Space/Place

Unlike the other terms in the glossary, the place-space distinction is not a theoretical or analytical concept. Rather, it is a sensitising strategy for spatial terminology in one’s own as well as in historical texts or urban settings.

Some social science spatial theorists have recognised the fruitfulness of the place-space distinction and have suggested how space/place can be distinguished in relation to each other. Interestingly, this conceptual pair can be understood quite differently. The Chinese-American geographer Tuan distinguishes between space and place. Space requires a movement from one place to another. Place, by contrast, requires a space in order to be a place. The two concepts are thus complementary, and both are often necessary to describe situations adequately (Tuan 1977). For the cultural philosopher, historian, and Jesuit Certeau, the relationship is somewhat different. For Certeau, place (lieu) is an order of elements standing in a relationship of coexistence. This is a situation of being located “beside one another” (Certeau 1990, vol. 1: 117). He sees space (espace), by contrast, as the result of activities or as a place where one does something (Certeau 1990, vol. 1: 173). In Löw’s sociology of space, space is the result of a process of constitution in which human beings or goods are first placed into an arrangement in order to then be synthesized together through a process of intuition or remembering. Place, by contrast, is for Löw the place of spatiality, meaning the place where a space is constituted—although multiple spaces can also exist at one place, for example, through the presence of multiple groups that use a place in different ways (Löw 2005). If one understands place as something experienced subjectively, then one should also take into account, as did the geographer Doreen Massey, that people perceive places differently depending on individual characteristics, e.g. age, ethnicity and gender, and recognise that these characteristics can constantly change and evolve (Massey 2007, Lévy’s related distinction in the context of inhabiting, see Lévy 2014, 45-68).

The fact that this conceptual pair is understood differently has to do, on the one hand, with the slightly different spatial concepts of the authors, who come from geography, cultural and linguistic philosophy as well as sociology. On the other hand, however, the difference is also a sign that place and space can mean different things in different cultural and linguistic contexts. This is why we should treat the distinction of place/space as a theoretical concept – by saying, for example, that places are socially significant spaces because of the activities that take place there or the values attributed to them – as well as a research question with which we examine the texts or practices of historical actors, bearing the principle in mind that meanings are speaker- or context-dependent.

UrbRel Application
For the very different temporal and regional contexts to which studies in the Religion and Urbanity framework are devoted, it is advisable to take a look at the history of concepts and meanings of spatial vocabulary, especially when the relationship between space (or city) and religion is at the centre of the analysis. For thoughts about reality are not expressed in images and practices alone, but primarily through the medium of language.

To clarify, let us take a brief look at some European languages: The roots of the most of the words that today express spatial content in Indo-European languages lie in Greek, Latin, and the Germanic languages. Both the English word space and the French espace (Spanish: espacio; Italian: spazio; etc.) derive from the Latin spatium, which also contains the Latin word for step, passus. This entails the idea that one can pass through space or that space can be measured in steps. By contrast, the Greek chôra (territory or space) and the word chorós (a dancing place), which can be found today in the words chorography (description of space, description of landscape) or choreography (dance design), are associated with the conception of a void, or at least with the idea that space can be filled with people and perhaps also with actions. The Greek tópos is etymologically polysemic in that is denotes place, space but also the commonplace as well as topic. The German word Raum derives from the Middle and High German rūm; as with the English word room or the Swedish rum and is a nominalisation of the common Germanic adjective raum (far, spacious). This noun was the root for the German adjectives geraum (which today has kept only its temporal meaning of “for some time”) and geräumig (with its spatial meaning of “spacious” or “ample”). The associated German verb räumen means to make space or to leave a place. The abstract German noun Räumlichkeit (spatiality) did not appear for the first time until the seventeenth century; a Raumpfleger or Raumpflegerin (housekeeper, literally, someone who cares for a space, meaning someone who works as a cleaner) and the Raumsonde (a space probe) do not appear—depending on context—until the twentieth century. How the temporal meaning of spatial concepts have changed across time is also revealing (Rau 2019, 211-214). Etymology alone shows which meanings resonate in each case and that even in the languages of a same language family; Raum does not mean exactly the same thing as space.

It thus seems worthwhile to examine the respective spatial vocabulary and its histories of meaning in the sense of historical semantics in the languages of our urban and religious actors. Such investigations have already been applied to our main terms, urbanity (Latin: urbanitas, Ancient Greek: asteiotetês/asteios; Ramage 1973; Rau 2020; Rüpke and Urciuoli forthcoming) and religion (Latin: religio; ancient Greek: threskeia; Nongbri 2013; Boyarin 2016).

Investigations into historical semantics also lend themselves to more coconcepts such as “religious place” or “religious space”, as well as “urban place”, “urban space” or “urban space”: what does the latter encompass? Where does it end? Where is it conceived, imagined, delimited or transgressed by actors? Are religious and urban spaces at all congruent in the imagination of their actors? (Rau 2020; Rau/Fuchs 2021) In the context investigating the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, extending the historical-semantic investigation of space/place and its derivatives to Dravidian and North Indian languages is highly promising avenue of inquiry.

The aim is by no means to produce language maps for the respective spatial vocabulary of a language, as older ethnolinguistics would presumably have done. This stems from a strong container thinking, regionally or within nations. Migration, linguistic adaptation, language contacts as well as individual or group-specific understandings of belonging have long called such mapping into question. In addition, one should take seriously anthropological and linguistic studies that have been able to show how languages differ in their placement of objects in space, depending on relative or absolute notions of space. In other words, in some languages (e.g. in Northern Australia or Central America) the linguistic expressions for localising things and events or for movements in space are absolute, i.e. refer to a ‘given’ space; and then there are others (like German) in which the objects are expressed relative to a spatial frame of reference (Auer et al. 2013). Furthermore, there are spatial expressions that point to the geographical origin of their speakers and those that point more to the social origin of their speakers. This is also applicable to membership of religious groups, insofar as there is a shared knowledge of religious spatialities.

Finally, the ways and means of placemaking and coping with space are also historically variable or religiously context-dependent. Changes in meaning always relate to, or are the product of, changes in how a society or group constitute themselves and relate to the world. Recently, in the course of the loss of meaning of the nation-state and at the same time increasing importance of digitisation and globalisation (however ‘global’ it may be), the older language-body-place connection is also dissolving. In the age of high technological networking and social media, virtual spaces are also becoming places of belonging. Likewise, religious practices and religious group formation take place in virtual spaces, as Epsita Halder shows in her study of the use of social media by the Shia in Calcutta (Halder 2022, Halder forthcoming) – not only since the Covid pandemic.

To summarise: religious actors, through their practices, create spaces (places, paths, etc.) or dissolve them again (a); they can thereby express love of place (topophilia) or flight from the world, depending on their preference (b); but they also use a certain vocabulary and spatial deixis to do so, which constitute these material or imagined spaces (c) – and these are also deeply rooted in the wider (social, medial) transformation of the world (d).

UrbRel Bibliography
Barton, Carlin A. and Daniel Boyarin. 2016. Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities. New York: Fordham University Press.


Halder, Epsita. Forthcoming. ‘Sounding Pain: Public-Private Aspects of Shia Women’s Sonic Practices in Muharram.‘ In Religious Sounds beyond the Global North: Senses, Media and Power, edited by Carola Lorea and Rosalind Hackett. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Halder Epsita. 2022. ‘Walking along Prince Anwar Shah Road, Kolkata‘. Religion-and-Urbanity-Blog (ISSN 2699-3759)


Lévy, Jacques. 2014. ‘Inhabiting.’ In The SAGE Handbook of Human Geography 1, edited by Roger Lee, Noel Castree, Rob Kitchin, Vicky Lawson, Anssi Paasi, Chris Philo, Sarah Radcliffe, Susan M. Roberts and Charles Withers. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 45–68.


Rau, Susanne, History, Space and Place. London, New York: Routledge 2019.


Rau, Susanne. ‘Stadtraum, Stadträume.’ In: Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit online (2020), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2352-0248_edn_COM_408036


Rau, Susanne and Martin Fuchs. 2021. ‘Closing Comments of the Conference “Blurring Boundaries: Diffusing and Creating Urban Religion beyond Urban Space.’ Religion-and-Urbanity-Blog (ISSN 2699-3759).

General Bibliography
Auer, Peter, Martin Hilpert, Anja Stukenbrock and Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (ed.). 2013. Space in Language and Linguistics: Geographical, interactional, and cognitive perspectives. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Boulton, Meg, Jane Hawkes and Heidi Stoner (ed.). 2018. Place and space in the medieval world. New York, London: Routledge.
Massey, Doreen. 2007. Space, place and gender, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Before Religion. A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press.



Cite this blog post
Susanne Rau (2022, December 5). Space/Place. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vzu0

Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at Erfurt University. Since 2018, she is directing the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (Kollegforschungsgruppe) "Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations" (DFG, FOR 2779).

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