Section 3: Place and Identity

Photograph of Chinese American railroad workers, next to an Anglo American supervisor, near Lang, California, 1876. Source: Security Pacific Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Harold Proshansky, Abbe Fabian, and Robert Kaminoff “Place-Identity” [1983]

Dolores Hayden “Urban Landscape History: The Sense of Place & Politics of Space” [1995]

Kay Anderson “The Idea of Chinatown” [1987]

Judith Jack Halberstam “The Brandon Archive” [2005]

Adolf Loos “The Poor Little Rich Man” [1900]

Daniel Miller “Migration, Material Culture and Tragedy: Four Moments in Caribbean Migration” [2008]

Thoughts of Brighton, Brisbane, Chicago, Omsk, Lagos, and Hanôi evoke different feelings and conjure different images of place and people. Neighborhood foods, smells, materials, and structures can tell us a lot about who lives, works, and visits there. Why do we feel that we belong in some places and not in others? Place and identity are inextricably bound to one another. The two are co-produced as people come to identify with where they live, shape it, however modestly, and are in turn shaped by their environments, creating distinctive environmental autobiographies, the narratives we hold from the memories of those spaces and places that shaped us. Exploring the relationship between place and identity deepens our understandings of identity formation and the role of place in social and psychological development. The bonds between place and identity can influence social formations, cultural practices, and political actions. It may be seen, for instance, in the efforts of groups of emigrants to establish roots in their new homes through the planting of particular tree species or architectural ornamentation (e.g., Mitchell 2004). The readings selected here highlight research from a number of fields in order to show the various and multiple ways in which place and identity intertwine, and the varied stakes in understanding them.

Place identity is a core concept in the field of environmental psychology which proposes that identities form in relation to environments. The term was introduced by environmental and social psychologists Harold M. Proshansky, Abbe K. Fabian, and Robert Kaminoff, who argue that place identity is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity, and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces. A sense of place identity derives from the multiple ways in which place functions to provide a sense of belonging, construct meaning, foster attachments, and mediate change. The place identity of a person can inform their experiences, behaviors, and attitudes about other places. Place identity is a versatile concept upon which many psychological theories of human–environment relations are built. In a related vein, social psychologist Irwin Altman and anthropologist Setha Low’s (1992) concept of place attachment defines the ways in which people connect to various places, and the effects of such bonds in identity development, place-making, perception, and practice. Both of these concepts help us to understand where and why people feel at home, as well as why displacement—forced or voluntary—can be so traumatic for individuals and groups.

“Place makes memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space,” writes architectural historian Dolores Hayden. Hayden’s work is concerned with how some identities are hidden when we represent or talk about place through certain narratives, or fail to talk about the histories of places at all. In this selection from her book The Power of Place, she unearths racialized, classed, and gendered accounts of place in order to reveal how those in privileged positions can bury the truth of occupation and inhabitance in historical geographies at various scales. In one example, Hayden describes how Chinese migrants built much of the US railroad system in the 19th century, and yet are frequently absent from the labor narratives of this period celebrating political and economic success framed around American whiteness (see figure at the beginning of Section 3). Her work seeks to find the traces of their laboring presence in place so as to tell a more accurate and inclusive history through geography, space, and built form.

Likewise, geographer Kay J. Anderson describes how race and class privilege infused the social production of space in late 19th-century Vancouver, Canada. Anderson’s work examines the variety of material and social practices through which both racialized space and constructed notions of racialized difference were produced and naturalized. Her research looks at how “Chinatowns” were fabricated in many cities by white Europeans and Anglo- Americans in the 19th century. She focuses her careful examination on Vancouver to detail how those in power delineated difference and limited people marked as other—in this case the Chinese population—through the spatializations of cultural norms and values. This included labeling their cultural activities such as lodging, eating, gambling, and opium use as unsanitary or immoral, while refusing to extend sanitation services or employment to these communities. Anderson’s and Hayden’s scholarship help us to see the historical geographies of power in place, and to recognize how these uneven relations of power and privilege continue to inflect and reproduce places today.

Referencing a very different place and time, queer theorist and American Studies scholar Judith Jack Halberstam encourages moving beyond the biases associated with space and place, such as those that frame the rural as backward, uneducated, and intolerant. Halberstam asks why a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and/or queer (LGBTQ) person would choose to stay in a rural environment when cities promise more acceptance and freedom. The author examines films, documentaries, news coverage, and documents surrounding the 1993 murder of transman Brandon Teena in rural Nebraska to understand why he chose to remain there, and why Brandon and his friend were killed. In questioning which places are actual threats to LGBTQ people and why, Halberstam inspires us to look at the ways in which class, race, gender, sexuality, and regional attitudes trouble the relationship between LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities, rural and otherwise, and to reckon with the material and imagined ideas we hold of places.

Sometimes identity and place are so tightly bound that it is hard to separate them. This conflation often happens at the scale of the home, perhaps spurred during the 19th century, when it became clear that bourgeois women were judged according to the type of domestic space they maintained (see Sparke 2008). But what if the environment eliminated a person’s identity completely? In a fable of design gone awry, architect Adolf Loos tells the story of a man whose designer keeps adding to and specifying the layout of his objects and spaces until there is nothing the client can touch or move. In the end, the client is excluded from the space when there is no way left for him to live as he wishes. This story bears a remarkable resemblance to Friedman’s analysis in Section 6 of the disturbing design of a glass house for a woman whose dwelling experience is disregarded for the sake of architectural ideals. This cautionary tale is Loos’ way of arguing that there must be room for people in built environments, and architects cannot forget about inhabitants in their focus on creating beautiful or efficient designs.

Can the study of a single street capture the place-making and identity formation of the population of an entire city? Anthropologist Daniel Miller paints an interesting picture based on his research team’s interviews of diverse households on one London street. The project examines the residents’ stories of how their material possessions affect and speak to their life trajectories, experiences, and relationships. Miller shares the story of Marcia who, rather than settle into London fully or remain totally attached to her Caribbean family and homeland, creates a home bursting with figurines and objects on every shelf and surface to fill her life from her post-retirement travels. For Marcia and many immigrants like her, the relationships and discipline of the Caribbean are different from and do not apply to London. Her home is a sort of in-between space that reveals and sustains her hybrid identity and varied place attachments, suggesting not only how immigration blurs conventional boundaries of place and people, but also offering an insight into shifting spaces, identities, and cultures the world over. Miller’s research builds upon and beautifully advances decades of research on objects and our relations with them, including the influential work of psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton (1981) on the meaning of domestic objects.

The selections in this section encompass the variety of ways in which place has significant meaning for people, and suggest why, in a mobile and hybrid world, place can sometimes become another resource to be exploited or a source of inspiration. In one of our suggestions for further reading, anthropologist Tina Harris (2012) explores questions of authenticity through the lens of tourism and tourist commodities in Tibet. She argues that Tibet has been “exoticized” to such an extent by the tourist market that the traditionally dichotomous meanings between “authentic” and “inauthentic” local cultural practices and objects have become blurred as the core materials of everyday life in Tibet are produced increasingly for visitors’ consumption. Other authors explore the relationship between place and identity in a range of milieus. In his work on the Mississippi Delta, geographer Clyde Woods (2000) shows how Blues music sustains efforts toward civil rights for residents of the Mississippi Delta. Gabriela Tôrres Barbosa (2008) uses autobiographical descriptions of the places she experiences growing up in a Brazilian favela to discuss issues of class and access to resources. Looking at the redesign of the Times Square area of New York City, Samuel Delany (2001) lays out the conflicting intentions between gay men cruising pornographic theaters and city plans to create a Disney-like zone for families, suggesting very different identifications with place. All of the work discussed here describes how in making a place, or writing its history, there is often a struggle over what story is privileged and to what ends. Likewise identities and affiliations shift as places gain or lose particular meanings. The ways in which place and identity intertwine both confuse and allow us to make sense of the worlds we inhabit.


Agrest, Diana, Patricia Conway, and Leslie Kanes Weisman (eds). 1996. The Sex of Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Ahrentzen, Sherry. 2003. “The Space between the Studs. Feminism and Architecture.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 29(1): 179–206.

Altman, Irwin, and Setha M. Low. 1992. Place Attachment. New York: Springer.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Barbosa, Gabriela Tôrres. 2008. “At the Top of the Hill.” New Internationalist 386: 4–6.

Bell, David J., and Gill Valentine (eds). 1995. Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities. New York: Routledge.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. 1981. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Delany, Samuel R. 2001. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press.

Dixon, John, and Kevin Durrheim. 2004. “Dislocating Identity: Desegregation and the Transformation of Place.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 24(4) (December): 455–473.

Doan, Petra L. (ed.). 2011. Queerying Planning. London: Ashgate.

Domash, Mona, 1996. Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth-century New York & Boston. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Erikson, Erik H. 1975. Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: Norton.

Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Fried, Marc, and Peggy Gliecher. 1961. “Some Sources of Residential Satisfaction in an Urban Slum.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 27: 305–315.

Gordon, Beverley. 1996. “Woman’s Domestic Body: The Conflation of Women and Interiors in the Industrial Age.” Winterthur Portfolio. 31(4): 281–301.

Gregory, Derek. 2004. The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.

Grewal, Inderpal. 2003. “Transnational America: Race, Gender and Citizenship After 9/11.” Social Identities 9(4): 535–561.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1995. Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies. New York: Routledge.

Harris, Tina. 2012. “Loom to Machine: Tibetan Aprons and the Configuration of Place.” Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 30(5): 877–895.

Ingram, Gordon B., Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter (eds). 1997. Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.

Leach, Neil. 2006. Camouflage. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Manzo, Lynne C. 2003. “Beyond House and Haven: Toward a Revisioning of Emotional Relationships with Places.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 23(1): 47–61.

Martin, Emily. 1991. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male–Female Roles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 16(3): 485–501.

McKittrick, Katherine, and Clyde Woods (eds). 2007. Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Mitchell, Katharyne. 2004. Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Pain, Rachel, and Susan J. Smith (eds). 2008. Fear: Critical Geopolitics and Everyday Life. London: Ashgate.

Pratt, Geraldine, and in collaboration with the Philippine Women Centre, Vancouver, Canada. 1998. “Inscribing Domestic Work on Filipina Bodies.” In Places Through the Body, edited by Heidi J. Nast and Steve Pile, pp. 283–304. New York: Routledge.

Sibley, David. 1995. Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West. New York: Routledge.

Sparke, Penny. 2008. The Modern Interior. London: Reaktion Books.

Steedman, Carolyn Kay. 1986. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. Rutgers University Press.

Winddance Twine, Frances, and Bradley Gardner (eds). 2013. Maps of Privilege: The Local, National, and Global. New York: Routledge.

Woods, Clyde. 2000. Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso.

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