The View from Above
The Science of Social Space
The role of aerial photography in the evolution of the concept of social space”and its impact on French urban planning in the mid-twentieth century.
In mid-twentieth century France, the term “social space” (l'espace social)—the idea that spatial form and social life are inextricably linked—emerged in a variety of social science disciplines. Taken up by the French New Left, it also came to inform the practice of urban planning. In The View from Above, Jeanne Haffner traces the evolution of the science of social space from the interwar period to the 1970s, illuminating in particular the role of aerial photography in this new way of conceptualizing socio-spatial relations.
As early as the 1930s, the view from above served for Marcel Griaule and other anthropologists as a means of connecting the social and the spatial. Just a few decades later, the Marxist urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre called the perspective enabled by aerial photography—a technique closely associated with the French colonial state and military—“the space of state control.” Lefebvre and others nevertheless used the notion of social space to recast the problem of massive modernist housing projects (grands ensembles) to encompass the modern suburb (banlieue) itself—a critique that has contemporary resonance in light of the banlieue riots of 2005 and 2007. Haffner shows how such “views” permitted new ways of conceptualizing the old problem of housing to emerge. She also points to broader issues, including the influence of the colonies on the metropole, the application of sociological expertise to the study of the built environment, and the development of a spatially oriented critique of capitalism.
The sociologist Chombart de Lauwe and the aerial photograph as an ethnographic window dominate Jeanne Haffner's very French The View from Above. Emphasizing the vue d'ensemble, Haffner offers an effective antidote to a romanticized view from below, while leading us to new insights into Lefebvre, Ledrut, and the socio-spatial dialectic.
Edward Soja, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Like all the very best histories, Jeanne Haffner's The View from Above brings unprecedented insights to bear on the here and now. By showing how the perspective of aerial photography became absolutely central to ideas of nationalism, ethnography, human geography, architecture, and urban planning in the second half of the twentieth century, Haffner excavates the crucial genealogies of our own societies, in which technologies like GPS, Google Maps, and Google Earth have come to mediate every aspect of contemporary life.
Stephen Graham, Professor of Cities and Society, Newcastle University
The View from Above is a compelling genealogy of the emergence and evolution of the concept of 'social space.' Jeanne Haffner offers a fascinating—and ironic—story of how a mode of seeing most recently used to critique state power had its origins in the power of the state itself. With careful attention to the personal biographies of major figures in French social science and urban planning, this tightly focused and well-argued account casts social space and the many figures who participated in its elaboration in a new and original light.
Jennifer S. Light, Professor of Communication Studies, History, and Sociology, and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University
Haffner elegantly elaborates on how the interpretation of the aerial view shifted from encapsulating 'the humanistic, Enlightenment-inspired promise of global unity through technology' to symbolizing for Lefebvre and the French New Left colonialism 'the 'spectacle' of capitalist consumerism, and the repressiveness of state-controlled urban planning' (109). She argues in her nuanced, rich, and elegantly written history that the distinction so often made between ''top-down' urban planning and its 'bottom-up' critique' simplifies a more complex story—a story that can best be unraveled by an interdisciplinary approach. By offering such an interdisciplinary history, this book complements not only the literature on visual culture, the history of science, and French architectural, urban, and planning history, but also the work on individual thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre, and it will therefore prove valuable reading for scholars in all these fields.
Journal of Modern History