Spaces: Where do social sciences imagine society?
University is the space of knowledge par excellence. It is brought about by society and therefore located in the midst of it. Yet at the same time, it establishes a counter-place to society, a heterotopia (Foucault 1986) in its own rights: capable to mirror, compensate and contest the spaces and conditions in which we live.
This other-space is constituted centre-stage by the social sciences, as it is anthropology, archaeology, art, cultural studies, economics, geography, history, law, linguistics, political science, sociology, international studies, communication, and, psychology that imagine – and re-imagine – society in relation to itself, its elements and its modes of working, as well as in relation to its past, present and future. As heterotopia, the social sciences are the ‘library’ and ‘garden’ where, and through which, society is enabled to sow, raise and share the knowledge of itself. They can be understood as a “boat, a floating piece of space, a place without a place” (Foucault 1986), that connects and communicates knowledge through time and space of human existence.
How are these spaces in which the social sciences imagine society? Of what physical and social design is this ‘boat’ in which we cultivate the knowledge of society, and through which we imagine our future? How should university and the social sciences be ‘constructed’ in order to not just float but to actually deliver its purpose of describing our way?
In response to the current situation, the importance of finding answers to these questions grows in direct relation to the pace in which interpretative/critical social sciences loose their public financial support.
In the wake of being made redundant, strategies string out all over the country aiming to increase ‘impact’ and to convince future students to pay more for their education. These strategies, however, rarely focus on the centre of the problem: finding answers regarding how to establish alternative value systems – i.e. values outside the commoditisation of knowledge (Amsler 2010) – in which the university, and with in it the social sciences, are not merely seen as provider for individual – private – education, but as the collective and collaborative – public – guarantor of society.
Defending social sciences as a space for thought is vital to provide and imagine alternatives to the prevailing dominance of pace and action. Defending social sciences as a space for collaboration and the sharing of knowledge is vital to provide and imagine alternatives to the spaces of competition and marketization of an increasingly atomized society. And last but not least, defending social sciences as a public space is vital to provide and imagine alternatives to the privatization of life and the rule of share holder value that characterize advanced neoliberal society (ibid. 2010).
Without university, without the interpretative/critical social sciences as the heterotopias both in and outside the very society they reflect on, there will be no such spaces to imagine our future. There will be no critical anticipation of future implications of current action; there will only be fire fighting their results (the point I am trying to raise is not that I believe social sciences can prevent future results to be negative, but that they can provide the tools to identify and respond to the effects of our actions).
Understanding the spatial dimension involved in the production and sharing of knowledge can help us to visualize the explosiveness of the current situation.
It is widely accepted that space is produced socially (Lefebvre 2009) and, consequently, concretizes our social, religious, economic and political actions and power relations within, and manifested as, the places of our existence. Yet the reverse side of this relation is often overlooked: space, likewise, enacts social relations and therefore determines the paths of social, economic, religious and political action we are enabled and/or likely to take (Soja 2010).
This is the case with the street as much as with parliament. Think of the encounters enabled in a park in comparison to those enabled on a footbridge; or think of the particular spatial dynamic encouraged by the confrontational seating of government and opposition in the House of Commons. Space channels the direction and momentum of interaction and it establishes patterns that guide our thinking. Nothing different is happening in university space. The physical space where people come together in order to do interpretative/critical social sciences (among other sciences), i.e. the auditorium, seminar room or study, ‘moulds’ the scene where we, i.e. society, think about ourselves.
The multiplicity of this space is currently under threat. Its ‘openness’ (Lynch and Hack 1984) in terms of access and possible encounters is under assault, yet the academic world is hardly taking into account the spatial implications of the changes that are on the way.
What physical spaces will the cuts impose on us and on the way we mirror, compensate and contest society? What tactics for thinking, accessing and sharing knowledge can we develop out of the spatial conditions we currently dispose of and how will they be like in the future?
Amsler, Sarah. 2010. “The crisis and future of ‘the university’: Discussion Paper for Nylon Seminar 2.”London: unpublished.
Foucault, Michel. 1986. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16(1):22-27.
Lefebvre, Henri. 2009. The Production of Space. [27. English edition, French original 1974]. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell.
Lynch, Kevin, and Gary Hack. 1984. Site Planning. 3rd ed. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.
Soja, Edward. 2010. Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.