Space: A Useless Category for Historical Analysis?

Much fuss has been made of the 'spatial turn' in recent years, across a range of disciplines. It is hard to know if the attention has been warranted. A confusion of terms has been used-such as space, place, spatiality, location-and each has signified a cluster of often contradictory and confusing meanings. This phenomenon is common to a range of disciplines in the humanities. This means, first, that it is not always easy to recognize what (if anything) is being discussed under the rubric of space, and second, that over-extended uses of the cultural turn have stymied meaningful engagement with (or even a language of) materiality in discussions of space. This article shows how materiality has been marginalized both by a casual vocabulary and a vigorous a priori epistemological holism on the part of scholars, and how the spatial turn has been too closely linked to the cultural turn to allow it to develop its fullest explanatory potential. It demonstrates how historians might profitably theorize the significance of place and space in their work (borrowing techniques from geographers and anthropologists, and referring to the phenomenological tradition), and sets out some challenges for using space more effectively in explanatory systems. Inspired by environmental history, sociology, and science and technology studies, I propose a way of establishing space as different from conventional historical handling of materiality, and end by identifying some methodological problems that need to be solved if we are to proceed on a surer footing.