What Some Best-Sellers Have to Say About Space, Place, and Territory

by Norman Berdichevsky (June 2008)


Five best sellers from the fields of geography anthropology, sociology and political science have examined one of human geography’s major themes, the idea of place. Authors, Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt, Leopold Kohr, Joel Garreau and Robert Ardrey have provided a popular examination of man and his interaction with space, and have left many fascinating questions and issues for professional geographers to explore and research. It is no accident that their books struck a responsive chord with the general public that can be adapted to make introductory courses in human geography more appealing and provide a clearer grasp of the discipline and current research.

Can We Tolerate the “Demise” of Geography and “Placeless” Places?

The view that geography is a mostly irrelevant subject in the modern educational system use a “straw man” argument that knocks it down so that it appears useless, confirming the low opinion of the subject held by so many Americans. Future Shock by Alvin Toffler described how greater mobility rates, characteristic of modern industrial societies, have increased to such a degree that one can speak of the “demise of geography.”  Toffler goes on to explain how “Place is no longer a primary source of diversity” and that “We not only experience more places in the course of a lifetime, but, on the average, maintain our link with each place for a shorter interval.”  Mobility has stirred the pot so thoroughly that the important differences between people are no longer strongly place-related … “Commitments are shifting from place-related social structures (city, state, nation or neighborhood) to those (corporation, profession, friendship, network) that are themselves mobile, fluid, and for all practical purposes, ‘placeless’.”

You are where you live

Are places becoming more and more alike? Is that what is meant by a “placeless” society? Before we attempt to answer this, contrast what Toffler has to say about modern American society with John Naisbitt’s view in Megatrends under the heading of “Personal Geography: You are where you live.” Although aware of the same data on mobility as Toffler, Naisbitt concludes something quite different:

In the 1970’s, America began to celebrate geographic diversity. We celebrated it the way we did cultural an ethnic diversity in the 1960’s. We have gone from “Black is beautiful” and “Polish is Beautiful” to “I love Minneapolis!” The regional differences we enjoy stressing are not imaginary. The people within a region have similar values and attitudes, a sort of geographic state of mind.”

This trend has manifested itself in the rise of regional magazines and architecture. Political loyalties has also changed over time but the tendency for a regional component in voting patterns remains strong.

Man as a Territorial Animal or Geography’s Premature Demise

In spite of greater mobility all over the world, there has been a rebirth of intense territorial loyalties on the part of ethnic groups, long supposed to be integrated within larger national frameworks – The Basques, French Canadians, Welsh, Scots, Catalans, Corsicans, Croats, Slovenians, Slovaks, Moldavians, Albanians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, Lithuanians, Latvians, Georgians, Jews – a tendency forecast in the prophetic book The Breakdown of Nations by Leopold Kohr, first published in 1957! The thesis of this book is the irrepressibility of a strong territorial component of human behavior. When Kohr first made this prediction, most of the above-mentioned ethnic groups and their “provincial” ways were considered either backward or “quaint” tourist attractions for those looking for remote “out of the way” holidays.

Kohr originally sought a publisher for his book on the desirability of cutting up the great powers into small states that would foster the local nationalisms of many “heimats” in 1941, and was not able to find one for such an eccentric idea until 1957. Since then,  the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, seems more like the wave of the future than the unification of Germany.

A Common Biological-Anthropological-Political Approach to Mammals,

Tribes and Nations

The same theme was examined by Robert Ardrey (The Territorial Imperative; A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations, 1966), from a biological perspective.  Ardrey was not ashamed to admit that “It does not matter whether we are considering the true lemur, the howling monkey, the smooth-billed ani, the Bushman band, the Greek city-state, or the United States of America. The Social principle remains the same.”  Any nation is a social group organized for the exclusive possession of territory. “Nationalism” is not a product of recent history then, but a part of the animal kingdom’s built-in designs for survival and social organization. A biological definition for nationalism also seemed a bit weird and no less startling than Ardrey’s contention that territory in the evolving world of animals is “a force perhaps older than sex!”

Some social geographers have taken strong exception to this “biological” argument on behalf of “instincts.” Robert Sack, for example, has rejected this notion and argued that “Territoriality, in humans, is best understood as a spatial strategy to affect, influence, or control resources and people.” Nevertheless, Ardrey’s findings reinforce Kohr’s prediction in The Breakdown of Nations. Whether instinct or strategy, territoriality helps explain the rigid loyalty of many new political elites in Africa and Asia to state boundaries arbitrarily delineated by the European colonialist powers. Writing in 1966 at what may be termed the apex of Soviet power, Ardrey also ventured the forecast that the Russian conquest of Eastern Europe could not be made to stick. 

Territorialism, the Jews, Zionism and Israel

His views as an anthropologist on Jewish existence, Israel and Zionism proved to him the validity of his theories on the importance of territoriality which stand in utter contrast to the prevailing “conventional wisdom” of much political theories among many social scientists.

   “…..If you program the territorial computer with the amity-enmity equation, and you feed into the machine the State of Israel and the Jewish people, then the monster will cough twice and give out the lunatic answer that there never was any such thing as a Jew, and that if it were not for the Arab League there would probably be no State of Israel, either. ….. The Jew faced a genetic problem confronting no other Western people: How, without the reproductive isolation of territory, could he maintain his genetic integrity? He owned nothing but memories. Anti-Semitism helped. He accepted the grim ghetto…….and then came Zionism.

Let us pause for a warning: My sympathies have been always with Zionism. But neither my sympathies nor those of the computer at my elbow have the smallest effect on the workings of the amity-enmity equation. We shall see, in due course, what happens when sympathies are reversed. Zionism, in any event, enlisted my imagination as the next man's dream or the next man's adventure might enlist one's imagination in the reading of a good novel. As the great day of British withdrawal from Palestine approached, my Washington friends panicked. They foresaw an Arab massacre of defenseless Jews beyond anything in the history of pogroms. I was skeptical. I knew nothing about territory in those days,. But…it seemed to me that the history of pogroms cast little light on what would happen when a people homeless for two thousand years had again the opportunity to defend its Promised Land.

From that date in 1948 anti-Semitism may have retained a nostalgia or two, but it ceased to be a workable institution. We flatter ourselves that the Hitler outrages awakened the conscience of mankind. They did nothing of the sort. I recall that in America immediately after World War II anti-Semitism reached peaks never before attained, despite all Nazi contributions to our universal conscience; and the literature of the period will bear me out. It was the photographs of dead Arabs, not of cremated Jews, that awakened our famed conscience. It was in 1948 that a stunned world realized that Jews could behave just like anybody else.”  (Ardrey, The Territorial Imperative, Dell Publishing. 1966. pp. 282-285)

Of course, his remarks about the death throes of anti-Semitism have proven too optimistic but the world is periodically reminded of them with every act of heroism by Jews against “all the odds,” The Six Day War, the Rescue Operation at Entebbe, the turning of the tide in crossing the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War and the destruction of the Atomic Reactors in Iraq and Syria. Most of all, we are reminded at what might and could have been by the striking photo of a squadron of the Israeli Airforce flying over Auschwitz. 

How to Resolve the Contradiction

Can Toffler’s view of geography’s demise in Future Shock be on the right track then in the face of such strong arguments by Ardrey for a territorial component to human behavior? Are Toffler’s arguments less than the whole story? Are the modern day social, economic and political trends of increased mobility that Toffler has tracked without any compensatory mechanism of territoriality? Due to increased mobility, modern man apparently feels the need to compensate by seeking to identify with the new environment. Migration does weaken the traditional character and identity of the place left behind but it does not, however, necessarily make that place less identifiable or more like other places. Migrants bring a new ingredient to the ever-changing kaleidoscopic mix of factors in the geography of the region where they settle. It is important to view them as one additional factor interacting with the existing combination of phenomena that differentiates the new “place.”

What is remarkable is that highly mobile and affluent migrants tend to feel the need to integrate into their new communities and consciously seek to imitate established regional-local patterns of behavior. The new arrival readily becomes a local “booster” and cultivates a new regional/local identity. Geographers, sociologists and anthropologists find this thesis a fertile field for investigation.

The feelings that regions have become less meaningful is due largely to the kind of essentially static criteria by which traditional regions are bounded – terrain, climate, the economic base of industry and agriculture. The Nine Nations of North America is probably the book most cultural geographers would have loved to write. In it, author Joel Garreau celebrates the opportunity to pick up our belongings and savor life by rooting ourselves in a new habitat. He makes the point that it’s not that social contracts are dissolving” it’s just that new ones are being born and that “Home, in the twentieth century is less where your heart is, than where you understand the sons-of-bitches.”

Garreau’s regions are not the traditional ones. He enumerates “the way North American really works” – each with its distinctive web of power and influence. Each of his Nine nations has a peculiar economy; each commands a certain emotional allegiance from its citizens. Some transcend political boundaries – such as “The Empty Quarter uniting the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states with the Prairie Provinces of Western Canada, or “The Islands” linking Hispanic South Florida with the Caribbean, or “Ecotopia” - the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and the South Alaskan coast.

What do Ethnic, Immigrant and Bohemian Neighborhoods Tell Us?

What do these trends portend for the millions of “guest workers” from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East who have become long term residents of the countries in Northern Europe? The renewed debate in the United States over continued immigration of non-Europeans revolves around the same contentions.

There is no simple answer, except that it is premature to speak of the “demise” of geography. Even Toffler himself in Future Shock cites today’s dilemma:

“It was no surprise to find Swedish sociologists today are torn by debate over whether foreign worker populations should be assimilated into Swedish culture or encouraged to retain their own cultural traditions – precisely the same “melting pot” argument that excited American social scientists during the great period of open immigration in the United States:”

Are acculturation and assimilation defined to include a geographic/spatial component? Geographers have done considerable research seeking to document the loss of specific ethnic neighborhoods and the acquisition of shared activity spheres, especially for leisure, recreation and “socializing”, i.e. streets, parks, clubs, churches, shops, restaurants, theatres, etc. Since the presence of distinct ethnic or immigrant neighborhoods is often considered a “failure” to assimilate, they are often derisively labeled “ethnic enclaves” or “ghettos”.

If geography were indeed irrelevant, there would be no issue, the newcomer and veteran resident alike would find the question superfluous, but in fact it is of vital significance to both. Failing to identify with either environment and “dropping out” or adopting some “neutral” cosmopolitan outlook is the strategy of a very small Bohemian artistic minority of intellectuals who, at the most establish a temporary place specific subculture in neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village, Old Town, Montparnasse, Chelsea, Soho, The French Quarter, Haight-Ashbury, Arbat, etc.

The great irony with these neighborhoods is that their very individuality as places acquires a market value, forcing rents up, and often beyond the reach of the residents who imbued them with a specific character. These places become attractive to a more affluent population anxious to acquire some of the “status” and colorful identity which such “artsy” neighborhoods still convey. Therefore, it is not just ethnic or working-class populations that can feel an emotional attachment to their local environment.

The “Bohemian” neighborhoods may originally have been quite distinct, both architecturally and in the demographic and cultural characteristics of their inhabitants, at least for a time. They tend also to be invested with deep psychological and emotional attachment and therefore cannot be regarded as just residential “space.” They do not persist, however, because they lack the power to attract stable families likely to ensure the institutions and social networks conducive to survival across the generations. This network invariably includes neighborhood churches and schools that have endured in many ethnic neighborhoods such as Harlem, Watts, Chinatown, “Little Italy,” the Lower East Side”, Cicero, Hamtramck, Hyde Park, Yorkville, the “Barrio,” etc.

Our habit of place-relating applies not only to distinct ethnic groups but to those social class differences (“the other side of the tracks”, Skid Row, “Park Avenue”, Gold Coast”, “Back Bay”, “Nob Hill”, etc.) and the “handy labels” of specific places identified with various industries and services such as Wall Street (finance), Madison Avenue (advertising), Broadway (entertainment), 7th Avenue (the garment industry).

Suggestions for Research

Is place then a psychological necessity? Can the components of place identity be created by governmental fiat? Certainly there is enough case material of large scale settlements in “Virgin Lands” projects and the erection of “instantaneous” (and monotonous) neighborhoods to house new migrants in a variety of settings from the Amazon Valley to the Negev Desert in Israel.

These settings provide the raw material that beckons geographers, anthropologists and sociologists to undertake comparative studies in order to examine the degree to which various populations feel the need to invest such “homogeneous” characterless places with identifiable character.

Why Place is Much More than Space

We can quantify space by objective units of measurement. Geodesy is the science which measures the surface dimensions, gravity and magnetic force fields of the earth. Geography, on the other hand, is concerned with the character of actual places on the surface of the earth. This character is not a static inventory. It is determined by the interplay of many dynamic factors, each of which has its own aerial distribution. Where these intersect and interact in a way that is perceived as homogeneous, relative to other areas on the earth’s surface, we can speak of a “region.” This region is the product of the natural environment and its organization and exploitation at that particular site by specific economic, social, and political systems. Human beings invest spaces with their own conceptual and ideological meanings, and this distinction precludes speaking of the “demise of geography.”

As Yi-Fu Tuan put it “An object or place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with active and reflective mind. Long residence enables us to know a place intimately.”  (Tuan; Space and Place; The Perspective of Experience University of Minnesota Press. 1977).  Another place may lack the weight of reality because we know it only from the outside – through the eyes of tourists, and from reading about it in a guidebook. It is a characteristic of the symbol-making human species that its members can become passionately attached to places of enormous size, such as a nation-state, of which they have had no or only very limited and indirect experience – through books, films, songs and political propaganda.

The Argentine conscripts from the mid-latitude Pampas and super metropolis of Buenos Aires, who set forth to liberate the “Islas Malvinas” (Falklands) envisioned as part of the Argentine Nation, found not only a totally strange and hostile remote maritime sub-arctic environment but a population of Englishmen-Scots-Welshmen as uncomprehending of their motives and actions as the penguins.

Previous Research

The set of conditions imposed by such symbol-making humans is volatile stuff. Cases of dramatically differing sequential occupation imposed on quite similar spaces are a favorite technique of historical and cultural geographers to indicate the contrasting notions of space and place.

George Carter is the cultural geographer most identified with illustrating the different sets of perceptions which have led various societies to organize and exploit their environments in very different ways. His textbook, Man and the Land is perhaps the most controversial of beginning college textbooks in cultural geography due to its use of speculative scenarios – i.e. What if the British had settled Brazil and the Portuguese, North America? The perceptive student of geography finds such a novel approach stimulating and revealing of man’s role in shaping the face of the earth and how none of this was a foregone inevitable conclusion.

Cultural geographers have utilized the same theme of different societies’ perception and exploitation of the environment by comparing actual existing contrasts in the human geography of specific places that were originally similar and demonstrating the subsequent impact of contrasting culture in their historical sequential occupancy such as  North vs. South Louisiana or the ancient Egyptians and Yuma Indians in their respective desert environments traversed by a great river (The Nile vs. The Colorado).

The importance of human perceptions which invest place with a specific character can best be ascertained by the frequent feelings of disorientation experienced by visiting what was a once familiar neighborhood – the scene of childhood experience that has now become the “home” of a different class, ethnic, racial or religious population. This is true even when the neighborhood has not undergone significant physical deterioration and has essentially the same housing stock and physical infrastructure.

The most recent research of the interplay between migrants and the regions they move to deals with what cultural geographers call “Voluntary Regions”. They differ from the previous concern with migrants coming to a wilderness and transforming it, in harmony with their original culture. Voluntary regions are not traditional. They are the spatial expressions of subcultures based on characteristics that are not handed down by the circumstances of birth and social heredity. They result from the search for congenial companions sharing very specific interests and choices.

“University Towns” like Berkeley, Princeton or Madison differ substantially from their nearest neighbors in California, New Jersey and Wisconsin – just measure book, hi-fi stereo systems and wine consumption, or behavior in the last Presidential election! Homosexuals already have their own atlases. The growth of such distinct areas is an example of a new geography, not its demise.

Where do we go from here?

Although migration from one place to another has been a favorite topic of geographers, much more research has been done on the physical-landscape changes wrought and the attempt to recreate pre-existing social networks in the new environment, rather than resultant changes in social behavior.

Was Naisbitt right that “You are where you live?” We can also ask …Do you feel a need to move and “Where would you like to live?” Migrants who move from places where they feel culturally and socially at home to other places which they believe offer more attractive economic opportunities or political freedoms, face a period of painful adjustment. This is true even within the same region but is much more acute when the new place is a different region or country with another prevailing culture, language, code of social behavior, or climate.

Migrants often do leave their heart in a place they will always call “home”. Many have the feeling of “nostos”, the Greek word that is the origin of our “nostalgia,” the feeling they have when they return home or even think of it longingly, but those who successfully adapt to their new environment will have to understand and eventually act like the “sons-of-bitches” who are their new neighbors and fellow citizens.


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