Section 9: The Social Production of Space and Time

Wolfgang Schivelbusch “Railroad Space and Railroad Time” [1978]

Anthony King “A Time for Space and a Space for Time: The Social Production of the Vacation House” [1980]

Henri Lefebvre “The Production of Space” [1991]

Virginia Woolf “A Room of One’s Own” [1929]

Katherine McKittrick “The Last Place They Thought Of: Black Women’s Geographies” [2006]

Neil Smith “Class Struggle on Avenue B: The Lower East Side as Wild Wild West” [1996]

While space and time may seem ubiquitous, human experiences of space and time are remarkably specific to certain groups and cultures in particular places and times. The production of space occurs through both social practices and material conditions, meaning that space and time are contingent upon and shaped by macro-scale policies and innovations, such as calendars and maps, as well as by everyday routines like finding a parking space. Not only does the structuring of space and time produce specific social patterns and relationships, but it also affects cultural values and economic prospects. As discussed in previous sections, specific experiences (like privacy) and places (such as landscapes) are highly contested because of conflicting social attitudes, though there are also many patterns that go relatively unexamined. The selections in this section represent scholars who have looked at hegemonic and quotidian forces that shape space and time, lives and opportunities.

Sociologist Henri Lefebvre is credited with introducing the idea that space is socially produced. His analysis includes a historical reading of how spatial experience has changed over time depending upon social circumstances. Up until the medieval period, space and time were largely experienced through local, lived conditions; times and distances were established by the capacity of the body. In the Renaissance, mathematical systems were developed that allowed space to be broken into fixed units which could be mapped over the land, establishing a system of abstraction allowing for exact measurement and location. Lefebvre contends that abstract space, produced and perpetuated through grids, plans, and schedules, is utilized and dominated by the capitalist system of production. So why do we continue to live our lives structured in this way? Lefebvre suggests that socially produced space and time is held in place through administrative policies, social conventions, and technological systems for living so that each day as people wake up to an alarm, commute to work, watch television, or pay bills, this system of space and time is perpetuated and reproduced.

In addition to the contributions Lefebvre has made in recounting the historical changes to the way we experience space and time, he offers a useful scheme to understand how space is socially produced. Lefebvre theorized a tripartite production of space that exists in dialectical tension: spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Spatial practice describes the cohesive patterns and places of social activity. It can be perceived in the everyday acts of buying, playing, traveling, and laboring, as much as in the everyday spaces of the home, office, school, and streets. Representations of space are how space is conceived by engineers, cartographers, architects, and bankers through plans, designs, drawings, and maps. It is a system of signs and codes that are used to organize and direct spatial relations. Representational spaces are those spaces that the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. Usually dominated by the other modes of spatial production, these are clandestine and underground spaces lived by artists and others who seek to describe alternative spaces. This triad helps clarify the social patterns that produce the abstract space of contemporary capitalism, which Lefebvre is seeking to move beyond. He outlines an idea of differential space that would dissolve the social relations of abstract space and generate new, heterogeneous relations that accentuate difference and “shatter the integrity of the individual body, the social body … and the corpus of knowledge.”

Lefebvre’s work has influenced scholars in multiple directions. Some, like Schivelbusch and King below, have looked closely to understand historical shifts in the way space is produced and experienced, analyzing the technological developments or changes in social attitudes and conventions. Other scholarship is more aligned with Lefebvre’s critique of contemporary spatial representation and practice, and looks for modes of resistance and examples of differential spaces. The selections below by Woolf and McKittrick offer insights into how intentional and unintentional insurgent spatial practices clash with and resist the representations and practices employed by those in power.

As suggested by Lefebvre, as well as David Harvey (1991), transportation systems have played a major role in the shaping of space and time. Cultural studies scholar Wolfgang Schivelbusch traces how space and time contracted through the development and expansion of the railroad. He argues that up until the 1850s, space and time were experienced locally because people were limited in the distances they could travel. After the advent of the railroads, the space of one’s life was stretched to bring far-off places—the seaside or the country, for example—within easy reach. Time likewise shifted, changing from being organized through the chimes of the nearest clock tower, to being universally calibrated to the railroads’ Greenwich Standard Time, which subsequently led to the establishment of the time zones that today serve as the global standard for determining time. While the sense of time was altered, Schivelbusch also describes how people’s imagination of place shifted to adjust to the new spatial and temporal experience brought about by the railroads.

Sociologist Anthony King also discusses how the sense of time and place changed during this period of rapidly developing industrial production. In writing about the spatiotemporality of vacation, he argues that prior to the Industrial Revolution, time, especially time for work, was based in the rhythms of the day and the season. Yet these paces, spaces, and times quickly became regulated to the demands of factory production. This system of industrial capitalism produced surplus time for the middle and upper classes, as the work-week was defined and the weekend emerged. King looks at how vacation houses, as space-times away from work, developed as a spatial response to this change in time. The vacation house, made accessible by the railroad, was a place that could be occupied during the new leisure times opened up to the wealthy through capitalist production. King also demonstrates how architecture responded to the space-time of leisure: vacation houses themselves took particular forms— open plans and more common spaces for the family—due to the way in which they were inhabited and their orientation to the landscape. King’s research emphasizes how space and time is socially produced through patterns of production and consumption that still continue today.

While Lefebvre suggests that the body is one useful way to locate and understand how space is socially produced, other scholars are a great deal better at elucidating the ways in which people are subject to spatial production (see also Section 4). It is important to recognize that space structures and is structured by a great array of social relations, including gender, sexuality, race, age, language, and disability. Inspired and frustrated by the spaces to which she was not allowed access, essayist Virginia Woolf was critical of the gendered nature of space and effectively exposes how space has been and continues to be male dominated. Her essay charts her experience of London in the early 20th century, including being barred from the Oxford library because of her gender. Woolf argues that what is needed for a woman to write successfully is a “room of one’s own,” guaranteeing an amount of privacy and seclusion historically unavailable to women.

Like Woolf, geographer Katherine McKittrick argues that for some people the freedom to be/become oneself occurs through the struggle to have space. McKittrick looks at the way spaces are organized and produced along racial and sexual lines in her examination of the narrative of a 19th-century US slave, Linda Brent, the pseudonym used by Harriet A. Jacobs. Brent was compelled to live for seven years in an attic space too small to stand up in, in order to eventually free her children and escape herself from the conditions of slavery. McKittrick shows how Brent is able to achieve a degree of freedom from the spatial conditions of slavery—confinement under the gaze of the white, patriarchal society—by hiding in the garret from which she can see and hear, but is herself unseen and immobile. McKittrick connects the spaces and displaces of Brent to larger questions of bodily confinement and territorialization, arguing that the legacies of racism and sexism are perpetuated through spatial constructions.

Geographer Neil Smith concludes this section by showing us ways in which contemporary urban spaces are produced through processes of gentrification. Smith demonstrates how gentrification works: neighborhood property values shift through financial manipulation, real estate development, and myths of the frontier (see figure at the beginning of Section 9). Due to large-scale social and economic crises as well as specific redlining practices by banks refusing loans to racial minorities (see Squires 1992), certain areas of cities go into decline because of neglect by property owners. Real estate prices fall and conditions further decline until these areas can be re-conquered by “pioneering” artists and marginalized LGBTQ people looking for affordable spaces to work and live. For property owners and developers, this re-entrance of means and “chic” signals an opportunity to reinvest, improving the quality of the neighborhood and opening it up to more mainstream residents. This process, underpinned by the practices of financial institutions, as well as the policies and operations of city governments, is how Smith explains gentrification and shows that urban areas are produced through specific actions and policies.

Covering a variety of scales and historical periods, the readings in this section show how space and time are produced through attitudes, actions, inventions, and policies. These spaces and social relations also shape and are shaped by multiple layers of identity. As Lefebvre and others have argued, space and time make up the fabric of modern life, but it is helpful to realize that they are not static or universal but socially produced and subject to manipulation and change. There are a number of publications that have looked more closely at how space and time are structured and restructured through the development of clocks, shipping logistics, communication tools, and other technologies (see Aveni 1989; Kern 2003; Najafi 2013). Other writers have focused on specific places or phenomena: Jason Hackworth (2006) looks at how financial policies mold municipal development, Abigail Van Slyck (2010) has studied summer camps and the ways in which they have shaped culture through particular youthful experiences of wilderness. Architectural critic Sigfried Giedion’s Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete (1995 [1929]) both analyzed trends in building in the first part of the 20th century and played a pivotal role in shaping the conventions of modern architecture. There are many more stories to be told about the simultaneous multiplicity of spaces and the ways in which social relations are continually produced and constantly changing.

– reproduced from Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, & Space Reader. New York: Routledge.


Aveni, Anthony F. 1989. Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Bakhtin, Mkhail. 1982. “Forms of Time and of The Chronotope in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov, trans. Vadim Liapunov and Kenneth Brostrom. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Brenner, Neil, Bob Jessop, Martin Jones, and Gordon Macleod (eds). 2003. State/Space: A Reader. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 2002. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Doron, Assa, and Robin Jeffrey. 2013. The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Flowers, Benjamin. 2009. Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Friedland, Roger, and Deirdre Boden. 1995. NowHere: Space, Time, and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Giedion, Sigfried. 1995 [1929]. Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, trans. J. Duncan Berry. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hackworth, Jason. 2006. The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1997. “Subjects in History: Making Diasporic Identities.” In The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America Today, edited by Wahneema Lubiano, pp. 289–299. New York: Vintage.

Harvey, David. 1991. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Maiden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Interrante, J. 1979. “You Can’t Go to Town in a Bathtub: Automobile Movement and the Reorganization of Rural American Space, 1900–1930.” Radical History Review 21(October 1): 151–168.

Katz, Cindi. 2001. “Vagabond Capitalism and the Necessity of Social Reproduction.” Antipode 33(4): 709–728.

Kern, Stephen. 2003. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri, Gerald Moore, and Stuart Elden. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Najafi, Sina (ed.). 2013. Cabinet 47: Logistics. Cabinet.

Ross, Kristin. 2008. The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune. New York: Verso.

Sassen, Saskia. 2008. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Neil. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. New York: Routledge.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2012. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Squires, Gregory D. 1992. From Redlining to Reinvestment: Community Responses to Urban Disinvestment. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Van Slyck, Abigail A. 2010. A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Vidler, Anthony. 2002. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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