Critical understanding of place, migration


A central part of geography’s disciplinary identity is associated with the study of place. Tim Cresswell (2015) has suggested that places are locations to which humans have attached meanings. For John Agnew, there are three parts to place as a ‘meaningful location’: i) location, or the point on a map where that particular place sits. Ii) locale, or the ‘material setting for social relations – the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals. Iii) and sense of place, or ‘the subjective and emotional attachment that people have to place’ (Cresswell, 2015: 13-14).

Elsewhere, Cresswell has shown how conceptualisations of place have historically been rooted in what he terms a ‘sedentarist metaphysics’ (Cresswell, 2006: 26-42). Derived from humanist and positivist traditions, places have been understood as being static and stable portions of geographic space to which humans are rooted. This sedentarist metaphysics has sometimes led to a bounded conception of place and, in the worst instances, has pathologised human mobility as a ‘threat and dysfunction’ (Cresswell, 2006: 38). More recently, though, the ‘mobility turn’ in geography has seen the rise of what Cresswell refers to as a ‘nomadic metaphysics’, through which places are understood to be made up of networks and assemblages, and which ‘emphasises mobility and flow over stasis and attachment’ (Cresswell, 2006: 42-54). This ‘metaphysics of fixity and flow’ offer contrasting approaches to the understanding of place, but they also offer a way into thinking about the teaching of place within the context of A Level Geography in English schools.

I teach the AQA A Level specification. Within this, students are required to appreciate the endogenous (internal) and exogenous (external) factors that make places what they are. Geology or the built environment would be considered endogenous, while tourists or flows of finance capital would be considered exogenous. However, the very idea of exogenous and endogenous characteristics requires a bounded and more static understanding of place. The exam specification here frames our way of teaching the topic – it leads us, as teachers, towards teaching a particular conception of place.

However, it is a conception of place that can be contested. It is possible to teach place, and perhaps especially urban places, as assemblages, whereby we draw attention to ‘the spatiality of the city as processual, relational, mobile, and unequal’, in the words of Colin Mcfarlane (2011), yet nonetheless still shaped by particular structuring processes (Brenner et al, 2011). One way into this approach is to teach urban places through the use of Doreen Massey’s ‘global sense of place’. Such an approach highlights how the meanings associated with urban places are derived from the flows that pass through it, from the particular coming-together of specific environmental, social, economic and political processes at a set point in time. Drawing from Massey’s work, Katharyne Mitchell and Matthew Sparke have suggested that we ought to approach places as sites of ‘geosocial throwntogetherness’ whereby society and geographic space mutually constitute one-another.

‘Throwntogetherness’ is the way Doreen Massey conceptualized place. ‘What is special about place is not the romance of some pre-given collective identity’, she argued. Instead, what is special about place is ‘the simple sense of the coming together of the previously unrelated’. It is through place, Massey wrote, that ‘we confront the challenge of the negotiation of multiplicity’ (Massey, 2005: 140-141).


How, then, does all of this come together in the teaching of migration and the opening out of powerful geographical knowledge in the classroom? Here we have a conceptual framework fit for enabling teachers and students to explore the dynamism of place, the challenges and opportunities it offers, through the way that patterns of migration have shaped the particular constellation of geosocial throwntogetherness as it has taken shape in Halifax.

Take the photo above, displayed in the ‘Halifax Stories’ exhibition in the Piece Hall in Halifax between September-December 2019. Here we have a common enough place – the English textile mill, whose place in our industrial heritage is central to our national story – exposing also the ‘coming together of the previously unrelated’, through the use of South Asian languages on the ‘No Smoking’ signs in the foreground. That geosocial throwntogetherness is exemplified by the individual life story of Mr Suraj Uddin, an exemplary individual whose life-story can be used in the class room to stand as a cipher for many others like him. Each of these qualitative sources, in their own way, adds to our global sense of Halifax by giving meaning to the quantitative cartographic data taken from the 2011 census which shows a concentration of South Asian residents living in the western part of town, around the Pellon area.

These artefacts will be used to teach students about place: about the exogenous and endogenous factors that can shape place, as the AQA A Level exam specification requires; but also about the way these categories dissolve when brought into contact with the reality of lived experience in place. Are migrant communities exogenous, since they originate outside of a place? Or, once settled, are they endogenous, internal to the place? How has this resident community shaped the urban environment in which it has made its home (Wilkins, 2019)? And what is being done, and might be done differently in future, in order to build a sense of community across the diverse communities at the heart of this place? These are eminently geographical questions. Bringing a strong theoretical framework derived from the discipline to bear on local circumstances, I hope to enable students to better understand the current nature of the place in which they live, and to consider their role in the future of this place.


Brenner, N., Madden, D. and Wachsmuth, D. (2011), ‘Assemblage urbanism and the challenges of critical urban theory’, City 15: 2: pg 225-240

Cresswell, T. (2006), On the move: Mobility in the modern western world Abingdon: Routledge

Cresswell, T. (2015) Place: A Short Introduction Chichester: John Wiley and Sons (2nd edition)

Mcfarlane, C. (2011), ‘The city as assemblage: Dwelling and urban space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 4: pg 649-671

Mitchell, K. and Sparke, M. (2018), ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg and the ‘Throwntogetherness’ of Global City Citizenship’, in M. Werner, J. Peck, R. Lave, and B. Christophers (eds.) Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues. New York: Columbia University Press, 215-232

Wilkins, A. (2019), Migration, work and home-making in the city: Dwelling and belonging among Vietnamese communities in London Abingdon: Routledge

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