Buildings, boundaries and selves

12 Sep

Important for the research on city spaces is their relationality, respectively our stance towards certain places.  One has to research on the individual (categorical or group related) “reasons” for being in a place. One’s stance toward a place and the boundaries that we bring with us influence the chance of interaction with other individuals and the creation of social coherence in the place. Furthermore, the boundaries that we draw have an influence on whether we share infrastructures or not.

One building, relational purposes

I met a neighbour in my building today, who slowly lurked up the staircase, visibly exhausted. After having exchanged a few words with her, I rushed to my Yoga class a few blocks away.

Just before I entered the building, an old brick-building attached to a Synagoge, I heard one of my Yoga classmates speaking on her cell phone just before entering the sports hall,

“Yeah, you know, and this girl was just fired from her media design job… Damnit, again I rush to the Yoga class, where I am supposed to relax!”

It was amusing to see this cliché of the stressed and occupied visitor of a Yoga class being temporarily approved. I asked myself: Isn’t Yoga supposed to be an attitude (calmness, relaxation) that one maintains also outside the classroom? What seemed so interesting for me here, is the relation between one’s life outside and inside the Yoga class.

During class, I dwelled on the thought that everyone has a different reason for going to Yoga. Our habitus defines the aspects of a place or activity to which we connect.  A place or the activity within it contains many aspects, not only its primary “function”.(1) How we view a place or an activity is hence relational. The same applies to Yoga. Yoga has certainly more aspects than just meditation, and more than physical exertion, it is also an attitude and probably more. It depends on our selves, respectively our habitus, to which aspect we affiliate most – and apart from these aspects there may be more reasons and also more latent ones for why we do that.

The fiction writer Lily Brett demonstrates the aspect of relationality when she writes about her experience of “falling in love” with a catholic church in Cologne: the Sankt Agnes church. One has to know that Brett is Jewish in origin, but – as she says – actually atheist, respectively to 90 percent atheist. However, Brett fell in love with this church. She writes,

“The interior of the church is generally unornamental, with a minimum of religious symbolism and pomp. And it radiates warmth. A warmth that you can feel. A  warmth which allows the mind to float, to rise, to ask and to be challenged. A condition which resembles being in love astoundingly. Being intoxicantly in love. And I was in love.” (2)

Apart from its religiosity or the religious function of a church, one feels connected to any other aspect that one individually or relationally reads into the building.

So, what then about social cohesion within a place or an activity? One could argue that a church, respectively the common belief of church members in God, create social cohesion (or solidarity) that then promotes the creation of bonds among the members.(3) To come back to Lily Brett however, different aspects than religiosity (and maybe ten percent religiosity) made Brett fall in love with this church: plainness, architecture, majesty, atmosphere. And maybe more, like her individual history. This still does not make her a believer and probably not a big promoter and contributer of social cohesion among the church goers. For Brett, this experience of falling in love with a church showed her how individuals are connected to each other via a church, although some do and some do not at all belief in God.

“My relationship to Sankt Agnes changed my life and showed me how deep we humans are connected to each other, despite of different or even missing religious confessions. For me it seems as if Sankt Agnes is my church. For me it is my church. Or our church.” (4)

Still, her personal reason of her attachment to the church does not make her a believer. She may not be able to relate and make bonds to everyone in the church. However, Brett still can say that Sankt Agnes is her church or even “our” church.

Sharing Infrastructures

One’s attachment to a building or an activity is one thing, sharing it with others is another.

During Yoga class I remembered my neighbour who I met in the staircase of my building, when I rushed it down to get to class on time. During our encounter, she told me that since her husband’s spinal surgery she had to carry the shopping up the staircase and that now her back started to ache regularly too. I noticed later that I could have asked her whether she would like to join Yoga – which is supposed to be good for  your back. However, in this situation, I suppose that maybe the age difference or assumed differences in life style may have prevented me from sharing the Yoga place with her. Also, my – probably subconscious – effort to distinguish myself from others, prevented me from sharing this information with her. (5)

To think this a bit further, I did not only not share the information about a place with my neighbour, the Yoga place, but also prevented to share a part of my infrastructure with her. This is even more salient, as both of us probably have different experiences and ideas of Berlin.  Sharing an infrastructure is important, because common activities in certain places are crucial for initiating interaction.(6) Furthermore, they give opportunities to accumulate trust and confidence in each other that would allow to create bonds.(7) Charles Tilly also gives an interesting account on these matters.(8) In his words, our supposedly different habitus (“scripts”, understanding of things) can make interactions complicated and cause high interaction costs – simply put: interactions can become exhausting and uninteresting. They may be avoided.

The interaction with others bring to the fore not only the aspects that seperate us from each other, but also aspects of our psychological selves. Through creating boundaries we distance ourselves from others and hence constitute our selves.(9) The concept of habitus and distinction (Bourdieu) sheds light on this phenomenon, but also increasingly the concept of boundary drawing. The concept does not stress so much the aspect of a meta-structure that makes me acting in a certain way, but more the daily practices of symbolic distinction in order to distinguish oneself from others. However, the concept of boundary drawing still lacks flexibility, as boundaries are not always rigid and persistent. They are subject to change and negotiation.(10)

To sum up, what may be important here for the research on space or place is its relationality, respectively our stance towards a place. One has to research on the individual (categorical or group related) “reasons” for being in a place.(11) One’s stance toward a place and the boundaries that we bring with us (or that we create within the place) influence one’s chance of interaction with other individuals.

Secondly, one’s affiliation to a building does not necessarily contribute to the social cohesion of the individuals within this building. It may even be the root of conflict, as individuals interpret buildings and places differently and relationally. For one individual it is religion, for the other beauty, atmosphere or the preservation of history and art that is responsible for one’s attachment. Hence for example the conflicts of individuals toward the preservation or modernisation of a building.

Thirdly, boundaries come to the fore when individuals interact. What may be underresearched are the flexibility and the emergence (production) of boundaries.

Fourthly, the boundaries that individuals draw influence whether infrastructures are shared.


(1) I wonder if we can even speak of a (primary) function, as most or all aspects should be relationally defined.

(2) “Das Innere der Kirche ist weitgehend schmucklos, mit einem Minimum von religiöser Symbolik und Prunk. Und es strahlt Wärme aus. Eine Wärme, die man spüren kann. Eine Wärme, die dem Geist erlaubt, zu schweben, sich zu erheben, zu fragen und sich herausfordern zu lassen. Ein Zustand, der dem Verliebtsein verblüffend ähnelt. Berauschendem Verliebtsein. Und ich war verliebt.” Lily Brett. “Was möglich ist”. In: Die Zeit, July 25th 2013, p. 53.

(3) See Blokland (2003): Urban bonds. Polity Press, 2003.

(4) “Meine Beziehung zu Sankt Agnes hat mein Leben verändert und mir gezeigt, wie tief wir Menschen miteinander verbunden sein können trotz unterschiedlicher oder gar fehlender religiöser Überzeugungen. Mir ist, als wäre Sankt Agnes meine Kirche. Für mich ist sie meine Kirche. Oder unsere Kirche.” Lilly Brett. “Was möglich ist”.

(5) see Lamont (1992) for the concept of boundary drawing.

(6) Feld (1981): The Focused Organization of Social Ties. In: American Journal of Sociology 86(5), pp. 1015-1035.

(7) See Blokland (2003).

(8) Tilly (1998): Durable Inequality. University of California Press.

(9) See Lamont (1992).

(10) See Tilly (1998).

(11) Here, Merton’s concepts of ingroup, outgroup and reference group may be fruitful. See Merton (1968): Social theory and social structure. New York: The Free Press.


2 Responses to “Buildings, boundaries and selves”

  1. brondumc September 13, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    This sounds really interesting Stephan! I always find it very appealing when physical materialities are included in analysis’ of our actions, and I think you manage to bring it to the fore quite nicely. Is this for your master thesis? I know there’s a Danish (human) geographer called Kirsten Simonsen who’s written some interesting stuff about how urban space is constructed in an interplay between us humans and our perception of others and the physical landscape (buildings etc.). As I remember it she describes space as being elastic, since we all bring in different perceptions and prejudice towards our surroundings – very much in line with what you’re turning attention towards. The book I’ve read is of course in Danish, but I would be surprised if she hasn’t written some articles in English. In her work I’m pretty sure she’s drawing on Lefebvre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

  2. stephan September 24, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Hey Soren,
    sorry for not replying! I have been kind of busy the last weeks and yes, I started my master thesis now! That what I wrote is not really a part of my master’s thesis, but I guess that came to my mind when I was dwelling about my master thesis. I will work on group building, networks and processes of exclusion (boundary drawing) within a Pentecostal church in Berlin. And yes, its also about what kind of reasons the members have of being in that church and whats the consequence of that for making or not making ties with other church members – maybe… roughly :).
    Thanks for you comment Soren!

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