Using Spatial Concepts to Understand the Human Organization of Space

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every aspect of human existence happens in actual space, but do we always stop to consider what this actually means? Let's explore human societies from a spatial perspective and see what there is to learn.

Spatial Dimensions of the Human World

Your language was constructed through infinite interactions between people over time. It's so obvious, we tend not to think about it. If we did, however, it would open up a whole range of topics we could debate about, such as linguistic purity, language change, slang, and cultural identity.

You know what else we don't always consider when thinking about language? Where it occurs. Language, like every other aspect of human existence, happens in physical space. Again, this is such an obvious statement that it's easy to ignore. However, if we start thinking about it, we realize that there's a vast field of research waiting to be explored.

Human societies exist within real space and have always found ways to understand their place within this space. So, why don't we look at human societies from a spatial perspective, or one that utilizes physical space as its framework? Spatial concepts provide us with a lens to see how human societies exist within, interact with, and understand physical space. This includes the mechanisms and processes of organization, the creation of networks, and forms of identity.

Cultural Patterns and Processes

For this lesson, we're going to examine a few different elements of human societies and see how spatial perspectives can help us to better understand them. Let's start by establishing that all culture happens within physical space. In your own town, there are probably spaces deemed more appropriate for recreation and socializing, other spaces for commerce, and still others for civic events. By considering the spatial dimensions of these, we can start to study how cultures delineate and designate different spaces for different uses.

Would a military parade always occur in the same space as a religious parade? What defines these routes?
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We can also examine the significance of where specific events occur. For example, have you ever watched a parade? Why was that parade route chosen? Events like these are very consciously connected to physical space, and by studying them in spatial terms we can learn a lot about how people understand space and their relationship to it.

Population, Settlement, and Migration

Another aspect of a society that we can study from a spatial perspective is population patterns, including demographics and migration. Imagine that you wanted to know more about how people interact in New York City and what the city means to them.

One way you could start to do this is by examining where people in New York came from, how they organize within the city, and how they build networks in physical space. We can literally map out communications and interactions, see how migrant communities either integrate into society or segregate into enclaves, or examine the processes and mechanics by which a population migrates from one place to a another.

Net migration by country
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Industrial Versus Agricultural Development

One major debate within many societies is the best way to use land. Should land be used for industrial development, residential space, agriculture, or something else? This debate has been at the center of human societies for a long time and has become a major focus of geographers. There are many geographic models that seek to explain the spatial dimensions of land use, and through them we realize that people tend to look at land in consistent ways, often in terms of distance and relationships between resources and markets.

This is still important in modern commerce. When distribution companies set up headquarters, they often try to pick a spot in the middle of their distribution zone. Many agriculturalists base crop decisions on the ease of transporting various products to markets. The realities of space, and how we conceptualize space, have dramatic implications on the ways we use land.

Political Organization

We've seen the implications of spatial concepts on social and cultural studies, and we've seen how spatial perspectives can help us understand economic decisions. So, what's left? How about politics?

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