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  • Place and the "Spatial Turn" in Geography and in History
  • Charles W. J. Withers

I. Introduction

A few years ago, British Telecom ran a newspaper advertisement in the British press about the benefits—and consequences—of advances in communications technology. Featuring a remote settlement in the north-west Highlands of Scotland, and with the clear implication that such "out-of-the-way places" were now connected to the wider world (as if they had not been before), the advert proclaimed "Geography is History." What the advert signalled to as the "end" of geography in the sense of the social gradients associated with space and distance is what is known, variously, as "time-space convergence" and "time-space distanciation."1 The terms embrace not just the "collapse" of geographical space given technical advances (in travel time and in communications—consequences of what Castells calls "the information age" and "the network society"2), but also the idea that the modern world has become [End Page 637] more homogenized. One place is now much the same as another. Further, given the likelihood of such technical and cultural changes continuing into the future, geographical distinctiveness, evident in the particularity of place, would be a thing of the past: geography would indeed be history. There is, of course, much evidence to the contrary: that, in the face of "globalisation," questions of locality, sense of place and of identity in place matter now more than ever. Even, then, as Francis Fukuyama cautioned against the "death" of liberal democratic politics as The End of History,3 geography—that is, geography understood as questions to do with place, and questions to do with where you are in the world as part of questions about how you are and who you are in the world—has had considerably heightened significance and for some places and people more than others.4

These notions of place—as a particular location, and the character or sense of place—are only part of the meanings associated with place in geographical and in historical work. Like space, its regular epistemic dancing partner in geographical ubiquity and metaphysical imprecision, place is a widespread yet complex term. What follows is historiographical in focus and, of necessity, partial in range. I offer a historiographical survey of the term place, principally but not alone within recent work in geography. In more detail, and with reference to one of the strong senses in which place is used, namely that of locale, "the local," or localness, I trace here the connections between place, space, and the idea of the local as evident in recent work in history and in geography, especially within the history and the geography of science. Particular attention is paid in this context to the distinctive features of what we may think of as the "spatial turn" in the history of science by looking at the idea of place and space in recent work in Enlightenment studies. My argument is three-fold. Notions of place and space, much debated by geographers, have been as central a concern for intellectual historians and historians of science as for philosophers and others, but they have been differently expressed. There is, I shall argue, value in looking at these different views in order to understand that whilst place is a commonplace term it is not agreed upon: working with imprecision has been both opportunity and restriction. In relation to work within the history of science and in Enlightenment studies, consideration of the so-called "spatial turn," of place [End Page 638] as social practice and of placing as a process in accounting for the uneven movement of ideas over space and time may help provide some precision and strengthen connections between geography and history.

II. Place (In Geography): A Partial Historiography

Place is one of the most fundamental concepts in human geography. It is also one of the most problematic.5 Place, or small-scale regional space, features as a subdivision within the Classical tripartite division of cosmography (the earth in relation to other planetary bodies), geography (the earth as a whole) and chorography (parts of the earth or regional geography). So, too, does the distinction between chorography and chronology as...


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