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The Gaps in Social Theory

Geographical conditions and spatial relations of human action—in short, spatial- ity—are central to the shaping, or more precisely, the generation of social life and social relationships. Solving the “problem of space” in social theory is therefore a key task despite (or perhaps because of) its significant challenges. Globalization and acceleration affect the conditions and circumstances under which everyday actions are performed. It is against this backdrop that the problem of space in social the- ory—and its solution—are of utmost importance, not least because of its sociopolitical relevance. Spatial configurations or arrangements of material objects are by no means merely “data...that has to be taken into account” (Weber, 1922/1980, p. 3). They are key conditions for the performance of social actions, hence, for the generation of social realities, and are consequently vital to research in the social sciences.

Space (or the spatial dimension) has an epistemic relevance that differs from the one attributed to it by Max Weber, the founder of the interpretative, action-centered social theory. To Weber (1924/1988), “purely geographic aspects” (p. 462) (i.e., physical features such as climate and terrain) shall not be part of the realm that is accessible via Verstehen (i.e., the “interpretive” inquiry into social phenomena). For this reason they ought to be excluded from the problems examined by interpretive sociology specifically and interpretive social sciences more generally (see, for example, Giddens, 1979, p. 202). Without exaggeration, this alignment of interpretative social theoretical thinking—and consequently of social policies—is arguably one of the core reasons for the emergence of modern societies’ extreme ecological problems. The exclusion of the geographical aspects of action-centered social theory is pivotal in the current situation, as is the exclusion of meaningful social reality through excessive biologization of the social dimension in both functionalist thinking (Durkheim, 1893, 1957; Parsons, 1952, 1961) and ecological reasoning from its outset in Haeckel (1866) to the Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) and subsequent UN environmental policies.

Unlike Max Weber’s position (its basic fostering of meaning-oriented modern social theory as opposed to the biological-reductionist and functionalist versions of social theory of his time), my argument in this chapter is that the generation of sociocultural realities always points to specific spatial relations and, hence, to specific society-spatiality relationships and society-nature relationships. This proposition ought not be mistaken as an attempt to revive environmental or geographical determinism—quite the opposite. However, failure to recognize the relevance of societies’ spatial relations may bring about profound political and ecological conflicts.

The words space and nature refer to each other (Werlen, 2000, pp. 40-90). To avoid unnecessary, highly problematic confusion, one must first clearly differentiate them. A spatial constellation of material or natural things and objects is not the same as a physical space. This type of equating is reminiscent of geography as a nascent scientific discipline. Conceiving of space and nature as one, as a single unit, results in a geo- or space-focused environmental policy (with its attendant concepts of sustainability), which is still fashionable in current environmental research programs and policies. That kind of policy posits the earth sciences as the bodies of knowledge most competent for addressing the resulting problems, so they are tasked with the development of solutions to sustainability problems. Such an approach, however, overlooks the point that sustainability problems ultimately arise from human actions, not from space or nature. It is time, therefore, to reassess disciplinary competence and authority.

Notions of space are important not only for the biophysical realm but also for the manner in which one conceptualizes the social dimension. As a kind of “deep ontology” (Werlen, 1995, p. 2), they also influence the way social realities are constituted and perceived, especially with respect to sociopolitical debates. The implications of such a deep ontological linkage between space and society is most evident in Heidegger’s (1933/2000) scathing critique of the work of neo-Kantian philosopher Richard Honigswald. By arguing for liberal society, wrote Heideggar, Honigswald would make himself a “servant of an indifferent, universal world culture” (p. 132) and would distract from the “historical rootedness and ethnic [volkisch] tradition of the origin in soil and blood” (p. 132, my translation) and thereby compromise the German population. In brief, anyone rejecting the notion of spatial rootedness in the sense of the biologically determined nexus of blood and soil, geographical origin, and tradition was an enemy of the biologically justified soil-bound society, the population. In keeping with the assumed deep ontological unity of equating not only space and nature but also space and society, such heretics are to be kept out, expelled, or exterminated. Such a biologically determined space-society combination is characteristic of ethnic nationalism that is still a common foundation of highly problematic political reasoning and comes very close to that other biological typification of the socioculture: racism.

This example semantically illustrates the meaning of the statement that space has profound implications for what is meant by society, and vice versa. In other words, space and society are discursively constructed images that are influence each other. This relationship certainly holds also for constellations unrelated to ethnic ideas. However, the significance of the mutually referential relationship between society and space has thus far been largely neglected, the reason being that sociology and geography have had their specific blind spots for a long time—and to a certain extent still do. Sociology used to offer an only insufficiently reflexive concept of spatial reference (see Bourdieu, 1985; Giddens, 1979, 1984, 1993), and geography’s understanding of society long remained undertheorized. The nexus of space and social theory is still mostly rather superficial. It does not seriously take account of the deep implications that concepts of space have for the generation of society and that the relevance of social realities has for the theoretical conceptualization of space in the history of science, particularly the history of geography.

This is the basis on which ontological slums are flourishing. They result mainly from reified everyday concepts being reproduced in a nonreflexive way at the scientific level as meaningful spaces or biomaterial social worlds. The implications of such “slum” reproduction in scientific (dis)guise should be examined in the spirit of science’s noblest task: critical doubt. One promising way to approach it is to reconstruct the historical development of geography as an academic discipline in its sociocultural context.

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