See the straitjacket

Go into any social gathering and you will see how the hierarchies are set up. Whether it’s the debating chamber of parliament, your living room, a local pub, an interview room, or a Sunday morning service…

Forget what is actually being said or why. Forget content. Through the way the space is set up, relationships are articulated, roles are cast and the type of communication that will happen in that space is largely determined.

Obviously there are fixed spaces and there are fluid domains. And people occasionally subvert or reconfigure them. But more often than not spaces irrevocably influence the relationships and positions of privilege or authority within them. Spaces define who is included and who is excluded, who are performers and who are spectators, who is the focus of attention and who are positioned as unimportant.

What strikes me in most progressive discussions of local weekly congregational enactments of church is that people get locked into thinking about the content of what is said, or the way people say it, but no-one thinks about how the way the room is set up might implicitly affect the relationships of the people in the space and therefore any message or communication that takes place within it.

Consider for example a group of people gathered in a circle as compared to the same group seated in rows of seats facing one individual. They are the same people, but configure them another way and entirely different kind of interaction takes place.

It was interesting reading the thread about preaching. Preaching is a condition of a certain construction of space. Change the configuration of space and you no longer get preaching.

When I was at postgraduate college, I was fed up with the teacher=‘expert’, student=‘receiver of expertise’ model. It existed because no-one thought about the way the spaces of interaction were configured. My response was to set up a series of round-table discussions. They were convened by different people, students and tutors. Ideas were shared through distributing key texts before each discussion began. Guests were invited in to be participants in the discussions and bring in other angles/perspectives. Chairs were arranged in a circle around a round table. No-one stood up to speak. The discussions became democratised, multi-contributor, informed, challenging and engaging.

The room did not change—the round-table discussions took place in the same space. The configuration of people and furniture changed. And so did the kind of interactions that took place.

It is not just what we say, or how we say it, but the configuration of the spaces we meet in that impact our interactions.

Space has ideological and theological implications.


7 responses to “See the straitjacket”

  1. Sennett writes: “As space becomes devalued through motion, individuals gradually lose a sense of sharing their fate with others.”
    The spaces we create are often done in the name of efficiency: getting people in and out quickly and smoothly, making it easy for people to slot in when the turn up late with no one seeing. Sennett highlights the problem with this: what we gain in efficiency, we lose in community.
    Be interesting to redesign a church building to deliberately make it ‘highly inefficient’… I know Steve Collins has done work on this over at

  2. Is there a place for experts, then? I’m not doubting the value of discussion as a way of learning, and I know how room setup affects the way people interact. Every once in awhile at services in our church, we’ll have people turn chairs toward one another to pray for one another. There is a noticable change in the “atmosphere,” so to speak, and it actually really unnerves a lot of people. It’s like they suddenly realized someone else was in the room.
    But on experts, and learning models: Do experts really exist at all? Is it possible that some people just know more about something that others? In that case, is it not appropriate to simply listen to them and say, “Wow, I did now know that”? Just wondering what people think on this.

  3. I think it has a lot to do with the attitude of the expert. Do they point to themselves, or ahead at the greater horizon? This perhaps takes us back to ideas of spatial arrangement: the preacher who everyone faces is the focus. In other spatial arrangements the ‘expert’ can still disseminate their knowledge, but not allow the focus to fall on them.

  4. Agree Kes. It’s not necessarily a problem with experts, more about hegemony. How knowledge is wielded. Goes back to your thing about sermons and why Jon views space as ideological. For too long space has been viewed as neutral which serves certain ‘interested’ parties.

  5. I think that’s right about the attitude of the expert. It kind of looks like the difference between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus blew everyone away with his expertise at age 12, so we know the guy “knew his stuff” as they say. But while the Pharisees used their expertise to control and oppress (“you travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when you do, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you!”), but Jesus used his expertise to liberate and reveal the Father.

  6. Ben, in response to the questions you threw out earlier: “do experts really exist at all? is it possible that some people just know more about something than others?”
    I’d like to offer some thoughts.
    Firstly the question: ‘do some people just know more about something than others?’ I would agree with you, yes. You know more than me about some things. And at the same time I know more than you about others. Equally my milkman knows more than me about some things and I in turn know more than her.
    If we agree on this, we see we have a world where knowing is distributed. Everyone has something to offer. But we also need to recognise the nature of knowing. Knowing takes many forms. Knowing can be musical, linguistic, spatial, logical-mathematical, bodily- kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal. (We too often falsely misrepresent knowing as a limited factual kind of knowing.)
    But something we must be wary of is letting us think that knowing is the property of individuals. Contemporary understanding of organisations has led people to realise that knowing is often not simply contained within individuals but also between them; in the connections. They have found when you completley change the people in an team or community or disband a network, knowing is lost. Knowing is more illusive that we thought.
    Further to this, knowing is often linked to places. It has a spatial characteristic.
    So in terms of the spaces and their ideology/theology. If we share a theology where everyone is equal, where knowing is distributed, where everyone has something to offer everyone else, where knowing takes different forms and where knowing is as much between people and places as in them. Then, we need to have the ‘courage to create’ spaces where these ideologies/theologies can be spatially realised.
    As well as the George Hanson Critical Forum, I/we have had the privilege of exploring some of these spatial ideas/theologies through Vaux. We have experimented with how these kinds of spaces might be, and how they might feel like to inhabit. Often it has involved complex choreography, or facilitating a create flux. It has brought failures and frustrations but also occasionally incredible numinous moments.
    Unfortunately it is often words/written liturgies which get archived and the spatial choreography lost. But the stories do get told…
    So I’m really keen that these experiments are shared and to hear how others have taken these contemporary ideas/theology and manifested them spatially and had the courage to be creative with choreography and curating space.

  7. Jonathan, thanks for your thoughts. I especially am intrigued by the “communal knowing” idea.