Review: Les Lieux de la Colère, Occuper l’espace pour contester, de Madrid à Sanaa

This review was originally published in the bilingual geographical journal Justice Spatial/Spatial Justice. Authorisation was given to me to reproduce it in here in its translated version, for English-speaking audiences. The book in question has been a fascinating contribution published in 2016, and has for several reasons an interest for English-speaking audiences. It is nonetheless highly unlikely to ever be translated, as I must note with regret.

The book’s entire references are: COMBES Hélène, GARIBAY David, GOIRAND Camille (dirs.), Les lieux de la colère, Occuper l’espace pour contester, de Madrid à Sanaa, Paris : Karthala ; Aix-en-Provence : Science Po Aix, 2016, 410 p.

Les lieux de la colère, cover

The edited book Les lieux de la colère, occuper l’espace pour contester, de Madrid à Sanaa [Places of Anger, Occupying Space for Contesting, from Madrid to Sanaa], by David Garibay, Hélène Combes, and Camille Gorand, inscribes itself clearly in the development of an increased attention for the theme of the geographic space in the social sciences and in political science in general, and in social movements studies in particular. With the rise in the early 2000s of place occupations, in the Southern Mediterranean but also in the Arab-Persian Gulf, Northern America, and Europe, a new visibility was given to the inevitable spatial character of contentious politics. It appears as paradoxical that space was treated as at best a “passive container”, despite proposals for agendas including the progress of geography in the analysis of social movements. As the editors of the book explain, “despite the apparent obviousness of place, the spatial dimension rarely benefited from attention in itself in the sociology of collective mobilisations” (p.10). The very word space, as specified by the editors, has served more as a metaphor to talk of the copresence in a movement of heterogeneous actors than as a reference to the geographical concept of space, as for example in the theories presenting a “space of social movements”.

If the editors are correct when pointing out its marginal aspect, the spatial approach of mobilisations is not an entirely new domain. The introduction is thus the occasion of several crossed states of the art, which anchor the book in the various debates to which it seeks to participate. The first consists in a discussion between the French- and English-speaking worlds. Beyond the return to the “Chicago School”, the integration of English-speaking works extends to the inclusion of the intellectual and theoretical legacy of Henri Lefebvre. The author, through critical geography and urban studies, has known a particular influence on the consideration in this linguistic area of local and urban social movements. The inclusion in a French book of debates in social movements studies led in the US and UK contributes to this dialogue. Simultaneously, the development in the French-speaking political science, studies focusing on the local and the localised dimensions of the political are put forward, but also other literature reviews on the same topic. What emerges from the literature is that under the unifying term “spatial turn”, is in fact located in two different geographic and linguistic spaces, which associates itself to very different local traditions, questions, and practices.

A similar wish to open a dialogue can be found regarding disciplines themselves. The book, in the specific way it was framed by the authors, avoids two major risks on this topic. The first would consist in using one of the two disciplines used – sociology and geography – “at the service” of the other’s reflexion. On this point the authors rely on Doreen Massey’s reflexion on the necessity to make space a part of the explanation instead of making it a mere product. The other risk would be to put two well-constructed samples of reflexions coming from each discipline, and on the same topic. Or, as the editors explain, “If the geographers have to acknowledge the social causes of the spatial configurations they study, ‘other specialists in social sciences have to take into account the fact that the processes they study are produced, reproduced, and modified by processes which necessarily include distance, movement, and spatial differentiation’ (Massey and Allen 1984)” (p. 24).

The concept of space itself serves as the common theme in the whole book: “(Re)introducing a questioning on space makes sense only under the two conditions of defining the concept and proving its usefulness for the analysis of mobilisations” (p. 23). Thus the book enunciates its third main ambition, by claiming its empirical anchoring and theoretical ambitions at the same time. The minimal definition the editors choose to give apprehends space “at the same time [as] location and the collective representations of this location, both necessarily drawing from the other” (p. 24). The editors deduce from this a “triple methodological turn” (p. 25) stressing at the same time a focus on the local scale, a valorisation of the ethnographic approach, and a particular attention to the articulation of various spaces of contention.

Reading the book, this choice can appear as constraining, in particular because it shuts the door on two main contributions of geography to the study of social movements. First the choice to restrain oneself to the ethnographic method implies a certain restriction of the debate regarding the contribution of the spatial analysis and positivist geography relying heavily on mathematical and quantitative reasoning. This is particularly the case on phenomena of diffusion, which constitute a notable part of the state of the art in geography (Strang and Soule 1998). The goal is less here to criticise a “lack” than to evoke spaces of research adventitious to the ones presented here. Whether it comes from a choice of the editors or from a spontaneous consensus in the proposed texts, this framing nonetheless leaves enough place in the book to open the concept to considerable debate and dissension, one of the book’s aims.

The text’s core is divided in four parts illustrating the main axes of reflexion. The first one, titled “The symbolic construction of mobilisation by space”, bears a particular interest for questions of representations and inscription of discourses in and through space. In each of the related studies, the link between space and symbolic passes by the practice of discourse analysis, in the broad sense of the term to include the production of devices (photographs, uniforms, objects put forward in contentious events, placards, discourses, but also places themselves) by the actors in conflict. This interest is even more marked by theoretical inspiration of the chapters can be found in the pragmatic literature as well as framing analysis, which tools allow an in-depth analysis of the relationship between symbols, discourses, and practices. Thus, the symbolic aspects are anchored in the places, as shown by Anahi Alvino-Mariso’s discussion on the forced installation of the “Place of Change” near the New University of Sanaa, before the obelisk located on this “place” became an essential symbol of it (p. 49 – 50). The interest for “safe spaces”, to quote Marie-Laure Geoffray’s expression, is doubled with an attention for the concrete conditions in which a mobilisation emerges. Its symbolic and discursive aspects display a political attached unavoidably to the physical contexts in which it is actualised: “the emergence of local public appears as crucial to construct public arenas at several scales” (p. 93). On the contrary, Tudi Kernalegenn’s study shows a working conflict constructed by its protagonists as a local one, displaying Brittany as a contentious space and allowing the emergence of other mobilisations and actors.

The book’s second part covers the topic “From spaces to militant identities”. The three contributions it gathers approach dynamics of socialisation and the question of social dispositions without theoretical unity. Franck Gaudichaud draws from the ecology of protest (Zhao 1998; Hmed 2008) to analyse the Chilean “workers lines” under the Allende presidency. Doris Buu-Sao establishes a link between residential mobility, social dispositions, and militant careers in the case of young Amazonian graduates who studied in the big cities of Peru. Aurélie Llobet, influenced by a literature closer to the Chicago School and Erving Goffman, develops monographs to analyse in detail the interaction between teacher and unionists in French high schools. These approaches all illustrate the importance of focusing on collective and individual actors to understand the dynamics of engagement, but also the places of their emergence and the social resources they have access to. Whether we talk about a coalition supporting socialist reforming in Chile, a group of young graduates assuming an intermediary position between indigenous groups and a bigger company, or a group of teachers in mobilisation, each study shows the importance of acquiring dispositions and resources that count only insofar as they are actualised in situated interaction. This, local identities are not a “spatial trimming” of social phenomena, but a part of the explanation.

Titled, “Occupying, controlling, shaping”, the third part groups three contributions on the role space plays in relations between individuals and institutions. For Heloïse Nez, the topic concerns first the emergence of a public through deliberation on the Puerta Del Sol place. It covers in martin Baloge’s case the processes at play for the control of activists in two Parisian branches of the French Socialist Party. These two contributions put forward the “tactical” relationship developed vis-à-vis space. Especially in the case of the Puerta Del Sol, we observe phenomena of reclaiming the meanings inscribed in the occupied space, but also the effects of ecology (for example, the weather) on the mobilisation. In the case of the PS, Baloge shows the interaction, during the observed meetings, between social and militant proprieties and capacity to organise space, to highlight mechanisms of control. The same goes for Stéphane Tonnelat’s study on the renewal of an urban interstice on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. Through reasoning in terms of “career” of an urban space, he shows the parallel evolution of the social and institutional aspect of Pier 84, and its effects on the framings of the conflict around this space. Each of the three contributions is in continuity with the sources of symbolic interactionism and the Chicago School. Attention paid to institutions allows replacing the concept of space in relation with specifically political problems. It reveals how the spatial is simultaneously shaped by interaction between social actors and institutions and shapes it. The institutions anchor themselves on the long run by acting through space, and can be attacked through it.

The fourth and last part of the book, “Mobilisations in movement”, gathers four contributions which attach themselves, once more in very different ways, to the question of mobility. Sylvie Ollitrault takes a step back from mere description of mobility to “analyse the effects of structural modifications due to certain types of mobilities on the practices and representations of actors” (p. 267). This question takes all its meaning when applied to an analysis of actors’ trajectories and spatialisation of approaches in terms of habitus. In Ollirault as in Métais’ cases, this approach permits linking construction of scale (local, national, transnational) and the social and geographical multi-positionality of actors. The same goes for the businenge (descending from Maroons) associative activist at Saint-Laurent du Maroni, in French Guyana, who articulate local resources (autochthony) and extra-local ones (cultural and social capitals valued by the colonial administration), and the articulation between the two, in their relation with a local practice of power and a renewal of practices of patronage. The final chapter, by Charlotte Pujol, presents a slightly different approach to the same question, which relies on an in-depth description of the production of a space at the same time as a mobilised group, by the displaying of a spatial injustice: “An illegitimate citizenship exposes itself on the public space and, by doing so, the everyday experience is publicised and politised” (p. 344). This relation between mobility, locality, and mobilisations illustrates the necessity not to see in spaces inert elements, but units which, while carrying a certain social “momentum”, are worked by actors and institutions, including in logics of mobility.

Returning in such a way on each part of the book reveals its first quality, which can at the same time be a limit of the exercise: the fundamentally diverse theoretical approaches, research questions, analysis angles, and methods. Such disparity can appear at first glance as a weakness, threatening the collective work to fall in the category of an “inventory”. This is even more the case, that after being evoked in introduction, the theoretical dissensions are left aside. The absence of a general conclusion furthers that risk. If we can regret that the underlying theoretical debates are kept implicit, we cannot criticise the editors for doing what they announce themselves: “it is through a modest theoretical approach, and preferably through renewed methodological questionings, that space, if it is apprehended in its physical dimension and through social uses and meanings to which it is attached, can be considered in this book as a frame, a mean, and a stake of mobilisations” (p. 25). In other words, we are confronted less to a general theoretical synthesis, than to an accounting of how the spatial perspective nourishes debates in the sociology of mobilisations, and conversely draws from these debates. According to Doreen Massey’s proposal, what is at stake is reconsidering social science as a whole through the question of space (Massey and Allen 1984).

Another regret one can have – and this is stated only to add a critical note in front of a work which remains overall excellent – concerns the book’s comparatist ambition: in their Foreword, the editors wish to ease a dialogue across fields going beyond the original group of studies – which concerned Latin America. Nonetheless we can notice that beyond showing similar dynamics in different spaces through the proposed examples, the stakes of comparison seem to lack. This is particularly the case when putting side-to-side colonised spaces with other unrelated to this phenomenon.

Nonetheless, as far as the interactions between geography and sociology of social movements go, the book provides undoubtedly interesting analyses, as well theoretically as empirically. It shows how the geographical approach of social movements must not be reduced to those which relate explicitly to places (Ripoll 2013). Engaging both the French- and English-speaking literatures on the topic, it offers a possible junction between the debates specific to each tradition, as well as between disciplines. Finally, this book offers a welcome contribution to a scientific field in formation. It presents a particularly adequate answer to the various calls for a multiplication of case studies explicitly relating to the theoretical stakes raised by the question of space. On an additional note specifically directed to the English-speaking audience, I could add that the book offers a real answer to a number of problems arising from the practice of social movements studies as currently led in the English-speaking academic world, especially when it comes to articulating the three dominant trends of literature in the fields, or as in this case, overcoming them.



Hmed, C. 2008 ‘Des mouvements sociaux « sur une tête d’épingle » ?’, Politix (84): p.145–165.

Massey, D.B. and Allen, J. 1984 Geography matters!: a reader, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]; New York: Cambridge University Press in association with the Open University.

Ripoll, F. 2013 ‘Du « rôle de l’espace » aux théories de « l’acteur » (aller-retour) : La géographie à l’épreuve des mouvements sociaux’ in R. Séchet and V. Veschambre (eds) Penser et faire la géographie sociale : Contribution à une épistémologie de la géographie sociale, Géographie sociale. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Strang, D. and Soule, S.A. 1998 ‘Diffusion in Organizations and Social Movements: From Hybrid Corn to Poison Pills’, Annual Review of Sociology 24: p.265–290.

Zhao, D. 1998 ‘Ecologies of Social Movements: Student Mobilization during the 1989 Prodemocracy Movement in Beijing’, American Journal of Sociology 103(6): p.1493–1529.

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