Section 11: The Spatial Imagination

Identity map drawn after 9/11 by Muhammad, Male, Arab-American, Age 14. Referenced in: Fine, Michelle and Selçuk Sirin. 2008.
Identity map drawn after 9/11 by Muhammad, Male, Arab-American, Age 14.
Referenced in: Fine, Michelle and Selçuk Sirin. 2008.

Edward Said “Invention, Memory, and Place” [2000]

Selçuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine “Negotiating the Muslim American Hyphen: Integrated, Parallel, and Conflictual Paths” [2008]

Thongchai Winichakul “Maps and the Formation of the Geo-Body of Siam” [1996]

Richard Feinberg, Ute J. Dymon, Pu Paiaki, Pu Rangituteki, Pu Nukuriaki, and Matthew Rollins “‘Drawing the Coral Heads’: Mental Mapping and its Physical Representation in a Polynesian Community” [2003]

J.K. Gibson-Graham “How Do We Get Out of This Capitalist Place?” [1996]

Bernard Tschumi “De-, Dis-, Ex-” [1987]

As we move through our everyday routines, it is possible to imagine and enact alternative ways of living. Part of this remaking of the spaces and interactions of daily life involves new understandings and representations of our place in the world. We use the term spatial imagination to hint at these possibilities, and broaden earlier work on ways in which the imagination is instrumental in shaping our lives. Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1961) developed the idea of the sociological imagination as a conceptual tool to compare individuals’ personal biographies to larger social situations and histories and connect “personal troubles to public issues.” Geographer David Harvey (1973, 2005) coined the term geographical imagination in building upon Mills’s concept by bringing geography into the mix of biography and history. The concept of the geographical imagination expresses the literal and metaphorical ways in which people conceptualize and render space (see Gregory 1994). As educational philosopher Maxine Greene (2000) writes,

To call for imaginative capacity is to work for the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise. To ask for intensified realization is to see that each person’s reality must be understood to be interpreted experience—and that the mode of interpretation depends on his or her situation and location in the world. … To tap into the imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real.

To imagine, then, is, in Greene’s words, to “make empathy possible.” The imagination is a tool for reaching greater understanding of self and other, while making plans to change the injustices of everyday life. Intimate and global, the spatial imagination can open up ways to take notice of being in the world and our implication in making, remaking, and being made by the geographies in which we live, work, and play.

Literary theorist Edward Said takes up the myths and histories of our environments as imaginative geographies: those ideas we have about a space or place’s past that form the political, economic, and social experience of the present. In our selection from his piece “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Said’s focus is the contentious relationship between the State of Israel and Palestine. Retelling the story of Israel’s rise through the demise of Palestine, Said shows how myths that assert an actual place in the world through claims to various locations and identities remain fixed to those places, such as the Abrahamic faiths’ (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) attachment to the City of Jerusalem. Said leaves the reader asking who has the right to land and on what basis. In his monumental Orientalism, Said (1979) likewise demonstrates how Western society posits an imaginary “Orient” through travelogues, art, literature, and scholarly work in order to justify and advance its colonial ambitions and practices.

The spatial imagination influences the way in which we perceive bodies and the place of identity and identification. Critical social psychologists Selçuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine examine what they call the hyphenated identities of race, nation, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality of Muslim American youth in New York City in the aftermath of the violence, hatred, and distrust directed at this population following September 11, 2001. Questioning whether these young people would identify themselves as Muslim, American, or some combination, the authors drew on interviews and identity maps, and found three ways in which the youth embodied their multiple selves. One identity map, for example, shows a map of a young Muslim boy who lives such a hyphenated identity that he draws a line down the middle of his own face that splits his emotions and his sense of his national and personal identity (see figure at the beginning of Section 11). The spatial imaginations of these young people reflect their attempts to integrate or at least negotiate their multiple identifications, and call into question the imposed delimitations of place and identity.

The mapping of identities in place reaches far back into history. As South Asian historian Thongchai Winichakul’s careful examination of the historical geography of Siam/Thailand shows, spatial imaginations are at once more malleable than might be assumed and influential in producing material geographies. Winichakul’s work reveals that the borders drawn on maps are far from fixed. Their histories stray from the static “official” boundary lines that delimit country from country at any single moment. French colonials in (then) Siam were infuriated to find border markers shifting almost daily in remote swamps and woods as tribal groups moved these markers as was convenient for their livelihoods. These sorts of contested and impermanent borders show how geographic distinctions are imagined and implemented from the perspective of those in power, and may not be sustainable on the ground or representative of material reality.

The way in which we imagine space also draws upon our actual experiences of space and place. For example, Americans increasingly navigate with the assistance of a GPS device, and often talk about distances in terms of the amount of time it takes to travel by car, because it is largely a driving culture. But not all cultures measure space in the same way. Thomas Gladwin’s influential East is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll (1995), for instance, demonstrated how the people of the Caroline atolls navigate long distances without a compass, imagining their oceanic world in ways that might confound conventional Western spatial imaginaries. Likewise, anthropologist Richard Feinberg and colleagues’ participatory work on symbolism, seafaring, navigation, and the oral traditions of the Anutan people in Polynesia examines their unique way of thinking about, experiencing, and moving through space. We include a selection of Feinberg’s work in which he and his collaborators describe how the Anutans can navigate hundreds of miles between small islands using their own naming conventions and readings of coastal reefs, tidal movements, and constellations of stars in the night sky.

Questioning the totalizing power of capitalist interests through gendered representations of the body, critical geographer J.K. Gibson-Graham’s feminist critique of political economy offers a spatial imagination that moves beyond such oppressions. Drawing on political economic theory and activism, they illuminate how our imaginations are stifled not only by the economic systems we participate in but by the ways in which they are theorized as well. In more recent work, Gibson-Graham (2006) argues that one significant way of enacting alternate economies is by creating and sustaining alternate communities. They describe activist projects in the Philippines, India, and Massachusetts that elaborate on how blends of informal, wage, and alternate economies enact resistance to dominant capitalist modes of production and consumption.

The architect Bernard Tschumi concludes this section with a commentary on the fragmented urban conditions and oppressive spatial formations of late capitalism. Framed in terms of a series of negating prefixes (de, dis, ex), Tschumi argues that society has become deregulated and decentered. As such, he argues for a new set of spatial relationships and interactions that don’t follow the Cartesian rules of space and time. His work asks: if the spaces of our lives were composed like a film script that one could cut and splice, what new social and spatial relationships might emerge? In this idea of disjunction, Tschumi offers a way to think about how space, in the form of buildings and cities, could be reconfigured to move beyond and alter the fixities of regulated life, both imagined and real.

Imagining alternative places and societies has a long history in design and literature, dating back to the publication of Utopia in 1516 by Thomas More, and well before that. Utopias— simultaneously “good place” and “no place”—are visions that try to convey the types of places and ways in which people would like to live or could live their ideals. Utopian visions have encompassed a wide range of living conditions and social relations, but what virtually all of them have in common is the ability to reveal the conflicts and desires of their particular milieu as a step toward imagining alternatives. These ideal visions can stimulate reflection and change, focusing beyond the present in order to help define the places and relations we hope for and might help to make (Eaton 2002). Artists such as Robert Irwin and Allan Wexler have also added valuable insights through the ways in which they have re-imagined existing places and social interactions (see Weschler 2009; Kester 2004).

While some authors explicitly recognize and articulate how our ways of imagining space affect our social and spatial realities, in many cases it takes effort on the part of the reader to recognize the gaps between what is thought or said and what actually exists. In a related text, political scientist Benedict Anderson’s (1983) concept of imagined communities denotes communities formed in and through imagined connections rather than propinquity. It scales conceptually to notions of nation and nationalism, which presuppose common origin or unified values with others whom one may never know (see also Billig 1995). As the spatial imagination plays a role in producing notions of social and spatial reality, it also becomes a tool to address the disconnections between the lived or actual and the imagined, which are often indicative of social or spatial injustices. As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” The writings in this section suggest ways in which the spatial imagination is and can be a resource of that responsibility to redress the unequal spatialities of our everyday lives.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Barkawi, Tarak and Keith Stanski (eds). 2012. Orientalism and War. New York: Columbia University Press.

Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Eaton, Ruth. 2002. Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)built Environment. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Fine, Michelle and Selçuk Sirin. 2008. “Negotiating the Muslim American Hyphen: Integrated, Parallel, and Conflictual Paths.” In Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods. New York: New York University Press, pp. 121–150.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gladwin, Thomas. 1995. East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Greene, Maxine. 2000. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gregory, Derek. 1994. Geographical Imaginations. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Harvey, David. 1973. Social Justice and the City. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. “The Sociological and Geographical Imaginations.” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society 18(3/4): 211–255.

Kester, Grant H. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1961. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Grove Press.

More, Thomas. 2012. Utopia. London: Penguin Books.

Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. Princeton, NJ: Vintage.

Sawalha, Aseel. 2011. Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Scoates, Chris, and Debra Wilbur (eds). 1999. Custom Built: A Twenty-year Survey of Work by Allan Wexler. New York: Distributed Art Publishers.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Weschler, Lawrence. 2009. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Expanded Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wilson, Matthew W. 2009. “Cyborg Geographies: Towards Hybrid Epistemologies.” Gender, Place & Culture 16(5): 499–516.

Yeats, William Butler. 2004. Responsibilities. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

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