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Space and Normalization
A research proposal

This research proposal was written during my stay at Indiana University Bloomington. The actual study has been carried out in 2001, back at Free University Berlin. I have published a reworked version of the full study on this website: Den Marlene-Dietrich-Platz erleben (in German). I also have an English version of the paper which I gave at the biannual congress of the German Sociological Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie) in October 2002.

Author: Lars Frers {1999)

The text is published under the
Creative Commons License.
Creative Commons License



Employing participant observation in a public place, this research project is targeted at achieving two goals. In sociological theory and in urban sociology models of modern day urban space have been developed from a critical perspective. To what extent do these models match behavior and interactions taking place in the environment of a recently developed urban entertainment center? The models that I present will focus on how architecture and built space restrain and control behavior. Normalization, making the detection of deviance easier and guiding people into planned routes of behaving are some of the strategies used. Secondly, what clues can be found in the way people interact in the observed area that point at the way these people counter these strategies of normalization? To approach this goal, the study presented here will have another focus on spontaneous behaviors and expressions. How will people react to the enforcement of rules? Therefore, methods are chosen that try to map out and capture the structural conditions present: mapping buildings, examining access and visibility and census taking. On the other hand, participant observation will be the method of choice to obtain data on conflicts and resistance arising in this setting.

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Problem Statement

The German unification reopened a highly valued place to urban development – the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. The division of Berlin and the building of the wall made what is construed as the former throbbing center of the city into a place void of any appreciated features of an urban place; a great barren meadow, perhaps used by people to walk their dogs. The wall came down and what was periphery was reinvented as being central, in just three years plans for developing this huge area (approx. two square miles) were whipped through different levels of the government body; Berlin was expected to become a member of the elite circle of global cities like New York, London and Tokyo. In the summer of 1999 part of the Potsdamer Platz area was opened to the public; in this area, centered on the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, I want to place my fieldwork. From the perspective of urban sociology, it can be characterized as belonging to the category of urban entertainment centers. A musical theatre, a casino, an IMAX cinema and two big multiplex cinema complexes surround this place, along with a number of smaller enterprises like restaurants, retail franchises and a medium-sized mall. I presume that the Potsdamer Platz is a significant place in regards to its symbolic and economic value. Tourists and inhabitants of Berlin go there and keep themselves informed about the process of its development. If this place is an important signifier of the reunified and prosperous capital of Germany, it is important to understand how this place is actually experienced by the people entering it, walking through and using it. What can they do and what behavior is perceived as inappropriate, leading to stigmatization? What behavior is ‘normal’? If there is a normality that is specific for this place, how is it produced and why?

Getting an empirical hold on an abstract concept like normality is a difficult and problematic enterprise. The enterprise gets even more complex when normality is understood as a tool, used by actors embedded in nets of power relations and competing for the definition of what is normal and what is deviant. In this research project I want to plumb the tensions between empirical results that can be derived from interpretive participant observation and theoretical conceptualizations inspired by post-structuralism. Therefore, my project is two-fold: (a) I want to understand what social and political implications the construction of an urban entertainment center in a pivotal location has and (b) I want to ‘test’ the empirical relevance of the perspective offered by sociological theory that explicitly focuses on place as a site for power-related struggles.

To keep this research project manageable I will have to rely mostly on participant observation. I will focus on how people act, how they interact with others and how they walk, stand and stay in this place. I will have to interpret their actions, to see what actions provoke interest, what actions are neglected in the perception of others, e.g. not explicitly recognized by actions of the others. If they provoke action, it will be important to categorize them: Do they seem to be evaluated as negative, threatening or as positive, stimulating? A more difficult factor to estimate is the influence not only of other persons, but of the materiality of the place: How does the physical makeup (stairs, streets, the height and shape of buildings, bodies of water, accessibility and visibility) influence what people can do and what they can not do? This will require more interpretive acts from my side that I will have to justify methodologically, but it might enable me to get a hold on the more ‘hidden’ ways through which power shapes bodies and the actions of people. Finally I will use some archival sources, e.g. official publications, newspaper articles and pamphlets of urban social movements, to point out what some of the more obvious aspects of the competition for defining the meaning of the Potsdamer Platz are and to evaluate how these textual statements refer to the more bodily and material statements made in the place itself.

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Related Research

Most of the research done on issues concerning my project was performed in the field of urban sociology and some related research was conducted in conjunction with the development of certain theoretical positions. I will demonstrate how these different sources influence the construction of the task that I want to carry out. Urban sociology is of course a wide field in itself, representing a multitude of different theoretical approaches; I do not want to tap a single school or make use of the concepts of a single author in this project. Instead, I will refer to several works or aspects of certain studies that are of relevance. (Using these sources without contextualizing and ordering them in the sociological field may seem to be eclectic, I will try to justify this approach when I present the actual design of my research project.) After presenting the models of urban places and the research that has been conducted using these models in this chapter; I will confront the methodological issues arising from these research models and theories in the next chapter.

In her book on the public realm Lyn Lofland includes a chapter titled Control by Design: The Architectural Assault on the Public Realm (Lofland 1998: 179-227). I will pick out two of the arguments she presents. (a) Regulations are commonly used to govern behavior in the public realm. She presents historical and contemporary examples of laws or regulations invented to attain control over public places. The banning of street selling in New York is one of them, and she points out that these regulations by themselves proved to be largely useless. The targeted purification of the public realm is usually not attained by these means; instead, police patrolling and security personal often create additional disturbances that can be interpreted as dysfunctional by the party interested in a particular social order. (See Lofland 1998: 190-191) (b) Another factor is necessary to create purified places: architectural design of a big enough scale (the scale of the Potsdamer Platz certainly satisfies this requirement) that serves to manage behavior according to rules of homogeneity and order. These ‘megastructures’ (Lofland 1998: 204) are characterized by the ability to absorb bundles of different activities, channeling them into desired and predictable courses. Theme parks and places like the Mall of America are archetypes of these categories.

Sharon Zukin adds another perspective; she reconstructs how places are pervaded by a desired kind of normality: One of her examples is the redevelopment of Bryant Park in New York. Formerly notorious for the homeless people that used the park for their purposes, Bryant Park was redesigned to transform it to a place more suitable for the white-collar employees of Midtown Manhattan:

[The] basic idea is that public spaces are made safe by attracting lots of ”normal“ users. The more normal users there are, the less space there will be for vagrants and criminals to maneuver. (Zukin 1995: 28)

In her model the normality-setting created through design (no hiding places, fenced flowerbeds and a café are some of the components of Bryant Park) is filled by or established through the use of the place by certain people. They and their patterns of behavior and interaction finally determine what is conceived of as being normal and what constitutes deviance.

Flesh and Stone – the title of Richard Sennett’s book indicates that he studies the interplay between the human body and architecture, buildings, urban space. The methodology of this work is difficult to grasp. Sennett combines the interpretation of sources ranging from Greek mythology to statistical material on migration in present day New York. Out of the content these sources provide he condenses ‘master images of the body’ (Sennett 1994: 23) that stand paradigmatically for a certain period. In his model, the contemporary master image is the passive body. Today’s urban space is designed to contain bodies in spheres of their own, shielding them from the influences of weather, the touch and smell of others, making them comfortable (Sennett 1994: 16-21). These comforted bodies are limited in the experience of their environment, they gaze (Sennett 1994: 358-359). One measure to evaluate the function or operation of a place is to look at the degree to which they enable or perhaps compel people to watch others from a position of self-contained pain-free security. In Sennett’s analysis watchers are passive actors, they are not involved in interaction, the crucial element of what would, in Lofland’s terminology, constitute the public realm.

One of the theoretical tools Bourdieu uses to describe society is examining legitimacy. To legitimately use a place or to interact legitimately, one has to have enough of the required sort of capital – economic, cultural, symbolic or social capital. People who lack a certain outward appearance, who use a place for actions that are perceived as illegitimate (e.g. sleeping, dancing or inline-skating) by those having the power to define legitimacy (e.g. security personnel, police and/or the majority of others) will experience pressures. Bourdieu gives examples for struggles over legitimacy in residential areas (Bourdieu 1997: 165). He emphasizes the symbolical and cultural ‘statements’ made in certain localities; they are used to hierarchize social space. Buildings, architecture, publicly displayed art and the character of retail shops symbolize life-styles and distinct social strata and their values. Symbols materialized in stone, glass and metal, are part of the bundle of forces controlling social space (Bourdieu 1997: 160-161). This theoretical perspective can be taken as a guideline for the interpretation of one aspect of a place: Its symbolic power structure.

In focusing on the body and its relation to power, Foucault opens a new aspect of society to the view of analysts of social relations. For my purposes, it will suffice to pick out two components from his book ‘Discipline and Punish’. (a) The body and the mind are examined in an ever-growing scope and in growing detail. Surveillance is enhanced using architectural means. Spatial barriers allowing intimacy are either dismantled completely, substituted by barriers that allow people to gaze at each other but not to touch (and therefore physically threaten) each other or they are replaced by one-way seeing devices (e.g. either mirrored windows or video cameras). The intended effect of this enhanced visual control is to allow smoother functioning. Deviance can be detected quickly and effortlessly – either by some specified personnel that keep an eye on the behavior of people or simply by others that are present; because of the vanishing of visual barriers and secluded places everybody can see everybody more easily. The task of controlling is distributed and people that deliberately seek secluded places might be seen as people that have to hide something suspicious. The prototype of architectural surveillance tools is Bentham’s Panopticon allowing surveillance personnel to observe prisoners without being seen themselves (Foucault 1995: 200-209). For Foucault this building reveals another aspect of power. (b) Power relations are hidden in a growing degree. In the Panopticon the prison guards can not be seen, but they can see all of the prisoners from their position. The men and women under observation never know if and when they are observed. They have to assume that they are always under observation, therefore they have to comply with rules, and they cannot know when they are free from being controlled. Through the use of hidden surveillance devices the control over behavior is transferred from the observer to the observed, they have to know themselves what is allowed and what is forbidden, taking the rules others have set up, thereby reproducing expected patterns of behavior.

The research perspectives presented here offer different perspectives on place and the way places can influence behavior: (a) A purification of the public realm through laws and regulations alone seems not to be sufficient, a large space that serves homogenous interests is needed for attaining purification, a ‘megastructure’ in which interactional rules are the same. (b) Symbolic homogeneity in a place is achieved when the people that use it are homogenous. The (similar) interactional patterns of their behavior then define what is normal and what is deviant. (c) Normality is linked to passivity. Buildings and plazas are constructed to allow the watching of others from a safe position, shielding observers from dangers that lie in getting involved in ‘rubbing shoulders.’ (d) Architecture and the material display of life-styles form a symbolic space in which social hierarchies are manifest. And, (e) Control is achieved more effectively through self-surveillance, instead of physical force. The camouflage of control goes along with the individual anticipation of control. Allowing intensified and magnified surveillance can be an intended feature of a building or a place. Equipped with this somewhat abstract set of analytical tools I want to approach the Potsdamer Platz. The research process will then show in how far these tools are useful for describing what is going on in this very specific and localized field. My goal is also to look out for the blind spots that are created when one uses a prefigured set of analytical perspectives. In addition to dealing with these methodological issues, my two-fold, methodological and analytical, approach will allow me to create a dense description of the complex net of social relations that permeate the Potsdamer Platz area. To provide a socially and politically relevant analysis and to improve research methods appropriate for analyzing place as a sociological category[1] is the goal of creating this research design.

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According to the character of my research project, I will rely on observation to gather the data needed to analyze the setting. Observation can take many forms; what is the appropriate mode of observation for my project? As my research and the observations that I will make are localized in a public, or at least an open setting, the difficulties of ‘getting in’ (Lofland and Lofland 1984: 20-30) are manageable. It might be necessary to ask for permission for taking pictures and recording some of the things that go on in the adjunct mall, but the area in general can be defined as open to public access. I will not hide myself, but in the context of the setting it is not possible or necessary to ask individuals that will be observed for permission to observe them. In my view, this ‘implicit covertness’ is justified, as I will not harm the privacy or disturb the intimacy of any of the persons that I will observe. (For a short discussion of these issues see also Lofland and Lofland 1984: 21-22, 29-30.) The role of a participant observer in a public place might carry another problem. How should or will I react, when I am confronted with illegal behavior or the mistreatment of labeled deviants? I think in situation like that I will not consider myself to be in the role of a researcher. Instead, I would react as I would do if I were a ‘normal’ person present at a particular situation and act according to my perception of the situation and my judgment as a participant of public life in a city and not as a detached researcher that does not want to interfere with the object of his or her study.

Finally, I think it will be important to place myself in a social field in a Bourdieuan sense (see Wacquant 1992: 39-40): In how far does my social origin and my position regarding class, gender, ethnicity and other dimension bias my perception? What is my position in the academic field (who will read and grade my thesis and whom do I want to convince)? Thirdly, in how far am I biased as an intellectual, seeing the world and social relations as a spectacle which is interesting from an analytic perspective rather than as being defined by practical problems?

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The extended case method

The next step is to specify exactly what aspects of the setting and the actors I will observe and what consequences this research design implies. The specification of what I will do, can be framed in different ways. In order to clarify my intentions I rely on the categories presented by Burawoy (1991). Burawoy offers two dimensions on which participant observation can be interpreted; one is the level of significance of a social situation (from particular to general), the other refers to the level of analysis (micro or macro). As I stated before, my goal is to look at a historically and spatially specific location. This means that the social situation is a particular one. It does not stand for our society in general. To place the research project on the other dimension it is helpful to give Burawoy’s definition of what ‘macro’ means: ‘The macro is then the aggregation and repetition of many micro interactions’ (Burawoy 1991: 282). In my case, the purpose of observing and interpreting the actions and behavior of others is not to look for the rules of face-to-face-interaction, but to look for how interactions are demonstrating influences of the physical and symbolic environment that they are localized in. This is congruent with Burawoy’s definition and it places my research into Burawoy’s favorite category: The extended case method. The following list presents some of the characteristics of his approach.

Generalization of the collected data is established by connecting the data to sociological theory; in the case of this study, fragments of different conceptualizations are combined and will be tested and reconstructed according to what the data will allow me to describe and what they will not allow me to grasp. No invariant general laws applying to society as whole will be produced by my research; this approach will enable me to create a explanation of how outcomes are produced in a situated context, which is determined by a multitude of different elements or factors. The last point mentioned in the table is crucial for the evaluation of the relevance of my study: Will it serve to empower the research objects (i.e. give them the status of active subjects), will it simply be irrelevant in this regard or can the knowledge that will be produced be used to solidify established hierarchies and power inequalities? At least it is my hope that this project will serve to strengthen a discourse of resistance and of struggle against hidden barriers, that restrain individual and collective expressions.

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Discursive Environment

To embed my observations in a meaningful context it is necessary to trace the discourses surrounding the development and the construction of Potsdamer Platz. To accomplish this ‘textual contextualization’ I will tap discourses of different qualities, ranging from statements written by representatives of the city council, by the developers of the area, by urban planners and architects, by professional critics of urban planning (mostly scholars and other ‘urbanists’), by journalists and by urban social movements. In the frame set by this study, it will not be possible to analyze these sources and their interrelations thoroughly (e.g. what characteristics distinguish texts written for the ‘general public’ from texts written for potential investors in the area?). Instead, I will use these sources to supply readers of the study with a picture of the different meaning and interests that can shape attitudes towards the place under examination. The broadness of such a presentation of discursive strands should give a feeling for the meaning of what happens in and around Potsdamer Platz, showing that the meanings attached to this place are not uniform but instead diverse and conflicting.

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Physical Environment

Map making will be a part of collecting data about the physical environment. Usually a map will depict the two-dimensional layout of a place and it may also offer information on how designated areas are used (restaurants, retail stores, galleries, cinemas, etc). To capture the physical setup of a place this will not suffice. Adding photographs of certain areas or situations will helps insofar as the size of a structure might become clearer. But both maps and photographs have drawbacks. They are depicting a static setting and do not show movements; they suggest ‘reality’ and abstract from it at the same time, thereby making the depicted objects and relations seemingly ‘natural’ and not artificially constructed. Photographs or computer simulations of places are commonly used to convince an audience of either the liveliness, beauty and orderliness of a place or they are used to show how empty, desolate and dirty a place may be – all depending on the time of day, the weather and the season the picture was taken in. Nonetheless, pictures and maps are useful; it is important to tell readers when they were took, and what they do not show but which could be found at the place depicted at a particular time or when looking from a particular perspective. Not every aspect of the ‘story’ of a built setting can be retold just by looking at pictures or maps. For my project, describing the effect a building or a set of buildings has is crucial. The relations between different buildings (in height, width, texture of surface, etc.), the ease or difficulty of accessing a certain place, even the ‘micro-climate’ (is there sunlight, is there shadow, is a corner cold and windy even in the summer, what places are lit at night) and the possibilities for resting in an area – all these things are difficult to capture by mapping or photographing them, one has to describe them with words. Omitting these material and physical features of a place reduces it to an abstract set of objects that can be ‘pictured’ visually; the ‘feeling’ of a place – the smells, temperatures and textures – is lost. I understand that a reconstruction of these aspects is risky in that they are experienced from a subjective perspective, but I do not see that other tools such as maps, pictures and numbers are necessarily more objective. Prudence in presenting subjective experiences is crucial; they must be presented in a way that allows for their reproduction.

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Now the focus will shift from the setting to the actors themselves. The quality and the feel of a place is also determined by the people that use it. The sheer number of people walking through or being in a place influences how others can act and how they experience a place. A Sunday morning with just a few ‘hardcore’ early risers will make quite a different impression than a Saturday during the Christmas shopping season. It will be interesting how numbers shift and change over the day and, as I hinted in the example just given, the composition of people walking through Potsdamer Platz might also change. The composition might also be different from location to location – which people will actually enter a building, how many people enter the area from the subway, how many arrive by bus? To quantify the composition of actors poses much bigger difficulties than just counting heads. What subgroups should and could be defined and counted? When I counted people walking through the College Mall in Bloomington, it became apparent that categories are quite arbitrary. Obviously, it is practically impossible to draw borders between different classes, some might be wearing rags, some might be wearing suits and cocktail dresses, but this would probably be the only directly observable feature pointing to social class or status. Most people will look somewhat similar. Other attributes are somewhat easier to discern. Gender is one (but even during 30 minutes of observation in Bloomington’s mall there was a person that I could not put into the male or female category), age is another – but here again borders are very arbitrary (e.g. some adolescents look very much like adults). Race or ethnicity is observable in some cases, but the categories would be very rough. The categories that I had the least difficulties with were group size and the apparent group homogeneity or heterogeneity on the dimensions age and gender. The question is: Measures for classifying people just by observation of their appearance are unreliable and subjective, in some cases more so than in others. Are there reasons that would justify quantifying and classifying people in such a subjective and arbitrary manner? I think there are two good reasons. (a) When one considers the research situation pragmatically it becomes evident that some judgment must be made on the social composition; otherwise it would be difficult or even impossible to meaningfully describe the patterns of behavior that I will observe – one has to have at least a vague notion of who is doing what and how likely the appearance of certain encounters or interactions is statistically. It is more ‘honest’ to make subjective classifications explicit, to admit their vagueness rather than just to imply the fact that there are categories, and not to report on which assumptions these classifications were based. (b) My measures are subjective, however, all other (inter)actors will also judge the composition of the people present at any given moment; and they will act accordingly. Again, the important point will be to make one’s own subjective measures as explicit as possible, so that readers can try to evaluate the plausibility and the possible significance of my observations. Another possibility would be to gather some data (e.g. using interviews) that would allow me to estimate the subjective experience of other actors – I personally do not think that I have the resources and experience to conduct such interviews in a proper ‘scientific’ manner. Nonetheless, I will at least ask some colleagues in my department to accompany me for a short time and to log their perceptions too. I might afterwards be able to reconstruct some individual differences in the perception of categories.[2] From my perspective a problem remains. To count numbers, to put them down in a table and to make comparisons and calculate correlations suggests a high degree of ‘scientificity’, perhaps giving these data greater weight than the method that I used to collect them would reasonably allow them to bear – however this risk does not seem to be threatening enough to negate the potential use of creating a ‘statistical’ account of the composition of staying in and walking through specific locations in the Potsdamer Platz area.

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When the setting is explored by using the described techniques, a space in which observed actions can be ordered and categorized is opened. Actions or behaviors[3] are always at least to some degree spontaneous and not predictable – this makes the actual observation of what people do crucial for the whole project. It will become clearer to what extent the theses I presented earlier are meaningful probes for understanding what happens in the area. To allow for a maximum level of analytical openness towards what actually happens, it is necessary to log what one observes as accurately and promptly as possible. Lofland and Lofland present a collection of techniques that serve this purpose (1984: 62-68). Keeping mental notes, jotting down impressions, writing down more extensive field notes as soon as possible and, from time to time, taking an analytic look at the notes one produced so far are the central procedures. A technique that serves to keep the collection of data as unbiased as possible is to keep notes that one takes and maps that one sketches of events and interactions as concrete as possible. This allows for more flexibility in later interpretations, e.g. if one has a new idea of what might be going on when a specific event happened, one has a better basis for reinterpreting and evaluating analytic models that one constructs. In addition to these ‘impressionistic’ notes I will also look out more specifically for interactions and for ‘unconscious behavior’ that confirm or contradict my theoretical assumptions. Are certain actions regarded as deviant, being reasons for stigmatization, thereby indicating are more restricted or controlled normality? Do people behave as if they are self-contained actors fearing contact with others, just watching them? How will actors react if others (walkers-by, security personnel or police officers) treat them as deviants? Will they willingly comply; will they try to resist? How does spontaneous action as staged by urban social movements influence the feel of the place? Of course, to some extent searching means finding. However, I do not see a way to purge these interests from my observation. Therefore I will try to apply them in a controlled way, at some times looking out specifically for (inter)actions that relate to the concepts I have and make.

To keep a wide perspective on the place, I have to make observations for a long time period, probably spread out over three or four months, so that I will be able to look from different perspectives and observe different locations. The time frame for my diploma thesis will be about nine months long; this includes writing the analysis (about 100 pages). I think it will be possible to make observations (perhaps over six weeks), log the data, if possible make a break for a first, exploratory analysis (three to four weeks) and then re-enter the field for another short period (two weeks). Equipped with the observational data I will have collected over this period I will then order the data and start writing.

Finally, some words on values and my relation to what happens at Potsdamer Platz. I am approaching the field with a background of Marxist critique and post-structuralist notions of the strategic importance of creating places or spaces where resistance can manifest itself. Retrieving power relations that are hidden, filtered from sight through the use of architecture and through invading the body, seems for me to be an important political and social goal. Places of such a symbolic value as the Potsdamer Platz can show some of the techniques that are used to embed neoliberal politics into everyday life. The contradictions arise at first sight: Potsdamer Platz (at least the part that I focus on) is an urban entertainment center – fun and enjoyment are used as devices to install control, not spontaneity, fun and enjoyment are commodities used to gain profits, not to set people free to use their creativity. Architecture used for strategic intentions, for establishing controlled consumption, becomes a strategy in itself, used for creating a normality that complies with the rules of generating exchange value. Will people be able to counter these pressures and create pockets of resistance? Exploring the shifting and moving borderline between control and spontaneity may shed light on what Saskia Sassen described in a colloquium that I visited this summer as ‘strategic sites’ – sites where impulses that can somehow counter the impoverishment and purification of the public realm might develop.

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