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Theoretical Framework

Some work has been done in this direction (Baldry, 1999; Edenius & Yakhlef, 2007; Ford & Harding, 2004; Friedman, 2011; Kornberger & Clegg, 2004; Meusburger, 2009; Taylor & Spicer, 2007; Woodward & Ellison, 2010). A review of the growing literature on space in organization studies found the field fragmented but identified three principal streams, each with interesting contributions and shortcomings (Taylor & Spicer, 2007). In one stream scholars conceive of space in terms of distance and proximity between points and have convincingly demonstrated how space makes a difference for important issues at the micro-, meso-, and macrolevels. However, they are “unable to account for the ways in which actors attribute meaning and significance to a space ... [and] not able to explain the role which perceptions or experiences of distances and proximity play” (p. 329). In another stream researchers compensate for this weakness by focusing on the materialization of power—but it is questionable “whether all spaces are necessarily manifestations of power” (p. 332). Furthermore, such a focus implies a “systematic disregard of the ways that space may actually be the product of inhabitants’ ongoing experience and understandings” (p. 333). Scholars in the third stream attend to this gap by exploring “how spaces are produced and manifest in the experiences of those who inhabit them” (p. 333). The inherent disadvantages are that power relations are overlooked and that the emphasis on perception undervalues the material, physical aspects of space. Logically, therefore, Taylor and Spicer argue for an integrated approach that addresses all three dimensions by building on the ideas of Lefebvre (1974/1991), who sought to bring together mental, physical, and social modalities of space (see also Ford and Harding 2004, p. 817). Although we agree that an integrated approach is needed, this particular proposal does not take some essential concepts into account.

Strikingly absent from the organizational literature on space is the work on social space by two of the twentieth century’s most influential, and nonconventional, social scientists, the psychologist Kurt Lewin (1936, 1948/1997, 1951/1997) and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1985, 1989, 1993, 1998; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Both placed social space as the cornerstone of their theoretical and methodological work, turning to the philosophical work of Ernst Cassirer (1923/1953, 1944, 1961), who conceived of space in rather relative terms as the positional quality of the material world. Cassirer, Lewin, and Bourdieu adopted the view that there is no empty space, only spaces that are formed by and between objects, and they applied this concept to the creation of social reality rather than to the physical world. At the heart of social space is a relational logic of social reality, which focuses neither on the individual nor the group as the unit of analysis but rather on the processes through which individuals, in interaction with others, construct their social spaces and identities (Friedman, 2011). These interactions are causal loops that link the ways people bring their thinking and feeling into the world through action, to other people’s responses generated by those actions, and back again to the ways those responses are interpreted and to the ways they shape what people think, feel, and do. Cassirer (1961) depicted with special eloquence the recursive movement between thinking, feeling, and acting in space as a process of creating and experiencing possibilities: “Human action is known only in its realization; only when it is realized are we aware of its living possibilities.... [I]ndeed, its work is precisely that of seeking and creating ever new possibilities” (p. 37).

Social spaces take shape when these interactions between people are sustained and acquire patterns that differentiate them and give them distinctive configurations. Each configuration of social space can be characterized by its constituents, the positions they hold relative to each other, the “rules of the game” that govern interaction, and the shared meanings that hold the space together and facilitate sustained interaction (Friedman, 2011). Hence, social space is a creation of the mind, a construct that can be used to think relationally about the physical or the social world and thereby provide a means for making order out of any given set of elements. Both Lewin and Bourdieu applied these basic ideas to the study of society and culture at every level of aggregation.

A problem with the conceptualization of the construction of social space thus far is that it has not attended to the physical dimensions of the process: humans with bodies interacting in physical spaces that also include objects. We propose to integrate the physical environment in this construction process by seeing space and objects as being in relation with people rather than by allotting them a separate ontological status as containers that hold, and influence, social behavior. The relation is created by the multiple senses with which humans experience the physical environment. Whereas the importance of bodily ways of knowing has been obvious to artists and neuroscientists (Lehrer, 2007), organizational researchers misplaced corporeality for many years and have only recently begun to retrieve it by drawing on notions of aesthetics (Linstead & Hopfl, 2000, p. 3). The literature review cited above noted the emergence of this work in their third strand, though too narrowly, so we mine it further in this chapter.

Scholars seeking to bring the body back into the picture point out that “although an organization is indeed a social and collective construct., it is not an exclusively cognitive one but derives from the knowledge-creating faculties of all the human senses” (Strati, 2000, p. 13). The aesthetic approach to studying human behavior reveals the roles the body plays in reading a context, first to make sense of it because “one of the first things a newcomer to any organization has to learn is how to navigate within this new spatial environment” (Baldry, 1999, p. 535). The newcomer makes “a prima facie aesthetic judgment” (Hein, 1976, p. 149) in defining the relational composition of a situation. People use all their senses to seek cues to make sense of and orient their behavior, and when the interaction occurs in a built physical space they orient themselves to the fixed factors (the structure, the walls, and the floor) and the semifixed factors, such as furniture and other movable objects (Rapoport, 1982). The body thereby also participates in deciding and signaling to others which rules of the game to adopt for the situation at hand. Researchers have shown “how bodily practices produce discourse in the form of rules, routines, and procedures” (Edenius & Yakhlef, 2007, p. 195).

Connecting aesthetic approaches to the analysis of the construction of social space therefore enriches the understanding of the relational processes of generating shared meaning and agreeing on how to behave in the current situation. Furthermore, the aesthetic dimension of experience plays a role in defining the scope for future social space because it has the “capacity to animate actors’ imaginations and actions” (Woodward & Ellison, 2010, p. 46).

In this chapter we use this integrated relational conceptualization of social and physical space to analyze data from a series of action experiments we organized in 2009 in Israel. We invited people in small mixed groups to explore together how to envisage a future social space in the same setting. We consciously intensified attention to the aesthetic dimension of the process from the outset by choosing a fine-arts studio as the setting and by providing art materials for the participants to use there, sharing the assumption that “creative activity with portable, discrete objects allows an extension of potential space” (Woodward & Ellison, 2010, p. 50). For this chapter we have decided to apply an aesthetic approach to the data analysis by focusing only on the visual documentation in order “to avoid committing the cognitive and rational error of ignoring the bodies of the people involved in the decision process and only considering their minds” (Strati, 2000, p. 20). Our objective is, therefore, to explore how much one can learn about processes of constructing current and future social space, in which physical relations are integrated, by including aesthetic dimensions of the experience in the analysis.

The next section of the chapter describes the context in which we conducted the action experiments. It is followed by an explanation of the methodology that was used to collect and analyze the data. We then present an analysis of the sessions, in which we identify different configurations that evolved during the interactions of the participants with one another and with the physical aspects of a studio. In the final section of the chapter, we present our conclusions about how to conceptualize and analyze social and physical space in an integrated manner and suggest next steps.

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