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purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how social groups shape public space
through expressions of individuality and economic exertions of power.
Ultimately, it shall find that the constraints of particular social groups
overpower the ability for the ‘public’ to influence space by exercising their
freedom. The tension between individuality and economy mimics the wider debate
of structure versus agency within the sociological discipline. The discussion
in this essay will lead to a conclusion that economic relations of power pose
structural limitations that will fundamentally determine the capacity for all
social groups to shape public space.

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essay will briefly conceptualise what is to be understood as social groups and
public space, and also detail the methodology of the ethnographic research
undertaken in Camden Market. The thesis shall be explored through two sections,
looking independently at individuality and economic interactions, examining the
normative and empirical arguments for both.


and Methodology

this essay, social groups will be defined using an inherently Marxist
interpretation of society. Although there is agreement with the principles of
the bourgeoisie ‘owners’ and proletariat ‘workers’ (Marx, Engels, Isaac &
Lukes, 2012), the dichotomous split is expanded to recognise that within the
proletariat itself, there are variants of exploitation and repression that are
contingent on characteristics of marginality, such as gender, ethnicity and
sexuality (Smith, 1996). Here, the bourgeoisie are owners, and to some extent
users of space, who are able to define what constitutes the ‘public’, and how
space should be constructed for use.


Simmel offers urban sociology a
foundational understanding to modern urban life, and many of the core elements
of his ‘metropolis’ underpin how urban, and therefore public, space is
understood. Taking urban space as sites that are ran by modern capitalism and
divided by the ‘money economy’ (Simmel, 1903 in Kasinitz, 1994), it would be
nonsensical to find that public space are places where groups can act freely. Rather,
this essay will hinge upon the notion that space is not ‘public’ at all, with what
constitutes the ‘public’ being socially constructed by the affluent owners of
land in the UK (Minton, 2006). 
Consequently, public space is exclusive and controlling.


Ethnographic research of Camden
Market was undertaken, using direct observation of the exchanges between
consumers, workers and the space itself on a weekday afternoon. The time spent
consisted of taking notes of the interactions, and occasionally talking to
individuals. Camden Market is a public site dominated by economic exchange that
is prima facie accessible for everyone, but there is a clear boundary of who
and what is acceptable due to the prevalence of policing. The appropriateness
of the method is affirmed due to the data reflecting natural encounters, which
prevented the ethnography being constrained by interviewer or participant
biases. The data collected was predominantly in support of the thesis, however
there were some observations that showed the positive impact that expression
can have on public space. There were also some notable similarities to be drawn
with Watt’s (2006) study of housing in Camden, such as the obvious presence of
a distinctive middle class and the reliance on their presence to fuel the
tourist economy.


Public Space Through Individuality

space increases the opportunities for members of social groups to exercise
their individual agency through self-expression, due to the situation of public
space within urban space, where the metropolis allows individuals to relieve
themselves of the prejudice faced within smaller communities (Simmel,
1903 in Kasinitz, 1994). Theoretically, it could be argued that if people are
freer to be their true self, then they are less restricted by the boundaries of
the networks they were born into. Without restriction, tension between groups
is forgotten under a ‘cosmopolitan canopy’ (Anderson, 2004), leading to gained social
experiences and opportunities. For Young (1990), this typifies what should occur within public
space, as social groups are given the power to become aware of themselves
through social differentiation and variety. This means that public space should
be more socially diverse than any space in society has been before, as there is
not one particular group that has greater power over others. The clustering of
people leads to diverse identities, cultures and connections that allow people
to become aware of themselves, mirroring the Simmelian idea of
individualisation as a part of urban life (Simmel, 1903 in Kasinitz, 1994).


The culturally diverse nature of
public space was seen in the study of Camden Market, where the food stalls span
cuisines from across the world. One observation was of a family of Asian
tourists who were trying Mexican food for the first time. At first what seemed
a somewhat trivial encounter revealed the significance of the coming together
of social groups within public space. Without social groups operating within
the market, the family would not have discovered a new culture, something that
is highly possible within a rural setting. Simultaneously, the Mexican vendor
had used the opportunity to externalise a part of themselves within space, and
without prejudice. This is an almost perfect example of Anderson’s (2004) ‘cosmopolitan canopy’, as
neither group were indigenous to Camden, but had come together over the eating
of food to share culture in a space which neither owned. This encounter also
highlights the international character of the global city, and the benefits
derived from the experience of meeting those from across the world, even
through economic exchanges (Sassen,


As people become self-aware,
they can shape public space through exaggerating their personal preferences,
which in turn will shape the functionality of space. If space needs to be
multifaceted, then there should be neutrality. Truly neutral space would
suggest a welcoming of everyone, with no constraints and arguably no concept of
what is to be deemed as ordinary. Roberts
(2008) suggests that the loosening of traditional identities leads to
unconventionality through physical symbols such as dress, that should be taken
as ‘dissent’ from those in power. Empirically, this may be correct as there is
a clear rejection of the norms set by the dominant group, seen in Zukin’s (1998) observation where
ethnic minorities and certain sexual identities were deemed to live ‘alternative’
lifestyles as they become more visible. However, to take the view that all
social groups can shape space would suggest that this expression is not for the
purpose of dissent, but merely an externalisation of personality, culture or
preference. In order to construct an idea of the ‘alternate’ or the ‘other’,
there must be a ‘normal’ standard against which social groups are measured. Women
may also not have the opportunity to impact public space to the same extent as
men through self-expression, as deviance from the conventional idea of
femininity could lead to their space being invaded by verbal and physical
insults (Borer, 2013).


on Young’s (1990) ideal of public space as being inherently political, social
groups should be able to use it as a tool to challenge the state, the social,
and the economy. People are free to express not only their identities, but also
their issues. The circulation of oppositional discourse throughout public space
that consists of a diverse population means that other groups may come across
issues that are completely new and have the opportunity to digest this into
their own identity. In contrast to rural life, social groups should construct
public space to be somewhere of tolerance, where people feel comfortable to
approach others and become related through the sharing of place (Anderson,
2004; Young, 1990). As public space should provide an area where anyone can
speak and listen, people can show they resist the structural power they face in
other realms of life. The success of this can be seen through the creation of
free speech, safety and protest zones (Roberts, 2008). Despite allowing people
to identify with social movements that relate to them, this can be seen as a
paradoxical relationship as the nature of them is intrinsically exclusive. This
demonstrates the difficulty in finding the balance of power between social
groups in shaping space, as space must be somewhat restrictive to those with
more power if we are to allow safe space. The cyclicality of such is it may
lead to more exclusiveness (Madden, 2010). It cannot be forgotten that the
creation of these spaces also has to be approved by those who have ownership in
the land, so power for other social groups must derive from the powerful. This
ties to the Marxist ideology of the essay, where false class consciousness
constructs a deceptive image of a shifting power balance towards more equality
for lower socioeconomic groups, whilst they still remain ultimately powerless.


Public Space Through Economic Interactions

section of the essay will demonstrate that despite the ways in which
individuality can shape public space, economic interactions and power relations
outweigh the force of freedom. As aforementioned, the arguments will centre
around the Simmelian belief that urban life gives rise to individuals who are
calculative in nature, living in an urban world where distinctions are based on
economic difference, segregation and polarisation (Simmel,
1903 in Kasinitz, 1994). Rather than networks
being formed through freedom, they are based on economic exchanges that are
accelerated or constrained by inequality. This behaviour typifies life in the
‘metropolis’, and also highlights how within a ‘global city’ (Sassen, 2010),
the increase of capital and power is not spread equally across all social


suggestion that there has been an end to public space (Sorkin, 1992) is a
difficult proposition to measure. By the most literal understanding of what
‘public’ means, only space that is accessible to all should constitute as such. The distinction should not be seen
to be this simple, as urban space is technically still plentiful of public
space, but to a shortlisted version of the ‘public’. Rather than a definitive
ending of public space, who sits under the umbrella of the public is
decreasing, leading to space which defies the earlier utopian vision of one
that is socially, culturally and ethnically diverse. Instead, space becomes
less romanticised and more robotised, with little diversity due to the lack of
connection people are able to create. This is due to the privatisation of
public space, where ridding space of certain groups is presented as being for
the good of the ‘public’. This is done through construction then elimination of
‘undesirables’. Those who have low socioeconomic status are usually the most vulnerable
and could benefit the most from political expression in truly free space, but
are those that become synonymous with criminality and undesirability. The bourgeois
group with the power to attach this label do so through exercising social control
via repressive state apparatuses such as the police (Althusser, 1971). If you
can define who the public is, you can define who shapes public space. The
narrative of who the public is,
creates imaginary ‘risk’ when those who are outsiders attempt to use space. An
example here is the construction of the homeless as dangerous, when in
actuality the economic motive has become the most important as they are not
consumers. By conflating the freedom of individuals with safety within public
space, policing is not rejected. The muddiness of this relationship shows how
individuals may participate in a construction of ‘publicness’, not public
space, where they accept space that is policed as necessary and appropriate
(Akkar, 2005).  


to the arguments put forward in the previous section, for which empirical data
is minimal, the disparities in power to shape public space can be explained
through real-life analysis of repressive strategies. ‘Revanchism’ (Atkinson,
2003; Smith, 1996) is a term used in reference to the myriad of social polices
enforced throughout public space that are intrinsically skewed against the
poor. Although these policies do nothing more than displace issues, the problem
is resolved for the bourgeoisie as the remaining participants in public space
are those able to expend their capital. Some forms of revanchist policy are
based around broken windows thesis (Wilson and Kelling, 1982), and are
evidenced in the form of zero tolerance policing. Here, the police target petty
crimes with the aim of preventing major crime occurring. Although presented as something
desirable, the outcome is discrimination, racism and violence. Atkinson’s
(2003) article details the Hamilton Child Safety Initiative (HCSI), where a
public-private partnership of zero tolerance policing attempted to increase the
‘public’ safety. The marrying of private companies with the public institution
of the police creates a power dynamic centred around money that allows tyranny
to be brokered through economic power. The monopoly on policing creates an
environment where one group are the only group with true influence on space. Directly,
they are deciding who and what can pass through and interact in areas;
indirectly, those that are permissible will shape the space in a satisfactory


literature details conspicuous, repressive measures taken to restrict public
space, such as the restriction of children (Atkinson, 2003) and the moving on
of the homeless (Minton, 2006). The observations of Camden Market were
consistent with the literature, as the area was visibly policed despite the
market being quiet. The illuminous yellow-jacketed men acted as a symbolic reminder
of the consequences of nonconformity. The internalisation of this physical presence
will vary, dependent on social, economic or political position. Those from an
ethnic minority background may be more conscious of the extent to which the
police have unrestrained power in ‘regulating’ space. For example, Black people
are five times more likely to be stopped and searched by police (Phillips and
Bowling, 2017). Although expansion of police powers is coated as being for the
protection of the public, the issue of terrorism and immigration target a
specific social group that signify a difference from the elite. It is evident
from the statistics that public spaces are become sites for marginality, as
certain ethnicities are being policed out. The same argument could be made for
the children in the HCSI (Atkinson, 2003), reinforcing the thesis, where those with
low status equates to low importance, being policed out and unable to shape
public space.


and consumption shape public space into locations of solitary purpose, rather
than the multifunctional paradise imagined previously in the essay. Classical
economic theory would suggest that social groups influence space through
relationships of supply and demand, and what appears in the public domain
should reflect the wants of consumers (Smith, 1776). Also, actors within a
market will receive adequate wage for their work, as prices should be set at an
equilibrium. To accept this theorisation would be the acceptance of equal
dispersal of economic capital and economic power. The reality is that public
space that has been commercialised is reliant upon an abundance of low or
unpaid labour, who facilitate the economic processes that the ‘global city’ is
built upon (Sassen, 2000). The breakaway from rural restraints into urban life
should lead to the creation of new networks across a varied populace, however
these become impossible as relationships are built and maintained through
capitalist connections, where the concentration of economic power sustains


implications on the capabilities of certain groups to shape public space are severe
for those that populate low-skilled work, mostly women and immigrants. Those
that work in this consumption-driven environment may only be allowed in public
space at times of their employment. This could be due to revanchist methods
leading to undesirability, or the inability to afford to participate in areas
of consumption due to low, or unpaid work. Using Young’s (1990) notion of
eroticism and Simmel’s core principle of calculative rationality (Simmel,
1903 in Kasinitz, 1994), individuals will
evaluate that the amount they must work for exploitative wages. The attraction
to the capitalist frenzy of commercialised space can only be satisfied through
monetary gain, the amount of which will be decided through cost-benefit
analysis. However, if citizens lives are based around consumption and freedom,
marginalised groups may be stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle with no time for
economic enjoyment, and expression of individuality a forgotten goal
altogether. The hierarchy of priorities (economic gain versus utilising
freedom) has been manufactured by those who also construct what is deemed to be
‘public’. Throughout modernity, the bourgeois group have reinforced the imagery
that goods of a high monetary cost have a high social value, and to acquire
this form of cultural capital is something of value (Bourdieu, 1986; Zukin,
1998). The goal of public space as being politically free may become difficult
if the cause being protested is related to the ‘owners’ (the employers) of
those who work in public space. Their employment may become more valuable than
exercising their opportunity to political freedom, highlighting the structural
domination over the agency of actors in public space. For Young (1990), cities
would have to change their ‘investment climate’ into one that is moral and void
of exploitation in order to realise her political ideal. Her recognition that
exploitation is happening is helpful
to show how public space is not being shaped by all, however her prescriptive
normativity does not offer a method of solving such disparities.


changing function of public space has been shaped neoliberalism and
marketization, in a climate where the rich have had the opportunity to advance
their wealth at the expense of the vulnerable (Webber and Burrows, 2016). Economic
gain has greater importance than solving social problems, and this has been
reflected in the prioritisation of urban regeneration over welfare. The
‘neoliberal city’ (Madden and Marcuse, 2016) restricts the extent to which
space can be multifaceted. Their argument is related to housing, but applicable
here in space that is dominated by consumption. Economic exchange has become
the most important function, and therefore the biggest influence on public
space. The economic identity of space reflects the identity of the bourgeoisie as
smaller groups are at the whim of the owners and their agendas. This was
evidenced in Camden Market. A conversation with a shop owner revealed that he
had been priced out due to not making “enough” profit, despite selling on the
market for “years”. He explained how this was common, and the pattern seemed to
be tourists taking photos of non-Western products and vendors, then buying
higher-priced, Westernised food. Deciding against purchasing cultural items
highlighted the success of the bourgeois in reinforcing their economic wants
and needs as natural for others in society (Mirowski, 2013).
His feeling of being a spectacle for tourists was in bleak contrast to the
excitement of the family witnessed 10 minutes prior. The producer of the
Mexican food had not taken part in an equal transaction of utility. Instead,
the family had enjoyed a meal they would eat or discard, whereas the vendors
livelihood was contingent on the economic gains. This echoes data that was
found by the UN (2007) which suggests that many migrants who travel to global
cities are still very poor and have little power in shaping the urban space
around them, with their lives being dominated by money in a market where they
lack skill and influence. The restrictions of individuals through consumerism
and commodification make it obvious why Zukin (1998) suggests that consumption
itself is a bigger worry than the policing of public space.


final way in which economic interactions allow only for the bourgeois group to shape
public space is through the creation of the ‘sensory environment’ (Simmel,
1903 in Kasinitz, 1994). Although the bourgeoisie relates specifically to the
owners, there is a section of society that act as an intermediary group who are
approved to shape public space. Visitors of commodified public space are drawn
in by the dramatic experience of lights and colours, which may potentially
blind consumers into being unaware of the implications of their actions that
maintain the structure of inequality. Simmel refers to this as the ‘blasé
outlook’, where the sentiments of others are not considered when urbanites
calculate their preferences (Simmel, 1903 in Kasinitz, 1994). Urban experiences
are now synonymous with sensory environments, leaving consumers oblivious to
the negative impacts on the freedom of marginalised workers, who are the infrastructure
of such practices (Sassen, 2000; Zukin, 1998). This was observed at Camden
Market, where the stalls were brightly lit in accordance with the theme, for
example the use of pepper shaped fairy lights at the Mexican bar the Asian
family attended. The vibrancy may also overshadow the fact that public space is
constructed by the owners, meaning consumption patterns will be shaped by the
options that are available. In order to use freedom you must have money, but
this is still only freedom within the monetary choices that are pre-set for the
users of public space, which leads to public space that lacks diversity,
reproducing the same consumer culture (Minton, 2006). Having the economic power
to create and shape preferences enhances the ability of those with capital to
create and shape public space.



essay has demonstrated the battle between social groups in shaping public
space. Economic exertions of power have been shown to dominate potential
expressions of individuality. The move towards a more authoritarian, neoliberal
state has perpetuated this cycle, leaving those with low socioeconomic status
incapable to utilise public space as the multifunctional haven imagined by
Young (1990). The normative concepts that shape the argument for individuals to
shape space using individual agency are outweighed by the empirical evidence of
public space, which highlight how individuals are constrained by the pressures
of consumerism and controlled by the private owners of public space. 

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