foreign-holiday food at
a restaurant down the road – and when everyone has a different experience of all this –
how then do we think about ‘locality’?
Many of those who write about time-space compression emphasize the insecurity and
unsettling impact of its effects, the feeling of vulnerability which it can produce.
Some therefore go on from this to argue that, in the middle of all this flux, people
desperately need a bit of peace and quiet – and that a strong sense of place, or locality,
can form one kind of refuge from the hubbub. So the search after the ‘real’ meanings
of places, the unearthing of heritages and so forth, is interpreted as being, in part, a
response to desire for fixity and for security of identity in the middle of all the
movement and change. A ‘sense of place’, of rootedness, can provide – in this form
and on this interpretation – stability and a source of unproblematical identity. In that
guise, however, place and the spatially local are then rejected by many progressive
people as almost necessarily reactionary. They are interpreted as an evasion; as a
retreat from the (actually unavoidable) dynamic and change of ‘real life’, which is
what we must seize if we are to change things for the better. On this reading, place
and locality are foci for a form of romanticized escapism from the real business of the
world. While ‘time’ is equated with movement and progress, ‘space’/’place’ is equated
with stasis and reaction.
There are some serious inadequacies in this argument. There is the question of why it
is assumed that time-space compression will produce insecurity. There is the need to
face up to – rather than simply deny – people’s need for attachment of some sort,
whether through place or anything else. None the less, it is certainly the case that
there is indeed at the moment a recrudescence of some very problematical sense of
place, from reactionary nationalisms, to competitive localisms, to introverted
obsessions with ‘heritage’. We need, therefore, to think through what might be an
adequately progressive sense of place, one which would fit in with the current globallocal times and the feelings and relations they give rise to, and which would be useful
in what are, after all, political struggles often inevitably based on place. The question
is how to hold on to that notion of geographical difference, of uniqueness, even of
rootedness if people want that, without being reactionary.
There are a number of distinct ways in which the ‘reactionary’ notion of place
described above is problematical. One is the idea that places have single, essential,
identities. Another is the idea that place – the sense of place – is constructed out of an
introverted, inward-looking history based on delving into the past for internalized
origins, translating the name from the Domesday Book. Thus Wright recounts the
reconstruction and appropriation of Stoke Newington and its past by the arriving
middle class (the Domesday Book registers the place as ‘Newtowne’): ‘There is land
for two ploughs and a half … There are four villanes and thirty seven cottagers with
ten acres’. And he contrasted this version with that of other groups – the white
working class and the large number of important minority communities. A particular
problem with this conception of place is that it seems to require the drawing of
boundaries. Geographers have long been exercised by the problem of defining regions,
and this question of ‘definition’ has almost always been reduced to the issue of
drawing lines around a place. I remember some of my most painful times as a
geographer have been spent unwillingly struggling to think how one could draw a
boundary around somewhere like the ‘east midlands’. But that kind of boundary
around an area precisely distinguishes between an inside and an outside. It can so
easily be yet another way of constructing a counterposition between ‘us’ and them’.
And yet if one considers almost any real place, and certainly one not defined
primarily by administrative or political boundaries, these supposed characteristics
have little real purchase.
Take, for instance, a walk down Kilburn High Road, my local shopping centre. It is a
pretty ordinary place, north-west of the centre of London. Under the railway bridge
the newspaper stand sells papers from every county of what my neighbours, many of
whom come from there, still often call the Irish Free State. The postboxes down the
High Road, and many an empty space on a wall, are adorned with the letters IRA.
Other available spaces are plastered this week with posters for a special meeting in
remembrance: Ten Years after the Hunger Strike. At the local theatre Eamon
Morrissey has a one-man show; the National Club has the Wolfe Tones on, and at the
Black Lion there’s Finnegan’s Wake. In two shops I notice this week’s lottery ticket
winners: in one the name is Teresa Gleeson, in the other, Chouman Hassan.
Thread your way through the often almost stationary traffic diagonally across the road
from the newsstand and there’s a shop which as long as I can remember has displayed
saris in the window. Four life-sized models of Indian women, and reams of cloth. On
the door a notice announces a forthcoming concert at Wembley Arena: Anand Miland
presents Rekha, life, with Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Jahi Chawla and Raveena
Tandon. On another ad, for the end of the month, is written, ‘All Hindus are cordially
invited’. In another newsagents I chat with the man who keeps it, a Muslim
unutterably depressed by events in the Gulf, silently chafing at having to sell the Sun.
Overhead there is always at least one aeroplane – we seem to have on a flight-path to
Heathrow and by the time they’re over Kilburn you can see them clearly enough to tell
the airline and wonder as you struggle with your shopping where they’re coming from.
Below, the reason the traffic is snarled up (another odd effect of time-space
compression!) is in part because this is one of the main entrances to and escape routes
from London, he road to Staples Corner and the beginning of the M1 to ‘the North’.
This is just the beginnings of a sketch from immediate impressions but a proper
analysis could be done of the links between Kilburn and the world. And so it could for
almost any place.
Kilburn is a place for which I have a great affection; I have lived there many years. It
certainly has ‘a character of its own’. But it is possible to feel all this without
subscribing to any of the static and defensive – and in that sense reactionary – notions
of ‘place’ which were referred to above. First, while Kilburn may have a character of
its own, it is absolutely not a seamless, coherent identity, a single sense of place
which everyone shares. It could hardly be less so. People’s routes through the place,
their favourite haunts within it, the connections the make (physically, or by phone or
post, or in memory and imagination) between here and the rest of the world vary
enormously. 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.
One of the problems here has been a persistent identification of place with
‘community’. Yet this is a misidentification. One the one hand, communities can exist
without being in the same place – from networks of friends with lie interests, to major
religious, ethnic or political communities. On the other hand, the instances of places
housing single ‘communities’ in the sense of coherent social groups are probably – and,
I would argue, have for long been – quite rare. Moreover, even where they do exist
this in no way implies a single sense of place. For people occupy different positions
within any community. We could counterpose to the chaotic mix of Kilburn the
relatively stable and homogenous community (at least in popular imagery) of a small
mining village. Homogeneous? ‘Communities’ too have internal structures. To take
the most obvious example, I’m sure a woman’s sense of place in a mining village – the
spaces through which she normally moves, the meeting places, the connections
outside – are different from a man’s. Their ‘senses of the place’ will be different.
Moreover, not only does ‘Kilburn’, then, have many identities (or its full identity is a
complex mix of all these) it is also, looked at in this way, absolutely not introverted. It
is (out ought to be) impossible even to begin thinking about Kilburn High Road
without bringing into play half the world and a considerable amount of British
imperialist history (and this certainly goes for mining villages too). Imagining it this
way provokes in you (or at least in me) a really global sense of place.
And finally, in contrast the way of looking at places with the defensive reactionary
view, I certain could not begin to, nor would I want to, define ‘Kilburn’ by drawing its
enclosing boundaries.
So, at this point in the argument, get back in your mind’s eve on a satellite; go right
out again and look back at the globe. This time, however, imagine not just all the
physical movement, nor even all the often invisible communications, but also and
especially all the social relations, all the links between people. Fill it in with all those
different experiences of time-space compression. For what is happening is that the
geography of social relations is changing. In many cases such relations are
increasingly stretched out over space. Economic, political and cultural social relations,
each full of power and with internal structures of domination and subordination,
stretched out over the planet at every different level, from the household to the local
area to the international.
It is from that perspective that it is possible to envisage an alternative interpretation of
place. In this interpretation, what gives a place its specificity is not some long
internalized history but the face that it is constructed out of a particular constellation
of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in
from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and
movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a
particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead
then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as
articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a
larger proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed
on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself,
whether that be a street, or a region or even a continent. And this in turn allows a
sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with
the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local.
This is not a question of making the ritualistic connections to ‘the wider system’ – the
people in the local meeting who bring up international capitalism every time you try
to have a discussion about rubbish-collection – the point is that there are real relations
with real content – economic, political, cultural – between any local place and the
wider world in which it is set. In economic geography the argument has long been
accepted that it is not possible to understand the ‘inner city’, for instance its loss of
jobs, the decline of manufacturing employment there, by looking only at the inner city.
Any adequate explanation has to set the inner city in its wider geographical context.
Perhaps it is appropriate to think how that kind of understanding could be extended to
the notion of a sense of place.
These arguments, then, highlight a number of ways in which a progressive concept of
place might be developed. First of all, it is absolutely not static. If places can be
conceptualized in terms of the social interactions which they tie together, then it is
also the case that these interactions themselves are not motionless things, frozen in
time. They are processes. One of the great one-liners in Marxist exchanges has for
long been, ‘Ah, but capital is not a thing, it’s a process.’ Perhaps this should be said
also about places, that places are processes, too.
Second, places do not have boundaries in the sense of divisions which frame simple
enclosures. ‘Boundaries’ may be of course be necessary, for the purposes of certain
turn of studies for instance, but they are not necessary for the conceptualization of a
place itself. Definition in this sense does not have to be through simple
counterposition to the outside; it can come, in part, precisely through the particularity
of linkage to that ‘outside’ which is therefore itself part of what constitutes the place.
This helps get away from the common association between penetrability and
vulnerability. For it is this kind of association which makes invasion by newcomers so
Third, clearly places do not have single, unique ‘identities’; they are full of internal
conflicts. Just think, for instance, about London’s Docklands, a place which is at the
moment quite clearly defined by conflict: a conflict over what it past has been (the
nature of its ‘heritage’), conflict over what should be its present development, conflict
over what could be its future.
Fourth, and finally, none of this denies place nor the importance of the uniqueness of
place. The specificity of place is continually reproduced, but it s not a specificity
which result from some long, internalized history. there are a number of sources of
this specificity – the uniqueness of place. There is the fact that the wider social
relations in which places are set themselves geographically differentiated.
Globalization (in the economy, or in culture, or in anything else) does not entail
simply homogenization. On the contrary, the globalization of social relations is yet
another source of (the reproduction of) geographical uneven development, and thus of
the uniqueness of place. There is the specificity of place which derives from the fact
that each place is the focus of a distinct mixture of wider and more local social
relations. There is the fact that this very mixture together in one place may produce
effects which would not have happened otherwise. And finally, all these relations with
and take a further element of specificity from the accumulated history of a place, with
that history itself imagined as the product of layer upon layer of different sets of
linkages, both local and to the wider world.
In her portrait of Corsica, Granite Island, Dorothy Carrington travels the island
seeking out the roots of its character. All the different layers of people and cultures
are explored; the long and tumultuous relationship with France, with Genoa and
Aragon in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, back through the much
earlier incorporation into the Byzantine Empire, and before the domination by the
Vandals, before that being part of the Roman Empire, before that the colonization and
settlements of the Carthaginians and the Greeks … until we find … that even the
megalith builders had come to Corsica from somewhere else.
It is a sense of place, an understanding of ‘its character’, which can only be
constructed by linking that place to places beyond. A progressive sense of place
would recognize that, without being threatened by it. What we need, it seems to me, is
a global sense of the local, a global sense of place.

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