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date: 17 February 2020

Why and How Place Matters

Abstract and Keywords

This article describes the importance of the concept of place in politics. It discusses the origins of place and the ancient tradition in politics and suggests that place matters in three kinds of politics: democratic, military, and symbolic. It explains that places mold actors, structure their life chances, and provide them with identities and traditions of social and political action. Places are strategic sites of action and the creation, development, or destruction of places form an important part in political agendas.

Keywords: place, politics, identities, traditions, social action, political action, political agendas

1 Place and Politics

Politics begins with place. The Western notion of politics derives from a particular place and the concerns of its inhabitants, from polis, the Ancient Greek city(-state). The Roman Empire, for all its territorial extension (from today’s Iraq to today’s Scotland) was a very place-conscious rule, in which urbs, the city (Rome), was the crucial center of power. Civitas—whence current key concepts of politics, like citizen(ship/ry), civic, and civil originate, directly or indirectly—was in classical Latin not only a concept but also a designation of place and its inhabitants. Civi-tas aureliana, for instance, was today’s German Baden-Baden and French Orléans, Civitas augusta today’s Italian Aosta. Place was an important notion to classical European social and political theory, such as in Aristotle’s Politics of the fourth century bce, and place and motion were key concepts of his Physics (Casey 1997; Morison 2002).

The polity with which Aristotle was concerned was the polis, the city-state (with an agricultural surrounding), not an empire like that of his pupil Alexander. Book 7 of Politics is largely devoted to its ideal location and size, the lay-out of streets and buildings. “[T]he land as well as the inhabitants… should be taken in at a single view” (Aristotle 1988, 164). His main concern is security against enemy assault, so cities should not be built along straight lines, for instance (172); but he also stipulates an elevated site for religious worship and beneath it an agora for free men, free of trade, artisans, farmers, and “any such person” (173)

(p. 499) Place politics is not Eurocentric. Ancient Chinese conceptions of government, for instance, were also concerned with place and location. Here the focus was not on the city and empowered male citizens, but on the sovereign ruler, the Son of Heaven, and his mediation between the human and the natural worlds. This central mediation task of kingship, of empire, was tied to a concrete location: the Ming Tang (the Hall of Light), which later developed into the central locus of imperial power, the “Forbidden City,” the imperial Palace City in the center of the capital of the Central Kingdom of the World. The construction of a capital city was a key element of legitimate power, and codified in rules of place-based power in Kao Gong Ji (Code Book of Work, a Confucian classic from the “Spring and Autumn Period,” 6–8 centuries bce) (Dutt et al. 1994, 31 ff.; Sit 1995, 12 ff.). The rules were spread all over the area of Sinic civilization, stretching from Vietnam to Korea and Japan. They are still very prominent in today’s Beijing. The Chinese also developed a more general knowledge about the right place and spatial orientation of construction (feng shui, or “geomancy” in Latin English).

In the Americas, pre-Columbian places of power, like Machu Picchu in today’s Peru and Tenochtitlán in current Mexico, are still conveying their majestic importance to latter-day tourists.

So much for origins and traditions. But how much of place is there in the current world of broadcasting, globalization, Internet, virtuality? Has place become “abstracted from power,” because it is now organized in a “space of flows,” and not of places, as Manuel Castells (1996, ch. 6) has argued in a great work? A perusal of the main journals of political science for the new century hardly yields any hint of politics of place, although there are geographers who bring their disciplinary expertise of space to political questions (most recently Jones, Jones, and Wood 2004) and devoted journals like Hérodote (situated by Claval 2000; Hepple 2000) and Political Geography. Is place becoming something of the past only, or just an academic special interest?

Some reflection will show that place is still crucial today to power and politics, in some respect arguably even more than before. Above all, it matters in three kinds of politics: democratic, military (war), and symbolic. But before entering into hot contemporary empirical issues, let us take a circumspect theoretical look.

2 The Place, the Universe, and the Globe

Place has three decisive aspects of social being. First, it means a fixity in space. A place is a fixed location, a stable spot on a map. This means that place is something you can go to, leave, and return to—after a week, a year, a decade, a century, a millennium. A place can be destroyed and disappear, true, but it is always a good bet that it will be there across the vicissitudes of time, in some shape or other.

(p. 500) Second, place means contiguity. A place is where people can meet, can come and can be close to each other, where buildings can relate, where vehicles meet frequently. In this respect, the importance of place varies, positively with contiguous social ties or with local networks, and negatively with the significance of extra-local networks. Place is the site of face-to-face communication, opposite to letter-writing, calling, and Internet chatting.

Third, place means distinctiveness. A place is something different from another place, from anywhere, and from nowhere. A node is defined only by its connectivity, and a position by its relations; but a place is defined by its characteristics. The Norwegian architectural historian and theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz (1982) has referred to this distinctiveness as “genius loci,” the spirit of character of place, manifested both in the built environment and in the landscape.

Place matters to the extent that the universal does not. Universal laws rule regardless of place; they rule in all places without distinction. After Aristotle (who accorded a particular priority to place and to the question “where?”) universe and space came to obliterate place in Western philosophy and science (Casey 1997). It re-emerged in the mid-1930s in Heidegger’s philosophy, to which postmodernist and post-structuralist thought have paid close attention.

In other words, in so far as there are universal laws of social science—of economics, of politics, of sociology—place is irrelevant. Now, social scientists agree to having few if any universal laws. Does that mean that place is recognized as important? Not necessarily, because the non-universal may be specific instead to class, gender, ethnicity, culture, or any other non-place features. American-style identity politics, and studies of it, have hardly highlighted place-based identity (cf. Calhoun 1994).

The global is different. While the universe overshadows all places, the globe reveals them and connections among them. In contrast to the universal, the global denotes interconnection, interaction, interlinkage, as opposed not only to unit isolation but also to boundless universality. And global connectivity further implies global difference, global variability, the very opposite of universalistic invariance.

However, there is a tension between connectivity and variability, and a competition for attention and recognition. The main thrust of global studies has been on connectivity and its consequences of interdependence, influence, and hybridization. Much less analytical energy has been devoted to the global variability of places. The discourse on globalization has focused more on the connection, and less on what is being connected.

Globality, in this sense, has important epistemological consequences, too. In contrast to the one-way gaze of universalism and its privileged vantage-point, globality points to the importance of cross-cultural intercommunication as the infrastructure of the global knowledge of difference and connectivity.

In brief, places have competitors in space, the universe, the network position, flows, processes of connection and linkage, as well as from time, social character, and rational choice. To go further, we had better try to grasp the positive potential of place.

(p. 501) 3 Place and Social Action

Politics is a kind of social action, a kind having direct collective implications and involving some choice of course within a wider set of rules. Individual pursuits are not politics. Neither is the adjudication or implementation of rules—tasks of judges and bureaucrats, rather than of politicians or political activists.

Looked at from the general perspective of social action, place may be important for any one or more of five fundamental reasons:

  • place is the forming mould of actors;

  • place is a compass of meaning to the actions of actors;

  • place is the immediate setting in which action occurs, or “takes place”;

  • place crucially affects the consequences of action;

  • and finally (the character of a) place is an eminent outcome of action.

The last aspect means that there is an important feedback loop between place and action. In other words, place is both a crucial explanatory or “independent” variable,” an “intermediary” variable of setting or “locale” (Giddens 1994, 118–19), and a significant “dependent” variable. Place is thus an example of the dialectics of structure and agency.

“Place,” then, is taken as multiply defined, on a scale ranging from the globe to an office building. One definition is civic-political: being within a certain state, being within a certain political or cultural region, having a particular political or cultural (for instance, religious) history. Another is socioeconomic: having a particular socioeconomic structure (agrarian, industrial, commercial, for example), and being prosperous or poor. Still another we may label sociospatial or geosocial: including geopolitical, geoeconomic, geocultural; being central or peripheral, large or small in social space; or on a continuum of social density, of rurality and urbanity, or of communication, from centrality to isolation. A fourth dimension of place refers to its natural location: for example, coastal or inland, plain or mountainous, and with regard to the quality of the soil and the character of the climate. The first two definitions of place refer to contingent spatial effects from outcomes of past action; the latter two to the intrinsic weight of social and natural space upon social action.

To argue comprehensively and to exemplify adequately these modalities of place significance would require at least a handbook of its own. Within the constraints of this chapter, the approach will be to attempt a systematic outline and a set of illustrations. These are drawn largely, but far from exclusively, from my own work in progress on capital cities.1

The capital cities of nation states are of note in this context as places of consequential significance and as places of meaning. Capitals are places where crucial decisions are made, on war and peace, on legislation and taxation, on the final adjudication of crime and litigation. They are places where governments are installed, and where (p. 502) governments lose their power. They are the centers of political debate about the orientation of the country. National capitals are also the locations where decisive reactions to external events have to be made: where ultimata of foreign governments and of fateful organizations like the IMF have to be answered, where pressures and threats from states or transnational corporations have to be either yielded to or resisted. Issues of this sort are decided, not in “global cities” like New York, Los Angeles, or Hong Kong, but in Washington, DC, in Accra, Bangkok, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Beijing, and other national capitals. Capital cities are places where national differences are made. The capital is therefore often used metaphorically, referring to complex processes of government. “Paris says no”—for instance to an invasion of Iraq—is a way of summing up a whole process of democratic decision-making.

As seats of power, capital cities owe their site to the spatiality of power. Most elementarily, capitals develop with territorial polities—ancient developments in the West (Mesopotamia, Persia) and East Asia (China), but developing very unevenly across the world—and, secondly, with the permanent location of territorial power. The latter phenomenon is also ancient, but disappeared for many centuries in the early European Middle Ages, for instance, and remained rudimentary at least up to the Renaissance. The Central European German Reich never managed to get a proper capital in its almost thousand years of existence, until its dissolution in 1806 (Berges 1953; Schultz 1993)—and the capital has been a “problem” in German history at least into the 1990s

3.1 The Formation of Actors

The state you grow up in tends to mold you as a political actor. Your experiences, your successes, defeats, or traumas as a citizen affect your trust or mistrust in institutions and people, your views of government and of politicians. As a Scandinavian in the year 2000 there is a two-thirds chance that you would think that most people can trusted, but if you were Brazilian the probability would only be three in a hundred. A good third of Britons had confidence in their Parliament in 2000, but only 7 percent of Macedonians had. The same year, 9 percent of Americans, 17 percent of Poles, 20 percent of Indians, and 96 percent of Indonesians held that army rule would be “good” or “fairly good” for the country (Inglehart et al. 2004, tables A165, E75, and E116).

A classical idea of place molding actors was the urban–rural difference. The United States of America, for instance, were provided with a strong ruralistic, anti-urban message by one of their Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Appalled by the big cities of Europe, Jefferson held big cities injurious to “the morals, the health and the liberty of man,” that is, to the formation of civic actors (in a letter to Benjamin Rush of September 23, 1800, quoted in Yarborough 1998, 84). Big cities have remained in conflict with state politics throughout American history. A recent overview of US local government emphasizes that “one of the most persistent themes in (p. 503) state–local relations has been the conflict between state legislatures and the largest cities” (Berman 2003, 53; cf. Ching and Creed 1997).

More naturalistic but also more vague has been the counter-position of coastal cultural openness and sensuality against inland closure and austerity, a stereotype often invoked with respect to rival cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, Barcelona and Madrid, Beirut and Damascus, Shanghai and Beijing, Guyaquil and Quito.

When three eminent American urban scholars, Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom (2001) argue that Place Matters, they bring out differences among three Congressional districts, the New York 16th (South Bronx), the Ohio 10th (Westside Cleveland and adjacent suburbs), and the Illinois 13th (a suburbia west of Chicago). What they want to show is the “big difference in the quality of life” between these three metropolitan areas, from poor, staunchly Democratic South Bronx, to affluent, solidly Republican Chicago suburbs, via socioeconomically mixed, politically swinging Westside Cleveland. Economic segregation is making these place differences larger, and the distance between their supply of life chances wider.

Voters in different places of the same country tend to vote differently. Electoral geography was pioneered in France, by André Siegfried just before the First World War, focusing on the regional formation of actors. Territorial effects (ranging from provincial to municipal) could account for 75 percent or more of the party vote variation in eleven of sixteen Western European countries in elections of the 1970s. In Belgium they account for over 90 percent of the variance, and in Austria, Ireland, Sweden, and the UK close to that (Lane and Ersson 1999, 118). Those calculations do not include any controls for other factors, though. If you do control, not only for the social composition of actors but also for constituency characteristics and for political attitudes, little regional variation was found even in Britain (McAllister and Studlar 1992). The more interesting analyses lie between these poles.

Every democratic country exhibits a spatial pattern of voting, with classes, genders, age groups, or religious and secular people, for example, voting differently in different places or regions. But the reasons for this are still controversial among electoral researchers.2 In this context we shall pay attention to place-voting from the general angles of actor-formation, action-setting, and consequences of action.

Center versus periphery is a spatial dimension of actor-formation, an important cleavage of party systems as well as of voters. In Europe, it was put into focus by the Norwegian political scientist Stein Rokkan (1970; Rokkan and Urwin 1982). The peripheries of a Great Britain centered on the south of England, for example, tend to favor the oppositional left-of-center. The strong north–south polarization in the 1994 Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian referenda on EU membership combined space and class effects. In favor of EU membership was the affluent, more bourgeois center in the south; and against it was the somewhat less affluent, more working class or small farmer northern periphery.

(p. 504) For the US, Walter Dean Burnham (1970) has argued that the American party system from 1896 to 1932 was hung up on a polarity primarily between an industrial “metropole” in the Northeast supporting the Republicans and “colonial” areas in the West and the South supporting the Democrats. The defeated Confederacy states of the American South established for long a one-party system, throughout the national vicissitudes of the national Democratic label.

But while it has a capacity for hibernation, place politics is not fixed in time. There was, for instance, a significant correlation between the Spanish Socialist vote in 1933 and in the first post-Fascist elections of 1977: strong in Andalucia, Madrid, and Murcia; weak in Castilia-León, Galicia, Navarra, and Aragon (Tezanos 2004, 57). “Critical” elections and gradual sociopolitical processes can change traditions. American politics became more class-based with the New Deal, and class- and culture-based after the end of the Democratic one-party system in the South. Southern culture and traditions still matter, but in different political ways than before (cf. Lind 2003). Indeed, from recent presidential elections a pattern the reverse of the 1896–1920s alignment seems to have emerged. Now Democrats are concentrated in the Northeast (and on the West Coast), while the Republican bases are in the South and the West (Kim, Elliott, and Wang 2004). In France, the regional electoral cleavages going back to mid-nineteenthth century have been reshuffled. In the regional elections of 1986, the right gained even the old left Republican (part of the) south; and in 2004, the left captured Britanny and Vendée in the west, the bastion of the right since the French Revolution.

Since the nineteenth or early twentieth century Western European democratic electoral politics has undergone a process of nationalization, more affected by class and less by locality. However, after the First World War place effects have tended to stabilize. In a few countries, the end of the century saw an increase of the place-formation of voters, in Belgium above all, but also in Italy (Caramani 2004).

Place effects on the formation of political elites have been little studied. But other things being equal (which they rarely are), under democratic conditions—with politicians more rooted in powerful peripheries—the politics of specifically political capitals are likely be less socially cohesive and to be more insulated from economic and cultural elites, as well from popular forces and politicians. To the extent that that is true, it should imply more “log-rolling” or “horse-trading” among legislators. Its governments are more likely to be “governments of strangers” (to borrow a title from a shrewd observer of American public policy—Heclo 1977—who nevertheless paid no attention at all to the peculiar place of Washington). To the extent that it holds, this would imply policy conflict and policy inconsistency, among government incumbents as well as between governments. This sort of capital tends to occur in federal states, with their de-centered domestic politics.

“Total capitals,” dominant culturally and economically as well as politically, should be expected (other things being equal) to favor socially and culturally cohesive political elites, and through them more consistent public policies. But the total capital may also harbor—nay, be the center of—all the conflicts of the country. This has certainly been the record of Paris, from the Revolution on. Then at least a common culture (p. 505) or political style may ensue, amidst polarizations of policy. The intellectual character of French national politics and the pantouflage, the moving between top positions in the bureaucracy and in business manifest common a Parisian culture of elite schools and literary milieux. But even a centralized country with an overwhelming capital may push provincial power-brokers, “notables,” onto the central political stage: as the French Third Republic increasingly did, up to the First World War; and as can still happen, as shown by the current French Prime Minister Raffarin (Corbin 1992, 810 ff.).

The extent to which capital office may be a catapult to national leadership is remarkably small. In so far as there is a capital electoral politics, it may be ill-representative of the country as a whole: that was the case with heavily social democratic Berlin in Wilhelmine Germany, while Paris voted right throughout the twentieth century. Another reason is that an incumbent government tends to be concerned with keeping the capital city under its own control. In Europe, the current French President Jacques Chirac is an exception, in getting to the presidency from being mayor of the capital. In Latin America, though, several capital mayors have recently become presidents, from Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay to Arnoldo Alemán in Nicaragua.

3.2 Compass of Meaning

Inherent in the distinctiveness of places is their meaning, to inhabitants, to former inhabitants, to visitors, to onlookers, to anyone thinking about them and discussing them. Places vary not only in their size, their topography, their connectivity, or their kind of inhabitants. They have also different meanings, to different people. Places are invested with meaning. As such, places provide compasses of action. Places indicate attachment, belonging, attraction, revulsion; objects of identification, of ambition, and of desire. Their direction of action includes the radiation of meaning by places—such as “global cities” or other sites of power, money, and glory—as well as the pull of place roots. The geographer and architectural theorist Edwatd Relph (1976) distinguishes seven kinds of place-orientation, around the dichotomy of the insider and outsider:

  • existential insideness, a close habitual relation;

  • empathetic insideness, a reflective relation;

  • behavioral insideness, a pragmatically navigating relation;

  • vicarious insideness, a relation by identification from afar;

  • accidental outsideness, the visitor’s look, the tourist gaze;

  • objective outsideness, the vision of the deliberately distant observer;

  • existential outsideness, alienation from the place.

From historians we have recently learned much about “places of memory,” the places where “memory crystallises and takes refuge” (Nora 1984, xvii). “Places,” there, are taken in an explicitly metaphorical sense (François and Schulze 2001, 1: 18); the (p. 506) historical inventories include persons, words, inheritance, invested with collective meaning, as well as places (Nora 1984–92; Francois and Schulze 2001).

In order to get at compasses of meaning in a theory of social and political action, we had better take a somewhat different track. In this vein we may focus on:

  1. 1. places to be in, to strive to remain in, to go to, or at the very least to follow from afar;

  2. 2. places to defend, or to liberate;

  3. 3. places to visit: to see; to commemorate; to pay pilgrimage to; alternatively, to avoid;

  4. 4. places of discursive reference.

1. Places to be in. There are two kinds of places that occupy most of our minds in this respect. One is home—village, town, region—wherever it is. But the positive meaning varies strongly, not only among persons but also over the lifetime of the same person. Centers are the other main kind—centers of action, of wealth, power, and culture.

Comprehensive capital cities—such as Buenos Aires, London, Paris (“the soul of France, its head and its heart”: Jordan 1995, 171), Vienna, Cairo, Bangkok, Tokyo, and many others—have this attraction to ambitious people in most walks of life (cf., Charle and Roche 2002). As sites of authority, capital cities also have as a key function to provide compass of meaning to the population of the state. In the Confucian classic on statecraft, the capital should form “a moral yardstick to which his [i.e. the sovereign’s] people may look” (Sit 1995, 25). This maxim is echoed more than 2,000 years later in the official 1987 Strategic Long-term Study of Beijing, then characterized as “the nerve center that links the hearts of the people and the Party together… [and as] the ‘model district’ for guiding the nation in modernisation” (Sit 1995, 321).

Colonial city planning was oriented to conveying the majesty of imperial power. The most ambitious modern example is the construction in the 1910s of a new capital for British India, New Delhi. “First and foremost it is the spirit of British sovereignty which must appreciated in its stone and bronze,” one of the two chief architects, Herbert Baker (1944, 219) wrote in a commissioned letter to the Times in 1912. To his colleague Edwin Lutyens he stressed that Delhi “must not be Indian, nor English, nor Roman, but it must be Imperial” (Metcalf 1989, 222). A grand imperial design ensued, combining European and Mughal elements, centered on an enormous Vice-regal Palace by Lutyens, flanked by two competing impressive administrative buildings by Baker, up on a hill, at the end of a long and wide avenue-cum-parade ground, Kingsway. Here, as so often, most of the colonial heritage survived decolonization by national recycling. The Vice-regal palace has become the Presidential Palace, and Kingsway has been renamed Rajpath.

The United States built a new capital mainly because of the rivalry among existing cities. From 1774 to 1789 Congress met in eight different places. Washington was laid out by a French engineer, L’Enfant, who had rallied to the American cause and acquired American citizenship. Having grown up in the shadow of Versailles, L’Enfant put forward a daring plan “proportional to the greatness which … the Capital (p. 507) of a great Empire ought to manifest,” as he wrote to President Washington (Sonne 2003, 50). L’Enfant soon fell out with the federal commission, but by and large and over time his monumental design for the American capital was realized, with its bipolar political layout, huge diagonals overtowering any civic space (although the Mall has lately become a national rallying-point), and its central Washington Monument.

In Europe a French author in the Age of Absolutism, Alexandre Le Maître in 1682, highlighted three crucial functions of a capital: to be the site of authority; to be the pivot of all exchanges; and to “concentrate the values and the force of a country” (Zeller 2003, 633). An intensive debate about the values and the force of nation represented by competing capitals broke out in Germany with the reunification of the country in 1990. Bonn (the post-Second World War capital of West Germany) and Berlin were invested with very different meanings: Bonn was presented as symbolizing the Western and the European orientation of a post-national Germany, a capital of Gemütlichkeit; Berlin was seen as a symbol of German unification and as the normal metropolis of a normal nation, freed of the historical inferiority complexes of the Bonn Republic (Richie 1998: 850 ff.; Keiderling 2004; von Beyme 1991). The vote was close, and cut through traditional party and cultural cleavages. In the end Berlin won with 337 parliamentary votes to 320.

2. Places to defend or liberate. Places to defend are often peripheral, which may have been the reason why they were attacked. The Falklands islands at the bottom of the South Atlantic are one of the most peripheral places on the planet from the center of London, but their defense was seen by a large part of the metropolitan population as well as by the government as worthwhile regardless of cost, human and financial. From the other side, opponents as well as supporters of Argentina’s then-military regime saw the Malvinas as a natural part of the country, robbed by the British in the heyday of imperialism. To both parties, the value was symbolic only, but high enough to go to war for.

Modern nationalism has led to a remarkable sacralization of national territory, with a great many places that have to be liberated or defended. The Caucasus region has a number of them, and so have former Yugoslavia and the Horn of Africa. Jerusalem/al Qods is not only a sacred place to three religions, but has also become overloaded with contested meanings to two nations in conflict.

3. Places to visit. Travel to interesting or beautiful places is ancient, and so is pilgrimage to sacred sites. But places to visit have become much more important in current times. Nation-building has brought national places into focus. “One cannot be fully Indonesian until one has seen Jakarta,” Indonesia’s greatest writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote in 1955 (Kusno 2001, 15). Tourism has become a major industry, and tourism politics and policy have become important political tasks. Secondly, there has also evolved a political practice of deliberately investing places with heavy symbolic meaning, as sites of commemoration. This is most developed in Europe, mainly with reference to events of the Second World War and the Nazi terror. Former concentration camps and death camps, like Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and former Jewish ghettoes in many cities have become meaningful places to visit.

(p. 508) Places may also have a meaning of repulsion, places not to be visited. The German war cemetery of Bittburg was such a place in the eyes of many, on the occasion of an official visit there by President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl, because SS men are also buried there. Every time a senior Japanese politician visits the Yasakuni shrine in Tokyo there is a Chinese protest, because Japanese war criminals have been laid at rest there.

4. Places of discursive reference. Places of meaning may orient our minds and discourse. The little Belgian town of Waterloo, where Napoleon was fatally beaten in 1815, has become synonymous with defeat to such an extent that it has entered the world of late twentieth-century pop hits. “Munich” in international politics stands for accommodation to violent dictators, after the British and French Prime Ministers agreed to Nazi German demands on Czechoslovakia in a summit in 1938. “Vichy” (the small-town site of the pro-German government of France in 1940–4) in European political discourse denotes collaboration with an occupying enemy (cf. Watkins 2004). “Pearl Harbour” in American politics means perfidious attack, and “Sèvres” in Turkish discourse refers to splitting the country (after the Paris suburb where the Ottoman empire was subjected to a humiliating peace treaty in 1920). In Chile during the left-wing government of Allende in the early 1970s, right-wing graffiti painted the name of “Jakarta,” the Indonesian capital, where an anti-communist massacre—of probably more than half a million people—was unleashed in 1965.

3.3 Settings of Action

Almost all social action, except for telephonic or electronic communication, takes place somewhere, in some local setting. Capital cities are settings of power, exercise, and contest, truly “landscapes of power” in a phrase that Sharon Zukin (1991) uses primarily to refer to New York. A famous case of city planning as a setting for political action is the transformation of Paris in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. It was carried out for Emperor Napoleon III by his prefect, Baron Haussmann. There were several reasons for changing old, rapidly grown Paris; above all hygienic ones, as the city had become very insalubrious. Imperial aesthetics was also an important concern. Whatever the controversial priority order, a major task of Haussmann was to make government power safe from rebellion by the people of densely populated, labyrinthine east-central Paris. By time of the June 1848 violent repression of insurrectionary Paris, barricades had been put up eight times since 1827; and twice revolutions had succeeded, in July 1830 and February 1848. The solution was to raze a number of poor neighborhoods, to open up a set of big boulevards, difficult to barricade and easy to move troops in, and to locate army barracks close to places of popular gathering. Most affected by this strategic plan were the areas between what are now the Places de la République and de la Nation on the Right Bank, and on the Left from the new Boulevard Saint Michel to Mount St. Geneviève (Jordan 1995). As a counter-insurgency strategy all this was hardly successful, and did not prevent the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, but the setting of urban life in Paris had been lastingly transformed.

(p. 509) In the colonial cities, racial segregation was the primary rule, as manifestations of power and for reasons of security, epidemic as well as political (Georg and de Lemps 2003). The most ambitious governors built new European cities outside indigenous ones, as the French governor Lyautey did in Morocco (Abu-Lughod 1980; Rabinow 1989), or as the British did in New Delhi, which was laid out spaciously as a tree-shadowed garden city just opposite the crowded Old Delhi. Like other cities of the British Empire, it also had its layout segregated not only between the rulers and the natives, but also between the military “cantonments” and the administrative “civil lines.” Not quite 5 percent of the new city area was intended as “Native Residential” (Hussey 1950, 263). These colonial military cantonments or “Defense Colonies” still contribute to the configurations of urban life in cities of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

But capitals can also be or provide spaces of civic representation. A powerful citizenry is manifested in a civic space, a public space where people can meet as citizens and as individuals with varied tastes. The ancient Greek agora and the Roman forum are classical examples. The tradition was revived by the autonomous High Medieval cities of Europe, in particular along the city belt from Italy to the Low Countries. Italian Siena’s Piazza del Campo is arguably one of the most beautiful examples (cf. Rowe 1997, ch. 1), but it may be followed by the Grande Place of Brussels. In the Americas, the Boston Common (Hackett Fischer 2000) is perhaps a paradigmatic example. But all colonial Latin American cities had and still have a central square where people met and assembled. True, it was also used for displays of power, such as military parades, and in Hispanic America it was often called Plaza de Armas (Place of Arms).

Security considerations seem to render futile the idea of the architects of the new Berlin government quarter, Schultes and Frank, of a “Federal and Civic Forum” between the Chancellors’s Office and the parliament building, although there is still some open, accessible space there. The civic space of Chandigarh, the capital of Indian Punjab and later also of the Indian state of Haryana, was laid out by the great modernist architect Le Corbusier, relating the three branches of government through open squares, provided with abstract civic sculptures. The insecurity situation—with the Punjabi Chief Minister assassinated in the 1990s—has led to a closing off to the public of the whole governmental area. However, in democratized Seoul, the area in front of City Hall has been changed from just a traffic circus to a lawn accessible to pedestrians where people gather, for small outdoor concerts as well as for expressing political opinion.

The classical Chinese concept of political space was in a sense the opposite of the civic one, centered on a closed space of power, the imperial palace as the “Forbidden City.” On its south side, was an opening onto an outer court for petitions and for public announcements (Sit 1995, 56 ff.). The Javanese kraton or royal palace was laid out on the basis of similar principles, as a closed, central site of power, with a public space (alun-alun) for royal announcements and for public celebrations and festivities (Tjahjono 1998, 90). In Muslim cities the mosques and their large courtyards are places of assembly, but of members of the umma (the religious community) rather (p. 510) than of a political citizenry, who were usually facing an overtowering, fortified site of power, from the Red Fort of Mughal Delhi to the Topkapi of Ottoman Istanbul. But sometimes the Muslim city could include a big central square, a meidan, in front of a palace or and/of the main mosque. In this respect, the center of Isfahan resembled that of Lima or Quito, with a meeting-place and a place of public recreation. In other respects, the East as well as the West Asian cities were dominated by private, family space, of compounds around a walled-in courtyard connected only by meandering alleys, very different from the Ancient European street grid that was later exported to the Americas.

Another kind of political space is the space for political rallies. Nationalism was the first major wave of popular mobilization, and it could often make new use of absolutist parade grounds: the Champs de Mars in Paris, where the Revolution held its first mass rallies; or the Heldenplatz in Vienna, the “Heroes Square” in front of the imperial palace, where the coming of the First World War in 1914 and of Adolf Hitler in 1938 were fêted. The Communist rulers paid serious attention to places of mass rally. In Moscow the old Red Square outside the Kremlin was a natural site, focused by the Lenin Mausoleum of 1924. The East Germans tore down the war-damaged imperial castle to make room for a large rallying-point, the Marx-Engels-Platz. Mao Zedong and the Chinese comrades were duly impressed by Red Square upon their visit to Moscow in 1950, and set upon enlarging the Tian An Men, just south of the imperial Forbidden City, into the largest political parade ground in the world (Webb 1990).

The world religions have also realized the significance of places of mass assembly, as manifested by the place around the Kaaba in Mecca or outside the church of St. Peter in Rome.

The settings of voting behavior may be viewed in various ways. At one end, there is the structural context, presumably perceived by the voter. For instance, according to British census polls for the period of 1991–2001, the percentage voting Conservative or Labour varied strongly with the structural socioeconomic disadvantage of the neighborhood. In the most advantaged areas 77 percent of the “higher service class” of professionals and managers voted Tory, and 68 percent of skilled manual workers; whereas in the least advantaged neighbourhoods 48 and 19 percent did, respectively (Johnston et al. 2004, table 4.).

From another angle, the setting of voting is social interaction, local campaigning, groups or networks of political discussions. There is no unanimity among electoral specialists on the importance of these interactive effects, but they clearly exist (Huck-feldt and Sprague 1995; Whiteley and Seyd 2003).

3.4 Places and Consequences of Action

“Being in the right place at the right time” (or “in the wrong place at the wrong time”) are well-known words of wisdom, applying to sexual as well as to political life. In politics, it applies both to aspiring leaders and, especially, to ordinary people. (p. 511) When police and military round-ups are being made, you had better not be in the wrong place. Otherwise you may, in present times, land in Guantánamo or in some other concentration camp. In order to make a successful bid for power, you have to be in the right place at the decisive moment

Wars, geopolitical or world systems, and democratic elections are all examples of the importance of place for consequences of action. And capital cities are by definition the place where consequential state action is taken.

Maps have always been crucial to modern warfare. Why? Because it is crucial to locate where your enemy is, what possibilities of movement he has, and where to hit him hardest. Knowing where to do battle, and when, is a key demand on a successful commander. Recent supposedly “precision bombing” has raised the stakes, rather than making place trivial.

To stay, in the face of encirclement, and fight was a fatal mistake of the Nazi Germans in Stalingrad and of the colonial French at Dien Bien Phu. The decision of the US Clinton administration in the 1990s to concentrate military interventions in the Balkans—where Secretary of State Albright was well connected—and to leave Rwanda to its fate, made possible the genocide of Tutsi people by Hutu people, and substituted Croatian and Albanian ethnic cleansing for Serbian in the former Yugoslavia. But it did bring about the desired regime toppling in Serbia. The decision of the Bush administration to make war in Iraq has been successful in “regime change,” but again at the cost of large-scale destruction and killings, of about 12,000 to 13,000 civilian Iraqis according to estimates reported by CNN on September 8, 2004. A large part of the death and destruction does not seem to have been intended, but followed from the violent logic of the place, which the bombers and invaders never bothered to learn about. To both US governments, the dynamics of place seems to have been fatally neglected.

In the heyday of inter-imperialist rivalry about a century ago, a geographical theory of politics and power, geopolitics, was developed by Rudolf Kjellén (the Swedish professor of geography and political science who coined the term), Harold Mackinder (Oxford geographer and LSE Director), and Friedrich Ratzel (the German geographer). States struggling for space was their common vision, and spatial parameters of this big-power rivalry their main concern (Heffernan 2000). The characteristic confluence of the emerging academic discipline of geography, the climate of Social Darwinism, and the peak of intra-European imperialist rivalry, carried forward by the German Nazis, discredited the idea of geopolitics for a while after the Second World War. But the thesis by Frederick Jackson Turner of the sociopolitical importance of the American frontier and of its closing around 1890 is also an influential example of geopolitical thought. De facto, the cold war strategists on both sides were clearly very geographically conscious, in negotiating and pressuring their respective territorial “spheres of influence.”

Geopolitics made an interesting comeback in the 1990s. It did so intellectually, in a culturalist mutation: as part of a postmodern geography, focusing on imaginations of space, on bodies in places, and on non-state politics, by institutions, cities, or movements of resistance to power (Agnew 1999; ó Tuathail and Dalby 1998; Soja 1996). (p. 512) It did so politically, in a more direct return to classical strategic geopolitics as part of a new assertiveness of American world power. The most eloquent and significant example is Zbigniew Brzezinski (1997), National Security Adviser to President Carter and a key architect of the Islamic counter-revolution in Afghanistan.

To Brzezinski, control of Euarasia is the “chief geopolitical prize” for the United States, and the decisive strategic question to be addressed is how that “preponderance on the Eurasian continent” can be sustained (1997, 30). The answer is sought in seeing Eurasia as a “grand chessboard” on which the struggle for global primacy is played. The approach is explicitly geopolitical, as “geographic location still tends to determine the immediate priorities of a state” (38). The key units are “geostrategic players”—“the states that have the capacity and national will to exercise power or influence beyond their borders in order to alter… the existing geopolitical state of affairs” (40)—and “geopolitical pivots,” “states whose importance is derived… from their sensitive location” (41).

In this neoclassical as well as in classical geopolitical thought, state actors are shaped by their place in the world, but the main emphasis is on the risks and the opportunities for state power that the control—by ego or by alter—of places and territories offer, and on the best strategies of states under given geopolitical conditions. A more economic than military–political view of geopolitics, befitting a Japan-centered perspective, is provided by Rumley et al. (1998). A less imperial, more objective view of contemporary geopolitics is given by its American academic doyen, S. B. Cohen (2003, 3) as “the analysis of the interaction between geographical settings and perspectives, and international politics.”

Place also matters in the world system of Immanuel Wallerstein (1974), his associates, and followers. Economic and social development, in this influential perspective, is not primarily a matter of individual countries taking off. They follow from a world system of division of labor, established by Western European powers in the sixteenth century, and the location of countries within it: in the advantaged core, in the exploited periphery, or in the intermediate semi-periphery. The dynamics of the systemic logic may be argued about, but world system analysis is a prominent example of place-matters analysis.

World system analysis is basically a kind of geoeconomics, both related to and rivalling geopolitics. The recent “global cities” perspective gives this global geoeconomics an urban twist. Here commanding and pace-setting action is portrayed as being concentrated into a hierarchy of “global cities,” headed by London and New York (Sassen 1991; Taylor 2004). In this perspective, states—and their capacity to tax, to control borders, and to wage wars—tend to disappear from view, being of secondary significance at most. Places matter in this view to the extent that they are the sites of transnational corporate headquarters, in particular of firms of business services. Washington, DC, then appears as a “medium”-sized “global command center,” similar to Amsterdam (Taylor 2004, 90).

In most electoral democracies, the decisive thing is not just how many votes you get. It matters also, and sometimes crucially, where you get your votes. Above all, this is important in the Anglo-Saxon first-past-the-post system, which in theory always and in practice sometimes can produce an elective majority for a party backed by (p. 513) a minority of voters. Most recently, this was the case in the US in 2000, when the Electoral College of state representatives elected George W. Bush President of the United States with 47.9 percent of the votes against 48.4 percent for Al Gore. In American history a minority President had been inaugurated three times before, but all in the nineteenth century (John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888). In 1951, Winston Churchill and the British Conservatives won a very consequential election, opening a thirteen-year period of Tory rule, with less votes than the Labour Party, 48.0 to 48.8 percent, yielding a seat majority of 51.4 to 47.2 (Flora 1983, 151, 188).

Electoral strategists in countries with this electoral system are, of course, always primarily preoccupied with “swing” constituencies or, in American presidential elections, swing states.

The electoral importance of place also means that the drawing up of electoral districts has become a major political art. In its (normal) biased form it has even been given a name, “gerrymandering,” after the early nineteenth-century governor of Massachusetts, Gerry, who according to a contemporary cartoonist, created salamander-like constituencies. In most, but far from all American states this is a partisan task, carried out by the majority of the state legislature where the votes are cast.

3.5 Places as Outcomes of Action

Places are not fixed in time, in spite of their inherent inertia. They may go up and down in terms of population and of relative centrality or prosperity. Some of these changes are governed by nature: by volcanoes and earthquakes, by climate changes, by the wanderings of fish shoals, by the silting of rivers. But most tend to be outcomes of human action, by the discovery/exploitation or the depletion of natural resources, by the building and obsolescence of transport routes (mountain passes, bridges, canals, ports, and railways, for example), by policies of territorial exploitation, neglect, or support, or by direct place construction or destruction.

About eighty years ago, a British historian (Cornish 1923) tried to grasp the location of what he called The Great Capitals, by which he meant “Imperial” capitals or capitals of “Great Powers.” Most important in his view was their location as the “Storehouse” of the wealth of the empire; secondly, there was transport connectivity, “Crossways”; and thirdly, considerations of war, “Strongholds.” Under these constraints, the fact that the foreign relations of the empire are conducted from the capital propels the capital into a “Forward position,” relatively close to the exterior. More often than not the national capital is the most cosmopolitan, or the most “globalized” part of the nation.

However, the place of the capital is not determined only by national dimensions. Capital cities are made up of a triangle of relations: between the local and the national, the national and the global, and the global and the local. As places they constitute the habitat of a local population with their everyday needs and habits. Like all places, capital cities have their genii loci, their local “spirits of place,” given by their (p. 514) location, and their local social and political relations. The river and the hill provide the parameters of Prague, the sea and the islands of Stockholm and Helsinki, for instance. Local Washington is actually largely black and poor, very different from the national and the global radiations from the White House, the Pentagon, and Capitol Hill. In Helsinki, the City Council has determined the sites of national buildings and monuments, separating the Republican Parliament from the ex-imperial government area, for instance. In many other countries, from the UK to China, the capital city is largely directly under central government control.

While Cornish is a good starting-point, situating social action in natural settings, later experience testifies to other springs of capital action as well. This is seen most easily and clearly in the modern history of deliberately created capitals.

Why have new capitals been constructed, as alternatives not only to remaining in the historical place but also to moving to some other city in existence, an ancient political practice?

Starting with St Petersburg, begun in 1703, officially a capital (or “throne”) city in 1712, with the transfer of the imperial court to it, and continuing up to the first years of the twenty-first century, we may distinguish a limited set of reasons for such major political displacement.

St Petersburg was a product of monarchical absolutism, and its rationale was reactive modernization. The founding of a new capital was part of an effort from above to modernize the country, then conceived more in cultural than in economic terms. From its “forward” location at the western edge of the empire, St Petersburg was built as a fortified gateway to more developed Western Europe, and as a vanguard of Russian modernization. Dutch city planning, Italian architects, and French culture were resorted to for this purpose, and made possible by a massive use of coerced labor (Lemberg 1993; Jangfeldt 1998; Tjekanova et al. 2000; Zeller 2003, 666 ff.). The modernist thrust of Tsar Peter I was to remain unrivalled for a long time. Edo/Tokyo was already a major city, perhaps the largest in the world in the eighteenth century, although it became the imperial capital only with the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (Seidensticker 1985, ch. 1). Ankara was also in existence, although at a modest level, before chosen as the capital of Turkey in the 1920s (Sen and Aydin 2000).

Chronologically, Washington was the next novel capital. It was to set a pattern for the rest of the white settlements of the British Empire as well as for the USA. The main picture of this capital history is one of places of political exchange.

The location of US capital cities were often bargaining chips in political games, or interest compromises. The federal capital owes its site on the Potomac to a deal brokered by Alexander Hamilton, whereby the union took over all public debt in exchange for Northern support for a Southern site for the capital (Cummings and Price 1993, 216 ff.). The world had experienced the founding of new capitals before in modern times. But the conception of a specifically political center, separated from the economic and demographic one—which was then Philadelphia—was new, although adumbrated in the role of the Hague in the Dutch United Provinces as the meeting village of the Estates-General. It set an American pattern, followed already in 1797 when the state government of New York moved to Albany and in 1799, when that of (p. 515) Pennsylvania went to Lancaster. In 1857, Abraham Lincoln put together an infrastructural package of railway and canal construction with a relocation of the Illinois capital to Springfield (Johannsen 2000, 186 ff.). An anti-urban animus has played a significant part in the widespread American practice of making relatively small cities state political capitals, from Albany, New York, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Sacramento, California, via Lansing, Michigan, and Springfield, Illinois (cf. Dye 1988; Berman 2003).

The Washington principle of territorial political balance was followed in Canada in 1867, when Queen Victoria conferred capital status to the town of Ottawa, on the border of Anglophone Ontario and Francophone Quebec. It was further followed in Australia, placing the capital Canberra between the major capitals of the states of Victoria and New South Wales; in New Zealand, placing the capital Wellington between the North and the South Island; and in South Africa, where the capital functions were divided between the government in Transvaal Boer Pretoria, parliament in Anglo Cape Town, and the Supreme Court in Boer Oranje Bloemfontein. But the US anti-urban animus did not spread.

The new capitals of recent times have a different rationale. The most spectacular is Brasilia, built in the late 1950s on the high plateau wilderness of interior Brazil. Brasilia was built as a project of national development, opening up a previously undeveloped interior. Owing to its master planner (Lucio Costa) and its master architect (Oscar Niemayer), Brasilia has become an icon of mid-twentieth-century urban modernity, daring and controversial (cf. Kubitschek 1975; Holston 1989)

The Nigerian move from Lagos to the new Abuja, while spatially similar to the Brazilian move to Brasilia was more motivated by reasons of ethnic balance and political security. Lagos, the inherited colonial capital, was de facto a mainly Yoruba city, and as such impregnated by one the three major ethnicities of multiethnic Nigeria. The official criteria for choosing a new capital for Nigeria were as shown in Table 25.1.

The relocation was actually decided by a military dictatorship, under mounting pressure from popular protests as well as from assassination attempts. It should not be assumed that these official criteria were de facto strictly abided by. Nevertheless, at least they provide an insight into an important contemporary political discourse on place.

In recent years, there has been a growing concern in several parts of the world with too much centrality, with overgrown capitals suffering from congestion and overpopulation. The most advanced example is in Malaysia, where the capital is moving to a new city, Putrajaya, already well under way—with a palatial Prime Minister’s Office and a nearby large mosque as their most impressive constructions. The Malaysian capital move is also related to a vision of electronic information development—both similar to and different from the Brazilian interior development program with Brasilia—and includes the building of a parallel high-tech city, Cyberjaya.

The current Korean president is committed to locating out of Seoul for similar reasons. There is a parliamentary decision supporting the move, and the selection of a preliminary site by mid-2004, but this is still on the drawing board. Discussions along (p. 516) the same lines are being held in several Asian countries: China, Japan, Indonesia. But plans may get stuck, as in Argentina in the 1980s, or the realization stalled, as in Tanzania or Côte d’Ivoire.

Table 25.1. Official criteria for choosing the Nigerian capital


Proportional weight



Health and Climate


Land Availability and Use


Water Supply


Multi-Access Possibility




Existence of Local Bldg. Materials


Low Population Density


Power Resources






Physical Planning Convenience


Ethnic Accord


Source: Eyinla 2000, 250

4 Places in History and Today

While increasingly mobile, human beings still locate themselves in places, fixed, contiguous, distinctive. Places mold actors, structuring their life chances, providing them with identities and traditions of social and political action. Places direct actors, by attraction or repulsion, providing compasses of action, contribute to the meaning of life by orienting civic action, supporting action, subject action, consuming action, celebration, remembrance, mourning, non-action. Social action almost always takes place in a specific location. Places are strategic sites of action, very much affecting outcomes of success, victory, and power—and their opposites. The creation, development, or destruction of places form an important part of political agendas.

Are these effects and implications of place mainly a legacy of the past, largely being overcome in the current age of electronic networking and global satellite communication? The evidence is ambiguous, but three conclusions seem to be warranted. First and foremost, place has not disappeared, but is still important. Secondly, it is less important than a century ago. Thirdly, the evidence for a recent major change is flimsy, and most probably untenable.

Institutions of formal education clearly mitigate the effects of place of birth, although the latter still weighs heavily on your channels to schooling. Faster means (p. 517) of transport (automobiles, airplanes, fast trains) have made distances shrink. There is currently as much inter-national migration as a century ago, but it is today much easier to keep up ties to places of origin—by satellite TV, telephone, e-mail, and bank remittances—than previously. Intra-national migration, on the other hand, has increased enormously, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Place voting declined before the First World War, but little after, and some very recent tendencies of Europe and America go both up and down.

Geopolitics was always controversial, its relevance always contested. But it is a noteworthy sign, that it has recently staged a discursive comeback. Military technology is undoubtedly much less place-dependent than previously. Intercontinental nuclear missiles make up the aces, rather than defensive or controlling locations. More doubtful is whether current concerns with “global governance” have moved beyond the “great games” of rival imperialisms 100 years ago, and its interimperial conferences, like that in Berlin of 1884.

The cities versus state literature remains within the field of place. The gist of this business-focused literature is the emphasis on central or “commanding” places versus others. The current tendencies towards a regionalization of trade and of interstate cooperation point to a mounting significance of place and contiguity. The European Union, the NAFTA, the Mercosur, the ASEAN, the Asian extensions of ASEAN to the east (China, Japan, and South Korea) and recently to the west (India), the African Union: all indicate an increasing importance of place, albeit a move from nation state to region. The classical centre–periphery distinction, with regard to all kinds of action, does not seem to be disappearing.

While there is some (contradictory) evidence of a diminishing importance of place in the formation of actors and in affecting the consequences of action, no such tendency can be detected with respect to place as the meaning of action. Places of meaning are invented all the time. A noteworthy example is the Garden of Diana of Wales put up in Revolutionary Republican Havana in the late 1990s. While there is no hard quantitative evidence, it seems plausible that the number of meaningful places is increasing. There is in any case quite an entrepreneurship around to invent such places.

This is being written in the shadow of American elections. In 2000, the US presidential election was decided in Miami-Dade county, in 2004 in the state of Ohio. Few spots of the planet are likely to be unaffected by who wins the legitimate power of the United States.


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(1) For a preliminary publication, see Therborn (2002).

(2) Recent useful overviews are given by: Johnston and Pattie 2004; Marsh 2002; Johnson, Shively, and Stein 2002.