Spatializing Culture by Setha Low

Setha Low, professor of Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center at CUNY recently released her new book:

Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place

This book demonstrates the value of ethnographic theory and methods for understanding space and place. It considers how ethnographically based spatial analyses can yield insight into prejudices, inequalities and social exclusion, as well as offering people the means for understanding the places where they live, work, shop, and socialize. In developing the concept of spatializing culture, Setha Low draws on over twenty years of research to examine social production, social construction, embodied, discursive, emotive, affective, and translocal approaches. A global range of fieldwork examples are employed throughout the text to highlight not only the theoretical development of the idea of spatializing culture but also how it can be used in undertaking ethnographies of space and place. The volume will be valuable for all scholars interested in the study of culture through the lens of space and place.


Setha Low is Professor of Anthropology, Earth and Environmental Sciences (Geography), Environmental Psychology, and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, U.S.A. She is the former President of the American Anthropological Association and served as Deputy Chair of the World Council of Anthropological Associations.


Praise for Low’s Spatializing Culture:


“Setha Low has taken an incredibly useful and conceptually comprehensive look at anthropological understandings of ‘social production’ and ‘social construction’ in the context of engagements with bodies, language, affect, translocality and their impact on how we navigate space/place. The chapters bring these ideas to life in ways that work both for students in a classroom and for general readers…Low’s work demonstrates anthropology’s singular contribution to theories of space, place, and power today.”

-John L. Jackson, Jr. University of Pennsylvania


“Setha Low brings together in this wonderful volume the great extent of her knowledge of cities and her urban scholarship, the delicacy and richness of a visually inclined ethnography, and the conceptual sophistication of a deep historical and contemporary knowledge of theories of place and space.”

Caroline Knowles, Goldsmith


“Drawing theoretical inspiration from across the social sciences, Spatializing Culture presents state of the art analysis of cotemporary social relations and cultural settings. Setha Low demonstrates the power of ethnography as both method and textual craft to examine how meanings, representations and material effects are felt and embodied in the rough and smooth of peoples’ everyday lives.”

Gareth A. Jones, London School of Economics and Political Science


Spatializing Culture is published by Routledge Publishing.


Get your copy today!


Faculty Setha Low Speaks About Public Space at the 9th World Urban Forum

Setha Low, professor of Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center, recently shared her work on activist focusing on implementing public space initiatives at the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The following are her colleague, Michael Mehaffy’s opening remarks for their panel on Implementing Public Space Initiatives in the New Urban Agenda:

Professor Setha Low speaking at the 9th World Urban Forum

“I’d like to talk a bit more about the research agenda for public space, and research into practice — and into co-production by the community, as was said earlier. A bit of introduction:  The Centre for the Future of Places is a research center at KTH University in Stockholm, and the next stage of a partnership with UN-Habitat and others to develop a public space agenda, and a strategy for implementing public space.   Over our original three years we had I think 1500 people from over 700 organizations, 250 cities and 100 countries, representing researchers, government representatives, practitioners and activists.


So now we’re focused on implementation, and on developing an evidence-based approach, and that’s where the research comes in.  Part of that is in simply showing the benefits of good-quality, well-connected public space for creating safer and more accessible cities – and there’s plenty of evidence for that.  In fact the evidence shows that one of the key issues IS the connectivity of public space systems, AS systems — the network aspects of public space, allowing access for people to come and go, creating safety through “eyes on the street,” creating a pedestrian-friendly environment that is not endangered by the car and by other vehicles, and so on.  In this sense, public space is not just a green park or two here and there – if you like it’s really the skeleton of the city – the whole framework through which private spaces are also connected to one another.


But the other thing about the research is the need to understand local contexts and local variations – local laws, cultural differences, climate differences and so on.  The importance of co-production of public space, as has been discussed.  So what we’re proposing is a model that brings in the more universal research about good quality public space and its characteristics and its benefits, coupled with some “rapid response” local research, conducted by local universities and other partners.  And then mapping out the actors, the methods, the tools, the things that work and don’t work, on the ground, within the co-production process, so that we can take those back and share them with other local teams and partners.


So this is another kind of network that we have to recognize, I think – the network of implementers that we need to build, a kind of federation that partners with UN-Habitat and with others to deliver the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and the public space agenda, starting with on-the-ground projects, and building momentum from there.”

Luisa Bravo and Mirko Guralda of City Space Architecture, a nonprofit.


Professor Low continued:

“We hope to find a way to research and understand how projects are working, such as whether they are socially just and helpful both locally as well as for the broader city. If we can figure out a “tool” or “indicators” of social justice in public space (based on spaces that are being created) then it gives you a stronger basis for scaling up. Of course the outcome is not just social justice, but caring for others, recognition of difference, environmental improvement, economic stimulus, reinforcing social relations, creating a place for religious rituals and even for safe discussion of the problems being faced. All of this is important, including whether it is social inclusive for all, safe for all, and accessible for all.

From my point of view no one method/tool is going to be perfect and what would be best is something that would capture the diverse peoples, languages, and cultural/political/historical contexts of the public spaces. So I am thinking that we need a method that can be changed, modified and with multiple parts. In places where people do not read or write or are uncomfortable with these tasks, asking them to fill out questionnaires (or internet surveys) simply does not make sense and is disrespectful. Also, in some places face to face interviews might not be possible such as when interviewers are men and the interviewees are women in gender segregated cultures, while in other contexts interviews would be the basis of much of the research. And sometimes, it is a good idea to have an “outsiders” point of view, such as the idea of having students from the local college involved. They may or may not live in the neighborhood, but their perspective can uncover problems that local people do not want or can not talk about.

With all of this being said, what I would like to work on is creating a simplified REAP (rapid ethnographic assessment procedure). REAP is the method that I have used in many parks and plazas in Latin America and the US. But it might be too complicated for local application without some training. A REAP is a qualitative method so it does not include much “counting” but can easily accompany other survey/counting/demographic techniques. Its advantage is that it does not rely on any one method but is made up of a series of very short methodological techniques that are then compared (triangulated) with one another. The strength of such an ethnographic method is that differences will emerge among the methods and these inconsistencies provide the richest data about what is “really” going on. For example, you observe women talking to other women every day in the afternoon, usually while watching their children play nearby. The behavioral maps also reveal that many women congregate on the benches that are close to the children’s playground and occupied between 2-4 pm. But when you interview the women they say that they do not talk to others, but keep mostly to themselves. This contradiction would lead the researcher (local or outsider) to begin to investigate why this contradiction in the data exists. What they might learn is that these women are “expected” not to interact because of cultural differences or something else, so that if you had just interviewed them you would think that they were not interacting with others. I could think of many, many other examples where it is important to use different techniques to understand what is going on.


Simply put the most basic methodological techniques are to undertake:


  1. behavior and movement maps of the users of the public space (noting activities, who is doing them and where). These are time/place based and should be done over both weekdays and weekends.
  2. “expert” interviews with those who designed and worked on the public space as well as any “officials” or “funders” who had ideas about what they wanted to accomplish.
  3. “individual” interviews asking the users what they think of what has been created, what they like and don’t like as well as trying to get to people who are NOT using the space to ask they why they are not there.
  4. participant observation, that is, taking notes and learning through the experience of being in the space yourself.
  5. uncovering the history of the public space in its physical and social context, often through oral histories of the users themselves.


I understand that this seems like a lot, and of course it would still be complemented by counts of the number of people using the space, the number of people making a living in the space, the number of children to add to the mapping of activities and users. But I also think that such a method would produce compelling data to present to the stakeholders and policy makers. Take my example about the women–in a community divided by religion/ethnicity/class/race–an ethnographic method would confirm that women really do interact and come together while a questionnaire or interview where they must put down the “right” answer would not.”



Key Questions to Continue to Think About in Regards to Public Space:

  1. What are the new models (of public space, or urban form)?
  2. What are the existing barriers?
  3. What are the tools and strategies to overcome such barriers?
  4. How can we share, develop, and distribute these tools and strategies?

Alum Jen Jack Gieseking Interviewed about Latest Research

Jen Jack Gieseking was interviewed by Jacob R. Moore Urban Omnibus, a publication of the architectural league of New York. You can find the interview here!

The map above is part of Jen Jack’s A Queer New York site, which will launch in spring of 2019. Courtesy of Jen Jack Gieseking.

“Defining and representing what might be understood as “queer space” is no easy task: myriad sites may be associated with individual and collective histories, but the creation of a shared story sets limits on what’s included. Nowhere is that challenge more richly laid bare than in New York City, and no one knows it better than Jen Jack Gieseking, author of the forthcoming book A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queer Women, 1983-2008. In this interview, Gieseking draws our attention to the ever shifting, often contradictory constellations of LGBTQ+ spaces — urban and rural, destructive and triumphant — asking not only what they share, but also how they might be shared with those interested in the queer spaces that are yet to come.” -Jacob R. Moore

Jen Jack Gieseking is an urban cultural geographer, feminist and queer theorist, environmental psychologist, and American Studies scholar engaged in research on co-productions of space and identity in digital and material environments. His second book project, A Queer New York, will be accompanied by an interdisciplinary digital project, “A Queer New York: Mapping Lesbian and Queer NYC History.” He is Assistant Professor of Public Humanities in American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Along with Jay Shockley , he contributed to the National Park Service’s 2016 report, LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History.

Theorizing Jealousy: Affect and Emotions in Polyamory

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Enciso Dominguez for her lecture

“Theorizing Jealousy: Affect and Emotions in Polyamory.”

Join us on Wednesday, March 7th at 11:45 in Room 6304.01 (“The Hub”)!

For more information on Dr. Dominguez’s work, please see her faculty page at John Jay.

Dr. Dominguez’s lecture is part of the Critical Cluster series of Brown Bag events, free and open to the public!

W.E.B. Du Bois Reading Group


W.E.B. Du Bois Reading Group

              W.E.B. Du Bois
Photograph taken by C.M. Battey
Courtesy of the U.S.A. Library of Congress

Due to popular demand, the Environmental Psychology department at CUNY Graduate Center has started a W.E.B. Du Bois Reading Group.

William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois was an African American sociologist, historian, and activist. He was also the first African American to earn a doctorate. His work includes Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction in America, The Crisis, The Philadelphia Negro, The Star of Ethiopia, and many more. This reading group is aimed to engage in the writings of Du Bois through reading and discussion. The first meeting was held on February 20th.

The next meeting will be held at 4-5:30 on March 13th in Room 6203.20 at the Graduate Center.

We will be discussing the first and third chapters of Souls of Black Folk and listen to a few of the African spirituals that Du Bois mentions.

The current schedule is as follows:

March 27th

April 10th

May 1st

May 15th

All meetings are held at 4-5:30 in Room 6203.20 at the Graduate Center.

Any questions? Please email David Chapin at

UDIG: User Design Information Group

Come Join us on February 28th to hear from our EP faculty member Leigh Graham and three of our EP students (Evie Klein, Eleanor Luken, and Troy Simpson) as they share their work with UDIG (User Design Information Group)!

Our Brown Bag Events are free and open to the public!

Learn more about UDIG by visiting their website!

#TheyGunnedMeDown: Narrating Race-Radical Classrooms in the Movements for Black Lives By Dr. Carmen Kynard

Brown Bag Event February 21st 2018:

#TheyGunnedMeDown: Narrating Race-Radical Classrooms in the Movements for Black Lives

Dr. Carmen Kynard


The Full Slideshow can be found at:

Dr. Kynard is an associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY). She has a particular commitment to those places and programs that enroll large numbers of first-generation, working class students of color. Kynard has worked as the director of a first year writing program and as an English professor at St. John’s University, in the Department of Urban Education at Rutgers-Newark University, and in the Department of English at Medgar Evers College. She is a former high school teacher with the New York City public schools/Coalition of Essential Schools and has led numerous projects focusing on issues of language, literacy, and learning: consultant for the Community Learning Centers Grant Project in Harlem, educational consultant and curriculum developer for the African Diaspora Institute/Caribbean Cultural Center of New York, instructional coordinator for the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, seminar leader for the New York City Writing Project, and seminar leader for Looking Both Ways.

Dr. Kynard has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, and many more. Her book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies won the 2015 James Britton Award and makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement.

Her work today sits at the crossroads of composition-rhetoric studies, new literacies studies, and urban education. Dr. Kynard is most interested in interrogating race and the politics of writing instruction in secondary and post-secondary settings and institutions, looking closely at the ways racialized political economies get expressed as literacy praxis. She strives to bring research, teaching, and service as a commitment to educational change where the humanities, writing studies, and critical pedagogy can work in conjunction. Her current research is on Black female college students’ literacies and learning as critical sites of recursive memory.

Email contact:


The City University of New York, including the Graduate Center, has more work to do, specifically in regards to de-centralizing whiteness on its faculty and in its curricula, supporting students, faculty, and staff of color, incorporating writing and research on black issues by black folk into our curricula and research, and by fighting the continued violences enacted on black folk through the field of psychology.

Welcome back, Deirdre Conlon!

Deirdre Conlon, a graduate of the program, recently returned to share her new research with the department and to speak with current students about her experiences. A description of her talk is found below:

GC CUNY Critical Psychology Brown Bag Colloquium, Oct. 18th 2017


Reflections on Carceral Circuits and Spaces

Deirdre Conlon, Ph.D.

University of Leeds, School of Geography

Alumnus Environmental Psychology Program, Graduate Center, CUNY


This presentation outlines the trajectory and key themes of my research since completing my Ph.D. in the Environmental Psychology program. It then turns to a new project on ‘carceral space, private sector contracts, and questions related to legitimacy.’ I trace three empirical projects (my dissertation, which examined everyday productions of nationhood (and exclusion) among refugee/migrant women in post-birthright citizenship referendum Ireland; a UK/U.S. comparison of challenges and mitigating strategies developed by migrant support and activist groups facing increasing social and political hostility and fiscal austerity toward migrants (with Nick Gill, Exeter); and an ongoing project (with Nancy Hiemstra, Stony Brook University) that extends critical research on the privatization of immigrant detention by examining the internal micro-economies and dynamics that sustain and expand detention as a key facet of immigration enforcement in the U.S. today. I call attention to key and recurring themes in this work that continues to be inspired by classes, conversations, and exchanges during my graduate studies at the Graduate Center: attention to fine grained details and the everyday effects of immigration policies, and from this careful cataloguing of the myriad harms and forms that dispossessions take in these spaces (following Fine and Ruglis, 2009); a meta-critique of institutions, in this case immigration detention / prisons and the mundane enforcement practices and protocols that are normalized in their name; and, in terms of research practice, the significance of collaborative spaces/process in my work, an ethos and orientation to scholarship and research that the Graduate Center’s Environmental Psychology program fosters and supports. The presentation ends with a number of preliminary observations related to the aforementioned new project. These include: exceedingly careful attention to the production of a ‘continuous carceral space’ when prisoners/immigrants are transferred and where public and private actors overlap in providing (contracted) custodial ‘services’; questions about who is the audience for claims related to legitimacy; and prisoners’ and immigrants’ experiences of these flexible and fluid spaces of confinement. The presentation ends with a series of questions for discussion, in keeping with the ethos of the Critical Psychology Brown Bag colloquium.



Fine, M. and Ruglis, J. 2009. Circuits and consequences of dispossession: the racialized realignment of the public sphere for U.S. youth. Transforming Anthropology 17(1), pp. 20-33.



Spring 2018 Brown Bag Schedule

Please join us for a Brown Bag event this Spring 2018! We have a variety of fantastic speakers coming to share their research with us. Our Brown Bag events are free and open to the public. Please see the schedule below!

Social scientists & architects collaborate to link equity and learning to educational spaces

Sara Grant (left) and Evie Klein (middle) are presented with the Citation for Design Excellence by Jennifer Sage, the AIANY Vice President for Design Excellence.

On December 5th, the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANY) conferred a Vice President’s Citation for Design Excellence on a collaborative research project between architects and social scientists currently underway at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.

The study is led by Evie Klein, Eleanor Luken, and Troy Simpson, who are current Environmental Psychology doctoral students and co-founders of the User Design Information Group (UDIG) at the Center for Human Environments (CHE) at the Graduate Center. The architects collaborating on the project are Sara Grant (partner at Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick) and Marta Sanders (partner at Architecture Outfit).

The Medgar Evers College Collaborative Research Project focuses on higher education spaces outside the classroom and on data collected via field research. The project is exploring how the design of campus spaces can support student-faculty relationships and student retention; ways of using social science methods to better understand the values and culture of higher education environments; and how such spaces contribute to advancing common goals of the campus community.

To link physical spaces and social transformation, the research team is taking several steps, including engaging students as researchers, undertaking ethnographic fieldwork, and making impact evaluations of the physical and procedural changes to the space associated with the study.

The AIANY citation was awarded to two committees of the AIANY who play key roles in the research project: the Social Science + Architecture Committee (SS+A), which Klein founded in 2016 with Melissa Marsh, and the Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE). The aim of the collaboration is to demonstrate that a design based on rigorous social science research methods can have a measurable impact on the social goals of an educational institution.

This project aligns with UDIG’s goal of connecting environmental psychology scholars with architects, planners, and communities to develop research that informs and promotes equitable design initiatives. On the Medgar Evers project, Klein, Luken, and Simpson are providing expertise in social science methodologies of data collection and analysis in coordination with the traditionally rigorous architectural methods of observation and problem solving through design.

The research team also includes two current Medgar Evers undergraduate students with support from campus faculty and senior administration staff.

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 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.