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Seeing Familiar Things in New Ways

Margaret Boschetti

Until her retirement in 2002, Boschetti was Associate Editor of EAP and an Associate Professor of Interior Design in the School of Human Environmental Sciences at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. She now lives in her native state of Arkansas.
One of her research interests is how elements of the material environment‑-for example, furnishings and personal possessions‑-contribute to place identity and attachment. This commentary is an edited version of a letter she wrote to David Seamon after reading Relph's following commentary on
Place and Placelessness.
This essay was one of five contributed to a special issue of EAP celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Relph's book. See "selected articles" by Million, Paterson, Relph, and Seamon.  

In reading Relph's reflections on Place and Placelessness [see Relph's essay in "selected readings"], I wonder if he really doesn't realize how important the book has been to the development of the place concept? He criticizes the book as simplistic, but I believe it was seminal, fueling the work of many researchers who used his organizing concep­tual framework. Here, I include my own research, for which Rel­ph's ideas provided conceptu­al clarifica­tion and struc­ture, especially his discussion of the differ­ent modes of insideness and outsideness (Boschetti 1984, 1990, 1993).

    Also, simplicity is not necessarily negative. Often, it is the clarity that simplicity brings to one's percep­tion and understanding of phenomena that allows one to move beyond confusion and to see old things in new ways. This is how break­throughs in thinking and theory development push human efforts forward.

    Some postmodern problems are not the fault of conceptualizing place as positive and placelessness as negative but the reverse: Understanding place and placelessness as a lived-dialectic helps to inter­pret problems in a way that doesn't judge the world but generates understanding from a personal perspec­tive so that solutions can have "hands-on" meaning.

    We have to remember that "place" can have different dimensions of meaning for different people; nevertheless, that places have meaning for people is a universal truth. What appears to be "placelessness" to an outsider may, in fact, be a place with meaning for the insider.

    While new technologies are changing the world at a dramatic pace, I do not think these devel­opments excuse the human need for satisfying a feeling of being "at home" in the world, though the manifesta­tions of this satisfaction may take on new forms and occur through new situations and experi­ences.

    I also think that creation of place is a personal process, not something that can be accomplished by the group or society for the individual; and that we are constantly recreating place as we move from one place to another, whether it be our home, work place or tempo­rary places experi­enced in transit. This is not to deny that groups may have a communal sense of place or that community can convey a sense of place for its members.

    Yet it is not the domain of society to create places for people but to make it possible‑-through policy and design‑-for people to create their own places. Or, to put the point another way, it is society's responsibili­ty neither to prevent people from creating places nor to create placelessness inadvertently through igno­rance or lack of care.

    It is very difficult to think about these ideas devoid of personal values and even ideological persuasions. I remember the notion, "thesis begets antithesis, which in turn leads to synthesis." In this light, the best new ideas interpret and integrate rather than reject those from the past, moving the whole forward in transcendent fashion.

    From the per­spec­tive of 20 years since R­elph's book, we may be now at the point of antithe­sis; the potential exists for a new synthe­sis to crystal­ize. It is to Relph's credit that his ideas have been power­ful enough to generate antithesis, making possible the emergence of new ways to think about place.


Boschetti, M., 1984. The Older Person's Emotional Attachment to the Physical Environment of the Residential Setting. Doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

_____, 1990. Reflection on Home: Implications for Housing Design for Elderly Persons. Housing and Society, 17 (3):57-65.

_____, 1993. Staying in Place: Farm Homes and Family Heritage. Housing and Society, 20 (2):45-60.

Relph, E., 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.