Puzzling Spaces and Theoretical Puzzles: Working with Spatial Figures in Project C07

29. September 2023

1. Solving Theoretical Puzzles: One Project’s Perspective within the CRC

In the Collaborative Research Center (CRC) Re-Figuration of Spaces, seventeen projects conduct research within an interdisciplinary environment. While we investigate a wide array of cases—ranging from the connection between infrastructures and attitudes towards inequality, over queer everyday life in digitalized spaces, to spatial stories in Afronovelas—we all refer to a broad framework of spatial theory that has been developed during the first funding period. To do so, we need to solve some theoretical puzzles in our everyday research practice. This short piece is about how we deal with one of these puzzles in our project.

In project C07, we look at Airbnb as an economic actor. We assume that any economic activity requires coordination in space. In increasingly complex economic interactions, actors need to be and perform actions at the right place. This notion sounds trivial as long as everything is working smoothly. However, when guests are unable to find their accommodation, or when short-term lodging threatens the cost of living for residents, space starts to matter and taken-for-granted coordination in physical space becomes salient.

Yet, how can we conceptualize the relevance of spatial coordination in the case of Airbnb and for economic activities more generally? To apply the refiguration framework to our project, we utilize the key CRC concept of spatial figures. We do so by using two methodological approaches. First, we aim to get a quantitative grip on the spatial figures, which challenges us to develop a more deductive form of operationalization. We propose a topographic mapping approach to accomplish this task. Second, our abstract topographic mapping requires another concept that allows us to understand how abstract spatial logics become relevant to actors with whom we conduct qualitative interviews. Therefore, we propose to treat the logics of spatial figures on par with institutional logics (Friedland & Alfort 1991), which provide general instances that economic actors refer to in their activities across society. This way, we hope to stimulate exchange in the CRC and beyond, by refining and developing our shared theoretical framework.

2. Understanding Spatial Logics: A Topographic Mapping Approach

Broadly speaking, sociological research engages with physical space by analyzing the ‘where in the world’ (Löw & Weidenhaus 2017). This assumes that spatial patterns are socially constructed and embedded in the social world. Hence, social action and society, including relevant physical objects and human bodies, always exist or take place in discernable locations, occupying a place as a relational position vis-à-vis others (see Löw & Weidenhaus 2017; Bourdieu 2018 [1991]). In their seminal approach, Löw and Knoblauch (2021) proposed to understand the relevance of physical space for social relationships in the terms of a refiguration of spaces.

To disentangle the complex refiguration approach, Löw and Knoblauch identified four spatial figures: place, territory, trajectory, and network space. Drawing on a rich body of qualitative material and theoretical conceptions, the spatial figures are each understood to be identified by a distinct logic: Place follows a logic of intersection, territory follows a logic of demarcation, trajectory follows a logic of transit, and network follows a logic of association. Conceptualized as ideal-typical, analytical constructions, the spatial figures operate at the level of logics of action (cf. Baur 2023). As they are usually (re-)constructed qualitatively, this conceptualization is challenging to work with in quantitative research, which aims to apply the four spatial figures deductively in more restricted research designs.

In breaking down spatial figures and their different logics, one may start by asking: What is a logic? Put simply, a logic defines a general, abstract principle that delineates which elements are relevant and how relevant elements relate to each other. Thus, the elements of a spatial logic constitute physical locations in the world—but what are the relationships that the logics define? To integrate the rich qualitative, theory-oriented conceptualization into more restricted research approaches, we propose a mapping of the geometric relationships as a simplified baseline.[1] Put plainly, the geometric mapping follows from four basic ways of connecting scattered points in geometric space.[2] These four ways of geometrically relating physical locations[3] describe the underlying (geometric) principles of the four spatial figures in our version (see Table 1):

– A place involves a single point with attributed meaning that relates to other points being placed in space. In an abstract mapping, a place describes a physical location that can be distinguished by attributed meaning in relation to other locations.

Territory requires that points be connected in a looped line enclosing an area. Abstractly mapped, a territory represents the inside of a defined physical area that is separated from the outside by a boundary line.

– A trajectory emerges when points connect to form a finite line running from a starting point to an end point. In an abstract mapping, a trajectory constitutes a line of physical locations forming a continuous string from a start to an end.

– In a network, connected points form a graph of direct and indirect relationships. The abstract mapping of a network, thus, describes a graph of physical locations specified by their direct and intermediated relationships.

The geometric mapping converges with all basic graphical representations of the spatial figures, for instance, in graphical figures, GIS systems or geographic maps. Our mapping allows us to contrast and complement the more qualitative approaches within the CRC with an abstract generalization.[4] Our abstract generalization of the spatial figures does not capture their relevance for logics of action in its entirety. Since physical locations and their relations must bear relevance to social relationships and meanings in order to become spatial figures, everyday enactment and communicative references are of crucial importance. Also, spatial figures in empirical cases may involve states of incompleteness, ambiguity, nestedness, or fragmentation, escaping the neat completeness of abstract geometric forms. Here, the geometric mapping provides a heuristic to distinguish the spatial figures analytically as well as to relate them empirically, for example, to observable states and material manifestations. This ranges from representations in quantitative spatial data, simple graphical representations of various empirical materials (e.g. maps) alongside observable patterns of circulation or outlines of built infrastructures.

Table 1: Abstract geometric mapping of the four spatial figures

Spatial figureGeometric principles (e.g. display on a geographic map)Geometric depiction
PlaceSingle point, related to other points by relative placement
TerritoryConnected points in a looped string enclosing a convex area
TrajectoryConnected points in a finite string forming a line with a start and an end
NetworkConnected points forming a graph of direct and intermediated links
Note: own depiction

3. Making Spatial Figures Relevant for Action: Fields and Institutional Logics

Abstractly defining spatial figures with a geometric mapping is one step. But as indicated above, a sociological approach must always show why these are relevant to actors and how spatial figures shape activities. We believe that a fruitful avenue from spatial figures to action runs through the sociological concepts of fields and institutional logics.

We utilize the concept of fields (see Fligstein & McAdam 2012) because it directs our attention to the social spheres in which meanings and relevance are constituted. Of course, there are a myriad of activities and encounters that occur every day, be it directly or indirectly. Some may be random or nonrecurring. But the main bulk, we argue, happens embedded in spheres of relationships and ongoing interaction between actors[5] who perceive each other as relevant, in fields. Fields emerge because actors share a common point of reference, and therefore continuously orient their actions towards each other. In the process, shared understandings about the structuring principles of interaction emerge between the actors. These come in various forms, for instance formal rules such as laws, but also cognitive templates or normative expectations (Scott 2001). In their field-specific manifestations, they render everyday interaction expectable because they relieve actors from having to constantly decide how to behave. They enable and restrict actors as they facilitate certain actions and impede others. In this way, shared understandings can be conceptualized as a translation of societal-level structures that help actors make sense of their relations to each other and of what constitutes appropriate action.

But what are these societal level structures in the first place? To think about this, Friedland and Alfort (1991: 248-56) coined the term institutional logics: symbolic systems of meaning at the societal level that encompass different logics of how social relations can come together. They identify the capitalist market, the bureaucratic state and democracy, the family, as well as science and religion as logics which actors can draw upon to make sense of actions. Each of these logics can be described as “a set of material practices and symbolic constructions” (ibid.: 248) that is concretized in specific social spheres – in fields. For example, imagine meeting your boss on a Monday morning. In general, you will most likely share your weekend stories differently than you would with a family member or friend. But the amount of detail you will provide – and how you feel about it – also depends on how the boss-employee relationship is handled in your workplace.

In order to theorize about how the logics of spatial figures, which we mapped abstractly in the previous section, shape interaction, we propose to analytically treat them on par with institutional logics. Places, networks, territories, and trajectories encompass symbolic systems of how social relations can come together spatially. Just like institutional logics, actors refer to and call upon the logics of spatial figures when making sense of, justifying, and coordinating everyday (inter)actions and relationships. If some other colleagues walked into the seminar room where you are just holding your weekly staff meeting and started chatting about their weekend, you would at the very least be confused. They were disturbing you in your territory.[6] But suppose you decided to hold the meeting outside in the sun, at the bench where people from your office usually have lunch together. You would not be as irritated if they joined you at this place. If we treat the spatial figures as societal-level logics that are translated into shared understandings in fields, we can qualitatively assess how they are imbued with meaning and referred to by actors.

So far, this sounds very harmonious. Indeed, in times of stability, shared understandings are taken for granted and not called into question, as they are a prerequisite for social coordination. But, of course, there are also times of change. Actors in fields do not meet as equals. They pursue different interests and are endowed with different resources. Shared understandings are imprinted with these hierarchical relations and tend to favor powerful actors, who aim to maintain their beneficial position, while others strive to improve theirs. Conflicts between actors emerge: The understandings guiding interaction in a field are not only shared, but often also contested.

Actors contest understandings in a field by referring to conflicting institutional logics and logics of spatial figures. Friedland and Alfort already elaborated on how institutional logics are both interdependent and contradictory.[7] The refiguration approach also emphasizes that the development of modernity is characterized by overlapping and conflicting spatial figures. This does not refer to a simple succession of spatial figures dominating societies—from places, to territories, to networks—but to their coexistence and co-constitution (Löw & Knoblauch 2021: 39ff). As spatial figures are based on distinct logics, this process is marked by tensions and conflicts, as is the case with institutional logics. These tensions need to be dealt with in fields. Investigating how they are translated into shared understandings that guide interaction allows us to analyze social orders in flux. Treating spatial figures on par with institutional logics enables us to focus on the spatial component of this process and thus shed light on the refiguration of society.

4. Proposing One Piece of the Puzzle

In this blog post, we showcased how we implement spatial figures as a central CRC concept in our C07 project. Extending the concept to a quantitative and more deductive perspective, we proposed a topographic approach to map the geometric relationships on which the figures are based. The concepts of fields and institutional logics help us think about how the spatial figures shape actions and help us understand economic activities in the C07 project. We propose to treat them on par with institutional logics because both constitute societal-level reference systems that provide actors with templates to make sense of how social relations can come together. Our understanding enables our project to grasp the role of the spatial in societal relationships, whether taken-for-granted in times of stability or contested in times of conflict. By making explicit how we work with the spatial figures in our project C07, we hope to contribute to our common endeavor at the CRC: advancing the theory of refiguration.

Author info: Christina Hecht and Stefan Kirchner are sociologists researching in subproject C07 – Platform Economy: Spatial Conflicts over Airbnb between Global Marketization and Territorial Containment at the CRC.


Baur, N. (2023): Long-Term Processes as Obstacles Against the Fourth Ecological Transformation. Ecological Sustainability and the Spatial Arrangements of Food Markets. In: Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 48: 105-145.

Baxter, J. S.; Marguin, S., et al. (2021): Hybrid Mapping Methodology – A manifesto. SFB1265 Working Paper, No. 9, Berlin.

Bourdieu, P. (2018 [1991]): Social Space and the Genesis of Appropriated Physical Space. In: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 42: 106-114.

Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. (2012): A Theory of Fields New York: Oxford University Press.

Friedland, R. & Alfort, R. R. (1991): Bringing Society Back In: Symbols, Practices, and Institutional Contradictions. In: Powell, W. W. and DiMaggio, P. J. (Hrsg.) The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago: Universtiy of Chicago Press, 232-267.

Löw, M. & Weidenhaus, G. (2017). Borders that relate: Conceptualizing boundaries in relational space. In: Current Sociology, 65(4): 553-557.

Löw, M. & Knoblauch, H. (2021): Raumfiguren, Raumkulturen und die Refiguration von Räumen. In: Löw, M., Sayman, V., Schwerer, J., et al. (Hrsg.) Am Ende der Globalisierung. Über die Refiguration von Räumen. Bielefeld: Transcript, 25-57.

Scott, W. R. (2001): Institutions and Organizations (2). Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

[1] To this point, we have only worked with quantitative data in our maps  in order to grasp the spatial figures in the more deductively derived part of our research design. We hope to build on this by exchanging ideas and perspectives on data with the Hybrid Mapping Methods working group at the CRC, which is advancing the promising idea of overcoming the qualitative-quantitative divide with innovative mapping methods (Baxter, Marguin, et al. 2021).

[2] The geometric mapping of the four spatial figures represents the four basic ways of connecting points with each other: no direct connection of points, points as uninterrupted outlines of an area, line with start and end, and a network of directly and indirectly connected points.

[3] A location provides the basic abstract unit of space that represents a discernible combination of coordinates in a three-dimensional physical space (e.g. latitude-longitude-altitude).

[4] It is perhaps important to note that the spatial figures mostly describe two-dimensional figures. This leaves open the possibility of adding three-dimensional figures, like a cube or a pyramid, as well as introducing layers of spatial figures that rest on top of each other.

[5] These may be individual or collective actors.

[6] As a meeting room can be understood as a place that is constituted by a territorial border (walls), this example illustrates a point that our colleague Jae-Young Lee raised in a plenary session at the CRC: that spatial figures are often co-constitutive.

[7] For example, ”capitalist markets may depend upon families in order to minimize the costs of supplying a labor force, but at the same time, the labor market may undercut the capacity of families to support reproduction” (Friedland & Alfort 1991: 256). In our case, traditional hospitality businesses may argue that Airbnb hosts operate in a market and therefore need to comply with the same regulations as hotels (calling upon politicians to regulate in their territory). The hosts and the platform company may put forward the counter claim that they are rather engaged in a globally networked community that shares experiences beyond economic interaction.