Space is one of the most important categories of human life.  Unfortunately many are not conscious of its significance, because there is a common conviction in Western society that space is a universally homogeneous condition which transgresses all material phenomena homogeneously and which is essentially of universal dimensions. Space is therefore considered to be a modern scientific concept attributed to physics and astronomy. It is therefore studied with highly specialised instruments allowing the observation of universal dimensions of  space and its celestial contents.

This universal dimension of space and its dramatic history of discovery with all the famous names  of the 16th and 17th century like Nicolaus Copernicus, John Kepler and Galileo Galilei and the struggles of those times whether the earth or the sun formed the centre of our planetary system have covered up the fact that space is also a topic of tremendous importance on the level of common daily life of all humans living on the surface of our globe.

Certainly in geographic scenarios it had doubtless some sighificance and maybe in urban or national planning institutes it has gained some importance to some extent in recent modern times. But, evidently, we rarely find it discussed in the framework of culturo-anthropological studies.

In the year 1963 an important book with the title 'Man and Space' was edited in Germany written by the philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow (1963). It fundamentally contradicts the modern concept of large scale space and maintains essentially that human space perception and space organisation evolved very early in cultural history with the evolution of the human habitat. Suddenly there was the hypothesis that the origins of human space are small scale, extremly small scale. It was quite some sort of a sensation in the field. Bollnow suggests that the German term "Raum" (space) evolved from the verb 'räumen' that means clear plants and other natural elements to prepare a place, a hut or a house for human dwelling.

This hypothesis is also confirmed by the etymology of corresponding words. The meaning of the Greek word 'kosmos' for instance,  according to a study of Jula Kerschensteiner (1964), was related to local forms of spatial organisations in the small dimensions of a village in ancient Greece in presocratic times. It implied the nicely grouped order of a group of musicians or the like. Note that the word cosmetics has the same roots like 'kosmos' but in contrast to this word, which followed human cognition into macrocosmic dimensions, the word 'cosmetics' remained on the small scale of the human face.

It is evident that in the framework of environments related to human dwelling as dealt with by architecture, the characteristics of space play an important role. Bollnow's important theoretical concepts of space were used mainly in new movements of research in the architectural domain: architectural ethnology and architectural anthropology. See for instance  the "Encyclopedia of vernacular Architecture of the World", a milestone of architectural ethnology considerably neglected by ethnologists proper! I have been co-working on it during the most interesting planning phase (Paul Oliver ed. 1997).

Recently Bollnow's book has been translated into English. It is published in the United Kingdom by the publisher "Hyphen Press". See:
Below we give the text of the editor of the English publication:

Human space
O.F. Bollnow

Human space is an English translation of one of the most comprehensive studies of space as we experience it. Since it was published in Germany in 1963, Bollnow’s text has become a key reading in architecture, anthropology, and philosophy. In 2004 the German edition was issued in its tenth impression. The book is serious academic research and something more – showing a great sensitivity to the near and the everyday. The text is enlivened and illustrated with many quotations, principally from German and English literature. Our edition is translated by Christine Shuttleworth and has an introduction by Joseph Kohlmaier, who places the work in its context of philosophical and architectural discussion.

extent    300 pp
binding    cased in cloth
ISBN13    978-0-907259-35-0
price     £25.00

Other books on anthropology of space:

Blum Paul, Mary A Peterson, Merrill F. Garrett
--Language and Space. MIT Press 1999
Bourdieu Pierre,
--The Berber house of the world reversed 1971, Hague, Monton
Cieraad Irene (ed.), foreword by John Rennie Short,
--At home. An anthropology of domestic space. 1st. ed. 1999; 1st paperback edition 2006
(contains various papers on space and rooms in house)
Cresswell Tim,
--Place, a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing US, UK, 2004
Levinson Stephen C.,
--Space in Language and Cognition - Explorations in cognitive Diversity. Max Planck Inst for Psycholinguistics Nijmvegen NL, Cambridge Univ Press UK 2003
Low Setha M. and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga,
--The anthropology of space and place: locating culture, Oxford: Blackwell 2003
(various studies in the framework of 'space and place network!)
Low Setha,
--Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space, American Ethnologist 23(4): 861-879. 1996
Yi-Fu Tuan,
--Space and Place: the perspective of experience (Univ. of Minnesota Press 2001)

Kerschensteiner Jula,
Kosmos: quellenkritische Untersuchungen zu den Vorsokratikern. (Zetemata, Heft 30.) Pp. xi+245. Munich: Beck, 1964.

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Replies to This Discussion

Very interesting Nold,


I would like to make an analogy with bee space. have you heard of this? It refers to the discovery in C19th by Langstroth of the exact space requirements of each bee in a hive, (1cm or 3/8 inch). this spacing allows bees freedom of movement without them trying to build their own comb structures in spare spaces- there simply isn't enough room if bee space is observed. As a result "standard" bee hives are designed to this exact measurement.


In my recent fieldwork I lived within a land-based, "alternative" community, where most land is communal. Issues of space, space requirements and different strategies for "holding" space were key. The deliberate lack of demarcated boundaries was evidently superceded by many conceptual and subtle boundaries.


The relevance to this discussion is I feel that space is always conceptualised, and the "occupation" of space takes many forms, including the imaginary, and the legacy of previous physical occupation.


What strikes me is that certain forms of human spatial organisation (and I am talking in terms of dwelling), in particular, social housing depends on an idea of human space requirements which is cumulative and relative to status. To return to the earlier analogy, this is the sort of spatial reckoning which is akin to bee space in that it provides what is deemed "enough". The purpose of bee space is to better control and direct the activities of each bee into efficient honey production, the objective is to maximise honey output for the bee-keeper (the imposer of bee space). This begs the question, what then is the purpose of the quantification of "human space"?


I know that your work is not androcentric, so thought you may be interested in the bee space analogy



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