Background Theoretical Debates on Space and Informalization

Tom Shore – PhD Forum – 13th January 2010

Background Theoretical Debates on Space and Informalization

My PhD explores the human geographies of manners and behaviours at music festivals. As part of my study, I will examine music festivals as de-controlled spaces: loosely defined as cultural spaces where self-constraint, manners and behaviours of previous generations becomes gradually relaxed in some spatial contexts more than in others. However, for the purpose of this PhD forum I am mainly interested in the theoretical underpinning of my PhD and how we might begin to theorise informalization and space. This paper teases out the theoretical background to the research in a concise fashion, and the possible contributions to geographical knowledge that may emerge from a spatial reading of Norbert Elias’ work. I have purposely left you with narrow margins so there is space to make some notes. The paper hopes to negotiate some of the background theory I have wrestled with during the first term of my PhD in order to minimise my own personal ‘uncertainly’ that many PhD students feel when starting out (Phillips & Pugh, 2005). Influenced by Doreen Massey’s recent engagements with space and time (or space/time), the paper aims to rouse an open-ended discussion on the following areas of my research:

  •  My initial theoretical framework and how I might begin to further theorise space and informalization without falling into the usual pitfalls of over-determination, essentialism etc.?
  • Theories, authors, books, journals, and works that may relate to my general area of research
  • General advice on the movement from background theory to the RF2 process/fieldwork part of my PhD

 ‘Informalization’ and ‘Civilization’ – Norbert Elias

It is surprising to note that German sociologist Norbert Elias is not a more influential figure in social and cultural geography (Powell, forthcoming). Even his most significant theories on the civilizing process and the spurts of informalization in society have barely scratched the surface of the discipline. As a post-graduate researcher who is relatively new to Elias I have been interested in the ways that his work could be applied to human geography bearing in mind the waves of informalization which have occurred in geography over the previous past century. For example, the emergence of radical geography during the 1970s could be seen as a clear spurt of informalization. It can be viewed as a conscious relaxation in standards of what constitutes ‘geographical knowledge’ par excellence. In as far as it redefined the relationship between ‘structure/agency’ and ‘society/space’ in books such as David Harvey’s Limits to Capital (1982) (Cloke et al, 1991, p.48).

            Elias’ major work The Civilizing Process (1939) is a well-worked critique of ‘civilization’ as a process which examines the ‘dominant modes of behaviour expected of Western civilized man’ which reflects:

            the self-consciousness of the West […] it sums up  everything in which Western society of the last two or three centuries believes itself superior to earlier societies or  “more primitive” contemporary ones […]  they include certain   areas and exclude others as a matter of course’ (p.3-4).

For Elias civilization is not a static concept; it has a history to it, it is in flux, operating in everyday life.

            The idea of processes facilitating change has provided important theoretical anchorage in critical Marxist geographies and historical materialist approaches (Harvey, 1982, 1990, Smith, 1996). It is also the central tenet of Elias’ approach to sociology. Elias (1996) postulates informalization as a social process whereby the behaviour expected of previous generation’s changes gradually over time. Contradictory tensions between interdependency and differentiation of society produce emancipatory deviants from the ‘moral codes of the day’. Significantly, Elias argues that the twentieth century marked a period of time which saw the drastic erosion of many uneven power differentials (that include the differences between men and women, parents and children, young and old etc) yet also produced a stark increase in other power differentials (between say, the rich and poor, or the ‘West’ and the ‘East’) (ibid, p. 25). While there is no doubting the significance of these changes in power relations and the temporal registers in which they operate, a critique of this theory would be the ease with which spatial contexts tend to be pushed aside in favour of historical and social processes. However, there is a long lasting traditional to this way of thinking which I will explore below in more detail.

            Fundamental to my background theoretical reading is this notion that informalization leads to changing behaviours in the space that it operates. With this in mind we can also theorise civilization as a long term process which occurs over time that is also bound up in space. Elias’ analysis of historical archive materials in The Civilizing Process outlines the importance of people’s manners and behaviour in relation to their ‘place in society’. Using the example of the eighteenth century courtyard in Germany, Elias explores the spatial politics of class strata in the courtyard and its denizens who acted in a certain way to win over the prince’s pardon. In many ways Eliasian behavioural theory exemplifies the important relationship between people and place and how certain modes of behaviour are expected in order to gain access to certain social spaces.

            Yet Elias in his engagements with space is more coincidental than implicit in his analyse of the civilizing processes. For example, there is no commentary on the geographical unevenness of these changes in behaviour and manners. So how are these changes exercised over this uneven terrain we call the world? Is it through the power commanded in space occupied by a few cultural elites? Or is it through the loss of power experienced by marginalised ‘others’? If we hold this to be true do human actors experience this power knowingly or not? Do they formalize or informalize their behaviour according to their setting? Is it facilitated by individual agency or by a group mentality in space? If so do we analyze these spaces through a universal lens and run the risk of excluding significant peculiarities that exist across spaces; in which different groups negotiate these points and intersects?

            While subsequent advocates of Elias’ method such as Cas Wouters (1986, 2004, 2007) have tended to re-enforce deterministic models of cultural difference between nation states. I have identified an underlying concern, to reformulate informalization to include spatiality and to analyze the unevenness of these temporal and spatial conditionalities. However, as Elias (1996) himself recognises, there is a danger that his theory of informalization can easily be reduced to ‘things that were once forbidden that are now permitted’ (p. 235). In fact there is much more to it than that. Indeed, if we are to delve right into the heart of the matter we need to recognise that there is a series of uneven yet interwoven constraints that produce spatial and temporal variances (ibid, p.244).  

            Informalization can thus be theorized as changes in behaviour away from, or, toward what Elias referred to as the ‘constellation of constraints’. These are placed upon people from an early age and fall under four main categories:

(a)   constraints imposed on people by their animalistic instincts (sex drive, hunger, thirst)

(b)   constraints that relate to dependence upon non-human natural circumstances (need to seek food, find shelter)

(c)   constraints which arise as a result of social interaction. (relationship with parents and family, household, friends)

(d)   self-constraints that relate to those constraints imposed on people by their animalistic instincts ( conscience, self control, abstinence, temperance)

However, what I am particularly interested in is the way that behaviours are constituted within this ‘constellation of constraints’ and how these operate in certain spaces and not others. For example, as part of my research project, I will investigate the way in which people may exercise these self-constraints in a looser fashion at music festivals, than say, at work or home. I would like to explore the interconnectivity and conditionalities of this space, by drawing upon informalization and civilizing processes in relation to the underlying structures of society. With this in mind I would like to explore what may be called for the sake of my interest and study spaces of informalization: loosely defined as any space where, practises, self-constraint, control, manners or behaviour become less formalized in particular settings; spaces that suggest to us where human behaviour might be considered civilized/un-civilised, pleasurable/un-pleasurable, safe/un-safe etc.

‘The Production of Space’ – Henri Lefebvre

In The Production of Space (1991) Henri Lefebvre argues that social space reveals the expression of human action and agency. It is not only an expression of art, cultural space and architecture but also of ‘manners and customs, and everyday life with its rites and festivals, that can fall under the sway of the prestige thus generated’ (p. 274). And although, social space can be theorised as an expression of human interaction – it is also in a perpetual state of transition. For this reason Lefebvre’s science of space warns against the reductionism of structuralism which rejects the complexity of space by ordering, categorisation, observation and duality alone. Reductionism therefore provides us with a non-reflexive, rigid framework for theorising geographical phenomena. With this in mind it seems both obvious and problematic that a ‘structured’ spatial model is at odds with spaces that are by their very nature disordered, fractured, informalized etc. This fact presents us with a variety of theoretical dilemmas.

            So Lefebvre argues that social space is an active process; one which supersedes, modifies, diverts, creates and destroys. There is a passage from ‘The Production of Space’ that is worth quoting in full as it exemplifies the point further:

            Appropriation should not be confused with a practise which is closely related to it but still distinct, namely ‘diversion’ (détournement). An existing space may  outlive its original purpose and the raison d’être which determines its forms, functions and structures; it may thus in  a sense become vacant, and susceptible of being diverted, re-appropriated and put to a use quite different from its initial one. A recent and well known case of this was the reappropriation of the Halles Centrales, Paris’s former wholesale produce market, in 1969-71. For a brief period, this urban centre, designed to facilitate the distribution of  food, was transformed into a gathering-place and a scene of permanent festival – in short, into a centre of play rather          than of work – for the youth of Paris.’ (p.167)     

I draw upon this quote quite regularly as it seems to hint strongly at the way in which we might transform space to suit our needs, hopes, dreams, desires etc. Lefebvre seems to suggest that we have an ability to change ‘our space’, use it to perform alternative spatial practises and that we long for those ‘spaces of play rather than of work’. All of these ideas relate to an informalization and democratization of space. That is the idea that we create spaces where we can partake in everyday activities that we might derive pleasure from, or divert from ‘civilized’ space.

Michel Foucault (1985) in the second volume of The History of Sexuality argues that we regular participate in activities that are moderated, limited and regulated by a compulsion to experience pleasure ‘as one ought to’ (ibid, p. 53). He argues that when we experience pleasure, or the spatial practises and gestures that allow us to experience pleasure, according to our needs, time, and status. With this in mind informalization spaces are those places where we experience these pleasures more freely; and are subject to civilizing offensives or strategies that attempt to alleviate them altogether. Historically, illicit (most predominantly sexual) impulses and urges have become inverted toward the private realm ‘behind closed doors’. If our needs reached such a point where we felt the need to relieve our sexual appetite in public, like the Greek Diogenes Laertius, we would be engaging in a spatial practise that goes directly against the grain of Western civilization (ibid, p.54). We are therefore subject to self-constraint by these unwritten codes of civilization. Importantly, Foucault also explored the idea that there was an opportune time to experience pleasure: but where is opportune time without an opportune space.

            The two go hand in hand. Time acts as a gauge for pleasure, or when it is deemed civilised in the course of ones life to partake in certain pleasures. Space is the scene of this pleasure, or, it is the little piece of land that allows us to partake in this pleasure with fluidity (Gibson, 1999). Then there is the question of status. Foucault remarked upon the way that ones characteristics altered the way that we are subject to rules on pleasure. That is to say obligations and prohibitions vary according to class, sex, age, religion etc. That is to say that these rules have flexibility and rigidity to them. 

 ‘Transgression and Ideology’ – Tim Cresswell

As Tim Cresswell (1996) outlines in his book In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression; human behaviours are well-ordered, channelled and negotiated through everyday space. We have competing demands, expectations and moral codes that attribute to the way in which we behave in particular places and settings. Or, that we develop a series of expectations about the way in which we should behave in certain spaces that are either socially accepted or deviant. He argues that there is much to be had from investigating deviant spaces such as music festivals, or spaces ‘where things go wrong’ or when we break from the rigid expectations that are placed upon us by the agents of governance.

            Central to his idea of a relationship between geography and human behaviours are two competing forces; that of ideology and transgression: the first and more dominant force, attempts to rationalise and normalise space through structuring and ordering; and the second, and, often weaker force aims to disrupt and rupture the social norms of everyday spaces (ibid, p.9). We are thus presented with an interesting dilemma: do we behave as we ‘ought to’ or do we transgress the space in which we live? Therefore, my interest lies in the changing patterns of human behaviour which is grounded in spatial politics; rather than treat behaviour in space solely as a ‘slice through time’ as Doreen Massey argues most recently in her book For Space (2005). This is the difficulty that I face in making my PhD a successful study. It is hoped that through a re-reading of Elias I am able to engage with his theories on behaviours and manners in more critical spatial context. 

To clarify the direction of my thinking in short, and, to paraphrase Elias, my interest lies in ‘those spaces were forbidden things occur’ and to examine how this varies from one space to another.

‘For Space’ – Doreen Massey

For Massey (2005) the philosophy of space and time has a particular history; one which has influenced ordered and shaped Western scholastic tradition. It reveals the way we have viewed the world. She argues that we have very often thought of space simply as the negative, dialectical opposite of time and not; as a series of relations between the human and non-human, as a vast open trajectory of possibilities, and as a crucible of heterogeneities (ibid, p.9). We have carved up and demarcated space; we have ‘discovered’ new spaces to claim as our own, we have used space to produce commodities. That we continue to protect certain spaces and not others: for example, the current geo-politics of natural resources, the omnipresence of neo-liberal space that order the rhythms and flows of money (i.e. where commodities and finance are centralized, concentrated, managed, stored, globalised); yet we attempt to govern and ‘modernise’ spaces that are considered ‘unsafe’ ‘old fashioned’ ‘ugly’ and ‘unprofitable’.

            We still rely upon ‘simple givens’ when we are asked to describe a space; even though we know that it is riddled with contradictions, unevenness and multiplicities. Massey relates this kind of thinking to the theories of Henri Bergson who was overwhelmingly ‘concerned with time, and his desire to argue for its openness turned out to have devastating consequences for the way that he conceptualised space’ (ibid, p.21). From these ways of thinking a plethora of geographical imaginations have reared their heads so ingrained in the simplifying, conquering and mastering of space that we sometimes lose sight of its inherent dynamism and heterogeneity (Foucault, 1986). Within human geography, particularly over the past two decades, the need to reassert space at the forefront of critical social theory has a major hallmark of postmodernity, and the work of Ed Soja (1989). For Soja the need to replace the dialectical realm of time with the undialectical realm of space was at the heart of a truly critical social theory. Yet it is an argument which seemingly replaces one thought system displacing another (for example, order over disorder, concrete over fragment, stasis over movement, closure over openness, geography over history etc. (Massey, 2005, p. 38). With this in mind it is important that we again recognise that space is not the opposite of time, and that we do fall foul of structured ordered theorisations that ignore the dynamism, contradictions, and peculiarities of space-time (Massey, 1992).


Cresswell, T. (1996) In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Elias, N. (2000) [1939] The Civilising Process (revised ed.) trans. Jephcott, E. Oxford: Blackwell

Elias, N. (1996) [1989] The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (ed) Schröter, M. trans. Dunning, E. & Mennell, S. New York: Columbia University Press

Foucault, M. (1985) The History of Sexuality: Volume Two. London: Penguin Books

Foucault, M. (1986) ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16 (1), 22-27

Gibson, C. (1999) ‘Subversive Sites: Rave Culture, Spatial Politics and the Internet in Sydney, Australia’ Area, 31 (1), 19-33  

Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital. Oxford: Blackwell

Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. trans. Nicholson-Smith, D. Oxford: Blackwell

Massey, D. (1992) ‘Politics and Space/Time’ New Left Review, 196: 65-84

Massey, D. (2005) For space. London: Sage

Powell, R. (2009, forthcoming) ‘Spaces of Informalization: Playscapes, Power and the Governance of Behaviour’ Space & Polity.

Smith, N. (1996). The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge

Soja, E. (1989) Post-Modern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso

Valentine, G. (1995) ‘Creating Transgressive Space: The Music of kd lang, Transactions of the Institution of British Geographers, 20, p.474-486

Wouters, C. (1986) ‘Formulization and Informalization: Changing Tension Balances in Civilising Processes’ Theory, Culture and Society, 3 (2), 1-18

Wouters, C. (2007) Informalization: Manners and Emotions Since 1890, London: Sage 


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