Place Attachment: How Academic Knowledge Seems to Grow

April 29, 2013

Whatever I may be writing here has doubtless been said in more erudite fashion by an academic somewhere.  In a sense, this post has to do with that probability.

My inquiry began with an interest in the concept of place attachment.  To learn more about current work in that concept, I ran a search.  It led to a theoretical article by Scannell and Gifford (2009).  A bit more searching led to another article, by Lewicka (2011).  The Lewicka article seemed to accept the Scannell and Gifford piece as a valid statement of a way to understand the concept of place attachment.  So I felt that I had perhaps found my way into a good starting point, for purposes of learning more about the concept:  I could examine what Lewicka was telling us about place attachment.

Both of those articles were in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.  This raised a problem.  The articles acknowledged that place attachment was a subject of interest in a variety of fields.  According to Lewicka, those fields included “all branches of social sciences, including environmental psychology, sociology, community psychology, human geography, cultural anthropology” and nine or ten others.  The underlying concepts, she said, were sometimes expressed in terms other than place attachment, such as “place identity” and “people-place relationships” (p. 207).  The problem, then, was that what Lewicka identified as the subject of “almost 400 papers published within the last 40 years in more than 120 different journals” had become a sprawling subdiscipline, with all sorts of complexities.

An academic, confronted with this sort of thing, might find it natural to wade in and begin to define terms, sort articles, and categorize concepts.  People-place relationships was a superset of place attachment, one might conclude; the articles by X and Y and Z were too old or poorly done to be taken seriously; and so forth.  Through various ways of thinking about the matter, one might be able to pare down the mass of 400 articles to perhaps a few dozen that would seem on-target for one’s purposes.  One could describe the steps in that paring process, and could otherwise frame up the subject for discussion, so that readers would know approximately what we were talking about, and why we were looking at some sources while ignoring others.

Yet such procedures would inevitably generate issues.  No doubt place attachment was a multidimensional concept in any case.  But the seemingly reasonable academic sorting and processing efforts would tend to add another layer of complexity.  It was quite common for people in one field, or subset thereof, to largely talk to themselves, developing their own way of seeing the world — to such an extent that their work could be more about “their own way of seeing” and less about “the world.”  I was concerned that Lewicka et al. might be helping me to understand merely the environmental psychology of place attachment, which might be very different from the sociology or the anthropology of place attachment.

So I seemed to be facing multiple challenges.  First, I had to find something like the Lewicka article, to get an overview of the concept. Then, if I really wanted to understand place attachment per se, I had better find comparable articles from all sorts of other fields, so as to determine whether they saw things differently.  Since they might not all characterize the phenomenon that interested me as “place attachment,” I would have to get into this deeply enough to try to figure out what else it might be called, and how those concepts would differ from one another.  Granted, Lewicka seemed to have just this sort of problem in mind, with her survey of place attachment across multiple fields.  But when she admitted that “different authors, coming from different theoretical traditions, view relationships between the place-related terms in different and often incompatible ways” (p. 208), I had to recognize that even her academic steps of sorting articles and identifying key issues might be very different from someone else’s.  You can’t boil down thousands of pages into 24 without making some subjective and possibly idiosyncratic decisions.

One might expect that multifarious efforts to grapple with place attachment would advance knowledge.  This was not exactly what Lewicka found, however.  She indicated that “studies on people-place relationships seem to be stuck in definitional questions and attempts to fit together various place-related concepts,” producing “a thicket” of “minimally coherent” impressions (p. 208).  Evidently you could plunge into these materials, learn all about them, and then later find yourself needing to unlearn half of what had previously seemed right.

In short, we had developed an odd way to generate knowledge.  There seemed to be a need for a counterweight – for something that would attack superfluity, redundancy, and incoherence, and would compel consolidation and consensus, much as the discipline of the market ideally attacks the unproductive and the self-indulgent.

For purposes of discipline, no doubt some would feel that the market itself was the answer – that it would ultimately force universities and departments to make hard decisions to distinguish intellectual efforts that bear fruit from those that do not.  But there were problems with such a conclusion.  For one thing, it implied that market forces could directly distinguish the best from the worst, according to which produce higher profits.  So the poets of classical Greece would be considered essentially worthless compared with, say, Lady Gaga.  And then there was the fact that money increasingly represents a skewed concentration of societal decisionmaking power.

But the example was useful nonetheless.  There were forces of life, such as the market, that could bring an ax to the sorting process.  Religion would be another example of a potentially gross sorter of worthy and unworthy; a third example would be politics, as in the case of China’s Cultural Revolution.  People who loved knowledge would presumably concur that it would be better not to leave the sorting of valuable knowledge to the mass opinion of people who do not understand it.

The problem I faced, when trying to learn about place attachment, was that there were so many places to look that, as a practical matter, there was no really valid place to begin.  Or perhaps that is not quite right.  There was always Wikipedia.  A search in Wikipedia yielded the information that there was no Wikipedia article on place attachment per se, but there was one on “sense of place” as well as a section on place attachment within an article on environmental psychology.  It seemed, in other words, that something like Wikipedia would grow precisely because academics (particularly but not only those in the social sciences) have been so poor at policing themselves – at converting their abstruse knowledge into terms that would be accessible to someone other than their peers.

Seen in that light, it appeared that one kind of knowledge discipline was unfolding in terms of popularity.  Yes, the academics could continue to publish their recherche insights in journals, commonly read by few and influencing even fewer – or they could popularize and distribute their learning by publishing books, setting up their own blogs and webpages, contributing to Wikipedia, or becoming star teachers in MOOCs.  The journal articles, largely controlled by for-profit enterprises, effectively locked their knowledge away where hardly anyone would see it, whereas these other avenues tended to open up their knowledge for public use.  There would still be a plethora of sources providing information on a subject – for example, Lewicka’s reference to 400 articles could be replaced by a Google search producing a list of 106,000 results – but one could at least hope that Google’s ranking algorithms tended to succeed in putting the best (as distinct from merely the most trendy) sources (frequently including Wikipedia) toward the top of the list.

In this case, I had done a search for “place attachment” in Google Scholar rather than through the more general-purpose Google web search, and Lewicka’s article had emerged, near the top of the list, as something that looked like it might contain the sort of overview I desired.  In various ways, then, Google would lead me to sources like Wikipedia and Lewicka because that’s where the search algorithms pointed.  In using such sources, it seemed that I would have to replace the ambition of being comprehensive, or of providing a complete or scholarly account of place attachment, with a vague hope that Lewicka or Wikipedia would present an adequate general picture for my purposes.  There didn’t seem to be much practical alternative, short of spending a large amount of time in my own detailed exploration of the subject.

In short, my learning about place attachment was not being coarsely controlled by the axes of politics, religion, or the market, though the market and politics were certainly playing a role.  Instead, a large part of what I would learn about place attachment was being somewhat less coarsely determined by the cleaver of Google.  It seemed that higher education should aspire to replace that cleaver with the scalpel of informed scholarly opinion.  But I was not sure how that might come about.  I hoped that it would somehow become fashionable, in academia, to emphasize successful communication of intelligible insights in accessible forms.  Maybe then I, as a lay reader, could consult something like an encyclopedia of leisure concepts — something comparable to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — to obtain a better overview and deeper understanding of place attachment.

These aspects of academic learning had obviously taken me far from my starting interest in that subject.  I did not set out with a desire to write a blog post about academic knowledge.  That topic basically hit me in the face when I tried to pursue the concept of place attachment, as soon as I read the first full page in Lewicka’s article.  At this point, my working conclusion was that I would probably just have to rely on Lewicka’s literature review.  I attend to that in a separate post.

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