We Are What We Build

July 20, 2018

Professor Setha Low discusses her recent book, Spatializing Culture, and how spaces we inhabit imbue our life with meaning, both good and bad.

What do you see when you walk through New York City’s Union Square? Do you notice the cars, buildings, stores, or sidewalks? Or do you focus on what the passersby look like and what they’re doing? 

On a more visceral level, how do you feel? How does the physical space you inhabit interact with your social identity?

Spatializing-Culture-Setha-Low book cover

For Professor Setha Low (GC, Anthropology/Earth and Environmental Sciences), asking these questions is the first step to rectifying harmful public policy and urban planning decisions. “The everyday environment we inhabit was built by someone and can be taken away,” she notes. “Space communicates back to us a sense of belonging and security, but also represents differences in politics and power.”

Low’s book, Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place, situates ideas of space and place in contexts of globalization, real estate development, violence, social inequity, and territorial conflict. Examining changes in space can yield insight into how our lives are affected by structural forces like prejudice and capitalism.

“More and more spaces that were created solely for walking are now primarily spaces of consumption,” Low says, pointing to institutions like parks or museums that have begun to aggressively hawk food and merchandise. “Consumption is the focus of our culture; space is where culture exists.” 

Low defines culture as the “out-of-awareness systems that make up what it is to be American,” inextricably entwined with space. The spaces we inhabit, therefore, imbue our life with meaning, both good and bad. “What makes New York exciting? Think about the billboards in Times Square and Central Park,” she says. “And then think about gentrification, the unspoken rules about who’s allowed to live where, the changing skylines of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The landscape tells you a lot about who’s really in charge.”

Spatializing Culture provides both a vocabulary and a launch pad for concerned citizens dealing with changing building ownership, new signage, or developers seeking to rebrand. “This book helps people identify and clarify what’s going on in their communities,” Low says. “Sometimes we don’t know things are happening until it’s too late.”