Metropolitan History Seminar
10 October 2012
Stuart Minson (Oxford)
A history of urban space: changing concepts of space in the study of the early modern metropolis


Space and place has become a popular study in recent years.  It can be found in many titles of seminar papers, monographs, articles, and museum/library exhibitions.  However, as an analytical category ‘space’ is a recent innovation for the History discipline, falling behind many other social sciences who took the category up much earlier.

In this paper Stuart Minson surveys the changing concepts and variety of thoughts about ‘space’ with particular mention of the early modern urban space.  Even the meaning of the word varies considerably.  China and the West have very different views of what space constitutes.

Minson looks at the meanings given to space, whether these are practical, spiritual or invisible.  He asks what relationships humans have to spaces and how these influence and control actions.  Certain spaces, for example encourage certain actions over others (you would act differently in a work place than a home or a café for example).  These spaces are always open to reinterpretation, although there are always some – either official or unofficial – who attempt to retain the status quo when this happens.  Space therefore can be a place where a variety of social interests are played out.

In the second half of the paper, Minson turns to the question of where this concept of space came from.  This is a look at Max Weber, Carl Friedrich Gauss and others as well as an examination of the term in regards specifically to urban landscape studies which itself is routed in cultural geography.  Most historical work, Minson argues, still continues to follow traditional and in some cases outdated models from geography and anthropology, when it should be increasingly focusing on synthesising the two way relationship between people and space.  Thus, for Minson, the study of space and place in the History discipline still needs much work.

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