We have spent considerable space here laying out a theoretical foundation for identity — what it is, what forms it takes, and how it operates within the framework of a given culture or society. At this point you may be wondering what any of this has to do with geography (or maybe you already have some ideas about how identity and geography are related). We conclude this lesson with a more direct discussion of that relationship, with special attention to place identity, and spatial implications of identity.
It is a common experience that when encountering someone new, one of the first questions we often ask is, “Where are you from?” This seemingly simple question gets at an aspect of identity that is often overlooked in identity research.
If someone were to ask you where you are from, how would you answer? How simple is that answer? How consistently do you tend to answer this question? If you have more than one answer, what factors impact which answer you choose to give? How strongly do you feel about your answer(s) to this question — is it a source of pride, a source of embarrassment, are you neutral about it? What, if anything, do you think your answer reveals about you?
Conceptually, place identity refers to an aspect of a person’s self-identity as it is related to, and impacted by, the place(s) where that person has lived, with the understanding that the environment in which we live impacts how we relate to the world. It filtered into human geography from environmental psychology in the 1970s and 1980s (see, e.g., Proshansky et al., 1983) when it was adopted by humanist geographers.
Research into place identity demonstrates first, that people feel significant attachments to places, and second, that the scale of attachment varies from intimate (e.g., one’s apartment) to distant (e.g., the region) (see Cuba & Hummon, 1993; Gustafson, 2001; and Hidalgo & Hernández, 2001). Significantly, it turns out that the scale at which people conceptualize place identity seems to depend on who is doing the identifying (Gustafson, 2001). When describing their own place identities, people tend to identify at relatively narrow scales such as the city or neighborhood — yet when they conceptualize other people’s place identities, they tend to do so at broader scales such as the region or country.
To backtrack a bit, recall that both self-identification and classification of others creates spaces of inclusion and exclusion (Jenkins, 2008). When it comes to place identity, this can become a point of contention between people. In some cases, the question of place identity is used to determine a person’s ethnicity or national origin — and when phrased as “where are you really from?” it can call into question a person’s credibility as a citizen, effectively imposing upon them an outsider status (see, e.g., Cheryan & Monin, 2005).
Place identity is not the only site of interaction between identity and geography. Consider, for example, the ways that identities are encoded in spaces. There are the obvious examples — public restrooms are often marked as spaces designated exclusively for men, women, or families; and religious establishments such as churches, synagogues, or mosques proclaim their religious affiliations to attract adherents. Yet there are other, less obvious, more subtle ways that spaces are designated for specific identities with the result that they include some, exclude others, and that complicate interactions between people by setting culturally-mediated and tacitly accepted expectations on our behavior.
For example, classrooms can be broken down into spaces that ‘belong’ to the teacher or to the students. Similarly, the spaces within a restaurant are socially constructed such that patrons are expected to stay out of the kitchen and are prohibited from stepping behind the bar, and restaurant staff have their own domains: cooks are expected to limit their time on the dining floor or behind the bar, bartenders are given priority over the space behind the bar, servers may be responsible for serving tables in specific areas of the dining floor, and servers and bartenders may be warned not to go “behind the line” in the kitchen.
Entire establishments may be socially constructed in ways that make their spaces more accommodating to some people than to others based on our cultural expectations. For example, in the United States, women may find themselves the recipients of skepticism or of unwanted or unnecessary advice from associates at a hardware store while men are often assumed to know exactly what they are looking for (even if they don’t). Likewise, neighborhoods that have sizeable populations of visible ethnic or racial minorities, queer-identified people, or people with low incomes may be perceived by people outside those groups as unwelcoming or unsafe (even if they have low crime rates).
The following readings provide case studies that delve into the relationships between space, place, and identity.
Ehrkamp, P. (2008). Risking publicity: Masculinities and the racialization of public neighborhood space. Social & Cultural Geography, 9(2),117-132.
Hopkins, P., Botterill, K., Sanghera, G. and Arshad, R. (2017). Encountering misrecognition: Being mistaken for being Muslim. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(4), 934-948.
Note: Registered students can access the readings in Canvas by clicking on the Library Resources link.
Cheryan, S. and Monin, B. (2005). “Where are you really from?”: Asian Americans and identity denial. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(5), 717-730.
Cuba, L., and Hummon, D. M. (1993). A place to call home: Identification with dwelling, community, and region. The Sociological Quarterly, 34(1), 111-131.
Gustafson, P. (2001). Meanings of place: Everyday experience and theoretical conceptualizations. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21(1), 5-16.
Hidalgo, M. C., and Hernández, B. (2001). Place attachment: Conceptual and empirical questions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21(3), 273-281.
Jenkins, R. (2008). Social identity. Routledge.
Proshansky, H. M., Fabian, A. K., and Kaminoff, R. (1983). Place-identity: Physical world socialization of the self. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 3(1), 57-83.