Academic approaches to the concept of space

Some writers refer to ‘political spaces’ as those institutional channels, political discourses and social and political practices through which the poor and those organizations working with them can pursue poverty reduction (Webster and Engberg-Petersen, 2002). Other work focuses on ‘policy spaces’ to examine the moments and opportunities where citizens and policymakers come together, as well as ‘actual observable opportunities, behaviours, actions and interactions … sometimes signifying transformative potential’ (McGee, 2004: 16). Other work examines ‘democratic spaces’ in which citizens can engage to claim citizenship and affect governance processes (Cornwall and Coehlo, 2006).

As Andrea Cornwall’s work reminds us, these spaces for participation are not neutral, but are themselves shaped by power relations, which both surround and enter them (Cornwall, 2002). Among others, she draws upon French social theorists (Lefebvre, Foucault, and Bourdieu) for whom the concept of power and the concept of space are deeply linked. Read more about these approaches in other forms of power.

Inherent in the idea of spaces is also the imagery of ‘boundary’. Power relations help to shape the boundaries of spaces, what is possible within them, and who may enter, with which identities, discourses and interests.  Using the idea of boundary from Foucault and others, Hayward suggests that we might understand power ‘as the network of social boundaries that delimit fields of possible action.’  Freedom, on the other hand, ‘is the capacity to participate effectively in shaping the social limits that define what is possible’ (Hayward, 1998: 2). In this sense, participation as freedom is not only the right to participate effectively in a given space, but the right to define and to shape that space. For example, read about de-facing power in other forms of power.

References for further reading

Cornwall, Andrea (2002) ‘Making spaces changing places: Situating participation in development’,  IDS Working Paper 170, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.

Cornwall, Andrea and Coehlo, Vera, Schatten.(2006) ‘Introduction’, in  A. Cornwall (ed), Spaces For Change? The Politics of Citizen Participation in New Democratic Arenas, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.

Hayward, Clarissa Rile (1998) De-Facing Power, Polity 31(1).

McGee, Rosemary (2004) ‘Unpacking Policy: Actors, Knowledge and Spaces’, in K. Brock, R. McGee and J.Gaventa (eds), Unpacking Policy: Actors, Knowledge and Spaces in Poverty Reduction, Kampala, Fountain Press.

Webster, Neil and Engberg-Petersen, Lars (2002) In the Name of the Poor: Contesting Political Space for Poverty, Zed Books, London.


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