Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica

Low, S. M.

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Low, S. M. (1996). Spatializing culture: The social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica. American Ethnologist, 23(4), 861–879.

Costa Rica , ethnographic methods , plazas , social construction , social production , urban space

In this article I explore how an integrated approach to the anthropological study of urban space would work ethnographically. I discuss four areas of spatial/cultural analysis—historical emergence, sociopolitical and economic structuring, patterns of social use, and experiential meanings—as a means of working out of the methodological implications of broader social construction theoretical perspectives. Two plazas in San Jose, Costa Rica, furnish ethnographic illustrations of the social mediating processes of spatial practices, symbolic meaning, and social control that provide insight into the conflicts that arise as different groups and sociopolitical forces struggle to claim and define these culturally significant public spaces.

Main finding
Public space is not just created by "authorities" but is co-created and "socially produced and constructed" by the acts of the participants, and the meanings they construct.

Description of method used in the article
Long-term ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in San José, Costa Rica from 1972–1974 and in various periods of 1976, 1979, 1986, 1987, and 1993. Two central plazas were studied, Parque Central, and the Plaza de la Cultura. Three different strategies for participant-observation were used in the fieldwork, repeated each time for the three intensive periods of study in the 1980s and 1990s. Behavior was recorded in plazas sector by sector, and this data was used to create behavioral maps. A second round of observations focused on the highlighted activity locations. In a final round of observations, the author became more involved in plaza life. Following the period of observations, interviews were collected with plaza users, owners and managers of relevant institutions, local historians, the current and previous ministers of culture, and with the architects involved in the design of the Plaza de la Cultura. Additionally, novels, newspapers, and television programs provided a broader cultural context. Finally, content analysis was performed on fieldnotes, interviews, maps, and historical documents.

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