Space in Social Movement Studies: a literature review (part 1, social sciences facing space)

This literature review represents the first part of the result of my first month of doctorate. At that period, the aim was to establish a review of the interaction between social movements and the question of space “as wide as possible”. I am deeply aware of the considerable flaws of this review and its limitations. I do nonetheless believe it provides a good insight to the learning of spatial concerns for someone originally trained in political science.


Le marché de Grenelle, By Frédérik Vuille

Introduction: the “spatial turn” in the sociology of the 1980s and social movements theory

The 1980s’ “spatial turn” in social sciences

“The squatters attempted to talk the agents out of their plans, pleaded with them, and argued about the immorality of their destructive acts. Women sought sanctuary in their homes with their children and a copy of Quran, making their shelter a kind of sacred place, a shrine that could not be demolished. A few, probably bisah-o-befrouz (land developers) offered bribes. Many hoisted the Iranian flags and hung portraits of the monarch on their walls, chanting “Long Live the Shah, Long Live the Shah!” […] Collective resistance included both spontaneous and planned crowd action.” (Bayat, 1997: 47)

This quote from Asef Bayat’s work on poor people’s movements in Iran describes the reaction of the inhabitants of an informal neighbourhood near Tehran, during the destruction of this neighbourhood by the regime in 1977. The ambition of the author is, through these movements, to study what he describes as street politics, i.e. “a set of conflicts and the attendant implications between a collective populace and the authorities, shaped and expressed episodically in the physical and social space of the streets – from the alleyways to the more visible sidewalks, public parks, or sports places” (1997: 15). In order to consider the streets as “an arena of politics”, the author points out the influence of Michel Foucault’s work in Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings on the question of space as an expression of power. Several authors concerned about the same type of topics[i] (space-based mobilisations) point out or demand the development of a “spatial turn” or a “spatial agenda” in the study of social movements since the beginning of the 1980s, based on a same turn in social sciences in general initiated by both a regain of interest for the social studies in the field of geography and by the development of a new paradigm concerning space in the social sciences through the studies of several Marxist authors in the 1970s.

  • In the first place, according to Doreen Massey, the lack of interest for the question of the relationship between space and society has to be linked to the epistemological evolution of geography during the 1960s and especially the fall of “regional geography”, lacking, for the author, a serious attempt to theorize what it studied: “The intellectual weakness of this tradition by the middle of the twentieth century laid human geography open to the wave of super-positivism and the mania for quantification which swept all the social sciences in the nineteen-sixties. Geography was to become “scientific”, in the strictly positive sense. […] Most obviously, things which could not submit so easily to quantification disappeared from view” (1984: 2). Still according to the author, this view reduced the concept of space to questions of distance and distribution, and the aim of geography to distinguish purely spatial effects on distributions (Ibid.: 3). As a reaction, human geographers have, in the 1970s and in the 1980s, begun to take in account social theory (Thrift, 1983).
  • At the same time, several authors concerning themselves about social and political studies, and especially scholars influenced by both Marxism and Structuralism, begun to redefine the political approach of space, based on an induction clearly exposed by Henri Lefebvre:

“[A lack of work on spatiality led to] the effort to get out of the confusion by considering (social) space and (social) time, not as more or less modified facts of “nature” any longer, nor as mere facts of “culture” – but as products. This led to a modification in the use and the meaning of this last term. The production of space (and of time) did not consider them as casual “objects” and “things”, brought in the world by hands or machines, but as principal aspects of the second nature, effect of the action of societies on the “first nature”; on the sensible given, the material and the energies” (Lefebvre, 2000: XIX)

Lefebvre’s assertion is not exactly equivalent, but can be approached of both Michel Foucault’s and Manuel Castells’ approaches of space in that matter, since for the first, the diffusion of power relations “are interwoven with other kinds of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) for which they play at once a conditioning and conditioned role” (1972: 142), including their spatial expressions: “A whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers (both these terms in the plural) – from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat, institutional architecture from the classroom to the design of hospitals, passing via economic and political installations” (Ibid: 149). Lastly, Castells develops his study of urban social movements by pointing out that “Every day in every context, people acting individually or collectively, produce or reproduce the rules of their society, and translate them into their spatial expression and their institutional management. Because society is structured around conflicting positions which define alternatively values and interests, so the production of space and cities will be, too” (1983: XVI).

These two evolutions can hardly be summarised in a united theoretical framework, but are not separated from one another either. The impact of Lefebvre’s and Foucault’s theories on human geography can be noted as an example. However their relations are in terms of influence, this “spatial turn” leads to the recognition of at least one common postulate, defined by Edward Soja as “the socio-spatial dialectic”: “The structure of organized space is not a separate structure with its own autonomous laws of construction and transformation, nor is it simply an expression of the class struggle emerging from social (and thus aspatial?) relations of production. It represents, instead, a dialectically defined component of the general relations of production, relations which are simultaneously social and spatial” (1989: 78). The effect of this postulate is that both approaches reduce social phenomena to consequences of spatiality, and approaches considering spatiality as a bump to be put apart when studying deeper laws, are inadequate.

Accounts of the renewal of the theories of spatiality on the study of mobilisations

Despite the apparent importance of the “turn” in social sciences, Deborah Martin and Byron Miller underline the lack of engagement of scholars in the spatial study of contentious politics before the 2000s, or at least the late 1990s, pointing that “where the “spatial turn” has transformed many areas of social and economic scholarship, research on social movements and contentious politics has generally downplayed the spatial constitution and context of its central concepts such as identity, grievances, political opportunities, and resources” (2003). Nonetheless, several arguments have been raised by different authors to value a spatial approach on the question of mobilisations.

  • The first of these arguments, which is more of an observation raised by Charles Tilly, is that “contention always takes place in humanly occupied space, often including the built environment. Hence not only time-distance costs but also spatial configurations present both opportunities and constraints to participants in public claim making” (2000). As spatially situated actors, mobilised groups should therefore be studied through their spatial situation as well as through their historical, political, and social positions. This statement, that emphasises the importance of the spatial context of a mobilisation in the analysis, can be, and has been, interpreted on several ways.
  • Second, the influence of Manuel Castells has led a certain amount of researchers to interest themselves in the question of spatially-oriented mobilisations, and more specifically in the question of urban social movements, defined by the author as “collective actions consciously aimed at fundamentally modifying the city’s role in society, or redefining the historical meaning of “urban”” (1972: 71). According to Gordana Rabrenovic (2009), the concept of urban social movements has been used as well by the scholars developing the theories of “new social movements”, their definition in this tradition being slightly changed and focused on the cross-class dimension of such movements: “Urban social movements were also a part of the development of a new wave of activism known as “new social movements” that grew in the 1970s and the 1980s, in part as a reaction to a decline in class-based movements and ideologies. […] Their concerns dealt with quality of life issues, recognition of their lifestyle choices and a push for more direct participation in decision-making”. This point raises therefore the question of space as a vector for claim making, and has to be put in parallel with an element raised by Deborah Martin and Byron Miller (2003), that is the idea that “Spatial perspectives illuminate the connections between daily life experiences and broader social, political, and economic processes”. In other words, day-to-day spatial routines would be an efficient point of entrance in order to understand the processes of politicisation.
  • Third, the ways space is used by on-going mobilisations should be explored, according to several authors by two main entries. In the first place, because of what Dingxin Zhao calls the ecologies of social movements, i.e. the relationship between “the spatial characteristics of a physical environment and the accompanying density, distribution, composition, place-based relations, and routine spatial activities of a given population” (1989) and both the ability for this population to take part in a mobilisation and the shape of the mobilisation itself. Another way the relationship between space and on-going mobilisations has been explored is by pointing out the importance of specific symbolically-charged places and the shape of a mobilisation. Indeed, as Tilly stresses, “Routine political life, including the contained contention of parades, parliaments, public ceremonies, and the like, endows different places and spatial routines (e.g. surrounding the dwelling of a reprobate or gathering in a public square to hear a speaker) with symbolic significance, which is then available for adoption, parody, or transmutation by participants in transgressive politics” (2000).


Aim of the review

The aim of this review is to give a general overview of the ways space has been redefined by the “spatial turn” of the 1980s and include parts of the previous social theories of space that appeared to be relevant in the development of this turn, and the ways this redefinition has impacted social movement theories. It will take account of the lack of theoretical unity in that domain. Finally, ideas about the possible use of these theories in further works will be evoked quickly.

2. The first theories of space and the 1980s’ “spatial turn”

2.1. The pre-1970s theories of space

The Chicago school of urban sociology: the city as an institution characterised by the importance of local interests

Going back to the Chicago school in order to define how the spatiality of human behaviours, and especially political human behaviours such as social movements allows us to take account of fundamentals that are later taken in account by scholars. In order to be as straightforward as possible, and since this part of the literature is not central, I will present these fundamentals as densely as possible, and will reduce the theoretical corpus of the Chicago school of urban sociology to two assertions that are common between several of its authors.[ii]

  • First, when trying to define a research agenda for the city, Robert Park develops a first central hypothesis, as he intends to study the city not as a convergence of individuals, but as an institution (1915), which implies, according to the author, not only the collection of human beings and the physical objects present in a city, but also the social structures through which human nature operates. The author develops his idea by stating that “We may think of [the city] as a mechanism – psychophysical mechanism – in and through which private and political interests find corporate expression. Much of what we ordinarily regard as the city-its charters, formal organization, buildings, street railways, and so forth – is, or seems to be, mere artifact” (Ibid). Moreover, the author specifies his thought by asserting that stopping the analysis at a first sight of the city as a purely geographical object or a mere collection of materials, in his words looking at the physical organisation of the city, results in covering the other essential part of what constitutes a city, i.e. the human mobilisation of the space in order to satisfy “human nature”:

“It is the structure of the city which impresses us by its visible vastness and complexity, but this structure has its basis, nevertheless, in human nature, of which it is an expression. On the other hand, this vast organization which has arisen in response to the needs of its inhabitants, once formed, impresses itself upon them as a crude external fact, and forms them, in turn, in accordance with the design and interests which it incorporates” (Ibid)

  • Second, the growth of the city is linked with the development of place-based communities, especially in the American neighborhood. The study of the street-corner gangs of Cornerville by William Foote Whyte led the author to this conclusion: “The story of Cornerville has been told in terms of organization, for that is the way Cornerville appears to the people who live and act there. They conceive society as a close knit hierarchical organization in which people’s positions and obligations to one another are defined and recognized” (1971: 227). Therefore, not only is the city’s organisation informed by its inhabitants’ practices, customs and habits, but the overall organisation of the city must be analysed by taking in account the specificities of its internal communities: “Proximity and neighborly contact are the basis for the simplest and most elementary form of association with which we have to do in the organization of city life. Local interests and associations breed local sentiment, and, under a system which makes residence the basis for participation in the government, the neighborhood becomes the basis of political control. In the social and political organization of the city it is the smallest local unit” (Park, 1915).

These two points lead to an understanding of the relationship between local communities and politics. The last statement by Robert Park is prolonged by the theory of urban politics as a political machine, which concerns more directly our topic. Robert Park considers indeed the question of elections by putting forward in the first place the impossibility for the electors to be enough individually rationally informed to know for whom to vote. Therefore, he raises the attention on local political actors aimed to advise the electors: “To meet this emergency, created primarily by conditions imposed by city life, two types of organization have come into existence for controlling those artificial crises that we call elections. One of these is the organization represented by the political boss and the political machine. The other is that represented by the independent voters’ leagues, taxpayers’ associations, and organizations like the bureaus of municipal research” (Ibid). In other words, the distinction between individual identity, community identity, neighbourhood and political work is blurred: there is a direct connection between the everyday life and politics.

Maurice Halbwachs and the collective memory: the importance of space in understanding the identity of social groups

Even though Maurice Halbwachs can be included in the “Chicago school”, the specific approach of his work on collective memory and the insights it gives on our topic deserves to be developed apart, as he points out a different, yet related, phenomenon that incites to consider space as a relevant entry for the study of contentious politics. For the author, the notion of place is essential in the understanding of the collective memory, and therefore the identity, of a group:

“The place occupied by a group is not similar to a blackboard on which numbers and figures are written and erased. How would the image of the board recall everything that has been drawn, since this board is indifferent to the numbers, and since on the same board, all the figures we want can be drawn? No. But the place has been marked by the group, and conversely. […] Every aspect, every detail of this place has itself a meaning that is comprehensible only for the members of the group, because every part of the space it has occupied correspond to different aspects of the structure and the life of their community, or at least, of its most stable part” (1967: 85).

The concept of collective memory allows us therefore to make a connection between space and time by considering the subjectivity of the social groups and the actors engaged in such groups. Indeed, spatiality is, in Halwachs’ work, as much the reminder of the group’s history, the consequence of such history, and an emotional pivot for the members of the group. This last point allows the author to affirm that, even though the physical aspect of a city is not daily consciously acknowledged by its inhabitants, “most of them would be far more sensitive to the disappearing of this street, of this building, of this house, than to the most serious national, religious or political events” (Ibid: 86).

This affirmation is not, for the author, a way to reaffirm what was already proven, that specific interests are developed toward the organisation of a given space and the public action in said space. It allows him instead to affirm another idea that will be essential in this review, around the concept of resistance[iii]. According to the author, spatial agency and the relationship between the group and its space have such an importance that the social groups are to a certain extent resistant to physical transformations: “[When confronted to a physical change] a group, on the contrary [to an individual] does not only manifest its suffer, to be outraged and to protest on the moment. It resists with all the strength of its traditions, and this resistance is not without effects. It seeks and partly manages to find its balance back in new conditions” (Ibid: 88).

Therefore, according to the author, not only is its specific space a way to identify a social group, but it is also an important issue for such a group to maintain its specific space as viable and conform to its traditions.

These insights concerning space, both from the Chicago school and from Halbwachs, are part of a much broader agenda of research, but incites us to reach a first theoretical conclusion, that the question of group identities, both in terms of emotional adhesion to a community and of collective making of interests and claims, is strongly connected from space and from the development of the city.

It has been said before that, according to Doreen Massey, the middle of the 20th century had been marked by the predominance of a positivist approach of geography that had a tendency to occult the question of the relationship between space and society. It should be added that, according to Edward Soja, social theory had at the same time an important lack of interest for space (1970: 12 – 16). Nonetheless the emerging of a redefinition of space in the 1970s has been important in redefining the way space is taken in account by the study of contentious politics.

2.2. Redefining space in the 1970s and 1980s

The Lefebvrian approach: space as a product

Lefebvre’s attempt to consider space as a social product, which has been underlined earlier, can be considered through the author’s work on urban renewal and urban planning. As he points out in the preface of his book, The production of space, the 1970s’ situation was marked by a gap between the theoretical knowledge of space, reducing it, according to the author, to a category of perception and the economical, political and social uses of space, that included much more deeply. The ambition of the author to define a theory of space which would not be a theory “on space” has to be according to Lefebvre, based the unification of three aspects of space, the physical, the mental and the social, “In other words, the research concerns the epistemologico-logical space – the space of the social practice, the space that occupy discernible phenomenons, without excluding the imaginary, the projects and projections, the symbols, the utopia” (2000: 19). This statement implies a strong shift in the way space can be conceived. Indeed the aim of the author is to take account of both the representations and the materiality of space, and of their relations.

Deborah Martin and Byron Miller point out the importance of such a conception of space when identifying the three ways in which Lefebvre talks of space as a product, by distinguishing perceived, conceived and lived spaces.

  • Perceived space, or spatial practice, encompasses the material spaces of daily life where social production and reproduction occurs” (Martin and Miller: 2003), or in other words, is the result of the occupation by a given society of a given space and the ways this society transforms that space, allocates it, and influences it.
  • Conceived space, or representations of space, refers to the socially constructed discourses, signs, and meanings of space” (Ibid). A society’s conceived space is, according to Lefebvre, the dominant space in a society. It is the result of the narratives of the dominant classes on space, “It is the “space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers”” (Ibid).
  • Finally, “Lived space, or representational space, encompasses the coexistence and interaction of the first two types of space” (Ibid). Or, as Lefebvre states it, lived space “covers the physical space while symbolically using its objects” (2000: 46). It is therefore the directly-accessible aspect of space that can be experienced in a society, and is for that reason particularly marked by the spatial contradictions of this society.

Therefore, as a product, space and its agency is, for Lefebvre, the result of a political struggle and of a political process:

“The history of space, of its production as a “reality”, of its shapes and representations, is not confused with the chain of the so-called “historical” (dated) facts, not with the succession, with or without finality, of the customs and laws, ideas and ideologies, socio-economical structures or institutions (super-structures). The productive forces (nature, work and work organisation, techniques and knowledges) have a role – to be determined – in the production of space” (2000: 57)

This disclaim of a reading of the history of space through the classical Marxist approach of the history of the human activities as a result of the history of the modes of production is important as it allows Lefebvre to distinguish a specific political role of space: “Urban space is therefore not just the place where political struggles happen, but increasingly the very object of that struggle. Just as the battlefield is the site of conflict but also part of the territory over which conflicts are often initiated, the city plays a similar role” (Elden, 2004: 151). Therefore, contention would not only be between different classes, but also between different representations of space.

Manuel Castells and the inclusion of social movements theory in the urban theory

As for Lefebvre, the Marxist background is important in Castells’ work, as he considers as well city as “a social product resulting from conflicting social interests and values” (1984: 289). As Lefebvre as well, Castells does not consider space as simple material objects: “urban forms are not only combinations of materials, volumes, colours and heights; they are, as Kevin Lynch has taught us, uses, flows, perceptions, mental associations, systems of representations whose significance changes with time, cultures, and social groups” (Ibid: 303). Therefore, Castells attempts to include social movements in the urban theory by questioning the process of innovation in the process of urbanisation. Indeed, the author affirms that since the right to define the dominant urbanism belongs to the dominant classes (and therefore the dominant social interests and values), then these interests tend to be institutionalised through urbanism. The example of the politics of urban renewal in San Francisco highlights that point clearly:

“Urban renewal was proposed in the 1950s for San Francisco, as in other American cities, as an adequate instrument to provide a favourable setting for the new service economy, to renovate blighted areas, to displace the poor and the minorities, to improve the urban environment, to keep the middle class residents, and to reduce the flight of high income taxpayers to the suburbs” (Ibid: 102)

This idea is pushed forward by the author: it is not said that the dominant discourses or conceptions of the urban – Lefebvre’s conceived space – are the only existing discourses, nor is it said that the dominated discourses do not have concrete effects: “The historical definition of urban meaning is a conflictive one, as a result of the struggle between historical actors over the control of power, resources, space, and cultural categories, in exactly the same way that only those things considered “productive” by the dominant class of a mode of production are valued, while “socially useful” but structurally rewardless activities are counted insignificant” (Ibid: 71). Therefore the question of “Why cities change?”, which is the overall problem of Castells’ work, should be asked by interrogating the way the social groups that have an interest in urban innovation act to push their interests forward. According to the author, this phenomenon occurs in four situations (Ibid: 304):

  1. The dominant class has an interest in restructuring the urban meaning, which corresponds to the processes of urban renewal.
  2. A dominated class takes power in a revolutionary process and imposes its own social meaning.
  3. A social movement develops its own meaning of a specific space.
  4. A social mobilisation develops and tries to impose its own meaning of a specific place both in contradiction with the dominant meaning, and with the interests of the dominant class.

In these four cases, argues Castells, there is indeed either a social change, or an urban change. But only in the fourth case, classified by Castells as urban social movement, is the social change and the urban change part of a same transformation. In other words, “only urban social movements are urban-oriented mobilizations that influence structural social change and transforms the urban meaning” (Ibid: 305).

2.3. Synthesis

This overview of the different social theories of space leads us to take some premises in order to see how space has been used in social movement theory. The first of these premises is that space is not a “container”, but works in relation with the social phenomenons that take place on it. More importantly, the spatial agency is the result of relations of production, of power, and therefore represents the struggle between dominants and dominated. In other words, according to Lefebvre and Castells, there is no such thing as a “spatial rationality” that would lead urbanism, but there are socially-constituted representations of space that can be connected to interests, values, and social classes. Second, space has to be considered as constructed and performative in a complex relation between at least three elements: materiality, ideology and practice (the three spaces of Lefebvre are the most developed example of that idea). Third, mostly according to the Chicago school and Halbwachs, a spatial agency has effects on the representations of the group attached to it, and on its concerns. Fourth, according to both Castells and Lefebvre, the political transformation of space is connected to an evolution in the struggle between divergent social interests, not necessarily class-based.


Allen J and Massey D (ed.), Geography matters! A reader, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984

Auyero J, “L’espace des luttes”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 5/2005 (n°160), p. 122-132 [The space of struggles, topography of collective mobilisations]

Bayat A, Street Politics, Poor people’s movements in Iran, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997

Castells M, The City and the Grassroots, London: Edward Arnolds, 1983

Cefaï D, “La construction des problèmes publics, Définitions de situations dans des arènes publiques”, Réseaux, 1996, Vol. 14, n°75, pp. 43-66 [The construction of public problems, definitions of situations in public arenas]

Cranford C and Wilton R D, “Toward an Understanding of the Spatiality of Social Movements: Labor Organizing at a Private University in Los Angeles”, Social Problems, Vol. 49, N°.3 (August 2002), pp. 374-394

Elden S, Understanding Henri Lefebvre, theory and the possible, London: Continuum, 2004

Poletta F, ““Free spaces” in collective action”, Theory and Society, Vol. 28, N°1, February 1999, p. 1-38

Emerson R M and Messinger S L, “The micropolitics of trouble”, Social Problems, Vol. 25, N° 2, December 1977, pp. 121-134

Fillieule O, Mathieu L and Péchu C (eds.), Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux [Dictionary of the social movements], Paris: Presses de la FNSP, 2009, p. 221

Foucault M, Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, New York: Pantheon, 1972

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Gould R, Insurgent identities, Class, Community and Protest in Paris from 1848 to the Commune, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995

Halbwachs M, La mémoire collective, Paris : Les Presses universitaires de France, 1967, [On collective memory]

Hamidi C, “Eléments pour une approche interactionniste de la politisation, engagement associatif et rapport au politique dans des associations locales issues de l’immigration” [Elements for an interactionist approach of politicisation, associative engagement and relation to politics in local immigrant associations”, Revue Française de Science Politique, Vol. 56, n°1, February 2006, p. 5 – 25

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Martin D and Miller B, “Space and contentious politics”, Mobilization, an international journal, vol. 8, n°2, June 2003

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[i] Including, but not limited to Javier Auyero, « L’espace des luttes », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 5/2005 (n°160), p. 122-132 [The spaces of struggle, topography of collective mobilisations], Cynthia Cranford and Robert D. Wilton, “Toward an Understanding of the Spatiality of Social Movements: Labor Organizing at a Private University in Los Angeles”, Social Problems, Vol. 49, N°.3 (August 2002), pp. 374-394, Deborah Martin and Byron Miller, “Space and contentious politics”, Mobilization, an international journal, vol. 8, n°2, June 2003, Nigel J. Thrift, “On the determination of social action in space and time”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 1983, vol. 1, p. 23 – 57 and Wendy Wolford, “Family, friends and fighting for land, the spatial dynamics of contention in rural Brazil”, Mobilization, an international journal, vol. 8, n°2, June 2003, p. 157 – 172

[ii] Referring to “The Chicago School of Sociology”, as it has been discussed by Howard Becker (1999) as a “school” is highly problematic. We know that Chicago was a “school of activity” rather than of theory or methods. On a somewhat secondary question such as the apprehension of space in the production of this school, one has to remain particularly cautious. Nonetheless there are specific manners of apprehending the question, notably under the influence of Robert E. Park and Ernest Burgess, which deserve to be evoked.

[iii] The French “résistance” can equally be translated into resistance and resilience.

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