theories of space and place

This is an original research article. Please cite as K. Navickas, ‘theories of space and place’,, 2016.

In the last chapter of the book, I discuss the Adelaide Street riots in Bradford in May 1848.

Theodore Koditschek’s study of class conflict in Bradford saw the riots as reflective of a retreat and defeat of the working class – he noted in spatial terms, ‘with industrialisation of the old hinterland villages and the enclosure of traditional fairgrounds on which working-class radicals from the entire region had gathered a decade before, the fully urbanised Chartists of 1848 were thrown back almost entirely on their own resources and confined to their downtown residential slums. Here at least the writ of the liberal municipality did not yet run, they could defiantly re-enact the gestures of control over their lives and environment that they had ceased to exercise within the larger framework of capitalist life.’[1]

[1] T. Koditschek, Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society (Cambridge, 1990), p. 559.

The opinion of Koditschek was pessimistic – he was searching for the fulfilment of Marx’s predictions in 1848, but compared with what was going on in the Continent, the working class was too artisan, too back-ward looking and no proletarian enough: ‘for here at least the 1848 charge to the barricades represented not the first flowering of the industrial workers of the future, but the last gasp of a dying generation of proletarianised artisans who were deskilled and degraded by the triumph of capitalist productive relations but whose visions of communitarian social alternative remained trapped within the now bankrupt values of a bygone proto-industrial past.’

I want to challenge Koditschek’s pessimism with other interpretations from more recent historical geographers, mainly Doreen Massey and David Featherstone.

Spaces of production

In Social Justice and the City (1973), David Harvey explored the urban processes under capitalism, and argued that understanding the nature of space is integral to understanding these processes.

He posited a tripartite model of space as absolute, relative and relational. Indeed other thinkers about the connections between space and capital also come up with their own theoretical models, which are similarly come in threes – from Edward Soja’s thirdspace to Henri Lefebvre’s own tripartite model of spaces of production. Such theoretical flights of reasoning are important in descriptive analysis: for example, Harvey’s concept of relational space relates time to space, and helps him answer spatial questions such as, for example, ‘what does Tinananmen Square mean?’ – i.e. it can only be understood with reference to its symbolic significance caused by an event at a particular moment in time, and its legacy and political uses, again situated in time, after that event.

In studying Hausmann’s transformation of mid-19th century Paris, Harvey noted Richard Sennett’s description of the ‘fall of private man’, in which the ‘right to the city’ became more of a bourgeois prerogative, where social control and surveillance of who constituted the ‘public’, and more importantly who was not the public, proceeded rapidly in this period.

Doreen Massey also initially posited a relational basis of understanding spaces of production in her Spatial Divisions of Labour (1984, 2nd ed. 1995) in which capital is reconceptualised as a series of social relations between its instruments – the relations between firms, jobs, branch plants – and that these relations form a space. She emphasised the complex, inconnected and crucially uneven development of the geographies of the social relations of production.

However, many writers – often postmodern cultural theorists – feel duty bound to analyse all spaces within particularly Soja and Lefebvre’s tripartite models, and in so doing, I think in effect remove their meanings from what Harvey is also trying to get at – that is how the materiality, symbolism and uses of space are shaped predominantly by capital accumulation. Many Lefebvrians are so wrapped up with describing representational spaces (i.e. culture and symbolism), that they neglect what space actually is, that is property and capital, and that, to quote Harvey, ‘the property relationship creates absolute spaces within which monopoly can operate’.[1]

The work of Harvey and others showed how capital(ism) spread unevenly across the world and over time. However, their methods and evidence relied on the analysis of capitalist firms and elites, while workers played on overly abstract and passive role in the process. Andrew Herod therefore called strongly for ‘a much more active conceptualization of workers as engaged in the uneven development of capitalism’.[2]

Since then, labour geography has investigated contested, and even conflicting, forms of class formation and popular agency. Indeed, by 2012, Neil McCoe’s review of the state of the field showed that notions of worker agency became ‘the central leitmotif of labour geography’. Moreover, he argued that perhaps labour geographers have gone too far in emphasising labour agency above all other factors, and suggested that ‘an unpacking of the notion of agency needs to be combined with reconnecting agency to the wider societal structures in which it is embedded’.[3] This again appears to be a recurrent warning to both geographers and social historians. Just as cultural representations cannot be fully situated without understanding the social, political and economic forces and structures that produced them, so the actions of workers collectively or individually cannot be appreciated in isolation, without a grounding in the material forces that enabled or restricted their opportunities to act. More recent labour geography investigates how labour markets operate on many different geographic levels, which are often based in local places but connected by national or international institutions and structures.[4]

[1] David Harvey, ‘Space as a Key Word’, 2004 lecture –

[2] Andrew Herod, ‘From a Geography of Labor to a Labor Geography: Labor’s Spatial Fix and the Geography of Capitalism’, Antipode, 29, no. 1 (1997): 2.

[3] Neil McCoe, ‘Geographies of Production III: Making Space for Labour’, Progress in Human Geography, 37, no. 2 (2012): 272, also citing E. Siemiatycki, ‘Forced to Conceded: Permanent Restructuring and Labour’s Place in the North American Auto Industry’, Antipode, 44 (2012): 453-73.

[4] McCoe, ‘Geographies of Production’, 272.


A ‘critique of dispossession’

In For Space (2005), Doreen Massey argued at length against the characterisation of space as a ‘slice through time’ in which there is no dynamism.’

And in a project on landscape, where she focuses on defining the geography of social relations more culturally, and in terms of how social movements such as anti-enclosure, anti-new poor law and Swing movements in the 1830s parallel anti-globalisation campaigns in the present day contest their own position against exclusion:

“We could follow the story of dispossession of the land under the Enclosure Acts through Thomas Spence and his call for parish ownership, and from there across the Atlantic, for example to Jamaica, where Cobbett’s Register was circulating among freed slaves and had published Spence’s Plan. Spence himself wrote in defence of indigenous landownership in the USA, and knew of the battles of indigenous peoples in Central America. These were the years of the many-headed hydra and the ‘revolutionary Atlantic’ (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000).”

Massey argues that such campaigns represent ‘not local protectionism but a critique of dispossession’.[1]

As Peter Linebaugh has also recently argued, communities of workers, commoners and tenants sought to defend their way of life against the anonymising and laissez-faire forces of unbridled free market capitalism.[2] Smithian economics was enacted in place and threatened to take away individual skill and worth – in the labour-saving machines that cheapened the production and process of making cloth and threshing corn; in the huge factories that reduced workers to the state of anonymous ‘hands’ reliant on the ‘invisible hand of the market’ without the right to form a trade union or state intervention to ensure a fair wage or decent working conditions; in the workhouses as part of the clamp down in state welfare that separated families and reduced the poor to the stark categories of ‘able bodied’ or ‘impotent’; and in the massive mono-cultural farms and plantations that paid no attention to a diversity of agriculture or the subsistence of their workers.

More recent labour geography has investigated how labour markets operate on many different geographic levels, which are often based in local places but connected by national or international institutions and structures.[3] David Featherstone and Andrew Cumbers in particular have rethought Raymond Williams’s concept of ‘militant particularism’. Williams studied labour relations in the Cowley motorworks in Oxford in the 1960s, and found that ‘local’ conflicts between capital and labour were embedded in place, specific to the location and organization of the institution. David Harvey interpreted Williams’s concept of ‘militant particularism’ to mean that collective action that is bound in a specific place cannot achieve wider class consciousness until it moves away from fighting particular grievances towards uniting with other groups under more abstract political ideologies.[4]

Featherstone and Cumbers argued against this limited view of the connection between class and place. In paying close attention to the global nature of capital and finance, and influenced by Massey’s relational concept of space-time, they show how labour collective action can be enmeshed in a ‘much broader and multi-scalar set of political and economic relationships’.[5] Workers connected their local dispute against a particular employer to a global struggle against capital because the changing economics of the industry across the world, where employers were choosing to distribute capital and production in different regions of the world.

[1] D. Massey, ‘Landscape/Space/Politics: An Essay’,

[2] P. Linebaugh, Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (Oakland, 2014).

[3] McCoe, ‘Geographies of Production’, 272.

[4] D. Harvey, ‘Militant Particularism and Global Ambition: the Conceptual Politics of Place, Space and Environment in the Work of Raymond Williams’, Social Text, 42 (1995): 80; R. Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989), 115.

[5] Andrew Cumbers, David Featherstone, Danny Mackinnon et al, ‘Intervening in Globalisation: the Spatial Possibilities and Institutional Barriers to Labour’s Collective Agency’, Journal of Economic Geography, online only (October 2014), 11, (accessed 20 November 2015).


From local to global – multi-scalar geographies of resistance

Adelaide Street, Bradford, therefore was a relational space during the riots of May 1848. It connected different layers of space together at a particular point in time – and different movements, from the Chartists to the Irish Confederates to American radicals and broader opposition to uniting of old Tory elites with liberal manufacturers and their control over the streets.

So the main model I’ve taken from recent labour geography is that protest is multi-scalar, linking the local with the global at particular points in time, even if the individual actors defending their locales are unaware of all of the wider connections.

Barricades and occupations were defiant spatial strategies that heightened the claiming of space. But, the defence of locality and place was not reactionary or bounded. The agitation of 1848 in particular was a complex web of geographical connections and influences. The movements had something of the multi-ethnic and transnational connections that David Featherstone found in the Wilkesite riots of 1768 and the activities of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s.[1] Protesters produced a relational space in their connections with Ireland, France and America as well as with cross-regional and national networks of radicals and trade unions. Radicals combined ‘militant particularisms’ with pan-national horizons.

[1] D. Featherstone, ‘Towards the relational construction of militant particularisms: or why the geographies of past struggles matter for resistance to neoliberal globalisation’, Antipode, 37:2 (2005).

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