Back to “articles”


Back to EAP home page


[originally published in the Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, vol. 7, no. 3 (fall 1996), pp. 5-8, for a special issue on the 20th-year anniversary of the publication of Place and Placelessness]


A Singular Impact:

Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness


David Seamon


For my development as a phenomenologist, Ted Relph's Place and Placelessness had a singular impact. The book appeared in the fall of 1976 as I was writing my dissertation at Clark University under the faculty supervision of Anne Buttimer, who had become deeply involved in the value of continental philosophies for social science (Buttimer 1971). As Anne lectured on phenomenology, I felt a growing excitement because the approach seemed to offer a counter to the positivist style of research that then dominated Clark's graduate programs in geography and psychology.


The aim I had for my dissertation was to explore a rather nebulous phenomenon that I called "everyday environmental experience" (Seamon 1979). Relph's book became central to my writing because, in explaining why places were such an integral part of human experience, he developed the notion of insideness--the idea that the more strongly an environment generates a sense of belonging, the more strongly does that environment become a place.


I realized that the phenomenological effort of my dissertation would be to explore how, through experienced dimensions like body, feelings, and thinking, the quality of insideness is expressed geographically and environmentally. As good phenomenology should, Relph's presentation provided a field of conceptual clarity from which I could embark on my own phenomenological exploration.



Six years before his book, Relph had published a journal article that examined the general value of phenomenology for environmental themes (Relph 1970), but Place and Placelessness was his first effort to use the approach in a focused way.


Relph's central interest was the human experience of place, which he argued was a fundamental aspect of peoples' existence in the world. Places, he wrote, "are fusions of human and natural order and are the significant centers of our immediate experiences of the world" (p. 141). His book attempted to unravel and describe the essential experiential nature of place. Why and how, in other words, are places meaningful for people?


To answer this question, Relph first discussed the relationship between space and place. What kinds of space does a person typically experience and what relation do these spatial experiences have to his or her sense of place? For Relph, the essential quality of place was its power to order and to focus human intentions, experience, and behavior spatially. The rest of Place and Placelessness lucidly extended and clarified several dimensions and shadings of this basic theme.



Probably Relph's most original contribution to the understanding of place was his discussion of insideness, which I mentioned above as so helpful in my own dissertation work. If a person feels inside a place, he or she is here rather than there, safe rather than threatened, enclosed rather than exposed, at ease rather than stressed. Relph suggested that the more profoundly inside a place the person feels, the stronger will be his or her identity with that place.


On the other hand, a person can be separate or alienated from place, and this mode of place experience is what Relph called outsideness. Here, people feel some sort of division between themselves and world. The crucial phenomenological point is that, through different degrees of insideness and outsideness, different places take on different identities.


In other words, Relph argued that outsideness and insideness constitute a fundamental dialectic in human life and that, through varying combinations and intensities of outsideness and insideness, different places take on different identities for different people, and human experience takes on different qualities of meaning and feeling.


The strongest sense of place experience was what Relph called existential insideness, a situation of deep, unself-conscious immersion in place and the experience most people know when they are at home in their own community and region. The opposite of existential insideness is what he labelled existential outsideness‑-a sense of strangeness and alienation, such as that often felt by newcomers to a place or by people who, having been away from their birth place, return to feel strangers because the place is no longer what it was before.


In Place and Placelessness, Relph discussed seven modes of insideness and outsideness grounded in various levels of experiential involvement (see table 1 below). The value of these modes, particularly in terms of self-awareness, is that they apply to specific place experiences yet provide a conceptual structure in which to understand those experiences in broader terms.


 Table 1





A situation involving a feeling of attachment and at-homeness. Place is "experienced without deliberate and self-conscious reflection yet is full with significances." One feels this is the place where he or she belongs. The deepest kind of place experience and the one toward which we probably all yearn.



A situation where the person feels separate from or out of place. Place may feel alienating, unreal, unpleasant, or oppressive. Homelessness or homesickness would be examples. Often, today, the physical and designed environments contribute to this kind of experience unintentionally‑-the sprawl of suburban environments, the dissolution of urban downtowns, the decline of rural communities.



A situation involving a deliberate dispassionate attitude of separation from place. Place is a thing to be studied and manipulated as an object apart from the experiencer. A scien­tif­ic approach to place and environment. Ironically, the approach to place often taken by planners, designers, and policy makers.



A situation in which place is the background or mere setting for activities‑-for example, the landscapes and places one drives through as he or she is on the way to somewhere else.



A situation involving the deliberate attending to the appear­ance of place. Place is seen as a set of objects, views, or activities. For example, the experience we all pass through when becoming familiar with a new place--figuring out what is where and how the various landmarks, paths, and so forth all fit together to make one complete place.



A situation in which the person, as outsider, tries to be open to place and understand it more deeply. This kind of experience requires interest, empathy, and heartfelt concern. Empathetic insideness is an important aspect of approaching a place phenomenologically.



A situation of deeply-felt secondhand involvement with place. One is transported to place through imagination‑-through paintings, novels, music, films, or other creative media. One thinks, for example, of Monet's paintings of his beloved garden Giverny or of Thomas Hardy's novels describing 19th-century rural England.





In the last half of the book, Relph examined ways in which places may be experienced authentically or inauthentically (terms borrowed from phenomenological and existential philosophy). An authentic sense of place, in Relph's words, is "a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex of the identity of places‑-not mediated and distorted through a series of quite arbitrary social and intellectual fashions about how that experience should be, nor following stereotyped conventions" (p. 64).


Individuals and communities may create a sense of place either unself-consciously or deliberately. Thus, for example, because of constant use, a nondescript urban neighborhood can be as authentic a place as Athens in the Hellenic period or the Gothic cathedrals.


Relph argued that in our modern era, an authentic sense of place is being gradually overshadowed by a less authentic attitude that he called placelessness: "the casual eradication of distinctive places and the making of standardized landscapes that results from an insensitivity to the significance of place" (Preface, n. p.).


Relph suggested that in general, placelessness arises from kitsch--an uncritical acceptance of mass values, or technique--the overriding concern with efficiency as an end in itself. The overall impact of these two forces, which manifest through such processes as mass communication, mass culture, and central authority, is the "undermining of place for both individuals and cultures, and the casual replacement of the diverse and significant places of the world with anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments" (p. 143).



Since Relph's book, there has been a spate of popular and academic studies on the nature of place. In addition, thinkers from a broad range of conceptual perspectives‑-from positivist to neo-Marxist to poststructuralist‑-have drawn on the idea of place, though understanding it in different ways and using it for different theoretical ends.


In his commentary that follows, Relph suggests that, in hindsight, one of the major weaknesses of Place and Placelessness was its lack of conceptual sophisitication, particularly its use of dialectical opposites as a way to conceptualize place experience‑-insideness/outsideness, place/placelessness, authentic/inauthentic, and so forth. One result is that critics have often misunderstood Relph's point of view by proclaiming that he favored places over placelessness and insideness over insideness.


If, however, one reads the book carefully and draws on his or her own personal experiences of place for evidence and clarification, he or she realizes the extraordinary coverage and flexibility of Relph's conceptual structure. Especially through his continuum of insideness and outsideness, he provides a language that allows us to articulate the particular experience of a particular person or group in relation to the particular place in which they find themselves. We also have a terminology for describing how and why the same place can be experienced by different individuals (e.g., the long-time resident vs. the newcomer), or how, over time, the same person can experience the same place differently (the "home" that suddenly seems so different after one's significant other has died).


One of the greatest values of phenomenological insights is that they provide a conceptual language that allows us to move outside taken-for-granted everyday experience, or the lifeworld as it is called phenomenologically. Too often, researchers lose sight of the need to separate from lifeworld descriptions and terminology, and the result is confusion or murkiness as to what exactly the central phenomenon they want to understand is.


An example. A few years ago I attended a conference session on negative and traumatic images of place (Rubenstein 1993). One example was how family violence regularly generated homes where people felt victimized and insecure. The postmodern conclusion was to call into question the entire concept of home and place and to suggest that they might be nostalgic notions that need vigorous existential and political modification‑-perhaps even substitution‑-in our postmodern society.


In fact, the problem here is not home and place but a conceptual conflation for which Relph's phenomenological language provides a simple corrective: the victim's experience should not be interpreted as a lack of at-homeness but, rather, as one mode of existential outsideness, which in regard to one's most intimate place--the home--is particularly undermining and painful.


Relph's articulation of existential outsideness allows us to keep the experiences of home and violation distinct. For sure and unfortunately, there are many domestic situations today that habor violence and abuse, but they should not be associated with "home" nor should the experience of "home" be blamed for the violation, as some of the panelists in the session seemed to suggest.


Through Relph's language, we can say more exactly that domestic violence is a situation where a place that typically fosters the strongest kind of existential insideness has become, paradoxically, a place of overwhelming existential outsideness. The lived result must be profoundly distressing and distructive.


The short-term phenomenological question is how the victims of such experience can be helped to regain existential insideness. The longer-term question is what qualities and forces in our society lead to a situation where those responsible for the continuity of the home's existential insideness transform that place into an everyday hell. Something is deeply wrong, and one cause of the problem may be the very problem itself‑-the growing disruption of places and insideness at many different scales of experience, from home to neigborhood to city to nation.


How today to have insideness and place when change is constant and so many of the traditional "truths" no longer make sense? Place and Placelessness provides no answer to such difficult questions, but it does provide a innovative language for thinking about the questions from a viewpoint different from the conventional left and right political points of view.



Another complaint that some critics made of Place and Placelessness was that it emphasized home, center and dwelling over horizon, periphery, and journey. As Relph mentions in his commentary, he was accused of emphasizing the positive qualities of place at the expense of negative qualities‑-e.g., the possibility that place can generate parochialism, xenophobia, and narrow mindedness. In fact, a close reading of the book reveals again a flexibility of expression--a recognition that an excess of place can lead to a provincialism and callousness for outsiders just as an excess of journey can lead to a loss of identity or an impartial relativity that allows for committment to nothing. My broader point is that, in the book's lived dialectics (center/horizon, place/placelessness, and so forth), there is a wonderful resilence of conceptual interrelationship that is the hallmark of the best phenomenology.


In his commentary, Relph also points out that many critics mistakenly read the book as a nostalgic paen to pre-modern times and places. How could the kind of authentic places that he emphasized exist in our postmodern times of technological change, human diversity, and geographical and social mobility?


This criticism, of course, ignores a central conclusion of Place and Placelessness: that regardless of the historical time or the geographical, technological, and social situation, people will always need place because having a place and identifying with place are integral to what and who we are as human beings. From this point of view, the argument that postmodern society, through technological and cultural correctives, can now ignore place is flagrantly wrong existentially and potentially devastating practically, whether in terms of policy, design, or popular understanding.


Instead, the crucial question that both theory and practice should ask is how a strong sense of place and insideness can be made in spite of our postmodern world. Twenty years ago, Relph was one of the first thinkers to broach this question. Today, due to a small cotrie of thinkers and practitioners like Christopher Alexander, Bill Hillier, Paul Murrain, and others, we have the start to an answer for this question.


Unfortunately, the great majority of academics and professionals, as well as the producers of popular media, continue to ignore the importance of place both as a powerful conceptual structure as well as as an integral part of everyday human life. The continuing dissolution of places and insideness may directly explain the erosion of Western civility and civilization. Relph's Place and Placelessness first pointed to these issues 20 years ago and is today more relevant than ever.



Buttimer, A., 1971. Values in Geography. Wash., D.C.: Association of American Geographers.

Relph, E., 1970. An Inquiry into the Relations between Phenomenology and Geography. Canadian Geographer, 14: 193-201.

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

Rubenstein, N., 1993. Environmental Autobiography and Places of Trauma. Proceedings, 24th annual meeting, EDRA. Oklahoma City: EDRA.

Seamon, D., 1979. A Geography of the Lifeworld. NY: St. Martin's.


back to top