The 25th Anniversary of “Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica”

by Sumayya Kassamali and Setha Low

Jan 14, 2022

AES is pleased to share this interview celebrating our second of two 25th Anniversary American Ethnologist articles from 1996. Sumayya Kassamali, assistant professor of anthropology and diaspora and transnational studies at the University of Toronto, interviews Setha Low, distinguished professor of environmental psychology, geography, anthropology, and women’s studies, and director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, about her article “Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica.”

This interview considers how attention to space and place has transformed ethnographic practice over the past twenty-five years. It reflects upon the importance of grounded theory and considers spatial analysis as a tool for revealing and contesting social injustice.

Sumayya Kassamali and Setha Low



Sumayya Kassamali (SK): You have done an enormous amount of writing, publishing, editing, and of course thinking about the themes contained in this article, including but not limited to the volume Anthropology of Space and Place (2003) that you co-edited with Denise Lawrence-Zuñiga and your more recent book Spatializing Culture (2017), which shares its name with this AE article. How do you feel the conversation around spatiality and place in anthropology has changed over the last three decades, something you have very much been a central part of?

Setha Low (SL): There's no question that the 1996 article on “Spatializing Culture” was the first time I wrote about the concept. I wasn’t sure what to call what I was doing, but the interesting question was how do you “do” the anthropology of space and place. It came out of a long research project on the origins and everyday life of the Latin American plaza and became On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture (2000). In this article I tried to define what I was talking about and give it a name.

At the time, I taught geographers as well as designers. I transitioned from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, where I taught city planning and architecture to the Environmental Psychology and Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center as part of a group of critical urbanists including David Harvey, Neil Smith, Sharon Zukin, and Cindy Katz. I wanted to claim that space and place were not solely geography’s intellectual domain.

This was the beginning of theorizing the “social construction” and “social production of space.” The social production of space referenced political economy and historical materialism, while social construction was the more interpretive, lived experience component. To understand space and place you need both, as well as methods from ethnography, history, architecture, and environmental psychology. By drawing on elements of architecture, psychology, and geography, as well as anthropology, you create a different understanding of space, one based on meaningful interpretation and sociopolitical structure. Whether the term is right, I don’t know, but it seems to work.

SK: Could you say more about the success of this work, or how things have changed over the last 25 years?

SL: In cultural anthropology at least, you don’t need to say you’re doing anthropology of space and place; it has become a part of what we all do. This transformation had to do with many people who began to write about space in all kinds of ways. But there is no question that today, graduate students know that space is something to consider; one of the ways to interrogate an issue you are looking at. Collectively we were successful in changing the discipline, and I think we’ve given geographers a run for their money in terms of the study of space.

My close colleague, Neil Smith, used to challenge me by saying “I don’t know why you had to put all that ethnographic detail in there. I like it, people taking over space, that’s great, but why so much, you know, it’s not necessary!” And that struggle over what constitutes evidence or the doing of the spatializing is still an ethnographic process. I know a lot of sociologists who work in this field, but they don’t theorize it in the same way. I think we have made a difference such that geographers and others are now reading us.

My goal all along has been to get urbanists in Sociology, History, Political Science engage with us. Anthropology has not always played a role in the urban domain because our research was viewed as too particular to a specific group or place. Often our work was not seen as part of mainstream urban studies, city planning or public policy. But I think we’ve achieved that now. Our newest scholarship is on space and infrastructure, a powerful area that has emerged. The area of embodiment has expanded, and anthropologists are researching virtual and hybrid space. I’m teaching hybrid and multimodal ethnography to achieve what I was imagining back in 1996.

SK: I’m curious about the relationship between ethnography and the descriptions of places. I found it interesting that the quotes from people were intertwined with the spatial description, whereas often in ethnography the human subjects are foregrounded, and the spatial context comes in as a kind of scene-setting, or as background images.

SL: Yes, that’s the point I was making; that people and space are one. Places have valence and historical meaning – there’s symbolic importance. Things that happen in the main square versus on a small street or in front of a house can have very different meanings because of their emplacement. You can’t fully understand a space without both knowing its history and its social production. But people are equally making place, giving it shape and living it through their bodies, through what they say, and they're constantly changing it.

I wasn't writing just for anthropologists, but also for planners and designers. I've always wanted to cross these audiences because of having lived and taught in these two quite different worlds. Today I am an activist for public space and why it matters. I try to explain to administrators, designers, and planners that you need deep textual research material to see and understand spaces in action. And once they see or experience in depth analyses of space, it transforms their practice and their design and planning forms. It’s become clear to that planners, designers, and municipal employees are world-makers creating the built environment that we experience and apprehend.

On the Plaza started out as a methodological project and turned into a theoretical project. So was my work on Moore Street Market. It was an activist project on vendors being able to stay in a Brooklyn public market, but it turned into a theoretical project by staying very close to the ground. That’s how I feel some of the best theory emerges. I think this is one of the things anthropologists contribute to social science in general, staying close to the people we are working with and for.

One more thing about the outcome. If you agree that plazas and streets and sidewalks are important at a political level, which is what so many geographers and anthropologists – from Gupta and Ferguson right up to the present – have insisted on, then you need to be able to convince people who are designing them, tearing them up, throwing them away, and displacing people, to share that view.

SK: Thank you! I wanted to pick up on this relationship between methodology and theory. One of the things I appreciate about your framing in this article is that you offer the “social production” and “social construction” of space as basic tools for anthropological analysis. You tell us how these tools can be used, and what kinds of information or data (to use a scientific term) they allow us to gather. It strikes me that contemporary anthropology often veers towards the coinage of concepts rather than the application of tools, and I wonder whether you think these are different methodological approaches?

SL: In terms of concepts and tools, theories are lenses that allow us to see different things in the data. I am a grounded theory person, but I also teach critical social theory across four disciplines. I use theory as a way of illuminating ideas and insights that I might not have discovered otherwise. When I find that a theory or concept doesn't work, however, I turn to grounded theory. That’s when “spatializing culture” or “embodied space” become tools to be able to interrogate the scene more effectively. I start working from the bottom up to see what becomes visible, and then elevate emergent knowledge formations to mid-level concepts. I find that collapsing the gulf between theoretical perspective and methodological practice is not counterproductive– on the contrary, it aids in clarifying the relationship of theory and lived experience.

I have not just been developing the conceptual “tools” you referred to, but I’ve been developing methodological tools for designers as well. For example, the Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space (TESS) was developed in response to colleagues and residents I met at the World Urban Forum and UN Habitat who wanted a way to evaluate the social justice importance of their informally developed public spaces. In other projects for the National Parks Service, New York State Parks, or New York City Parks, we employed a Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure to understand and empower local user populations to maintain and protect important spatial relations. The work was undertaken in the hopes that people’s spaces, both their spatiality and their sociality, would not be ignored or displaced. Because that’s one of the biggest stories of our time--the places that have been taken away from people and that cannot be replaced and that reduce our collectivity and solidarity. I want people to be able to see how space is made and experienced so designers will not trivialize it. I feel like everyday lives and spaces get very trivialized.

SK: Can I ask – do you feel like its working?

SL: It works sometimes. Anthropologists can reach international audiences. I went to the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi right before Covid-19, in February 2020, and we had forty people who work in government, non-profit organizations, and community leadership roles attend a workshop to learn how to do ethnography. People interested in their communities want to learn how to do spatial ethnography as do planners and designers. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.

In the 1970s there were anthropologists and other social scientists in design schools all over the country. But in the 1980s design schools changed their public focus, and most of us left. They’re just beginning to come back and there are signs that design schools are returning to some of their original social justice commitments. I thought it would happen in 20 years, but it’s taken much longer – 40 years – to have social scientists in schools of urban planning and design to offer methodologies, techniques, tools, and concepts that can improve the way we form our cities today. You can look at any city, and see the mistakes we’re still making…after so many years?

SK: I live in Toronto; I see it all around…

Interviewing in Parque Central, 1997. Joel Lefkowitz

SL: Oh, it’s tragic. Look at Matt Cooper's early work, or Margaret Rodman's. Go back to the 1980s and the writing about what was happening then, about how and why all these decisions were made, and how they were going to change Toronto. We were writing about these things, we were part of them, and our urban anthropology group used space and place analyses to reveal was going on.

I taught a class on the Ethnography of Space and Place for years and I almost feel like I don’t even need to teach it now. I think we’re comfortable saying that leaving space out only detracts from our analysis. We are more interested in urban encounters and improvisation. AbdouMaliq Simone and Ash Amin built theories around people as infrastructure creating the city through their practices and assemblages. I think that’s where things are going and it’s an exciting time to be involved in spatiality and inequality.

SK: My last question is about the notion of cultural contestation. In the article, a lot of what you point to about Parque Central and the Plaza de la Cultura is how the spaces are sites of struggle, and how they both make visible and challenge forms of segregation and social control. Is there something about spatial analyses, as compared to general social ethnography, that foregrounds contestation and conflict?

SL: Yes. I think my argument for spatializing ethnography or spatial analysis is that because of space’s materiality, it easier to uncover manifestations of conflict and social injustice.

I didn't know that in the beginning – that is, back in 1996. But the geographers did. I mean, certainly Don Mitchell knew that from a historical point of view. Dolores Hayden demonstrated how the materiality of the house is productive when it comes to feminist architecture. But I'm thinking back in that time and someone like Anthony King, who wrote about the way in which different built institutions like the asylum represented and changed the relationships between people. Of course, Foucault can be a good guide. Particularly if I get lost, I can go back and start again.

SK: Any Foucault in particular?

SL: Discipline and Punish – I study people who live in gated communities – but recently, the Security, Territory, Population essays. I’m teaching a course that will give you some idea. It’s called Covid City and we start by reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which is just incredible in its similarity to the present moment. Then we move to Foucault, Agamben, Fassin, and cover concepts such as states of exception and emergency to humanitarianism. Currently we’re moving into contemporary accounts of COVID-19 for different groups of people focusing on homeless individuals, disabled individuals and their caretakers, older adults, refugees, and essential workers.

I’ve been making the argument that when you look at space, and what goes on there and the contestations over appropriation and its very materiality, you can't help but see how injustice is inscribed in the landscape. I think it makes it easier to see and to explain.

For example, when people want to protest something that is going on, I offer the TESS toolkit so they can go in and do their own ethnography to take it to the government and say, “Look at what is happening here. Look at the people who are being shoved out, or what’s happening to homeless individuals.” Or to tell the people financing projects, “Look at what you’re building over,” whatever that is. It’s very material, and it’s a tool for political action. It’s also a tool for seeing the contestation and resistance.

They’ve taken out all the benches in Plaza de la Cultura recently. I thought this might happen in 2017, but it has happened now – it’s become an entryway to a mall to buy things on the adjoining now-pedestrian street. Just looking at what’s going on in that space and at the people now sitting on the ground, you can begin to understand what’s happening.

A lot of the public spaces are about working- and middle-class people particularly in the United States. These spaces make racism concrete. Racism, exclusion, hatred, xenophobia, all of it – it’s written in the landscape. When someone asks me what structural racism is, I can show them one aspect of it in the landscape. It’s written in the building codes, in urban zoning rulings, in access to mortgages and financialization strategies, in where highways cut across neighborhoods or where trees are located—in the many ways we constantly reinscribe racism in our cities. By looking at the city as a material, spatial form, it becomes easier to uncover and show that. It’s one thing to talk about public architecture, but it’s another thing to show someone what happens when someone tries to sit down or lie down in a space. It’s very political.

Photographing Plaza de la Cultura before the benches were removed, 2009. Joel Lefkowitz

SK: Isn’t that what it means to be an anthropologist!

SL: I think so, but sometimes we lose sight of that. I’m of that generation where at the end of your career you say, I’m doing a lot less theorizing, a lot more activism, and a lot more trying to get out there and help other people to do what I do, in shantytowns, informal settlements, different neighborhoods. People trying to build their own playgrounds in parts of India – I’m doing a lot more of that very practical work of offering tools. To go back to your question of tools versus concepts! I think we need to do that.

I think it’s important that anthropologists become part of the struggle for the city, especially now that decisions are being made about COVID-19 mitigation that will have tremendous social impact, be it greater density, lower density, taller buildings, all these changes. What do you know about your neighborhood that will help it from not being torn down?

I remember when I was young, this was the farthest thing from my mind. When I was first hired by Ian McHarg, a utopian landscape architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania, he wanted me to tell people how to do ethnography, how to make it a pattern language, i.e., a set of ways of designing that was supposed to always work. I was very against it. I’m very much in support of doing your own research on a place, so I resisted doing it. But I haven’t resisted his call for methodologies that could be used by people to better understand their spaces and to push back against city officials, urban planners and designers who want to make changes to their neighborhoods. To add to their arsenal of ways of contesting unwanted change.





References cited:

Defoe, Daniel. 1960 [1722]. A Journal of the Plague Year. New York, NY: New American Library.

Foucault, Michel. 1977 [1975]. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House.

Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977‐78. Edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Low, Setha M. 2000. On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Low, Setha M. 2016. Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place. New York: Routledge.

Low, Setha M. and Denise Lawrence-Zuñiga (eds.). 2003. The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.



Cite as: Sumayya, Kassamali and Setha Low. 2022. The 25th Anniversary of “Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica” American Ethnologist website, 14 January 2022 [https://americanethnologist.org/features/interviews/the-25th-anniversary-of-spatializing-culture-the-social-production-and-social-construction-of-public-space-in-costa-rica]