Section 4: Power, Subjectivity, and Space

Kim Dovey “Tall Storeys” [2008]

Melissa Wright “Desire and the Prosthetics of Supervision: A Case of Maquiladora Flexibility” [2001]

Ruth Gilmore “Mothers Reclaiming Their Children” [2007]

Allan Pred “The Social Becomes the Spatial, the Spatial Becomes the Social: Enclosures, Social Change and the Becoming of Places in the Swedish Province of Skåne” [1985]

Stephen D.N. Graham “Software-sorted Geographies” [2005]

Pierre Bourdieu “The Habitus and the Space of Life-style” [1984]

Questions of power and subjectivity underlie the ways in which we understand space and place. Power, in the form of wealth and decision-making, shapes the way in which places are designed and built; through regulations and social conventions power dynamics allow or prevent access to space, and frame our experiences and activities. Thus individual experience and self-identification—what we refer to as subjectivity—is conditioned by social, political, and economic forces. Scholars are particularly interested in how these intertwined dynamics manifest themselves in the built environment and through spatial interactions and relations. In this section, key writers explore how power operates in and through particular places, bodies, and conditions. By looking at different situations and forms of power in action, these readings present a complex portrayal of power, subjectivity, agency, and change.

Power is a multifaceted phenomenon that has the ability to control people, systems, resources, or ideas. It takes many forms and employs a variety of tactics, including soft, interpersonal tactics that rely on social pressure, and hard tactics that employ coercion and force. At times power is manifest, that is, public and observable, while in other situations it operates latently through ideology, or prevailing social beliefs and practices (Lukes 2005). It is possible to consider aspects of power at multiple scales from the macro-scale of government to the micro-scale of group or individual interaction. Antonio Gramsci (1971) articulates ways in which hegemony, the dominant ideology expressed through social consensus, is used to reinforce the goals of capitalism and the nation-state. Michel Foucault exposes the structures and dynamics of coercive power by tracing the history of institutional practices, monitoring mental illness (2006), sexuality (1978), and discipline (1975).

Subjectivity is a philosophical term that articulates the self in terms of the perceptions, feelings, and experiences from the point of view of an individual person. This concept is useful when attempting to answer this question in a variety of places and situations: “What is it like to be?” A related approach, standpoint theory, has also been applied by theorists to understand the experiences and challenges faced by minority and marginalized individuals (see Harding 1987). Standpoint theory, and the idea of subjectivity, recognize that experience is always situated in a social, cultural, and economic context. Individuals, directly and indirectly, are subjects of the conditions of their social milieu. In light of the interwoven and interpolated nature of power and subjectivity, the authors in this section ask: How does power operate in and through space and place?

In the excerpt from his book Framing Places (2008), architect Kim Dovey describes a variety of settings and ways in which power is manifest in the built environment. While Dovey emphasizes the symbolic and social aspects of power relations, these are underpinned by the power of financial capital. This selection looks at a traditional locus of power: the iconic city skyscraper, and the way tall, urban buildings embody power relations from the mark they make on the skyline to their intimidating lobbies. Dovey shows how owners and developers generate a display of power through the design and marketing of these buildings. He also suggests that the status of a building’s inhabitants is represented through the organization of space, like corner offices. Thus, these spaces are used to establish and reinforce social distinction and class through spatial representations.

Geographer and anthropologist Melissa Wright’s ethnography delves into the dynamics of power and identity in a Mexican factory. Noting a series of gender assumptions and status distinctions, she looks closely at the interactions between the male management system and the female laborers. Within a clear hierarchy of power, Wright finds that the relations are far more complex than is articulated by management, as the male foremen struggle to exert their power through the physical labor of the women systematically and haphazardly. In this milieu, the identity of the men and their opportunity to show their ability to the factory owners is directly tied to the work of the women. Wright argues that the bodies of the women become prosthetics to the male foremen, who are themselves incomplete. Through this process, women and their work are made invisible, while the men are able to exploit them to remain in power.

Another way that power operates to make people invisible is through the penal system. Research by geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore into the prison population in California clarifies the relationship between power and subjectivity. Prisons adversely affect not only prisoners, but also the mothers of prisoners who persist in engaging the system of incarceration. Gilmore describes the story of Harry Daye who was given at 25-year life sentence after being arrested for shoplifting a package of razor blades from a drug store. His mother found the legal system markedly biased against racial minorities, including Blacks and Latinos. Gilmore argues that the laws’ ability to “wobble” under judicial ruling, especially the “three strike rule” by which Daye was convicted, made unequal punishment possible and prevented mothers from fighting this discrimination on stable legal grounds. Bias, racism, and classism are perpetuated through the legal system, shaping the lives of thousands both within and beyond the physical walls of prisons.

Governmental policy also has the power to shape our lives in many ways, from legal rights to land use. Geographer Allan Pred’s historical research on village life in Sweden provides a glimpse of how state power influences the day-to-day existence of individual, local subjects through policy. He traces a series of enclosure regulations that eventually reconfigure the spatial and temporal routines of the villagers. Initially, life was clustered in the village with fields surrounding the town, but farmland was eventually broken into more distant tracts no longer accessible during the working day (see figure at the beginning of Section 4). Farmers were compelled to leave the village and settle on their land in order to work it productively. This fragmentation of the social life of the village empowered aristocratic landholders and created a pattern of disintegrated and isolated rural life.

The choices and opportunities of our everyday lives are also shaped by newer policies and technologies, many of which are invisible to us. Urban scholar Stephen D.N. Graham analyzes how behavior patterns are shaped through computer code intended to sort “good” consumers and citizens from those that are not compliant with hegemonic ideals. Everyday surveillance operations by corporations and governments record our choices and actions, which are then used to prepare computer algorithms which pre-empt future activity and perpetuate racism, classism, and other forms of inequality. His examples include preferential access in airports and highways, digital maps coded to previously recorded purchases or internet searches, and surveillance cameras programmed to track specific demographic profiles. What he calls software-sorting produces unexamined patterns that reproduce social life in a way that all but erases our individual subjectivity into statistical categories.

In addition to corporate and state policies, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu demonstrates how culture also has power to structure, condition, and perpetuate everyday subjectivity through what he terms the habitus. For Bourdieu, habitus reconciles the subjective experience of the individual with objective social conditions, which, he argues, occurs as the external structures are internalized and embodied to the point that they become pre-reflexive practices. Thus, habitus describes the everyday dispositions and mannerisms—walking, talking, dressing, eating—that reveal our social position. These embodied practices create distinction, which is a way power operates to categorize and control people. Bourdieu suggests that social position is an important part of power dynamics that dictates people’s degree of freedom and choice.

Subjectivity and the ways in which power constrains and opens up experience enables recognition of the ways in which our lives are structured by forces outside our control. Patterns of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, agism, ableism, and classism have marginalized people and dictated opportunities and experiences. Colonialism and imperialism are processes through which dominant nations have controlled the lives of native populations throughout history. James C. Scott (1987) has examined how these forces have shaped the lives of people in Malaysia. Judith Butler (1993) and Eve Sedgwick (2008) have focused on subjectivity in terms of sex, gender, and the body. Thomas Markus (1993) is a leading scholar on how design and the built environment shapes and is conversely shaped by power relationships, while the theoretical and built work of architects Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro also examines these issues.

The twin issues of power and subjectivity, especially in the context of large-scale corporate, state, or cultural conditions, raise important questions of structure and agency. Agency, which we return to in other sections, indicates the capacity we have to make choices and act in the world. Theorists, including those discussed above, have disagreed about the degree to which we have agency in the face of power. Structures of power can preclude agency through many of the tactics highlighted in these selections.

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


Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.

Cresswell, Timothy. 2006. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. New York: Routledge.

Dahl, Robert A. 2005. Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City, Second Edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Deutsche, Rosalyn. 2002. Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Diller, Elizabeth, and Ricardo Scofidio. 1996. Flesh: Architectural Probes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1984. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Forty, Adrian. 1992. Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. “The Means of Correct Training.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

Gaventa, John. 1982. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence & Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1986. The Constitutions of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers.

Harding, Sandra. 1987. “Introduction: Is There a Feminist Method?” In Sandra Harding (ed.), Feminism and Methodology, pp. 1–14. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Hillier, Jean, and Emma Rooksby (eds). 2005. Habitus: A Sense of Place. London: Ashgate.

Jackson, Peter. 1993. Constructions of Race, Place, and Nation. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A Radical View. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Markus, Thomas A. 1993. Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types. New York: Routledge.

Massey, Doreen B. 2005. For Space. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Newman, Oscar. 1973. Defensible Space; Crime Prevention Through Urban Design. New York: Macmillan.

Pred, Allan. 1985. “The Social Becomes the Spatial, the Spatial Becomes the Social: Enclosures, Social Change and the Becoming of Places in the Swedish Province of Skåne.” In Derek Gregory and John Urry (eds), Social Relations and Spatial Structures, pp. 337–365. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.

Scott, James C. 1987. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2008. Epistemology of the Closet: Updated with a New Preface. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sudjic, Deyan. 2006. The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful—and Their Architects—Shape the World. New York: Penguin Books.

Thompson, E.P. 1967. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38(1) (December 1): 56–97.

Zukin, Sharon. 1993. Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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