One of the questions I have wanted to research always seemed to be “un-researchable.” I have been interested in the phenomenon of high-end gated communities, and my question is a fairly obvious one: do people choose to live in these communities in order to separate themselves from “others,” however defined, or if not, how does the experience of residing in such communities affect their political opinions?
There are all kinds of practical problems in researching that question, which is a subset of a larger question that also intrigues me: how does the built environment affect social attitudes? (My husband is an architect, a fact that has undoubtedly piqued my interest in the interaction between environment and attitude.)
There is very little social science research on this question, so I was thrilled to discover this report from CityLab, written by noted urbanist Richard Florida.
We urbanists are obsessed with place. So it may be hard for us to believe that the connection between physical space and urbanization has been neglected by much of social science, outside of urban economics, urban planning, and urban geography. Indeed, place and geography have been notoriously absent from the greater field of political science.
That’s why the research of political scientist Ryan Enos is so interesting. An associate professor at Harvard’s Department of Government, Enos focuses on the geographic or spatial underpinnings of politics. His new book, The Space Between Us, dives deep into how the places we live influence our politics.
Following that lede is a transcription of an interview Florida conducted with Enos, in which Enos points out that geography has historically factored into politics, and not just politics, but other human behaviors. Politics, of course, is ultimately about who gets what–as we’ve seen rather vividly with the GOP’s recent tax bill. That “what” has often been control over land.
On a deeper level, geography is one of the fundamental ways we understand the world: We define locations, good or bad, by who lives there, by asking, “Are they one of us?” We treat places where the people are not like us—cities versus suburbs, red state versus blue—as different than places that are like us. This creates political conflict.
I found the following statement particularly insightful.
The “space between us” is the political space between us, our inability to come together, across groups, in politics to do the things necessary for a successful society, such as cooperating and compromising. The “distance” in political space is a manifestation of the psychological space between groups, how similar or different we think other groups of people are from our own group, and thus how much we think that we should cooperate with them.
This psychological space is influenced by geographic space: When groups are separated on the Earth’s surface—say into different sides of a city—our minds use this geographic separation as a shortcut to believe the groups are different; they become separated in our minds and this then spills over into our behavior, separating us in politics. This separation has consequences. If we cannot cooperate politically, we cannot do the things necessary to have a functioning modern society, such as building infrastructure and caring for the needy.