Why do place and space matter?
Knowledge as universal
Some social scientists believe that the generation and application of knowledge is unrelated to spatial contexts. Knowledge is seen as universal, as being able to be produced anywhere and as ubiquitously available. New findings in the fields of science studies, actor-network theory, learning organisations, research in creative milieus and in geographies of knowledge, education and science have highlighted the importance of spatial (local) contexts in the creation, legitimisation, diffusion and application of new knowledge. These studies have shown that spatial disparities in knowledge (in the broadest sense) are not a short-term transitional event, but a fundamental structural element in economy and society.
The spatial distribution of the socio-cultural factors which influence human creativity, opportunities for learning and the ability to learn, is very uneven. Similarly, the socio-cultural factors which favour opportunities, new social interactions, new experiences and new connections of ideas also vary greatly between locations. The same applies to the resources and infrastructure necessary to create, adopt and implement new ideas and knowledge. Thus, all these different influences have to be seen in their spatial context and spatial distribution. For example, the organization of research and the exchange of ideas between scientists of different disciplines have a spatial dimension. Furthermore, the contents of scientific findings partially depend on local conditions, on the infrastructure available for research, on the styles of conducting research and on diverse creative milieus.
Knowledge - competitiveness, expertise and technology
An analysis of the spatial dimension of various types of knowledge helps to discern structures, factors of influence and interrelations that remain unexplored with a "spatially blind" approach. The utility of knowledge and its relationship with power, its contribution to the perseverance of social systems, and its importance in competition, depend less on knowledge per se, but on the temporal advantage in knowledge, skills or information. The competitiveness of an actor, an organization or a regional unit in many cases depends on the time at which a certain knowledge is obtained or implemented. A delay in the acceptance of information, in the procurement or implementation of knowledge, of skills or of technologies can cause long-term path dependencies and disadvantages as part of a self-reinforcing process. As a result, paths are chosen that cannot be reversed for long periods of time. On the other hand, once an advantage in knowledge, experience and technology has been obtained, this can lead individual agents or social systems to recognize important developments earlier. This means that the competitiveness of an actor, a social system or a region never depends on an absolute level of knowledge, but on a relative advantage in the timing or in the quality of their knowledge, expertise and technology in comparison with other actors, systems or regions. An ating research, on different international networks and on different creative milieus?
Main Questions of "scientific knowledge"
- To which degree can we characterise scientific practice as spatially localised and scientific knowledge as locally constructed?
- What is the difference between the locations where experiments and analyses are carried out and those where knowledge is generated, legitimised and applied?
- Which influence does the spatial context have on the generation of scientific knowledge?
- How can this spatial context be defined? Which factors further or inhibit the creation of scientific knowledge?
- Where does scientific knowledge receive its legitimisation? Which mechanisms are at work in this process?
- Which factors of the spatial context favour or hinder the adoption of scientific findings (e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution)?
- What causes spatial differences concerning the production of scientific findings and what are their consequences?
- To which extent do the contents of scientific findings depend on the infrastructure available for research locally, on different styles of conducting research, on different international networks and on different creative milieus?
Spatiality of Knowledge
Each type of knowledge has a different relation to spatiality and needs other research questions.
The simultaneity of multiplicity
An approach that deals with the spatiality of knowledge can also be used as an analytical tool. The spatial dimension is an important means of capturing and displaying diversity and multiplicity. The simultaneity of multiplicity can only be made visible in spatial dimensions. The many interrelations between spatiality, social relationships and the construction of identity have been described very vividly by D. Massey. “Space is a product of interrelations […] space is the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity; it is the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; it is the sphere of the possibility of the existence of more than one voice. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space […] Multiplicity and space are co-constitutive”. “The very possibility of any serious recognition of multiplicity and difference itself depends on a recognition of spatiality”. “In order for there to be co-existing, multiple histories, there must be space”.
An analysis of spatial patterns of indicators, of spatial contexts, functional spatial relations, spatial division of labour and processes of spatial diffusion can lead to new insights concerning the topics knowledge, creativity, education and science because a spatially differentiating approach throws up questions and gives answers as well as makes visible influences and interrelations that remain unnoticed by approaches which do not take spatiality into account. The scientific productiveness of such an approach, however, depends on the chosen concepts of space and whether an ontologisation or substantialisation of space can be avoided.
The strategic positioning and the spatial representation of artefacts, persons, events and topics can be used as an effective method to achieve a wide variety of aims. It can help in assigning different meanings, making comparisons possible or impossible, pointing out similarities or differences, forming or avoiding categories and delimitations, in making social differentiations, in drawing attention to certain objects or topics and thus devaluing, hiding or censoring other events.
Place - not only a place
A spatial unit or place is not only the stage on which activities take place and traces are left behind. Certain places or areas can also facilitate or impede social contact (e.g. scientific discourse). Places can have a specific symbolic meaning, they can indicate chances, potentials or dangers, they can attract or deter people, possess a high or low social status. The spatial location of cultural elements and symbolic objects creates contextual relations which can tell members of a certain culture, religion or interest group etc. to undertake certain activities or to avoid them. A material environment which possesses cultural meaning can give order to social relations and activities and thus influences social practices. The possible effects a context can have is not identical to the sum of all the individual factors taken together. Thus the spatial context is not made up of things, people and ideas which have accumulated over time in a spatial unit. It is rather so to speak the arena where the diverse structures, processes and influences act in combination, either to enforce their effect or to neutralise it in parts.
Spatial Diffusion of Knowledge
The speed at which new knowledge is distributed in the spatial dimension depends on various factors, including:
- the type of knowledge
- the interest of those generating the knowledge in releasing their information or knowledge (free of charge)
- the abilities and resources to find and finance a platform which is able "to get the message out,"
- the ability and willingness of potential recipients to accept the knowledge
How to categorize "Knowledge"?
First category: "everyday knowledge"
In theory, the so-called everyday knowledge travels most quickly, because it can be processed without previous knowledge, and because its distribution via mass media is in the interest of the producer or sender. However, many underestimate that because of today's overexposure to information, one needs extremely large advertising or public relations budgets and good contacts to gatekeepers in the media to distribute even simple messages via the mass media. And in some regions even freely available information does not arrive, either because the necessary technical preconditions to receive the information do not exist, or because the population is unable to read and write - which at the onset of the 21st century still was the case for approximately 800 Mio. people - or because those in power try to manipulate and censor the distribution of certain information in their territory. Just as importantly, new information or new knowledge are not accepted by some people because they contradict their personal experiences, their values and their cultural identity, all of which can cause them to reject information or knowledge.
Second category: "inability of knowledge transfer"
The second category of knowledge cannot easily be distributed because the generator or owner of the knowledge is unable to transfer his knowledge (skills) completely into words, gestures, formula or actions. As he knows more than he can articulate, each attempt to transfer this kind of knowledge from A to B faces a considerable loss of information.
Third category: "prior knowledge"
The third category of knowledge can be assimilated and understood only if the recipient possesses a considerable prior knowledge. To acquire this knowledge requires considerable time and resources. With this type of knowledge, the problem lies with the recipient. For example, the latest findings of molecular biology or high frequency physics are available world-wide, as soon as they have been published. However, people who have not spent years studying the respective disciplines find little or no use in the information, even though it is available publicly and free of charge. They simply lack the "prior knowledge" required to assimilate, evaluate and integrate the new information. This filter function of prior knowledge explains why certain kinds of knowledge circulate only between a few locations with similar preconditions (e.g., centres of finance, research laboratories, universities), why some regions are left out of the dissemination of innovations (new knowledge), and why numerous differences in knowledge between centres and peripheral regions persist for relatively long periods of time, or even redevelop time and again.
Fourth category: "Keeping knowledge secret"
The greatest spatial concentration (centralization) can be found with the fourth category of knowledge. Keeping this knowledge secret (in time and space) provides "those in the know" with a competitive advantage or an increase in power. This type of knowledge is closely associated with the projection or legitimization of power. It is not knowledge in itself, but the competitive advantage in knowledge that provides privileges, competitive advantages and power. Therefore, the "creators" and "guardians" of technical and symbolic knowledge since the earliest human history have tended to keep certain types of knowledge secret or to limit the access to certain functions. Many religions had holy books that only priests were allowed to read, holy knowledge that priests or shamans passed on only to select successors, and temple areas and holy sites that only priests were allowed to access. Thousands of years ago, magicians, oracles, seers and priests could create influence, privileges and status only because they proclaimed that they knew more than other members of the tribe. If the knowledge of the magician, the seer or the priest had become common knowledge, that privileged person would have lost their power and their privileges.
Even today knowledge that provides a competitive advantage is kept secret as long as possible or as long as necessary, or it is protected by patents. If it would be true that knowledge is freely available in today's world, we wonder why billions of Euros are spent for the defence against and the conduct of industrial espionage, why thousands of documents are kept secret or why - during military conflicts – military headquarters "embed" journalists by providing them only with certain information, and keeping them away from certain locations.
Extensions of details:
Meusburger, P. (1998): Bildungsgeographie. Wissen und Ausbildung in der räumlichen Dimension. Heidelberg Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 569 p.
Meusburger, P. (2000): The spatial concentration of knowledge. Some theoretical considerations. In: Erdkunde 54 (4), 352-364.
Meusburger, P. (2001): Geography of Knowledge, Education and Skills. In: Smelser N. J. and Baltes P. B. (editors): International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences Vol 12, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 8120-8126.