Space and Place in the work of Yi-Fu Tuan

This posting is the first of three offering a reading of the work of the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan from a historian’s perspective. I hope to follow it with a series of similar postings on other scholars that may offer us productive ways to think about spatial history, or in other cases, avoid some of the pitfalls along the way. Historians who are interested in issues related to space are presented with a bounty of potential inspiration when it comes to theoretical work, much of which will draw them to reading works outside their own discipline. Philosophers and other thinkers who fit uncomfortably into any single disciplinary category are found in great number, while perhaps the most intuitively natural disciplinary home for thinking about space, geography doesn’t have much claim to a monopoly or dominance. If we take one volume that explores some of the most influential thinkers, Thinking Space (2000), for example, we find that both the editors, Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, and a majority of the work’s authors are themselves geographers or find their institutional home among them, but not a single one of the sixteen thinkers considered by its chapters are. The Sage collection of 66 essays introducing Key Thinkers on Space and Place delivers a slight majority of its pieces on geographers, but also reveals the impressive interdisciplinary range of scholars who have made important contributions to thinking about space.

In the case of Thinking Space, which brings Walter Benjamin, Deleuze, Frantz Fanon, Bruno Latour and others under one roof, we see a good example of the important role of active communities of later scholars reading, reinterpreting and drawing out the spatial implications of this or that thinker and exploring the potential of applying these ideas in their work in circumstances where the original set of thinkers were not necessarily in conversation with each other about these ideas either directly or in their own work. By contrast, when it comes to reflecting on space, place, and the many problems that go along with it, histories of geography as a discipline by Richard Peet and David Livingstone or in more recently published companions aimed at students suggest that the more confined disciplinary space among geographers has yielded particularly dense set of patterns, trends, widely recognised interventions and, most of all, mutual encounters among thinkers. This shows how disciplinary space can as much enable intense and fruitful interaction even as the boundaries between them inhibit them.1

Below I want to introduce Tuan and what draws me to his work. I will devote a second posting on Tuan to consider him more critically, focusing on two features that I suspect many historians would find troubling: the relative little attention to change on the one hand, and to either human agency or social structures in bringing about the spatial practices that he describes. Finally, in a third posting, I want to say a bit more about the style of argument that Tuan uses, his consistently concrete, empirical, and engaging writing style, and then revisit some of the features of his approach that I think continue to make him interesting to read today.

Yi-Fu Tuan is an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin and often described as a key proponent of what he called a “humanistic geography.” When Tuan sets out the answer exactly what that means in the widely cited article he wrote under that title, he calls for them to turn their gaze away from what he sees as the “dogmatic” scientific approaches in which a “former liberator becomes censor.” It is not a rejection of such approaches, but more a lament that these approaches “circumscribe the appropriate language of discourse concerning man.”2 Instead, a humanistic geographer is to pay closer attention to geographic phenomena and human awareness, to take the risk and “perceive intention” where others see only objective forces, to take more seriously emotions of attachment to place, and to celebrate the power of human initiative to “break out of habitual modes” and clarify concepts and symbols related to space.3

In this manifesto for a field of geography Tuan speaks confidently of it in terms that suggest it already exists, and in a sense it was beginning to. Edward Relph’s similarly inspired Place and Placelessness comes out the same year with a complex framework and analysis of the “modes of spacial experience” while Anne Buttimer’s work would count among the humanistic geographers of the decade. Like Relph, Tuan describes the practice of humanistic geography in phenomenological terms but conflates this as the fruitful gamble of the humanist approach in general, “The humanist runs the risk of paying excessive attention to beginnings,” a phrase which could have been easily found in the opening pages of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, where he describes his phenomenological approach to space as, “a consideration of the onset of the image in an individual consciousness” or later phenomenology of space an approach which “liquidates the past and confronts what is new.”4 This was not the first time Tuan had written like this: in an also widely cited 1971 article on geography, phenomenology, and human nature, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and indeed Bachelard’s Poetics of Space itself all make their appearance but without any engagement with any of their ideas in detail.5 In this earlier article we find his goal stated in its boldest and perhaps most problematic early version: Tuan believes that a phenomenological approach will allow the identification of human essences, and allow for a “geography as the mirror for man” or which “reveals man” (by now you will have spotted the gendered nature of these identifications). Whereas Bachelard offers corners, miniature, and shells, for example, Tuan in this article suggests exploring the spatial secrets of “back” and “front,” of “home” and “journey” (in Space and Place one can find way stations between these two as critical) among others, and suggests that only by looking at humanity’s basic responses to the world through spatial concepts such as this will a geographer capture things which statistic approaches fail to deliver, as when, for example, one attempts to use statistics on visits to nature parks as a measure for human interest in nature.

These two articles are perhaps the most cited of his works, but were closer to proclamations than demonstrations. For the latter you could turn to his now long list of books including Topophilia: a Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (1974) and the work that I will focus most on in these postings, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (1977). In this work he gives a clear set of definitions for his two main concepts and then, in a thematic approach explores the awareness and response to them in major realms of human experience. In the introduction to a 2001 edited volume dedicated to Tuan on humanistic geography Textures of Place the excitement and “groundswell” that was produced by Yi-Fu Tuan’s scholarship inspired what would come to be recognized as “Tuanian” work. This movement is described in glowing terms even as the book goes on to describe the many limitations of its framing in its early days. On the other hand, the roughly identifiable cluster of humanistic geographies appear to have largely ceased to go by that term by the 1980s, it argues, and the rise of cultural geography, contextualist approaches, and “critical humanist geographies” took its place.6

So what drew me to Tuan’s work if, in some sense, the peak of its particular approach came in the unique moment of disciplinary transformation within geography of the 1970s and was then absorbed and developed in new decorations in the decade that followed? A few of the things I found most impressive were: 1) the inspiring breadth – pick up a work by Yi-Fu Tuan and flip through it, not even skimming full sentences, and you will be immediately struck by the sheer cosmic scale of his approach. He shifts smoothly from quoting Kant on the heavens to the spatial practices of Eskimo on the hunt or describing the ventilated homes of termites – all in a way that never looses the plot. We’ll come back to the dangers of this kind of approach, but the experience for the reader is breathtaking and sets the mind on fire with ideas. 2) the range of sources – a related point are the sources he draws this from. A good majority comes from anthropology, but psychology, architecture, literature, philosophy, and the hard sciences are all taken up and woven together in an impressive way and brings me to 3) the readability – many of the ideas that Tuan is interested in are abstract, such as the experience of time, the ability to perceive and analyse space and the relation of this to culture, but Tuan’s works are extremely readable, not only accessible to a general reader, but it is, I would argue, possible to pick up Tuan at any point in his Space and Place and almost immediately be pulled in. While I very often found myself protesting at the conclusions Tuan is drawn to, I think there is considerable value in the way that the highly concrete examples Tuan uses continually provokes the reader to engage in reflection. Even if that reflection results in protest, it often inspires new ideas for a researcher. Enough for now, but in the next posting I’ll consider Space and Place in more detail and turn to some of its problematic aspects.

  1. Richard Peet’s Modern Geographical Thought (1998), David Livingstone The Geographical Tradition (1992), and examples of companions include Blackwell’s A Companion to Cultural Geography ed. by James S Duncan, Nuala C. Johnson and Richard H. Schein (2008) and Approaches to Human Geography edited by Stuart C. Aitken and Gill Valentine (2015)
  2. Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Humanistic Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 66, no. 2 (1976): 266.
  3. Ibid., 267, 273
  4. Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space Beacon (1994), xix, xxxii.
  5. Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Geography, Phenomenology, And The Study Of Human Nature.” The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 15, no. 3 (September 1, 1971): 181–92.
  6. Adams, Paul. Textures Of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2001, xiv, xvi.