Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Watch this space: Part 1

This is geography?


Related sites to the Spatialworlds project
Spatialworlds website
21st Century Geography Google Group
Australian Geography Teachers' Association website
'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
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Where am I??
Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'

Examining space

The term space is used in many ways and in many contexts in society. Despite this almost overuse of the term, we rarely sit down and intellectually discuss what space actually is. In 1959 Edward Hall, anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher said in his book “The Silent Language”:

“People have developed territoriality to an almost unbelievable extent … Yet we treat space somewhat as we treat sex. It is there but we don’t talk about it.”

People look quizzically at me when I have asked them; “What is the difference between place and space?” For many people the terms seem to be interchangeable but for geographers they are quite different concepts. In the Spatialworlds posting, ‘The place of place in Geography’ I had a go at defining and elaborating on the concept of place for geography. In this series of posts I will attempt to define and elaborate on the geographical concept of space and how space is different to place. In the discussional stages of developing the Australian Curriculum for geography we have had numerous discussions on the key geographical concepts and their differences. These discussions have been complex and at times frustrating in trying to ‘nail down’ the concepts. One thing I am confident of is that what I put into this posting can and will be disputed by some as inaccurate and/or oversimplified. Despite the trepidation of critique my major aim in these blog postings is to develop the context for the space concept and discuss in plain language the concept of space in geography (particularly for the non-geographer geography teacher). Naturally such attempts at simplifying and generalising can lead to 'half-truths' and even inaccuracies. Despite the danger of being accused of oversimplifying, it is important that teachers have a grasp of the space concept (and place) as they are the fundamental concepts we explore in geography. In particular, an understanding of space is critical if we are to enter the world of spatial thinking (if we are vague on what space is, how can we conduct spatial analysis?).

A general non-geographical definition of space is that it is:

“the boundless, three dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction.”

How useful is this to the study of geography? Does this definition reflect what we see as space in geography?

To further complicate any attempt to clarify the concept of space, Masue wrote in 1983 that:

“geography has not as yet formulated an explicit and unambiguous definition of geographical space.”

One geographer in Dakota summed up space as “a portion of Earth's surface and that location, place, area, region, territory, distribution and pattern are all closely related spatial concepts.”

Such a definition of space aligns with the traditional dictionary definition that geographical space is:

“…is often considered as land, territory, regions or the totality of the landscape.”

“… a wide and open area, as of land, sky, or water with the associated terms being distance, expanse, expansion, extent, reach, spread, stretch, sweep.”

As Ross, an Irish geography states:

“The subject of geography necessarily defines social space and territory, given
its concern with boundaries (national and physical), zones of activity and
notions of regionality: these are inevitably part of the process of identifying
people with places, in terms of the identity and nature of a nation.” (Ross 2000)

Another source states:

“Geography is the branch of science concerned with identifying and describing the Earth, utilizing spatial awareness to try and understand why things exist in specific locations. Cartography is the mapping of spaces to allow better navigation, for visualization purposes and to act as a locational device.”

Murdoch in his post-structuralism paper further complicates the issue when he says that:

“space is not of structures but of relations. Thus a new geography of spatial relations has evolved.”

To further blur our understanding of space is an individuals or people’s perception of space (Hall called this proxemics, the study of our culturally determined perception and use of space).

The physicality and substantive nature of space is further challenged due to the impact of cyberspace and virtual spaces and by the impact of technology resulting it what is called the time-space compression.

When we research the general definition of space, we are taken down a range of paths, some related to physics; some to architecture/design; other to highly conceptualised geographical thinking on the nature and imaginings of space. Of particular interest was the fact that several of the dictionaries of geography widely used by geography students that I reviewed did not even contain a definition of space (or place). This is probably the most glaring example of how we have avoided actually creating an understandable and relevant definition of space for students and teachers of geography. Curriculum bodies just presume teachers have an understanding of what a statement such as the one from the Hong Kong Geography Curriculum below means:

“To describe and explain the interactions between human and the natural environment over space and time, and the patterns and impacts created by such
interactions … to explore variations in space, people and places.”

If we asked students to write down what space means in this statement, I am sure we will have a variety of interpretations.

Maybe a more relevant (and achievable) approach is to examine how geography curriculums, which have created a definition in their documents, have approached clarifying the concept of space. This will be the focus of the next posting.

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