Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Part 4 of Watch this space: Space, more than just spatial science

Left image: Petrel Cave, Victor Harbor.
Right image: Setting sun over Sydney Harbour.

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'

Space, more than just spatial science

Nick Hutchinson, AGTA's “thinker in residence”, contends in his excellent paper, Space: moving beyond spatial science to engage Australian students with Asian geography that “geography is much, much more than the branch of science concerned with identifying and describing the Earth, utilising spatial awareness to try and understand why things exist in specific locations.”

In the paper Nick highlights the current debates about space in contemporary human geography and suggests that such a perspective/s should have significant implication for geography teachers and the Australian Curriculum, Geography.

Nick has for some time been discussing the nature and complexity of space beyond the mechanistic view. In his paper Nick describes and analyses the myriad of perspectives which have been developed by academic geographers to discuss the nature of space in geography. At the beginning of his paper Nick provides a view of the space concepts as many of us see it.

“Space is one of the more important geographical ideas. It is a highly complex term
that is used and understood in a variety of ways (Crang & Thrift, 2000, 1). It is most commonly thought of as a great expanse extending in all directions, a vast canvas on which geographers work to describe the earth, and an expanse that extends from personal space to the global. Within this vast space, or over portions of it, all material objects are located. This is the space of explorers, map makers, field study, and of Geographical Information System analysis. This is the geographer’s palette where they work on the assumption that where things are located in space has some significance.”

Nick highlights the criticism of spatial science which focusses on our desire to construct human geography as an autonomous science of the spatial. There is a growing need for geographers to emphasise the importance of incorporating social relations and processes into spatial analysis. Indeed, space has began to be thought of as something that is produced by human activity. By the 1980s space was ‘seen not merely as an arena in which social life unfolds, but rather as a medium through which social relationships are produced and reproduced'. (Gregory & Urry, 1985, 3).

It is the human perspective of space that Nick considers needs to have greater credence in our thinking about space. Nick actually quotes the definition of space I developed in trepidation in a previous Spatialworlds posting. I agree my definition is very mechanistic in nature and after reading Nick’s article I feel that there is room to move the definition out of the science approach to a more humanistic perspective.

As Nick says:
“geography is much, much more than the branch of science concerned with identifying and describing the Earth, utilising spatial awareness to try and understand why things exist in specific locations.”

In no way could I do justice to Nick’s well researched and analytical article (will try to give a reference to it when Nick puts it on-line) but I think it is useful to highlight and provide links to some of the key space concepts and subordinate concepts Nick highlights in his discussion and articulation of space.

Absolute space (subordinate concepts: spatial patterns, location, spatial association, spatial interaction, movement, network, nodes, hierarchies, spatial distributions, spatial structure and organisation, spatial, relationships, directional orientation, distance, relative position)

Social space (subordinate concepts: socially-produced space, conceived space, spaces of representation, perceived space, spatial practice, lived space, representational space)

Thirdspace (subordinate concepts: spatiality, Firstspace, Secondspace, Thirdspace, ‘making of geographies’, ‘out of place’ people) Thirdspace is to be explored spatially, ‘to improve the world in some significant way’. The concept of thirdspace can be broadly used to highlight the ‘othering’ of geographical space and social spatiality.
Read more on thirdspace

Space given meaning by human endeavour (subordinate concepts: ‘time–space compression’, space of flows, Dreaming spaces and learning tracks, personal space, virtual space, real space.)

Relative space (subordinate concepts: relative space, topological space, relative space, ‘time–space compression)

Relational space (subordinate concepts: fluid space, social space, Cartesian and
Euclidian space, the nature of space, conceptualisations of space, space as a Conjuncture

Nick's article focusses on a new way of looking at space, with the subordinate concepts: spaces shaped by social relations, social relations shaped by space–‘geography matters’, power geometries, ready-made space, space in the making, hierarchies of power in space, scaled space, heterogeneous space, space under construction, bodily space and performative space being fascinating areas to investigate for teh geographer. For example, the authors of Living Geography look at futures, in terms of sustainable development, global dimensions: living in the wider world, applying geographical thinking to life, death and disease, as well as advocating the use of digital and spatial technologies to explore space.

So in summary, traditionally contemporary school geographies have dealt 'primarily with ‘absolute space’, the space that is broadly taken for granted in western societies and naively assumes sense of space as emptiness – but it is only one way in which space can be conceptualised.’ Nick contends that this more complex, humanistic and open-ended view of space would provide a wonderful opportunity for school geography to develop a more sophisticated treatment of all that we study.

My question, as I struggled to understand some of the intellectualising on space; is how do we translate to the teachers and in turn students the complexity of this work on space without creating great confusion and irrelevance?

I agree with Nick when he says:

“Let us continue to scratch our heads, theorise and change our minds about the concept of space and the spatial…”
The fact that we have trouble creating a definitive definition for space is strength and adds to the richness of the discipline, a discipline always evolving and being re-interpreted. Such debate and discussion on a key concept can only add to the quality of geography in schools but we must keep touch with the realities of everyday teaching and learning in school geography.

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