[This commentary is published as a chapter in Key Texts in Human Geography, P. Hubbard, R. Kitchen, & G.
Vallentine, eds., London: Sage, 2008, pp. 43-51 © David Seamon & Jacob Sowers]
Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph
David Seamon & Jacob Sowers
Geographers have long spoken of the importance of place as the unique focus distinguishing
geography from other disciplines. Astronomy has the heavens, History has time, and Geography
has place. A major question that geographers must sooner or later ask, however, is “What exactly
is place?” Is it merely a synonym for location, or a unique ensemble of nature and culture, or
could it be something more?
Beginning in the early 1970s, geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan (1974), Anne Buttimer (1976),
and Edward Relph (1976, 1981, 1993) grew dissatisfied with what they felt was a
philosophically and experientially anemic definition of place. These thinkers, sometimes called
“humanistic geographers,” probed place as it plays an integral role in human experience. One
influential result of this new approach was Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness, a book that
continues to have significant conceptual and practical impact today, both inside and outside
In the early 1970s, Relph was a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, working on his
dissertation concerning the relationship between Canadian national identity and the symbolic
landscapes of the Canadian Shield, especially those represented by lakes and forests (Relph
1996). As his project progressed, he became dissatisfied with the lack of philosophical
sophistication given to the definition of place. Relph found this supposed conceptual pillar of the
discipline to be superficial and incomplete, especially in terms of the importance of place in
ordinary human life. How could one study place attachment, sense of place, or place identity
without a clear understanding of the depth and complexity of place as it is experienced and
fashioned by real people in real places? Eventually, Relph scrapped his Canadian Shield study
and shifted focus to a broader look at the nature and meaning of place as it plays an integral part
in the lives of human beings.
A Phenomenology of Place and Space
Published in 1976, Place and Placelessness is a substantive revision of Relph’s 1973 University
of Toronto doctoral dissertation in Geography. As he emphasizes at the start of the book, his
research method is “a phenomenology of place” (Relph 1976, pp. 4-7). Phenomenology is the
interpretive study of human experience. The aim is to examine and to clarify human situations,
events, meanings, and experiences as they are known in everyday life but typically unnoticed
beneath the level of conscious awareness (Seamon 2000). One of phenomenology’s great strengths
is seeking out what is obvious but unquestioned and thereby questioning it. To uncover the
obvious, we must step back from any taken-for-granted attitudes and assumptions, whether in the
realm of everyday experience or in the realm of conceptual perspectives and explanations,
including the scientific. In Place and Placelessness, Relph steps back to call into question the
taken-for-granted nature of place and its significance as an inescapable dimension of human life
Relph begins Place and Placelessness with a review of space and its relationship to place. He
argues that space is not a void or an isometric plane or a kind of container that holds places.
Instead, he contends that, to study the relationship of space to a more experientially-based
understanding of place, space too must be explored in terms of how people experience it.
Although Relph says that there are countless types and intensities of spatial experience, he
delineates a heuristic structure grounded in “a continuum that has direct experience at one
extreme and abstract thought at the other…” (Relph 1976, p. 9). On one hand, he identifies
modes of spatial experience that are instinctive, bodily, and immediate—for example, what he
calls pragmatic space, perceptual space, and existential space. On the other hand, he identifies
modes of spatial experience that are more cerebral, ideal, and intangible—for example, planning
space, cognitive space, and abstract space. Relph describes how each of these modes of space-as-
experienced has varying intensities in everyday life. For example, existential space—the
particular taken-for-granted environmental and spatial constitution of one’s everyday world
grounded in culture and social structure—can be experienced in a highly self-conscious way as
when one is overwhelmed by the beauty and sacredness of a Gothic cathedral; or in a tacit,
unself-conscious way as one sits in the office day after day paying little attention to his or her
Although the spatial modes that Relph identifies may each play a particular role in everyday
experience, Relph emphasizes that in reality these modes are not mutually exclusive but all part
and parcel of human spatial experience as it is a lived, indivisible whole. For example, he
explains that cognitive conceptions of space understood through maps may help to form our
perceptual knowledge, which in turn may color our day-to-day spatial encounters as we move
through real-world places. Though a radical idea in the 1970s, Relph’s conclusion that space is
heterogeneous and infused with many different lived dimensions is largely taken for granted in
geographical studies today as researchers speak of such spatial modes as sacred space, gendered
space, commodified space, and the like.
One of Relph’s central accomplishments in Place and Placelessness is his preserving an intimate
conceptual engagement between space and place. Many geographers speak of both concepts but
ultimately treat the two as separate or give few indications as to how they are related existentially
and conceptually. For Relph, the unique quality of place is its power to order and to focus human
intentions, experiences, and actions spatially. Relph thus sees space and place as dialectically
structured in human environmental experience, since our understanding of space is related to the
places we inhabit, which in turn derive meaning from their spatial context.
Depth of Place
A central reason for Relph’s exhaustive study of place is his firmly held belief that such
understanding might contribute to the maintenance and restoration of existing places and the
making of new places (also see Relph 1981, 1993). He argues that, without a thorough
understanding of place as it has human significance, one would find it difficult to describe why a
particular place is special and impossible to know how to repair existing places in need of
mending. In short, before we can properly prescribe, we must first learn how to accurately
describe—a central aim of phenomenological research.
In examining place in depth, Relph focuses on people’s identity of and with place. By the identity
of a place, he refers to its “persistent sameness and unity which allows that [place] to be
differentiated from others” (Relph 1976, p. 45). Relph describes this persistent identity in terms
of three components: (1) the place’s physical setting; (2) its activities, situations, and events; and
(3) the individual and group meanings created through people’s experiences and intentions in regard
to that place.
Relph emphasizes, however, that place identify defined in this threefold way is not sufficiently
pivotal or deep existentially because, most essentially, places are “significant centres of our
immediate experiences of the world” (Relph 1976, p. 141). If places are to be more thoroughly
understood, one needs a language whereby we can identify particular place experiences in terms of
the intensity of meaning and intention that a person and place hold for each other. For Relph, the
crux of this lived intensity is identity with place, which he defines through the concept of
insideness—the degree of attachment, involvement, and concern that a person or group has for a
Insideness and Outsideness
Relph’s elucidation of insideness is perhaps his most original contribution to the understanding of
place because he effectively demonstrates that the concept is the core lived structure of place as it
has meaning in human life. 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 suggests that
the more profoundly inside a place a person feels, the stronger will be his or her identity with that
On the other hand, a person can be separate or alienated from place, and this mode of place experi-
ence is what Relph calls outsideness. Here, people feel some sort of lived division or separation
between themselves and world—for example, the feeling of homesickness in a new place. The
crucial phenomenological point is 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 individuals and groups, and human
experience takes on different qualities of feeling, meaning, ambience, and action.
The strongest sense of place experience is what Relph calls 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 labels
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 when they knew it earlier.
In his book, Relph discusses seven modes of insideness and outsideness (no doubt there are more)
grounded in various levels of experiential involvement and meaning. The value of these modes,
particularly for self-awareness, is that they apply to specific place experiences yet provide a
conceptual structure in which to understand those experiences in broader, more explicit terms.
In the last half of the book, Relph examines ways in which places may be experienced authentically
or inauthentically (terms borrowed from phenomenological and existential philosophy). An
authentic sense of place 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” (Relph 1976,
Individuals and groups may create a sense of place either unself-consciously or deliberately. Thus,
because of constant use, a nondescript urban neighborhood can be as authentic a place as Hellenic
Athens or the Gothic cathedrals—the latter both examples, for Relph, of places generated con-
sciously. Relph argues 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” (Relph 1976, Preface).
Relph suggests 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” (Relph 1976, p. 143).
Influence of Place and Placelessness
Since Relph's book was published, there has been a spate of popular studies on the nature of place.
In addition, thinkers from a broad range of conceptual perspectives—from positivist and neo-
Marxist to post-structuralist and social-constructivist—have drawn on the idea of place, though
understanding it in different ways and using it for different theoretical and practical ends (Creswell
2004; Seamon 2000).
Scholarly interest in Place and Placelessness has steadily increased over the years. According to
citation indices in the sciences, social sciences, and the arts & humanities, the book has been
referenced in scholarly journals a total of 357 times from 1977 to 2005. In the first ten years, there
was an average of some twelve citations per year; since then, references have steadily increased to
thirty-six entries in 2004. Geographers have cited the book most since 1989 (142 entries), though
scholars in environmental studies also demonstrate strong interest (118 entries). In addition, the
book has been cited by researchers in psychology (forty-three times), sociology (forty-two), urban
studies (thirty), planning (twenty-one), health (ten), and anthropology (nine).
To provide the reader with an indication of how Relph’s ideas in Place and Placelessness have been
used as a major conceptual mooring point by other researchers, we highlight three examples—one
book, one article, and one dissertation (for a more extensive list, see Seamon 2000). Published two
years after Relph’s book, geographer David Seamon’s A Geography of the Lifeword is the first
major study to draw on Relph’s notion of insideness and to demonstrate how it could be extended
phenomenologically to examine a topic that Seamon calls everyday environmental experience— the
sum total of peoples’ firsthand involvements with the geographical world in which they live
(Seamon 1979, pp. 15-16). Seamon considers how, through experienced dimensions like body,
feelings, and thinking, the quality of insideness is expressed geographically and environmentally.
Seamon’s work illustrates how Relph’s phenomenology of place offers a field of conceptual
clarity from which other researchers might embark on their own phenomenological explorations.
A second study illustrating the conceptual potential of Place and Placelessness is landscape
architect V. Frank Chaffin’s research, which focuses on Isle Brevelle, a 200-year-old river
community on the Cane River of Louisiana’s Natchitoches Parish (Chaffin 1989). Through an
interpretive reading of the region’s history and geology, in-depth interviewing of residents, and
his own personal encounters with Isle Brevelle’s landscape while canoeing on the Cane River,
Chaffin aims to reach an empathetic insideness with this place—in other words, he attempts to
find ways to be open to and thereby to understand more deeply Isle Brevelle’s unique sense of
place. One central aspect of Chaffin’s encounter with this place is his unexpected realization that
the Cane River is not an edge that separates its two banks but, rather, a seam that gathers the two
sides together as one community and one place.
A third study using themes from Place and Placelessnesss for conceptual mooring is
psychologist Louise Million’s dissertation (Million 1992), which examines phenomenologically
the experience of five rural Canadian families forced to leave their ranches because of the
construction of a reservoir dam in southern Alberta. Drawing on Relph’s modes of insideness
and outsideness, Million identifies the central lived qualities of what she calls involuntary
displacement—the families’ experience of forced relocation and resettlement. Making use of in-
depth interviews with the five families, she demonstrates how place is prior to involuntary
displacement with the result that this experience can be understood existentially as a forced
journey marked by eight stages—(1) becoming uneasy, (2) struggling to stay, (3) having to
accept, (4) securing a settlement, (5) searching for the new, (6) starting over, (7) unsettling
reminders, and (8) wanting to resettle. In delineating the lived stages in the process of losing
place and attempting to resettle, Million’s study demonstrates how Relph’s modes of insideness
and outsideness can be used developmentally to examine place experience and identity as they
strengthen, weaken, or remain more or less continuous over time.
Criticisms of Place and Placelessness
Broadly, one finds three major criticisms of Place and Placelessness: that it is essentialist; out of
touch with what places really are today; and structured around simplistic dualisms that misrepresent
and limit the range of place experience, particularly the possibility of a “global sense of place”
(Massey 1997, p. 323). The essentialist claim has been brought forth especially by Marxists (e.g.,
Peet 1998, p. 63) and social constructivists (e.g., Creswell 2004, p. 26, pp. 30-33), who argue that
Relph presupposes and claims an invariant and universal human condition that will be revealed only
when all “non-essentials,” including historical, cultural, and personal qualities, are stripped away,
leaving behind some inescapable core of human experience. These critics point out that, in focusing
on the experience of place as a foundational existential quality and structure, Relph ignores specific
temporal, social, and individual circumstances that shape particular places and particular
individuals’ and groups’ experience of them.
This criticism misunderstands the basic phenomenological recognition that there are different
dimensions of human experience and existence that all must be incorporated in a thorough
understanding of human and societal phenomena. These dimensions include: (a) one’s unique
personal situation—e.g., one’s gender, physical and intellectual endowments, degree of ableness,
and personal likes and dislikes; (b) one’s unique historical, social, and cultural situation—e.g., the
era and geographical locale in which one lives, his or her economic and political circumstances, and
his or her educational, religious, and societal background; and (c) one’s situation as a typical human
being who sustains and reflects a typical human world—e.g., Relph’s claim that place is an integral
lived structure in human experience.
What is exciting and dynamic about Relph’s broad conclusions regarding place—which first of all
relate to dimension (c)—is their potential as starting points for more specific phenomenological
investigations of (a) and (b) as exemplified, for example, in the real-world studies of Chaffin and
Million highlighted above. Chaffin’s research demonstrates how Relph’s broad principles can
inform and direct phenomenological research focusing on the social and cultural dimensions of one
specific place—the Cain River community. Similarly, in her study of the displaced Alberta
ranchers, Million illustrates how Relph’s general principles and conclusions can guide empirical
research in regard to specific individuals and families in a specific place, time, and situation. In turn,
Chaffin and Million’s more grounded discoveries clarify and amplify Relph’s broader claims.
In short, Relph’s phenomenology of place points toward a conceptual and methodological
reciprocity between the general and the specific, between the foundational and the particular,
between the conceptual and the lived. This convincing “fit” among levels is a hallmark of the best
A Lack of Conceptual Sophistication?
In a commentary written for Place and Placelessness’ twentieth anniversary, Relph (1996)
suggested that, in hindsight, another major weaknesses of Place and Placelessness was its lack of
conceptual sophistication, particularly its straightforward use of dialectical opposites as a way to
conceptualize place experience—insideness/outsideness, place/placelessness,
authenticity/inauthenticity, and so forth. One result is that critics have often misunderstood Relph's
point of view, claiming he favored places over placelessness, insideness over outsideness, authentic
over inauthentic places, rootedness over mobility, and place as a static, bounded site over place as a
dynamic, globally-connected process (Cesswell 2004, Massey 1997, Peet 1998).
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 the continuum of insideness and outsideness, he
provides a language that allows for a precise designation of the particular experience of a particular
person or group in relation to the particular place in which they find themselves. Relph also
provides a terminology for describing how and why the same place can be experienced differently
by different individuals (e.g., the long-time resident vs. the newcomer vs. the researcher who studies
the place) or how, over time, the same person can experience the same place differently at different
times (e.g., the home and community that suddenly seem so different when one's significant other
As Relph’s book strikingly demonstrates, a major strength of phenomenological insights is their
provision of a conceptual language that allows one to separate from taken-for-granted everyday
experience—the lifeworld as it is called phenomenologically (Buttimer 1976, Seamon 1979, 2000).
Too often, researchers lose sight of the need to move outside lifeworld descriptions and
terminology, and the result is confusion or murkiness as to the exact phenomenon they are
attempting to understand.
For example, in feminist and cultural-studies research that focuses on negative and traumatic images
of place (e.g., Rose 1993, pp. 53-5), an emphasis is sometimes given to how family violence
generates homes where family members feel victimized and insecure. Too often, the post-structural
and social-constructivist conclusion is to call into question the entire concept of home and place and
to suggest that they might be nostalgic, essentialist notions that need vigorous societal and political
modification—perhaps even substitution—in postmodern society.
Relph’s modes of insideness and outsideness point to an alternative understanding. The problem is
not home and place but a conceptual conflation for which Relph's 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 potentially life-shattering.
Relph's notion of existential outsideness allows us to keep the experiences of home and violation
distinct. Through his lived language of place, we can say more exactly that domestic violence,
whether in regard to women or men, 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 destructive.
The short-term phenomenological question is how these victims can be helped to regain existential
insideness. The longer-term question is what qualities and forces in our society lead to a situation
where the existential insideness of home and at-homeness devolves into hurtfulness and despair.
Something is deeply wrong, and one cause of the problem may be the very problem itself—i.e., the
growing disruption and disintegration of places and insideness at many different scales of
experience, from home to neighborhood to city to nation (Fullilove 2004; Relph 1993).
How today to have insideness and place when change is constant, society is diverse, and so many of
the traditional "truths" no longer make sense is one of the crucial questions of our age. Place and
Placelessness offers no clear answer, but it does provide an innovative language for thinking about
Dwelling and Journey
Another concern that some critics voiced regarding Place and Placelessness is that it favors home,
center, and dwelling over horizon, periphery, and journey (Cresswell 2004, Massey 1997, Peet
1998). As Relph (1996) says in his twentieth-anniversary commentary, he was accused of
emphasizing the positive qualities of place and ignoring or minimizing negative qualities—e.g., the
possibility that place can generate parochialism, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness (also see
Relph 2000). Again, a close reading of the book reveals 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 commitment to
nothing. The broader point is that, in the book's lived dialectics (center/horizon, place/placelessness,
and so forth), there is a wonderful resilience of conceptual interrelationship that is another hallmark
of the best phenomenology.
In his twentieth-anniversary commentary, Relph (1996) also points out that some critics mistakenly
read the book as a nostalgic paean to pre-modern times and places (e.g., Peet 1998). How could the
kind of authentic places that he emphasized exist in our postmodern times of cyberspace,
continuous 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 and identifying with place are integral to what and who we are as human
beings (Casey 1993, Malpas 1999). From this point of view, the argument that postmodern
society, through technological and cultural correctives, can now ignore place is questionable
existentially and potentially devastating practically, whether in terms of policy, design, or popular
understanding (Relph 1993).
Instead, the crucial question that both theory and practice should ask is how a “progressive” sense of
place and insideness can be made even in the context of our relativist, constantly-changing post-
modern world (Cresswell 2004, Horan 2000, Massey 1997). Twenty years ago, Relph was one of
the first thinkers to broach this question, which he explores in greater detail in his later Rational
Landscapes and Humanistic Geography (Relph 1981). Today, due to Relph’s penetrating insights
and the work of a small coterie of thinkers and practitioners like Christopher Alexander (2002-05),
Mindy Fullilove (2004), Bill Hillier (1996), Thomas Horan (2000), Daniel Kemmis (1995), and
Robert Mugerauer (1994), we have the start of an answer to this question phrased in a
phenomenological language (Seamon 2004) that interprets place in a way considerably different
from the post-structural, social-constructivist, and neo-Marxist perspectives that currently dominate
academic discourse on place (Cresswell 2004).
In spite of the dramatic societal and environmental changes that our world faces today, place
continues to be significant both as a vigorous conceptual structure as well as an irrevocable part of
everyday human life (Horan 2000). This is not to suggest that the world must or could return to a set
of distinct places all different, unconnected, and more or less unaware of each other. In today’s
globally-linked society, place independence is in many ways impossible (Cresswell 2004, Relph
2000). More so, the importance of place and locality must be balanced with an awareness of and
connections to other places and global needs (Massey 1997). The point is that an empathetic and
compassionate understanding of the worlds beyond our own places may be best grounded in a love
of a particular place to which I myself belong. In this way, we may recognize that what we need in
our everyday world has parallels in the worlds of others (Relph 1981, 1993).
Place and Placelessness is a remarkable demonstration of the potential conceptual and practical
power of place, which, by its very nature, gathers worlds spatially and environmentally, marking out
centers of human action, intention, and meaning that, in turn, help make place (Casey 1993, Malpas
1999). In many ways, the continuing dissolution of places and insideness in the world helps to
explain the escalating erosion of civility and civilization, in the West and elsewhere. Relph's Place
and Placelessness first pointed to this dilemma some thirty years ago and is today more relevant
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