Working with Space – workshop thinking & writing

The workshop “Working with Space” is a joint ITSH and EUI, Florence cooperation. In preparation for the event, the St Andrews participants (Matt Ylitalo, Adam Dunn, Sophie Drescher, Hatem Alshaikh-Mubarak, and Bernhard Struck) gave their own working with space and becoming spatially aware as transnational practitioners some thoughts. Here is what we think and more can be found via Twitter #workingwithspace

-How on earth did I end up in a workshop on “Working with space”?


Ever since I was a young one, geography and evolving notions of space dominated my interests and shaped my thinking.  I clearly remember my fascination with borders and boundaries and what ramifications or adventures existed when people ventured beyond them. Yes, I was a nerd, but I loved nothing more than sketching out new city plans or redrawing borders over geographical space and considering all the resulting possibilities from new ‘neighbours’ and relationships between people to new tensions and spaces for conflict.  Skipping forward to university, my first undergraduate degree primarily centred on cartographic interests (at the time, mostly producing physical and digital maps).  My img_0857honours thesis examined the meaning of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway and the internal and external conundrums faced by land-locked countries such as Zambia when trying to export resources internationally.  After a number of years working and then teaching, I went back to university to study classics and medieval history.  My second undergraduate thesis considered the spatial connotations of the twelfth-century Ebstorf mappa mundi, which depicted Europe as a well-ordered land filled with churches and cities while Africa, Arabia and India were places cursed with monstrous men and dangerous imaginative beasts.

That background reveals my continuing interest in thinking inter-spatially and inter-disciplinarily across historical periods of time.  Yet only after I came to the University of St Andrews for an MLitt in Reformation Studies, did I eventually cross paths with Bernhard Struck.  My own ‘spatial turn’ occurred with the academic epiphany that the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History was a place where I could join others who studied interests that spanned traditional academic boundaries.  In selecting where to pursue a PhD, I chose to study collaboratively under Bernhard, Sarah Easterby-Smith (who has interests in knowledge transfer and history of science) at St Andrews and Professor Jim Livesey at the University of Dundee.  With their input and encouragement, I purposed to investigate local and global aspects of Dundee’s nineteenth-century Arctic whaling trade.  This project offers me the depth and breadth of material to tell a broader, more integrated story of how whaling enterprises became a convergent social, economic and epistemic space of exchange for a plethora of local, regional and global participants who had very little else in common.  


I became a spatial historian by accident or by sheer “force” of a single question that did stick with me for a long time. In early 2000 I had applied for PhD funding for a project I had in mind on German travellers to Poland (eastern Europe) and France (western Europe) between c.1750-1850. I thought I had carved out an original project on travel writing as relatively little had been done by then on travel to “East” and “West” – however, I am happy to confess that I had not seen this to become a spatial history project. Then came the question.

When I was invited to be interviewed to discuss my project with the panel that would ultimately select the few lucky ones to receive PhD funding, one of the panelists asked quite bluntly: “Well, Mr Struck, this is all well and fine, BUT for most of the period you seek to deal with Poland, Poland did not exist. It was partitioned, it disappeared of the map of Europe for more than a 100 years. So how do you see yourself working on Poland when it did not exist?”

To this date, I cannot tell what the purpose of the question was. To test

me, to steer me into new thinking? Or was it simply the implicit underlying assumption that history takes place in national “containers” and that nations and states are key actors AND once such a container/actor has been wiped of the map, as it did happen in the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was there nothing to write about?

In my recollection my answer (or attempt of one) was far from convincing. Of course I was aware of the partitions, but I had not expected that twist. From my very first dips into primary sources, my sense was, that far beyond the actual partitions and redrawing of imperial borders, my travellers kept encountering and speaking about “Poland”. However, in the end I was one of the lucky ones – and the question did stick with me and became a driving force of my project. How did travellers perceive “Poland” and France? How did they describe borders? Were borders (state borders and territory) relevant to travellers and their travelogues? What spatial language did they use to frame their tours? How did spatial language and geographical concepts change over time? Were (modern) concepts of East, West, east central Europe of any relevance to a traveller around 1800? In that respect the question asked in early 2000 became a key heuristical one that allowed me to probe unexpected questions that I initially did not have in mind. The panelist who asked that question was Philipp Ther, a former EUI Professor, and I am very grateful to him that he pushed me into a rather uncomfortable corner for a while and made me think harder and in new directions.


For a long time I have held a general curiosity about Europeans who study the Middle East in general, and the Arabian peninsula in particular. My interests developed when I was introduced to the field of cultural studies in general, and, in particular, the thesis of Edward Said Orientalism. At this point I wrote my Phd proposal and I sent it to Dr Struck.

Working with Space - EUI, Dec 2016
Working with Space – EUI, Dec 2016

Bernhard, with his unlimited support, introduced me to the module of transnational history, which  was a great opportunity for me to explore new themes and reform my question. In particular, I was inspired by the general approach of investigating space within history instead of studying history within static space. The approach probably went hand in hand with the “spatial turn” in the discipline of history, and it inspired historians in different ways, but essentially led them to question the traditional static spatial categories within which history is narrated. One aspect of practice is to investigate how those spatial categories are mentally formulated by different sorts of texts in different historical (intellectual and political) contexts. Here is where my interests in space and foucauldian/Saidian analysis meet, and where I formulate my research question.


The connection between ‘space’ and travellers seems to be obvious, and yet my project came only gradually to incorporate space as a serious approach to research on travel and travel writing. My first focus was on travellers’ networks, the people they know, the people they meet, and the resulting connections’ influences on travel itineraries. However, the more I read the more I came to realise that these connections and meetings do not happen in a vacuum – they happen in places, they happen in spaces. And yet, traditional historical research on travel and travel writing has largely neglected these spaces as well as how they worked, or travellers made them work for themselves. Through inspiring conversations (not last with my supervisor Dr Bernhard Struck) I was gradually pushed into giving the idea of space more space, so to speak, and my vague feeling of social networks being acted out in physical places was turned into a scholarly interest in space, manifestation of spaces, access and use of spaces by travellers.


The notion of spatial history is one that did not come naturally to me. It remains a concept that I struggle with, one I feel myself battling with in every aspect of my research. The notion of doing spatial history did not occur to me. However, the concept of space has become a key aspect of the historian’s work in the past twenty years. It is a question that all historians have to face in one way or another. Delving into the works of Jürgen Habermas and Henri Lefebvre brought the issue of space and spatiality to the forefront of my research. I began my PhD with a completely different focus. The transnational perspective opened up avenues of exploration that had previously been unexplored in my thesis.

The history of statistics and statistical thought has been dominated by the nation in both the singular and comparative contexts. Discussing space and the ‘space of statistics’ had, and has, never been an agenda for historians. Spatial (transnational) history offers a new

Matt Ylitalo, Adam Dunn, Sophie Drescher
Matt Ylitalo, Adam Dunn, Sophie Drescher

perspective and new methods of writing the history of statistics during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Analysing the spatiality of networks that grow around individual statisticians and examining their development of a conceptual ‘space’ has raised new questions about the continuities and discontinuities in the history of statistical thinking. This distinctively transnational and spatial approach has added a layer of originality to my thesis that would otherwise be lacking.

Space is fundamental to history and yet it is often missing or explicitly expressed and integrated into historical research. It is the bread and butter of every historian whether they know it or not (and whether they like it or not). Since my masters I have been confronted with the notion and concept of space as a fundamental of history as well as a key concept and possible methodological approach. To repeat myself, only slightly if I may, space is a concept that challenges, feeds and informs my research every single day. This is, as convincingly as I can say, why I have ended up in a workshop on “Working with Space”.


-Theory: Is space an object in my research? Is space an analytical frame or heuristic tool? Is space / spatial history a method?


I intend for concepts and methods of space and spatial history to form a critical framework of discussion for my thesis on the nineteenth-century Dundee whaling trade as an ever-shifting ‘space of opportunity’.  Traditional approaches to whaling in most museums, published materials and webpages have largely centred their narrative on the men hunting whales, the trials they endured, the vessels they used, and the quantity and type of whales they caught.  In popular writings this is done anecdotally, but even academic analyses have largely revolved around these same themes.  Scholarly arguments acknowledge the global nature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century whaling, but they typically approach the phenomenon from an economic angle (usually by tying the success/failure of whaling efforts to the price of whale oil and whalebone) operating on a nation-state scale of analysis. While this works on one level, it fails to locate other critical factors at play.  The result is a historiography astonishingly narrow in scope and seemingly flat on spatial aspects.

By making spatial and transnational concepts the premise of my thesis, I hope to introduce different perspectives on the topic that will open new dialogues on the history of whaling beyond its traditional parameters.  Not only do I intend to use space as the framework for my narrative, but I intend to use spatial methods and visualising tools to help direct my research.  While my immediate field of interest currently lacks these discussions, other spatial and transnational scholars have made lines of enquiry which have helped to shape my own approach to research.  Kapil Raj’s alternate vision of places, processes and participants involved (‘active, although unequal’ in his Relocating Modern Science) in the construction and diffusion of knowledge resonates with Dundee whaling’s activities and communities both in the polar ice and in port.  Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton) and Jan Rüger (‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’) have offered challenging precedents for how to think about commodities and business decisions over transnational space.  Richard White at the Stanford Spatial History Lab (‘What is Spatial History?’) references numerous examples of how visual representations of space can be used as a means of furthering research.  Pierre-Yves Saunier’s ‘Learning by Doing’ and Bernhard Struck, Kate Ferris and Jacques Revel’s thoughts on ‘Space and Scale in Transnational History’ have challenged me to reconsider how I incorporate spatial scales in my own areas of analyses and written work.  


This is not a straightforward answer to me. Let me start with sources:

Over the past years my research interests have dealt with travel (as a cultural practice and its related travel writing) and cartography (and it sources: maps). Travel can be understood as a spatial exercise par excellence as the early modern definition of travel as we find it in encyclopedias saw it as a border crossing exercise, explicitly linked to learning and education: learning by travelling and seeing the world abroad. The early modern imperative to write about travel (and publish in one form or another: letters, diaries, published travelogues) and thus share the experience with a wider audience produced spatial sources par excellence as the sources stemming from travel activities contain information on states, customs, culture, geography, statistics, history or even take the form of proto-ethnographic descriptions.

Cartography (as a subdiscipline of geography) and its medium, maps (understood as “texts”, John Brian Harley and critical cartography) tell spatial stories. While they speak with the rhetoric and power of a scientific language, while they are based on data and mathematical operations, they also condense, simplify, homogenise space. Maps tell spatial stories. They interpret space and territories. They actively shape the reader’s idea about territories, borders, space and the relation of individual places in wider, abstracts spatial settings more generally.

Working with such sources, I would argue that space is not so much an object of (my) research. Area studies on preconceived areas or macro / meso regions (Orient, Asia, Eastern Europe – often defined by structures and processes) would be a spatial OBJECT of research. My object of research (following the constructivist turn of our discipline, see below) is more along questions on the making, interpretation, representation and construction of spaces through activities such as travel, writing, mapping. As such I would subsume it under a “topographical turn” (Siegrid Weigel) with an emphasis on “graphein” (writing) of space.


My research does not argue for a “natural” shape of this certain region. So in this sense space is not an object of my study. However, space is a concern in the way it has been conceptualised, particularly in the British imperial enterprise of exploring the region during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.I am going to elaborate further under the third and the fourth question.  


In order to think theoretically about space it is perhaps easiest to define what we imagine space to be. Space as an object, an analytical frame, heuristic tool or as a method of practising history raises questions about the nature of space in history. Can we perhaps define space in a way that encompasses all these disparate and diverse elements? It is perhaps not particularly useful to do so. How, then, do we define space? We, as historians talk about a multitude of different spaces. There is geographical, geological and physical space. There is the abstract, mathematical space. There is the social or human space. These categories are not exhaustive. In fact they barely touch the surface. Henri Lefebvre notes that most human activity seems to take place in a semi-abstract ‘social space’, created by actors to encompass human life. It is, for him, a middle ground between the physical space of the real world and the abstract space of mathematics. His development of this idea is complex but the outcome is rather simple. A constructed social space devoted to the full range of human activities. For Lefebvre, space is a multiplicity of spaces, there are numerous social spaces created that interact with one another as well as with the physical and abstract space? What spaces do we interact with in our own research?

Adam Dunn - EUI Working with Space
Adam Dunn – EUI Working with Space

To begin: is space an object in my research? Simply put, yes. On a very basic level I deal with space. I deal with a space in which the theory and practice of statistics takes place. It is not so much a physical space but instead an abstract one, it is an overarching umbrella, encompassing a wide range of historical actors linked by their interest in a particular field of inquiry. However, this point requires a little reflection. Space as an object implies that the space existed for the historical actors themselves. It is entirely possible (probable) that the notion of a ‘space of statistics’ is retroactively applied by myself as the historian. If space is an object in my research it is only so because I make it so. If I am to call space an object in my research I cannot, and should not, assume that the historical actors involved would have had the same ideas about this as I do. To claim that these actors were dealing/interacting with a specific space revolving around statistical thought as an object that they are aware of may be tantamount to anachronism. However, it is difficult to deal with space in any other way in a project such as mine. None of the historical actors believe themselves to be part of a ‘space of statistics’ but they do form part of this object as it can be seen from the historian’s point of view. This, however, leads us into murky waters that one may find it difficult to extricate themselves from.

Maybe it is easier to ask whether space is an analytical tool or heuristic device. Space as a tool of research or as a method of problem solving in history could prevent the use of the concept in an anachronistic way. Instead of applying retroactive categories onto historical actors who cannot possibly fit into these predestined slots it would open up the possibility of space as an uncertainty in history. I speculate that for my own research space is more akin to an analytical tool designed not to pigeon-hole historical actors but instead to analyse their actions within a broad framework that is defined by the historical actors themselves. However, this leaves a lot of questions unanswered. To place myself in a bind I would ask; who defines this space, in reality? I as the historian? Or the historical actors themselves? How does this tool actually work? Or do I continue to define a modern space I retroactively apply to history? Would it not be better calling spatial history a method?

Spatial history or being a spatial historian is becoming a more popular appellative in our discipline. But does it actually exist? If it does then it may solve the problems I have posed above. Or, indeed, it may only serve to heighten them. But, again, does this branch of history exist? I would answer that it does indeed exist. It forms a larger body of historical scholarship that seeks to answer spatial and temporal questions in history. The rise of concepts like transnational and global history serve to illustrate the ‘spatial turn’ in the Historian’s Craft. But, then again, does this present enough evidence to qualify it as a branch of history in its own right? Most spatial histories are connected to some other field of inquiry. Work done by Charles Withers is categorized as geographical history and this can be said to deal with the understanding of space in the eighteenth century, just as work done by Larry Wolff deals with the creation of Eastern Europe as a spatial concept but is connected more intimately with political and geographical history. It is difficult to see a distinct space for spatial history in the discipline today. However, it cannot be denied that history has turned its attention to more spatial concerns over the past twenty years. It is therefore very possible that spatial history and historians continue to define and carve out their own niche within our Craft.


Space is both an object and an analytical frame in my research. On one hand, I take the idea of space literally – for travellers space exists in numerous dimensions, the distances they cross between their home and any place abroad, the distances between stops on their journey, the visited places themselves, the apartments, hotel rooms, churches, castles,

Working with Space - EUI Dec 2016
Working with Space – EUI Dec 2016

gardens, theatres, salons, and ballrooms in those places visited.

On the other hand, I also employ space as a concept. A salon only works as a place of meetings and making connections if it is seen by both the contemporary travellers and the modern research as more than just a room, it has to have a spatial idea attached that forms a salon into a desirable point of access to a group, society, or network.

Whether spatial history is a method is difficult to answer. I use space as a concept, I apply spatial history as a research approach. Spatial history can possibly be seen as a method, however, it does not necessarily act only as a method.


-Individual Panels and questions by?

  •      Practice and Space: Is space an object? (Hatem)
  •   Space and travelers: What is the relation between mobile individuals and places? (Sophie)
  •      Space and actors of the economy: What is the spatial sense of individuals? (Matt)
  •      Space and knowledge construction: How do agents interact with space in the production of knowledge? (Adam)


The socio-economic actors involved in my Dundee whaling story never explicitly speak about their sense of space.  However, the adjustments and actions these people take in response to shifting economic conditions gives us an understanding of the spatial awareness embedded in their decisions.  One of the interesting things for me is that these actors’ decisions and actions do not just take place on one scale.  Rather, their ‘spatial sense’ operates on multiple spatial scales simultaneously.  For example, in the 1890s when the numbers of whales caught in Arctic waters plummeted, captains and sailors changed the local use of space on board their vessels to process alternative animal species.  Instead of harvesting bowhead whalebone and flensing blubber, topside crews processed beluga, narwhal, walrus, polar bear and seals for their skins, meat, teeth and some oil.  Back on the local scene in Dundee, whaling companies bridged the change in commodity incomes by leasing out street-facing buildings on their property.

On a more regional and national scale, Dundee whaling companies altered their contacts and contracts with Shetlanders, Orcadians, Newfoundlanders and Inuit to account for the

Matt & Hatem (being small) - Duomo, Firenze
Matt & Hatem (being small) – Duomo, Firenze

resulting geographical changes in their hunting patterns.  For a time, Dundee-based whaling investors poured money into St. John’s, Newfoundland to build newly-needed tanneries, boiling yards and oil tanks.  This happened as steam whalers began hunting seals in the waters around Newfoundland and Labrador before later sailing to the Davis Straits west of Greenland.  Whaling companies also began to more frequently use their whalers to accommodate the desires of international gentlemen hunters and needs of government-sponsored exploration expeditions.

Contemporaneously, many local investors who had whaling connections developed global  investment strategies to further diversify and maximise profit-making on their capital. For the city’s numerous jute barons, this meant divestment from whaling and increased investment in trust funds like the Dundee-based Alliance Trust.  For others more closely linked to the maritime community, this meant diversifying company investments.  James Allison and Sons, Ltd, a Dundee sailmaker and ship chandler business, continued to steadily invest in whaling company stock, shares of independent whaling vessels as well as Arctic whaling stations and trading posts.  At the same time, they also shifted capital to invest in numerous American railroad ventures, cargo sailing ships, the Zambesia Exploration Company, sugar speculations, mining syndicates, land and mortgage companies as well as the Chicago Subway.

All of this indicates to me that people participating in Dundee’s whaling trade were engaging in a loosely-affiliated and open-ended space of opportunity that functioned across social, economic and even intellectual realms operating on multiple spatial scales.  This type of analysis complicates the traditional narrative because it crosses gendered, geographical and scalar boundaries in a way not previously considered.  That is exciting, yet at the same time, I am aware that the complexities of developing a broader local/global story may overwhelm or muddy the overall argument of the thesis.   


The notion of agency in history is one that causes a great deal of debate amongst historians. Who is an agent? What is agency? How do actors have agency? How do they impart this? And in terms of the production or construction of knowledge the ground beneath the historian’s feet becomes even more shaky. Questions arise at every turn. What is knowledge? How is it produced? How is it constructed? Is it produced in its own space? Or in spaces created by actors? The notion of actors interacting with space during this production process is one that is particularly troublesome. It leaves problems both with definition and with application. In terms of application, more specifically within my own project, the notion of a historical actor interacting with a space dedicated to the production of knowledge around statistics sounds almost fanciful. I hasten to add that this does not diminish the validity of the question or its further questions it provokes, but only that it is abstract to such an extreme that solid answers to such a question become increasingly difficult the more it is considered.

The interaction of statisticians with space in the act of knowledge production, thus,

Working with Space - EUI, Dec 2016
Working with Space – EUI, Dec 2016

becomes a tricky question to answer. In terms of my project, statisticians like John Sinclair and August Ludwig von Schlözer interact with(in) this space in a variety of ways. It is a space for the discussion of theoretical concepts, the collection of information and the dissemination of statistical accounts and treaties. Termed as such it sounds rather simplistic. However, this interaction is anything but. There develops networks of statisticians though Universities, Governmental departments and businesses that seek to disseminate the knowledge they are creating. Beside (or in conjunction with) these networks is the machinery of the state/nation. The relationship between these individuals and state mechanisms can be seen as both antagonistic and complementary. It can act as a driving force but equally a roadblock for statisticians. Amateur statisticians frequently develop their networks across borders and above these mechanisms, seeking a broader perspective for their accounts. However, there is always a link between the amateur statisticians and the state. The two spaces are intertwined. The development of individual networks across borders does allow actors to produce knowledge of statistics (both theoretical and practical) away from the strictures of the state but more often than not these networks perceive their own work as being a function of politics. Thus they continually return to the state, its mechanisms and the role statistics can play in its governance.


The question of the relation between travellers and places is one of the broadest and yet most fundamental questions that can be asked when researching the history of travel. Travel means moving in space or between spaces, travellers seek specific spaces or make and occupy new spaces. The idea of travel immediately connects with geography, landscapes, and urban areas, it invokes the image of people going from place to place thereby covering the space between these points A and B.

Traditional historical research has focused primarily on the results of these movements, on people from A being in B, how they perceive B, how they report back about their experiences. However, very little has been done to work out the meaning of spaces as desirable points of connection and networking for travellers, and their experience concerning access or lack of access to certain spaces. While research has analysed travellers’ reactions to accessed spaces in detail, the actual process of accessing and the experience of lack of access have seen virtually no consideration.

My study is therefore particularly concerned with the spatial manifestation of social networks and the meaning of places to travellers in relation with access to specific spaces within a place. Furthermore, it asks how these (desirable) spaces influence itineraries and shape the travellers’ experience.


-What spatial language & concept is relevant for my project?


Beyond issues of scale, the primary spatial concept that I must create and clarify is that Dundee’s whaling trade provided various ‘spaces of opportunity’.  These spaces were nebulous, informal, and constantly changing.  But in a time when society was so stratified by class, gender, ethnicity, geography and religion among other things, the whaling trade provided a medium where all participants could meet, work, exchange money, materials, and ideas and try to reposition themselves to meet whatever personal goals they were pursuing.  By declaring that Dundee whaling created spaces of opportunity, I resist economic arguments that the city’s whaling trade was ultimately a ‘failure’.  If economic success or failure is the ultimate litmus test, then most everything – not only businesses but also nation-states and other temporal spaces – must be categorised as failure.  As a historian, this type of assessment does not prove fruitful for explaining processes, exchanges and patterns.  What’s more, many companies involved in Dundee’s whaling trade do still exist in one form or another.  On another front, by declaring that Dundee whaling created spaces of opportunity, I am not denying that other spaces of opportunity co-existed.  Whaling never became Dundee’s dominant or defining trade.  In fact, I would argue that it never even became an industry.  Jute, journalism and confections each employed more people and ultimately dealt with more money than whaling.  Still, whaling seems to have occupied a unique ‘space’ within the city.  By looking further into company and investment records, I believe that the whaling trade provided an inconspicuous but effective bridge for people from many spectrums to come together.  The resulting space and process helped to define nineteenth-century Dundee.


The key concept for my work on travel writing has been that of “mental maps” or “imaginary geographies” as well as the historical analysis of spatial and geographical language or rhetoric. For my work on Poland-Germany-France around 1800, this was largely inspired by reading Edward Said “Orientalism” (1978) and subsequently works such as Larry Wolff “Inventing Eastern Europe” (1994) or Maria Todorova “Inventing the Balkans” (1996), which dealt with related or similar questions based on spatial concepts if not spatial ideologies as in the case of the “Orient”, the “Balkan” or “Eastern Europe” around similar sets of texts: literature, travelogues, journalism, maps.

In hindsight, the works of Wolff-Todorova can be, as I see it, subsumed under what is now termed “spatial turn” (one variation of it). What seemed like a static or given territorial and spatial configuration during the Cold War era ushered into new interests and questions following the (geo)political turn of 1989/91. Mental maps became one such concept. These are important for a number of reasons:

  1. Spaces and territories, may these be nations, states, empires are constructed. This is at least a fundamental reconfiguration and (re)interpretation of nationalism following the 1983 Trias of Eric Hobsbawm/Terence Rangers, Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner with their different yet overlapping constructivist-modernist approach to nationalism and nation-state building.
  2. Spaces such as Eastern Europe or the Orient are not spaces or spatial realities as such – they are constructed, mentally, linguistically by actors. In this respect research on such areas and the language used to construct these can be related back to the constructivist-modernist turn of the mid-late 1980s. But as Anderson has compelling argued for “imagined communities” (nations, empires mainly) around print capitalism may work well for the imagined community of, say, Germany, when readers in Berlin, Hamburg or Munich read the same newspaper or (German) novel simultaneously. How would this work at a higher scale or level – that of a macro-region (e.g. Eastern Europe). How would the process of imagining such a region (space?) work? From inside? From the outside? The latter is what brought Said-Wolff-Todorova into it – that such regions are primarily constructed and conceptualised externally.
  3. This external language matters – not the least as many of such concepts and imagined geographies carry value judgments. Spatial language is not neutral in this respect. This is how works around mental maps are close nit to the linguistic turn, as I see it. Language through which we articulate the world matters. Who is speaking? Speaking what? Who uses “eastern Europe”, the “South”, “Third World”, the “global south”, “Arabia” in what context to whom with what connotations? Backward? Modern? Behind? Provincial? Peripheral? This may or should indeed lead to questions and analysis of power relations: who is framing what & which regions or areas by what kind of language, in what kind of texts?
  4. While these were (and are) influential works that have shaped new research directions and agendas, they have also come under scrutiny. A major criticism has been (and I do agree) that such processes of spatial labelling is not exclusively a one-way-act. The “other” has agency and does speak (back) has been one such criticism, whether in the history of science (see Matthew Edney, Mapping an Empire vs Kapil Raj, Relocating modern science) on mapping India or from subaltern- and postcolonial studies (arguably most powerful by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincialising Europe).


I am going to borrow my terminology from the field of political geography: “Space is the core commodity of Geography. Place is a particular point in space, Whilst territory a more formal attempt to define and delimit a portion of space, inscribed with a particular identity and interests” (J. Martin: 2004)

The question that I rise initially is how, then, space becomes a place. i follow the approach of Paul Charter (1987), Larry Wollf, (1994, 2012), and also others to tackle the issue. The approach suggests that texts, language, and visual material are crucial tools to conceptualise and identify space; in other words, turn it to a place. A place is an idea (See Wollf 2012: The Idea of Galicia), and language plays a crucial role in labelling space with certain terms, defining those terms, characterising them, enhancing them with cultural, and historical significance, and visualised shape.

There is an implication of this approach that is often raised. That is, belief systems, political and intellectual conditions reflect on our spatial imaginations. In some cases, perceptions are imposed  by powerful, or superior actors. Larry Wollf, for instance, argues that the division of Europe was between North and South during the Renaissance, and between East and West during the Enlightenment.


The key spatial concepts relevant to my project are the transnational perspective and

Working with Space - EUI, Dec 2016
Working with Space – EUI, Dec 2016

network analysis. The two concepts are interconnected. The former is based upon ideas developed by Pierre-Yves Saunier, Patricia Clavin and Kiran-Klaus Patel. The later is based upon scholarship by Bruno Latour and Patricia Clavin. Furthermore, I also engage with the concept of the “epistemic community” developed by Peter Haas. 


For my study the terms of ‘space’ and ‘place’ are most relevant. At a superficial glance, space seems to be the less defined term, whereas place seems to denote a well defined, enclosed area that is easily identified. In the case of travellers, place can be anything – from a village to a landscape or principality. Space can be all these as well. However, it can also be a concept, the physical manifestation of an abstract idea, and it can be constructed – by both the contemporary travellers and the modern researcher. Derived from Henri Lefebvre, constructed (social) space can be a group, a favoured meeting point, a shared mental world, a network. It is therefore vital for my project to analyse what ‘spaces’ travellers identified for themselves – where they were as well as where they wanted to be and how these thoughts influenced their travel experience –, without, however, to forget that the concept of ‘space’ in modern historical research is a category not available to the traveller, and is only applied in hindsight through the historian. The connection between transnational approaches to history and space seems particularly relevant here. In terms of applied spatial history I am fascinated by the Stanford Project as an example how to research networks.