Monthly Archives: January 2015

Definitions of Place

Illustration by Brian Andreas, an artist based in Iowa

Everything is Falling into Place Perfectly. An Illustration by Brian Andreas, an artist based in Iowa

Brief Description of this Post
First, this post provides a summary of definitions of place as a noun (not as a verb) in general dictionaries. It does not include discipline specific dictionaries.  I only consider a few sources because even these quickly become repetitive. Then I quote definitions by major contributors to academic discussions about place, most of which have little relationship to the dictionary definitions.

A Comment about Definitions
Most definitions identify place as a subset of space in some way, a notion that has been challenged by philosopher Ed Casey in The Fate of Place and his other books. In these he argues that place precedes space, and space is an abstract concept derived from specific place experiences.

Many definitions use the words ‘particular’ or ‘specific’. Notwithstanding Casey’s concerns, I especially like the OED definition of a usage that can be traced back to the 13th century  – “a particular part of space of defined or undefined extent but of definite situation.” This corresponds to the argument of Jeff Malpas, another philosopher, in Place and Experience that place is a gathering of people and things (i.e. a definite situation) that is simultaneously bounded and distinctive yet opens to the world and is open to the world.  I regard particularity a key aspect of almost all concepts and experiences of place.

My current understanding of place, which I have mentioned elsewhere on this website, is that it refers to particular fragments of the world – houses, neighbourhoods, towns and regions that range in scale from chairs to continents and are experienced and understood in diverse ways. For me it is their particularity, especially as this is expressed in landscapes, activities, history and associations, that is especially important. Place is focused but it is not bounded. Whatever occurs here, in this place, is always implicated in broader processes. It registers in memories, hopes, imaginings and responsibilities. My thinking aligns with that of Jeff Malpas in that I think that in particular places the world is open to us, and through those places we open to the world. It is the particular experiences of the particularity of places that lies at the foundations of all ideas and meanings of place, and these, I believe, can only be adequately grasped through phenomenological approaches.

Dictionary Definitions

Random House offers 29 definitions for place as a noun, many of which refer to space and/or particularity, for instance:

• a particular portion of space
• space in general (as in time and place)
• the specific portion of space normally occupied by anything, a space or spot set apart or used for a particular purpose
• position, situation or circumstance (e.g. I would complain if I were in your place)
• a region or area.

The Oxford English Dictionary 1989 Edition prefaces its entry for “place” with the comment that the “senses are… very numerous and difficult to arrange.” It has 69 entries for place arranged in 29 categories and seven main sections. The history of the noun is traced to the adoption in the 10th century of the French word place – an open space in a city or a square. Rather different meanings include “a material space,” and “a particular part of space of defined or undefined extent but of definite situation”, both of which emerged in the 13th century. More recent meanings include:

• the portion of space occupied by a person or thing,
• a piece or plot of land
• a portion of space in which people dwell together
• a residence or dwelling
• position or standing in a social scale
• position or situation with reference to its occupant (a place for everything and everything in its place)
• a mathematical term (decimal place)

“Placeless,” which means without a fixed place or home, or not confined to place, not local, can be traced back to the 14th century. “Placemaking”, which has recently become a very important notion in planning, architecture and urban design, is mentioned only in a cross-reference to making place – ‘to make room or space for something.’

 “Placeness” is rare, and defines it as the quality of having or occupying a place (Oxford English Dictionary 1989). Maybe this website will help to change that.

Wikipedia has a rather different approach and distinguishes place categories of Geography, Society, Mathematics, Gambling and Arts:

• In Geography place refers to an area with definite or indefinite boundaries or a portion of space that has a name; the US Census defines place as any concentration of population

• For Society: place identity is a group of ideas concerning significance and meanings that particular places have for their inhabitants or users; place can refer to a person’s social position; sense of place is a phenomenon in which people strongly identify with a particular geographical area or location

• In Mathematics place refers to an equivalence class of absolute values of an integral domain or field or the position occupied by a digit in a numeral

• In Gambling place is a type of wager

• Under the category Arts Wikipedia lists five albums, a series of books on Iceland, a dance centre in London, and the unity of place (the latter is said to be one of three classical unities for drama derived from Aristotle’s Poetics)


Sign at an artist's house in Ellensburg, Washington State

Sign at an artist’s house in Ellensburg, Washington State that is elaborately decorated with various found objects such as high tension electrical insulators and reflectors from automobiles

Academic Definitions of Place
I will add to the following definitions as I find others that seem appropriate. Please send any that resonate with you and suggest different interpretations to I start here with four cautions about the difficulties of defining place.

Dolores Hayden (planner)
• Place is one of the trickiest words in English. It carries resonances of homestead, location, and position in social hierarchy. (The Power of Place, 1995 p 15)

David Harvey (political economic geographer)
• Place has a surfeit of meanings – words such as location, locale, neighbourhood, region, territory refer to “the generic qualities of place,” while words such as city, village, town and state which designate particular kinds of places, while others such as community have strong connotations of place. “Place has to be one of the most multi-layered and multipurpose keywords in our language.” (Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference 1996 pp 208-209)

Clifford Geertz (anthropologist)
• “Place makes a poor abstraction. Separated from its materializations, it has little meaning.” (Afterword in Feld and Basso, Senses of Place, 1996 p 259)

Tim Cresswell (Geographer)
• “No-one quite knows what they are talking about when they are talking about place…It is wrapped in common-sense.” (Place 2004 p 1)
• Place is “a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world” that allows us to grasp attachments and connections (Place 2004 p 11)

Ace is a chain of American hardware stores

Ace is a chain of American hardware stores

Edward Relph (Humanistic Geographer)
• Place is not just a formal concept awaiting definition but also a naive and variable expression of geographical experience (Place and Placelessness 1976  p 4)
• “A place is a centre of action and intention…The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines places as profound centres of human existence” (Place and Placelessness  p 42-43)
• “Places are fusions of human and natural order and are the significant centres of our immediate experiences of the world” (Place and Placelessness, p 141)

Yi-fu Tuan (Humanistic Geographer):
• “Place is a type of object. Places and objects define space;” they are centers of value. A neighborhood is at first a confusion of images to a new resident, it is “blurred space” before it becomes a place.” (Space and Place 1977 p 17)
• “Place can be defined in a variety of ways. Among them is this: place is whatever stable object catches our attention.” This applies to mountains, buildings, statues, town squares. (Space and Place 1977 p 161)
• “A territory of meanings” (I have to trace the source but it is perhaps the most compact definition of which I am aware)

David Canter (psychologist)
• the situations in which people live and work, converse with other, are alone, rest, learn, are active or still, but he also notes that the scale can range from a bed in a room to a region of Britain (The Psychology of Place 1977 p 1)

Jeff Malpas (philosopher)
• a complex unity, a gathering in which we find ourselves together with other persons and things, somewhere that is simultaneously bounded and distinctive yet in which we are opened to the world and the world is opened to us. (a paraphrase of ideas expressed in his Experience and Place 1999, see also Heidegger’s Topology 2006 p 221)

Don Altman and Setha Low (psychologists)
• The word ‘place’ focuses on the environmental settings to which people are emotionally and culturally attached. Place refers to a space that has been given meaning through personal, group or cultural processes (Place Attachment 1992 p 5)

Christian Norberg-Schulz (architect)
• A place is “a focus where we experience the meaningful events of our existence” (Existence, Space and Architecture 1971 p 19)
• “the spaces where life occurs are places…A place is a space which has a distinct character.” (Genius Loci 1980 p 5)
• “What, then, do we mean by the word ‘place’?…We mean a totality made up of concrete things having material substance, shape, texture and colour. Together these things determine an ‘environmental character’ which is the essence of place.” (Genius Loci 1980 p 6)

Ed Casey (philosopher)
• place is “the immediate ambiance of my lived body and its history, including the whole sedimented history of cultural and social influences and personal interests that compose my life history” (“Body, Self and Landscape” 2002 p 404)
• Casey cites, and uses as the foundation for his books about place, Aristotle’s remark that: “everything is somewhere and in place” and Archytas’ suggestion that place is prior to all things. Casey comments: “Place, by virtue of its unecompassability by anything other than itself, is at once the limit and the condition of all that exists.” (Getting Back into Place 1993 pp 14-15)

Roberto Dainotto (English literature)
• “Place, as much as we see its theorists claiming to the contrary, is fundamentally a negation of history.” It substitutes a historical view for a geographical and environmental one (Place in Literature 2000 p 2)

Anthony Giddens (sociologist)
•“Place is best conceptualized by the idea of ‘locale’ which refers to the physical settings of social activity as situated geographically.” (The Consequences of Modernity 1990 p 18)

David Harvey (political economic geographer)
• If place is the site of Being, then the views of modernity that stress Becoming entail “a spatial politics that renders place subservient to transformations of space.” (The Condition of Postmodernity 1989 p 257)
• “It is impossible to proceed far with a discussion of space and time without invoking the term “place”. Like time and space it has a wide range of metaphorical meanings, such as the place of men in society, our place in the cosmos.  (Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, 1996 pp 208-209)

Doreen Massey (political economic geographer)
• Massey challenges concepts of place that see it as referring to sites of nostalgia which opt out from progress, and are bounded, authentic, and timeless, and proposes that places are particular moments in intersecting social relations. (Space, Place and Gender 1994  p 4-5, 120)
• Places “are not so much bounded areas as open and porous networks of social relations;”  place identities are constructed through their interactions with other places and have multiple and contested identities because different groups have different social relations. (Space, Place and Gender 1994 p 121)
• “Place as a constellation of trajectories” is open, not bounded, ever changing. (World City 2007 p 4)
• “What is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now…and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman.” (For Space 2005, Chapter 12)

Andrew Benjamin (Classicist)
• “If human being is defined by place, then it follows that place is precisely what exists in common. Place, in the context of polis, becomes the locus of commonality.” (Place, commonality, Judgment, p 5)

Marc Auge (anthropologist)
• “If a place can defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical or concerned with identity, will be a non-place.” (Non-Place, p. 77-78)

Billick and Price (ecologists)
• “We reserve ‘place’ to represent all of those idiosyncratic ecological features-including spatial location and time period- that define the ecological context of a field study” (The Ecology of Place p 4)