GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

Place & Politics


This section introduces you to the ways in which geographers think about place. Flint (2012) refers us to John Agnew’s (1987) definition as a combination of three related aspects: location, locale, and sense of place.

  1. Location “is the role a place plays in the world, or its function.” (Flint, 2012, p. 21)
  2. Locale “refers to the institutions that organize activity, politics, and identity in a place. People operate as part of groups: families, schools, workplaces, communities of worship, labor unions, political parties, militias, parent-teacher organizations, sports clubs, etc…)” (Flint, 2012, p. 21)
  3. Sense of place concerns the ways that “people’s identity is a function of membership in a number of collective identities: gender, race, social class, profession, nationality, and last but not least, place. Sense of place is a collective identity tied to a particular place, perhaps best thought of as the unique ‘character’ of a place.” (Flint, 2012, p. 21)

An alternative view of society’s connection to place, or rather lack of attachment to place, is highlighted through a discussion of globalization. Contemporary globalization has facilitated the creation of a relatively small, and often privileged, class of people sometimes referred to as “global citizens” who crisscross the globe for business, political work, and/or leisure.

In contrast to privileged global citizens who feel at home anywhere they venture to, are diaspora populations – “networks of migrants who establish connections between places across the globe” (Flint, p. 24). Diaspora populations move from their home country for a variety of reasons. When discussing factors that impact human migration, human geographers often talk about “push” and “pull” factors. Push factors can include phenomena like poverty, natural disaster, civil war or violence, famine, political instability, and so forth. Pull factors might include economic opportunity, educational opportunity, safe haven from civil war or violence, family support, and political stability, to name a few. Diaspora populations often move because of a combination of push and pull factors. As such, they may feel attached to a number of places (their new country of residence, but also their home country). This can result in a feeling of not being completely “at home” anywhere.

This discussion of globalization and its role in defining a sense of place and belonging for various citizens lends itself to Doreen Massey’s (1994) definition of place: “(P)laces are networks of social relations" which have over time been constructed, laid down, interacted with one another, decayed and renewed.” The three aspects highlighted in Massey’s definition are:

  1. Places are products of human activity—they are “socially constructed”. We can easily understand the concept that places are physically or materially constructed, right? Well, before they are physically constructed, often times (but not always), plans are laid and decisions made with regards to how the place will be organized and put together. While seemingly straightforward, this process is laden with politics regarding who has the economic, political, and socio-cultural power to decide what the place will look like, who will be allowed to traverse it, what kinds of activities will be allowed (and at what times of day), etc… These kinds of decisions are made whether planning a public park, or a commercial district, or even a city’s zoning ordinances. Thinking about places through this lens, we can see that a myriad of human decisions and social relationships impact how a place is physically made. This is how a place is socially constructed.
  2. Places are dynamic and change over time. People move from place to place. Ideas and inspiration travel through social media, TV, e-mail and telephone communication. Culture, politics, and economics are dynamic – as are our identities… we grow and evolve. Likewise, places are in a constant state of flux. Landscapes are made up of layers of the past and present built on top of each other or beside each other—creating a complex story of place. Sometimes, this is masked through demolition and a literal and figurative burying of past events—and that process, too, is a reflection of local power politics at that time.
  3. Places can only be understood fully through their interactions with other places. Building off of the first two points, places interact with each other in many ways. Proximity or distance between two places can determine the level of influence each place has on the other. For example, Rockville, MD and Poughkeepsie, NY would be very different cities if they weren't located at the end of the commuter lines for the big cities of Washington DC and NYC, respectively.