Sociography: The Spatial Operation of Social Forces

Submitted to the editors of Thresholds 42: Human (December 2013).

Bodies in Space.

Sociography is the study of the spatial operation of social forces. Its methods strive to expose the spatial means of larger cultural, social, economic, and political forces manifest in the interplay of bodies in space. Sociographic methods in architecture and urbanism are framed by long histories of parallel development in the visual arts and scholarship on aesthetic experience. Despite an ever-present resonance, there remains a weak correspondence between these endeavors. Reports of the “death of distance” turn out to be greatly exaggerated. Regardless of whether space now matters more, or matters less, we face a spatially specific set of global challenges. With the advent of rapidly expanding technical capacities of computation, communication and “radical connectivity,” space seems to matter differently than in the past. Sociography is proposed as a useful characterization of a dispersed set of efforts that share in common the ambition to develop methods of taking the measure of the complex interplay between human social engagements and the spatial framings of architecture and urbanism.

The human body is the point of origin for all experience. Vitruvius proposed the human form as the basis of a universal aesthetics. Leonardo da Vinci released the Vitruvian geometry of the human body from its static position by rendering it as occupying two simultaneous and equal positions. The unconscious repository of our own lived experience informs a reading, not of two bodies at rest, but of one body in motion over time. Da Vinci’s precise rendering of human form at rest and in motion produces units of measure by which we subsequently take the measure of human experience as framed by architectural and urban form.

Human physiology conditions aesthetic experience. Physiology and body mechanics condition every action we take, and every experience we take in. Advances in neuroscience have largely confirmed the assertions of art: the Cartesian split between the mind and the body is overstated. Instead, the sensory data supplied by the body is conditioned by, and dependent upon, the interaction between the body and the mind.[1] Memory of past experience, the presence of the biomechanical body, and the projective imagination all play into the processes that together constitute perception and aesthetic experience. The body is not simply the apparatus of compiling raw sensory data to be sent off for processing by a disembodied mind, it is an integral part of a body-mind system.

This body-mind is both the instrument of experience and something that is itself experienced. It is both a perceiving subject and a perceived object. Far from operating as a neutral observation platform, the body-mind conditions aesthetic experience. In the act of seeing, we experience the movements of the eye and the turn of the head. In the act of walking through space, we experience the position of the body, the tension and release of muscles, and our own breathing. In all things, we simultaneously participate in outward stimuli and inward states of being including bodily sensations and the degree of quietude or distraction of the mind. Taken together, these sensations of the body-mind system mark a presence in the midst of that which is being experienced. In cinema, the lens-microphone displaces the body out of the scene and offers the opportunity for aesthetic experience once-removed. By offering access to a disembodied experience, cinema presents a point of reference by which we may contrast bodily absence with bodily presence, and hints at some of the ways that the body might inflect experience.

Similarly, the absence of any actual body in a space does not preclude the powerful experience of a space’s potential for bodily occupation. A space exhibits a capacity for inhabitation through the presence or absence elements associated with physical bodily contact and scale. Human memory and imagination operate to anticipate a bodily engagement in pictorial or physical forms and spaces whether or not this potential is ever realized. Confronted with a streetscape of sidewalks, trees, front stoops, porches, doors and windows, we experience it as being socially activated by a latent, and imminent, occupation by bodies even though it may be, at that moment, devoid of any actual breathing life. Eighteenth and nineteenth century notions of the sublime, of the picturesque, of utopia, and the long genealogy of einfühlung (empathy), share in common the influence of projective operations of the body-mind. Each entails the interplay of embodied memory and the projective imagination.[2] The literature of urban space in relation to human experience converges from another direction via Benjamin, Lefebvre, and Harvey to confirm the centrality of the human body not just in spatial aesthetic experience but also as the primary site of contestations of cultural and political power.[3]

Bodily absence operates in a way different than, but related to, bodily presence. If utopia is characterized by an eternal deferral of actual experience—a distinct advantage when aspiring to perfection—then its opposite is action taken at the risk of imperfection and failure. We see in dance and sport a veneration of the human capacity to visualize and act. The emotional response to well-trained bodies in motion on stage or on the field of competition confirms a human empathic capacity, even if reserve compassion in defeat and adulation in triumph for one team at a time. When a player thrown to the ground, her pain is our pain. The visceral response to a child falling on rough pavement is a reflex born of personal experience, a capacity for imaginative projection encoded in our genes. It is connected to our capacity for projecting experience onto a future self, motivating us to choose wisely in the present so as to avoid pain in the future—that component of our reflexive fear response that beneficially preserves us in the face of dangers.

To a body in pain, pain is the only reality. Throughout history, this capacity of physical pain to displace all other priorities has proven an effective means of control. In her 1985 book, The Body In Pain, Elaine Scarry places the body and the shared experience of pain at the origins of human language, culture, and power.[4] The primary motivation for human communication is the prevention of violence. Conversely, warfare is the collective suspension of language and culture. One of the central tasks of culture is the negotiation of difference towards the prevention of suffering. Institutions of incarceration confirm the primacy of spatial framings of the human body. Scarry’s explorations of the social, cultural, and political operations of pain, locate the right of the body to move through and occupy space as the basis for all subsequent human rights.

Scarry’s examination of the history of pain through a cultural lens includes the question of how humans experience pain. The medical professions have categorized the experience of pain as: sensory content of pain (direct), affective content of pain (interpretive), and evaluative or cognitive content of pain (imagined).[5] These three experiential categories map with uncanny precision to Henri Lefebvre’s three categories of spatial experience: spatial practice (direct), representations of space (interpretive), and representational spaces (imagined).[6] Lefebvre’s “right to the city” aligns him with Scarry in ascribing a primal force to the body in space.

On a parallel development, depictions of the body in motion triggering empathic spatial responses have been at the heart of modern aesthetic experience from Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” to the photographic motion studies of Muybridge, Marey, and Edgerton. The Italian Futurists Marinetti and Boccioni opened the 20th century with a celebration of the new experience of speed, violence, and vision by capturing multiple perspectives in a single view, or motion as if using a time-lapse exposure. The body politics of movement through the emerging conditions of modern space propelled the literary and artistic output of the early European Modern Movement, for whom aesthetics was the larger category cutting a path for the social and political struggle that would naturally surge forward in its wake. In the context of industrial capitalism both the means and ends of earlier sociographic representations shifted with a sense of inevitability to become Taylor’s time-motion studies. The culmination of this technical-aesthetic progression is cinema—one of the most remarkable tools yet for capturing the narrative power of bodies in space.

A body entering a space changes that space. In this way, architecture and bodies co-produce space. William H. Whyte’s famous use of film to capture what he called the “social life of small urban spaces” offers vivid demonstrations of how spatial framings and bodily presences together produce an experience of space.[7] Military ambitions to absolute control exemplify the power of a body to alter space, just is it has with architecture, through the technical and psychological means for identifying and amplifying its innate capacities. The armed and armored human body exerts power over the spatial field by its mere presence. The rifle extends the hand’s striking range. Night vision goggles and sniper scope amplify vision. The uniform invokes authority and Kevlar armor makes of the body a mobile fortress. The power of militarized bodies to transform space is captured through a wordless segment of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List in which the raised perspective of Schindler looks down on the city as bodies are herded through the streets to awaiting transport or execution yards. The scene is filmed in black and white but for the red coat of a young child seeking a place to hide. Later, the red coat appears amongst a pile of corpses. Schindler’s hand reaching for hers supplies the iconic imagery for the film’s advertising. Perhaps the most dramatic video ever captured is similarly taken from a slightly raised perspective as a man carrying bags, as if casually returning from the market, asserts his right to occupy the space in front of a speeding phalanx of tanks heading for Tiananmen Square.

New Tools, New Spatial Meanings.

Even as we moderate behaviors out of fear of having our most fundamental freedom limited—the day-to-day liberties of a body in space—we appear to downplay the significance of space in political discourse. Our conscious knowledge of politics overlaps only partially with our spatial experience of power. What we know of the negotiations of collective decision-making through the media reinforces our powerlessness as individual monads moving from one activity to the next. One of the central features of our political knowledge is knowing how small our political footprint is. The exceptions that seem to prove the rule are when we enter the voting booth on election day, take a seat at the community meeting, or the rare occasions when we might stand up to question authority. For most people throughout most of history, the relationship between political knowledge and spatial experience comes down to “knowing our place.” A significant degree of the 2011 Occupy movement’s impact is the novelty of its demonstration that, even in the age of disembodied communication, bodies in space matter.[8]

At the same time, the thickest description of who we are individually and collectively buried in the original “big data” of the United States Census has become accessible and meaningful in a vivid demonstration of Edward Tufte’s assertions about the power of data visualization.[9] Insights trapped in abstract rows and columns are liberated through the technological advancement of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other computational tools. Access to new interpretations of massive data collections has revolutionized the way we conceive of ourselves locally and nationally. It has been credited with facilitating a “spatial turn” in the social sciences opening new avenues of research and inquiry.[10] Disciplines that previously applied their assertions to nation states glossing over dramatically heterogeneous conditions, are now equipped to disaggregate characterizations according to geography, demography, and the multiple dimensions of uneven distributions.

As with other sudden changes catalyzed by new technology, the spatialization of social, demographic, political, and economic information has yielded winners and losers. A high-resolution analysis of buying habits has led to geographically targeted marketing campaigns.[11] Marketers characterize every zip code as “Shotguns & Pick-ups,” “Bohemian Mix,” or one of 64 other consumer segments.[12] The block-by-block disaggregation and mapping of census data has revealed the concrete ways in which immigrant and minority communities are underserved in the provision of education, recreational facilities and other urban amenities helping to mobilize political action to redress historic inequities. At the same time, the use of sophisticated algorithms on fine-grained mappings of voter records has raised the science and art of gerrymandering congressional districts to new heights. Infrastructure provision has been transferred from public (think 20th century rural electrification, road building, and universal postal delivery) to increasingly privatized endeavors that strategically target some neighborhoods with improved cable television or fiber optic Internet access while neglecting others in consideration of market share and cost-benefit analyses.[13] Even without an ongoing tally of winners and losers, these examples demonstrate some of the ways in which new mappings of people in space are anything but neutral in their consequences and that space matters differently than before.

The more specific three-dimensional spatial configurations of architectural drawing applications has fed an appetite in the emerging Digital Humanities to examine topography, as in General Robert E. Lee’s view of the battlefield at Gettysburg, and architectural space, to ask for example whether the physical conditions at Auschwitz-Birkenau during a period of major construction might have contributed to an increase in escapees.[14] An emerging ubiquity of mapping has been facilitated by colossal for-profit efforts like GoogleEarth™. The ease with which people now use digital mapping to engage with the world resonates with transformative moments of prior centuries when architectural and urban renderings from a raised point of view were popularized and found a place in the homes of the rising bourgeoisie.[15] Information now comes to us spatially located on maps. Our Internet searches are increasingly likely to be limited by the geographic position of the device requesting the search suggestive that the world wide web is yielding to “net-locality.”[16]

For all the change associated with these technological breakthroughs, the data retrieved in these searches are relatively static even if updated periodically. The larger transformations catalyzed by emerging urban mediations are characterized by expanding capacities to manage real time information. Using the spatial addressing technologies built into cell phone networks, MIT’s Senseable City group has captured the movements of cell phone users as they traverse landscapes leaving virtual tracings.[17] The spatial tagging of every body would seem to be rendered “natural” in the context of late capitalism as if this is simply and unproblematically what a phone does. Similarly, London’s surveillance camera network is used in the enforcement of its Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system providing a convenient means of charging vehicles for entering the downtown area during business hours. It is part of a popular progressive effort to reduce congestion and boost public transit. So it is particularly eerie to see software developed for use by architects used to triangulate input from two or more cameras to generate a precise three-dimensional model of any human face. Overlapping camera views permit constant identification and tracking of individuals moving through the city. Anticipating the ubiquity of tracking specific individuals in space, officials predict adding a second camera to enhance photo identification records with digital facial models.

Converging Disciplines.

Methods capable of bringing together research on the geographies of power and other social, economic, and cultural forces with the increasingly multiple mediations produced by the visual and performing arts hold promise for more complete understandings of the complex interplay between phenomena previously locked behind disciplinary boundaries. The expanding capacities of architectural representations in particular are suggestive of the kinds of translations that might reveal the body-mind-space operations otherwise passing unnoticed, or in the words of Pierre Bourdieu, “that which goes without saying.”[18] Despite the pivotal role of bodies in space in his work, Bourdieu does not develop a graphic component of his ethnographic methods, depending instead on narrative mappings of how paths, places and time influence the experience of categorized bodies. Similarly, Lefebvre describes how space operates to structure and condition social formation of individuals and groups, but abstains from spatial representation.

Conversely, the architectural photographer Iwan Baan transgresses two unspoken taboos of architectural photography (keep the city and people out of the frame) to capture architecture as the interplay of bodies in urban architectural space. In the process he manages to capture the formal productions of some of the world’s most celebrated architects, but seemingly without benefit of the literature referred to here.[19] Another Dutch photographer, Martin Roemers is traveling the world using an enhanced time-lapse photography to capture, again from a slightly raised vantage point, the spatial negotiations of pedestrians and the panoply of street traffic in the cities of the developing world.[20] Some of the most spatially and visually rich translations of bodies in space have been produced by a collaboration between dancer-choreographer William Forsythe and the University of Ohio Department of Computer Science.[21] A dance first performed in 2000 is translated using computational means into data and then architecture in an experiment that welcomes the unexpected discovery at each step. After collaborating on set design and choreography for several Broadway shows, architect David Rockwell and choreographer Jerry Mitchell turned their attentions to the interplay of bodies in space in the Radio City Music Hall lobby, the concourse of Grand Central Terminal, and Union Square Park.[22] The methods of photography and architectural drawing coming out of this work were applied to the design of Kennedy Airport’s JetBlue Terminal, a notoriously ungracious body-space typology. These efforts remain largely and unnecessarily distinct and isolated from the insights of the parallel scholarship on bodies in space.

One rare exception is found in the work of neuroscientist, painter, and performance artist Nell Breyer whose use of computationally manipulated video of her choreographed performances in public space represent a convergence of the long tradition of writing on aesthetic experience and pioneering representation of bodies moving in space. Through her translations of dance to graphic depictions, Breyer asks: How do we perceive human movement? Do we experience motion concretely, physically, in an instant, or through memory as a set of multi-modal representations that recur and endure? How do visualizations of human motion influence our experience of space?[23] She proposes “…a chronotopic understanding of space, through dynamic figurative renderings of the moving body, characterized by a reflexive interplay between the individual and her surroundings.” Architectural historian and theorist Evelyn Blau narrates Breyer’s sociographic evidence as showing how “[o]ne creates space through movement in space over time with the body. But the really interesting thing is the layering of experience that has a cultural… and social dimension.[24] In this, Blau recalls both Bourdieu and Bruno Latour who asserts that power is negotiated spatially through architecture and particularly through the agency of bodies moving in space. The ability to visualize these negotiations cuts vividly to the heart of the sociographic project.

Given the emergence of new tools and a nascent reassertion of corporal agency, does sociographic representation permit a means for taking in at a single analytical glance the spatial operation of social forces with or against the grain of architectural framings? Can sociographic representation reveal the ways that architecture and embodied actors co-produce space? Space is not neutral, nor is it natural. Space is a cultural construct. Movement is the cultural layering of social practices within the framings of architectural and urban space. Sociographic representations strive to identify and make available for further examination the forces that operate in contemporary space and thus make them available to a larger constituency of urban publics still in formation.


[1] Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

[2] Mark Jarzombek, The Psychologizing of Modernity: Art, Architecture, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 37-65; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith  (New York: Humanities Press, 1962 (1945)); Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomoenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979); Harry Francis Mallgrave, The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2009).

[3] Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott  (New York: Schocken Books, 1986); Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 (1974)); David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (Cambridge, Mass.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988 (1973)); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry on the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

[4] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[5] Scarry 3-11.

[6] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 (1974)), 38-39.

[7] William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Washington, D.C.: The Conservation Foundation, 1980).

[8] Richard Sennett, “New Ways of Thinking About Space,” The Nation (5 September 2012); Nicco Mele, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

[9] Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990).

[10] David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[11] Roger Burrows, Neighborhoods on the Net: The Nature and Impact Of Internet-based Neighborhood Information Systems (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005).

[12] Accessed: http://www.nielsen.com/us/en.html, 30 April 2013.

[13] Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (London: Routledge, 2001).

[14] Patricia Cohen, “Humanities 2.0: The Spatial Humanities: Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land,” New York Times (26 July 2011).

[15] John William Reps, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984).

[16] Eric Gordon, Adriana de Souza e Silva, Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

[17] Senseable City Lab, <http://senseable.mit.edu/&gt;, accessed 18 September 2011).

[18] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977 (1972)), 167.

[19] Fred A. Bernstein, “Structural Integrity and People, Too,” New York Times (24 January 2010).

[20] Martin Roemers, “Living in the New Metropolis,” New York Times (5 May 2012).

[21] William Forsythe, “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced” (Ohio State University Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, March 2009), accessed: synchronousobjects.osu.edu, 11 May 2011.

[22] Jesse Green, “Passengers May Now Pirouette to Gate 3,” New York Times (28 May 2006).

[23] Nell Breyer, personal communication with the author, 7 May 2011.

[24] Evelyn Blau in response to Nell Breyer’s “Seeing with the Body: The Impact of Action,” contribution to the “Performing Bodies and Spatial Politics Panel,” Cambridge Talks V: The Body in History/The Body in Space, Harvard Graduate School of Design (25 March 2011).

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