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The process through which place identity develops

December 27, 2011

Defining place identity

According to John Harner, “Place is a process, continually constructed and transformed. Place is the interaction between extralocal (global) forces, local histories and cultural constructs, and individual human agency. Place is inherently unstable, with displacement a fundamental part of the experience. Place is the location in which people struggle to achieve goals and understand their existence. Through struggle, meaning is built into inanimate objects that give place symbolic significance. This meaning can become a part of social identity – a place-based identity for groups within society. Place and identity are tied together in the sociospatial dialectic (Soja 1989). However, places can have many meanings and identities which are often contradictory and competing.” (661)

According to Harner (10 years ago), “In spite of much attention to place in geography, how identity develops is till unclear” (660)

Space maintains social order

“The built landscape is part of the culturally conditioned contested space that serves to maintain social order. Geographers have shown that the cultural landscape, including the urban morphology, functions to create hegemony that maintains one perception of place meaning among the larger populace (Duncan 1973, 1990; Cosgrove 1984; Mitchell 1996a). Daily living amidt symbolic built forms causes an internalization of the message portrayed: ‘If by being so tangible, so natural, so familiar, the landscape is unquestioned, then such concrete evidence about how society is organized can easily become seen as evidence of how it should, or must be organized’ (Duncan and Duncan 1988, 123; emphasis in original).” (661)

“While hegemony serves to maintain social identities, these identities arise and are maintained in space. The social is spatially constructed.” (662)

Shifting power in place

“Change between periods of labor dominance and periods of capital dominance creates tension between the previous place meaning (by which I refer to shared understandings cultivated by community and workforce) and the ideological beliefs of those with newly won control over the means. The group that gains power constructs new landscape elements to solidify its control, to make the new social relations seem natural and unquestioned. However, a shared belief in the new meaning this landscape represents lags behind the changes in power. Landscape becomes contested terrain full of conflicting meanings from opposing classes, between those who previously had control and those who now seek to assert their power. The social tensions that prevail during this lag period coalesce into a new place identity only if one faction can construct a hegemonic discourse through landscape elements that define and narrate social struggles. If means and meaning adjust to new social relations and stabilize at a new equilibrium (a tightly sealed hegemonic situation), a new place identity emerges. This identity in turn helps solidify social relations, making them appear as Mitchell (1996a, 28) states, ‘natural and enduring'” (661)

Harner asserts that “the division of space serves as a means for the discipline of individuals. Space must… be seen as a hegemonically maintained system of representation, which, in turn, offers the potential for refusal and resistance – to disidentify from the spaces in which identity has been situated and maintained. Space is open to circumvent dominant assumptions and practices.” (662)

Harner’s study:

In his “study of the process through which place identity develops,” John Harner considers two mining towns in Mexico and “analyzes how the contested relationship between means [the physical support the landscape provides] and meaning [the intangible rewords landscape offers] creates place identity.” (660)  His study demonstrates how and why “two places that have undergone similar processes of industrial change are quite different in their character and social space.” (660-661)  His “interests lie in the process through which living and working in these towns becomes a part of the inhabitants’ identity” (661) and asserts that “central” to how “landscapes function to create and maintain social identities… is the process through which hegemony is materialized in the landscape.” (661)  His “central argument is that a coherent form of identity develops when means and meaning, or landscape reality and representation, are in apparent equilibrium” (660)


John Harner (2001) ‘Place Identity and Copper Mining in Sonora, Mexico’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91(4) Dec; 660-680

Quoting:   Cosgrove, Denis E. 1984. Social formation and the symbolic landscape. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Duncan, James S. 1973. Landscape taste as a symbol of group identity: A Wichester County village. Geographical Review 63: 334-55

Duncan, James S. 1990 The City as Text: The politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Duncan, James S. and Nancy Duncan 1988 (Re)reading the landscape. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 6(2): 117-26

Mitchell, Don 1996a The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California landscape. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Soja, Edward. 1989. Postmodern geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory. London: Verso.


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