Sense of Place

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Sense of place refers to subjective human reactions to place/s. Evolved from early forms of humanistic geography (i.e. Wright, Lowenthal), the concept appears in various forms in a considerable body of works expanding on human experience, memory, imagination, emotion and meaning; accordingly, it is a core value in a broad and varied range of endeavors from theory [i.e. placing humans into earth’s time-space continuum] to practice [i.e. building “green” or selling places as commodities]. In sum, sense of place contributes depth and understanding to what it means to be human.

In a myriad of approaches to sense of place, a key strand begins with the individual. Each person brings her/his own personality, background and previous experiences into the process of forming a sense of place. Each person draws on their own use of human senses and their own sense of aesthetics, and their own intellectual and emotional responses they’ve developed in regards to places; these are based on their experiences and perceptions, and the development of cognitive understandings of places. One’s reactions and responses are not static, however, and the way a person looks at places continues to evolve as their life cycle develops and as the landscapes and places around them are transformed. Through those processes, it can be argued that people develop [on varying levels of sophistication] their own landscapes of memory and previous experiences. In some cases this leads to bonding with places - love of place (Tuan 1974), while in others cases it can lead to ambivalence, disinterest and/or rejection; i.e., the placelessness of interchangeable superficial identities that can be found anywhere (Relph). Furthermore, in invoking sense of place, many humanist geographers and others from the humanities are attempting to understand non-reductionist uniqueness of individual responses, as well as distinctiveness that different places possess, and to open the minds of people to the richness of the world through place-based approaches and specifically to think about the role that places play in their lives.

Many individuals share a sense of place with others in a subgroup or across broader social and cultural lines. Within other social and behavioral sciences, and for some geographers as well, there are attempts to understand psychoanalytical aspects of subgroup perceptional and behavioral approaches to sense of place (i.e. Walmsley and Lewis). Some group studies of places come out of the humanities and the cultural landscape school of geography, and they usually involve historically tracing an understanding of places at local and regional levels (Jackson), or through folklore and hand-me-down stories (Ryden).

In contrast, other geographers and some space/environment disciplines tend to look more at the role specific places play in that process, including studying the character of places themselves and why particular places evoke a sense of awe or attachment. Thus the shift is away from studying humans toward a concern for the qualities or attributes of places that move the individual; this has been called genius loci, or the spirit of place (Wilkie 2003). Along this line, most humans have their favorite places [often stemming from their early experiences] as well as a memory bank of their own special landscapes (i.e. Wilkie 2006). Most people are searching ultimately for a place to live that “feels right” to them, and that they can call home (i.e. Buttimer). Some studies of sacred and indigenous places have focused on the concept of the power of place that in some cases has existed through time and many generations (i.e. Abram, Basso).

This focus on the character of special places resonates with many writers (i.e. Stegner, Lopez), poets, filmmakers, artists and others including most people, and the kinds of places they are attracted to range in scale from micro-settings in the natural or cultural landscapes to neighborhoods, lake or river regions, mountain ranges, cities, or even states, nations, and global geopolitical regions. However, the more one moves away from direct experiences and memories involving close human contact with places into a larger generalized framework [especially with how large numbers of people share their thoughts about places] the result is a more general and reductionist perspective. In going well beyond direct gaze, they attempt to factor in a larger cultural milieu involving both natural and cultural landscapes as places of meaning [i.e., a knowledge of climatic, ecological, natural interconnections and built environments] adding layers of depth into the cognitive world of sensing a place.

A particularly apparent and accessible sense of place arena lies in the representations of place; they act to capture and convey senses of place via various media. Imaging places in the visual arts makes powerful use of sense of place [i.e. Robert Capa’s war photography and the 19th century American landscape paintings of the “Hudson River School”]. Similarly, many writers feature sense of place in literature, poetry and metaphors of place [i.e. Pocock]. As evocative as these may be the media production of place in digital news, entertainment and advertising, through their shear volume and ubiquity, trumps all [i.e. senses of place of – current warzones like Iraq; inaccessible places like North Korea’s capital city Pyongyang; places of desire like television’s “Bay Watch” series; and purpose-built resorts like those in Cancun, Mexico].

Accordingly, sense of place is fertile ground not only for representing and imagining places but for creating and contesting it. Thus, the making of place (Tuan 1991), resistance and place (Creswell), visualizing and performing place (Roberson), designing & building places (i.e. Saarinen) and geopolitics and place (i.e. Hayden) to name just a few are all examples of how geographers and others have sought to employ sense of place to better understand certain spheres of human action and interaction. Furthermore, sense of place, owing to the betweenness of place (Entrikin) can also act as a mediator between a host of analytical binaries, like transposing conservation with profit; evocative sense of place not only pleases it is also good business. Even as an ever increasing placelessness has been identified, new senses of place are also emerging due to human dynamism and creativity. The idea of a global sense of place (i.e. Massey) has been proposed and everyone who’s ever e-mailed, blogged, networked or instant messaged with personal computing and the internet is acquainted with cyberspace - a burgeoning world of new virtual senses of place. Clearly sense of place can be viewed from many different entry points from which individuals can enter into or continue previous intellectual journeys in their studies of place.

Richard Wilkie and George F. Roberson

Article citation, in slightly different format:

Roberson, G and R Wilkie (2010) “Sense of Place” in Encyclopedia of Geography, B Warf, ed. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, p2532-4. To download in pdf, click here


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