Concerning Free Spaces

This note was published under the same title in a previous version of this site, under the same title. It has not been modified.

Defending the Château, Eugène Isabey

Defending the Château, Eugène Isabey

The notion of free spaces knows a certain renewal among activists after having disappeared for a rather long period, especially in the groups focusing on what used to be called the new social movements, but also in studies related to the Arab Springs. The creation of such free spaces would be the first step to an acknowledgement by dominated groups of a situation of oppression, and the emergence of narratives of oppression escaping both the surveillance and control of dominant groups, notably by banning the narratives rationalising injustice these groups are susceptible to use as counter-frames (that is, counter-explanations of a situation, a frame being a way to define a social situation). Obviously, the use of the notion is essential for activists who attempt to create loci of struggles, and appear as an element of the activist’s “toolbox”. An examination of the concept from the perspective of the study of social movements leaves nevertheless a bit more doubtful. During the development of a theoretical framework for my PhD, I had the occasion to explore the concept a little bit, and what I propose in this note is a short account of where it comes from, what limitations it carries, and how it seems to be interesting to reconsider it in the study of mobilisations.

But before getting into the debate, I must make a first distinction: in the context of the struggle focused on “micro-agressions”, many campaigns have claimed the aim of establishing specific areas (the street, public transportation, universities, schools, libraries, and so forth) as “safe spaces”, that is as spaces in which such “micro-agressions” would not occur. This is another idea from the one discussed in this note, which I willingly leave aside. Indeed, the notion presented as “free spaces” – which has also on occasion been described as “safe space” – in this note comes from the study of mobilisations, while the notion of “safe space” as a location in which certain types of legal but disruptive, or illegal and disruptive but rarely prosecuted, behaviours would be forbidden comes from campaigning. These notions come from the same general realms – that is, militancy for minorities, especially sexual minorities – but do not cover the same meaning.

For the reader: I must insist that this note is an exploration of an academic concept, which I put here because I have seen the term being used quite a lot by activists or people undergoing politicisation on questions of identity recently. It does not aim at explaining you how to mobilise or not to mobilise, which I do not believe is the job of someone undertaking the study of social movements. My take on free spaces, largely based on the criticism of the notion by the American political scientist Francesca Polletta, as you will see in the note, is that the concept used in analysis as it has been used in the study of “new social movements”, has flaws which make it empty for researchers, and that under certain circumstances it can lead to more interesting observations. As an activist, my take on the notion is almost radically the contrary. I do not see under which conditions this may be of any use to an activist. If you were in the process of creating an organisation or a group following the idea of securing a free space, by all means, do so. I cannot stress enough that I do not aim at telling you what to do.

“Free spaces”: a limited concept

The idea of free spaces is originally anchored in one famous case study, that of the Civil Rights movement in the USA, and more specifically on the case of the “Black Churches” in the south of the country. The concept comes directly from two researchers who worked on this movement, Sara Evans and Harry Boyte. If their first use of the term appears in 1972 in an article by Boyte, it is further theorised by the duo in their book Free Spaces, The Sources of Democratic Change in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1986). It is, in this book, defined as such:

Particular sorts of public places in the community, what we call free spaces, are the environments in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue. Put simply, free spaces are settings between private lives and large scale institutions where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence and vision. (p.17)

The notion of free space – which has been used along with other terms such as “safe spaces”, “havens”, “autonomous spaces”, “protected spaces”, and so forth – is therefore directly attached to the question, ever renewed in social movement studies, of acknowledgement or counsciousness-raising: the point to consider here is that “injustice” is not obvious, but perceived, and that in a society which relies on a certain number of injustices, there is ideological rationalising of such injustices (think, for instance, of the way the wage gap between men and women can be legitimised by the idea that an employer “takes a risk” by hiring a woman who could get pregnant, for instance).

If groups are confronted to ideologies which legitimise their marginalisation or domination, then gathering in such free spaces may provide them with the context required for the emergence of a counter-narrative, of a critical frame, in which their individual experience of injustice is not rationalised, but on the contrary reconsidered as injust and, therefore, as a source of grievance and, therefore, of potential mobilisation (but we’ll get to that). From this follows that in a dominated situation some groups can manage to conceive oppositional ideas and discourses, and potentially rebel, even if they are extremely dominated. In her discussion of the concept (“‘Free Spaces’ in Collective Action”, Theory and Society, vol. 28, n°1, February 1999), Francesca Polletta explains that the attraction of the concept comes from the fact that they allow, from a structural perspective, to understand cultural elements, like the development of a feeling of injustice: “Free spaces supply the activist networks, skills, and solidarity that assist in launching a movement. They also provide the conceptual space in which dominated groups are able to penetrate the prevailing common sense that keeps most people passive in the face of injustice, and are thus crucial to the very formation of the identities and interests that precede mobilization”.

And yet, Polletta insists, the concept barely holds in itself, and eventually ends up almost useless as a “black box” concept (everybody knows it is here, but what happens in it is kept mysterious). Polletta gives five good explanations of why the concept of “free spaces”, as it has been used by the literature, is empty:

  1. Nobody exactly agrees on what “free spaces” are: The first element pointed out by Polletta is the incredible diversity an apparently obvious concept contains. The notion has been used, indiscriminately, to describe specific associations, organisations and institutions, but also physical places like clubs, bars, or churches, more or less accessible virtual spaces like newspapers or the internet, or even in some cases one-on-one conversations. What seems to be a bit more worrying is that not even the idea that “free spaces” are actually spaces (that is, that they are geographically delimited areas) is consensual among scholars. She quotes the example of James Scott (Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) who claims that “linguistic codes that are opaque to those in power are as much a free space as is a physical site of resistance” (in. Polletta). A concept that describes too many different things may hardly be used, and the risk to turn into a practical but empty metaphor is present (as is often the case in the non-spatial use of “space” in sociology).
  2. What is “free” about “free spaces” is unclear: In the case of the Black Churches, the core of Boyte and Evan’s analysis, the “free spaces” were present before the mobilisation, and were defined as the locale in which this mobilisation has been made possible by the copresence of people with the same social status, outside of the surveillance of a White-dominated discriminating country. “There seems”, explains Polletta, “to be agreement among the authors I’ve cited that freedom from the surveillance of authorities is essential”, but which spaces we are talking about is not consensual: are we talking about spaces created ex nihilo, or already existing spaces? In both cases, how such spaces are “free” is undiscussed, because authors focusing on “free spaces” have rarely discussed the question of how and whether agents are ideologically “blinded”. This leads to an “obvious-ist” perspective on the emergence of both politicisation and social problems, which supposes that dominated groups can be considered as bundles of individuals only awaiting an occasion to express freely their suffering to revolt, and that the definition of social problems is immediately perceptible to them, two notions that both the sociology of social problems and politicisation have seriously criticised. On social problems, Robert Emerson and Sheldon Messinger, in “The Micro-Politics of Trouble”, Social Problems, Vol. 25, n°2, December, 1977, show very well how the definition of an issue does not precede, but accompany attempts to solve it, without being obvious beforehand both in its “trouble” dimension and in the way it ends up being framed. On politicisation the question is a bit more complex and will be explained in the third issue identified by Polletta.
  3. Is intimacy really enough? The idea of “safe space”, whatever its geographic, or non-geographic, definition, conveys the notion that “Small size, intimacy, and the rootedness of free spaces in long-standing communities” are essential in it (Polletta). A first remark can be made, and is made by Polletta: “[I]ntimacy is no guarantee of freedom of expression. And as feminist theorists have long pointed out, the family has been a prime site for the reproduction of patriarchal relations”. A second remark touches more directly upon the question of the conditions of politicisation within a small group: as French political sociologist Camille Hamidi has shown, not only the type of social bonds in a group does not suffice in explaining a politicisation among this group. Hamidi takes the example of associations in which the participants are expecting a very light sense of community, a “suspension” of everyday life: “Preferring brief conversations, on shallow topics, during which “we don’t get worked up”, as the members say, is an obstacle to the possibility of operating generalisations on these topics, and incites the participants to avoid topics labelled as political, which are perceived as too serious, too austere, and would remind them of the outside world they seek to avoid during their time in the association” (Camille Hamidi, “Éléments pour une approche interactionniste de la politisation. Engagement associatif et rapport au politique dans des associations locales issues de l’immigration”, Revue française de science politique, vol. 56, n°1, 2006). The same thing, says Hamidi, happens with members who try to look on the contrary for strong social bonds, and put maintaining the idea of a tightly-maintained group before a possible politicisation. In other words, putting similar people in the same locale does not necessarily mean a process of politicisation, even when that locale is intimate and “safe”. Finally, argues Polletta using the case of the Black Churches, arguing that “free spaces” have in that case been politicised not because the groups were cut from the rest of society, but because actors disposing of ideologies, tactics, experience and other activist resources entered them (in particular in the context of the “freedom summer” during which Northern activists came to the South). The closeness is therefore questioned.
  4. How “free spaces” lead to mobilisation is unclear: Even assuming that all previous limitations are overcome, how “free spaces” lead to mobilisations remains under-developed in the literature (partly because of a teleological bias which assumes that what happened had to happen without considering the fact that those who made it happen did not know it would happen). Or, to put it like Polletta, “what are the connections between the counterhegemonic challenge that is nurtured in free spaces and full-fledged mobilization?”. The common explanation has been to talk of an “opening of political opportunities”, the idea that certain grand structural conditions may lead to the “good moment” for a social movement to occur, and thus its occurence. Yet, we are facing here another black box, as it has been illustrated by Olivier Fillieule in his book Stratégies de la rue, les manifestations en France, Paris: Presses de Science Po, 1997 (which I let the reader discover because otherwise this note would turn into a short novella). To put it in a sentence, rather than the actual transformation of political structures, what may matter is how certain activists perceive the opening of political opportunities to happen, and how “free spaces” can be or not the context of this acknowledgement.

Reconsidering free spaces

Polletta’s argument continues in a proposal to reconsider “free spaces” in a different framework. She nonetheless shrugs away a possible reconsideration of the notion: “It seems clear that by “free space” analysts have something more in mind than a gathering place that is removed from the direct surveillance of authorities. It is hard to imagine insurgents not finding a physical space for communication, whether a shadowy alley, a prison exercise yard, or the internet. And indeed, in several cases the physical space that analysts refer to doesn’t seem to amount to much”. In other words, what matters is less the spatiality of “free spaces”, but on the contrary the social dynamics taking place in these locales. Therefore, getting rid of space here would allow considering the notion under a better perspective.

Polletta’s proposal is interesting, but a part of the literature has on the contrary gone against that perspective, by questioning what happens in those obvious “gathering places”. I personally believe that this dimension is much less accounted for than the networks Polletta describes, and will just give a few examples.

  • A first proposal is Asef Bayat’s “passive networks” (in his book Street politics, Poor people’s movements in Iran, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). Bayat argues that the mere gathering of unrelated people in space can be a basis for mobilisation: “Any collective political act – mobilization – requires some degree of organization, communication, and networking among its actors. For the most part this is constituted deliberately, either formally or informally. […] In both formal and informal cases, the participants would have an active network among themselves in that they become to know each other, talk, meet, and consciously interact with one another” (p. 16). Nonetheless atomised individuals in a similar social position can, when facing a common threat, form a collective if they are included in another – spatialised – kind of network, which is passive and activated by threat (See the schema further on): “What mediates between passive network and action is a common threat. Once these atomized individuals are confronted by a threat to their gains, their passive network spontaneously turns into an active network and collective action” (p. 17)”. In the case of Iranian street vendors, per instance, Bayat (p. 149) describes the way in which this group constituted itself on the basis of a spatial belonging: “Those individual vendors who worked in the same street and saw one another on a daily basis could develop latent communication merely by the fact of their common interest, even though they might not know or speak to one another. When a common threat arrived, they came together commonly and spontaneously”. Bayat’s argument is that this kind of network requires for such individuals to be brought together by space, while differing from the theory of “safe space” that considers such spaces as a way for a group already constituted to constitute its narratives and organise its actions.

Asef Bayat’s “passive networks” (in Bayat, 1997)

  • A second approach on “free spaces” relies on the practice of “camps” like that of Tahrir Square or on the Puerta Del Sol, when activists create a defensible space the authorities cannot coerce. In his study of the use of the camp form in Tahrir Square, Adam Ramadan notes that before being the focus of a network constituted on the Internet, the camp was a way to physically prevent the routine repressive activity of the state: the protest camp was embodied, filled with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. These were protests of the masses, not just the Anglophone middle classes ‘Tweeting’ to their followers around the world. What ultimately brought down Mubarak’s rule of fear was people putting their lives on the line by putting their bodies on the front line, and taking the blows from the regime’s batons, bullets and blocks of concrete. The millions who protested around the country forced the police off the streets, and won over army soldiers who turned their guns and tanks away from the demonstrators. (Ramadan, “From Tahrir to the world: The camp as a political public space”, European urban and regional studies, vol. 20, n°1, January 2013). The importance of tactical choices, relying on which streets and squares are accessible, which modes of action present the less risk, and which tactics have been successfully experienced before must not be neglected and these choices depend on contextual and spatialised elements: confronted to a space that they know by practicing it, mobilised actors gain a certain tactical advantage in their action. In another case, spaces that already could not be coerced (such as a church in a campus where the university legally had no right to forbid peope to gather, in 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) can be turned into “safe places”.
  • A third approach could focus on a slightly different process: how actors employ the everyday spaces as a mean to politicise people around issues. By putting ideologies, values and political discourses on confrontation with spatial inequality and agency, some entrepreneurs of mobilisation can use space as a mean to raise a public problem and to mobilise. In his study about two urban social movements in Brazil, John Guidry (“Trial by space: The spatial politics of citizenship and social movements in urban Brazil”, Mobilization, an International Quarterly, vol. 8, n° 2, June 2003) describes the strategy of politicisation used by the entrepreneurs of the mobilisation by using the Lefebvrian concept of trial by space, that is, the way a set of ideas and values are incarnated and problematised through their comparison with a spatial reality: “Without spatial references, ideas lack the kind of ‘resonance’ that Snow and Benford understand as crucial to the success of mobilization frames or collective action. Everyday life and its power relationships change as new ideas or concept are given a spatial expression that renders them manifest and contestable in a concrete way”. The author show how, in a Brazilian slum neighbourhood, this trial by space has been used by politicised actors in order to develop a political identity and a social movement through the organisation of non-political events (prayer groups) and, more importantly, a reference to a consensual set of values (particularly, the notion of citizenship as defined in the Brazilian constitution). Eventually “the group began identifying and raising the area’s collective consumption concerns. The contrast between the everyday life in the neighbourhood and the constitution’s language was used to put citizenship on ‘trial by space’, as residents noted the absence of schools, public transportation, policing, garbage collection, and other amenities of urban life enjoyed in the wealthier neigborhoods of the city center”. The author presents a way to turn a spatial and non-political order into a political resource by confronting a set of ideas or values to a spatial agency. The entrepreneurs use a strategy of monstration in which the problems become “obvious” to all.

A bit of conclusion

To summarise, the question of “free spaces” raises many questions, and its use in recently created social movements can strike an interest. Personally, the main interest I have for the question is about the actual spatiality of these spaces, and how activists manage or do not manage to transcend specific place in order to mobilise. For instance, the way loitering in specific areas can lead, even for a group which doesn’t have specific political competences, to express and formulate social problems, is of great interest to me. But there are other questions that could be asked. Polletta efficiently asks the question of “breaking through domination”, and how it is far from obvious. Now, as I said in the beginning of the note, this is not at all related to knowing whether making separate places for activism is a good or a bad thing, but how these places work, whatever your opinion on them can be. I would of course be very happy to read more about it. If Polletta is right, then the main interest for this resurgency of the use of “free space” in activism would be the acknowledgement that it is rarely sufficient to put people with similar problems together in a space, be it an ex-nihilo space or not, for them to efficiently mobilise. On this basis, “obvious-ism” appears as a threat, and it could be the very conditions of interactions in these spaces that could matter, rather than the existence of the spaces itself.

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2016, February 18). Concerning Free Spaces. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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