& theory
Literature &
night (spaces)
Bio: Robert
The Concept and Theory of Night Spaces

"Night Spaces"
by Robert W. Williams
[Note: Originally published in the Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, 2010.
Full citation and acknowledgment below. Paragraph numbers were added.]

[1]    The concept of night spaces describes the social production of space within certain spatio-temporal parameters: specifically, the socially mediated dynamics of darkness on the places of human interactions and relationships. Night spaces are evident, for example, in the (attempted) control of socially improper or illegal behaviors in dark places across the cityscape, and in subversive or criminal acts that contravene the normality of social order; they are also evident in the canalizing of activities into socially acceptable places (e.g., the home or places for the consumption of leisure), and in social movements to "take back the night" from oppressive practices excluding some, like women, gays, and lesbians, from enjoying the same places as others. Night spaces thus come to influence life chances in terms of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability. The idea of night space illustrates the dialectical dimensions of social space.

[2]    Night itself has been investigated by scholars in disciplines that include sociology, history, political economy, and urban studies. Of particular note is Henri Lefebvre, who in The Production of Space wrote of "night-time spaces." He sought to explain how amidst the abstract, atomized, and administered spaces created by capitalism, certain activities (especially illegal ones) came to be permitted at night in particular areas. Scholars like Bryan Palmer have examined the history of night in terms of their social dimensions and consequences. Dick Hobbs and colleagues, among others, have researched the nighttime economy and how globalization generates pressures to compete in a business and financial world that is never completely turned off or closed. Studies of the diverse and sometimes pulsating rhythms of nightlife include the works of Bastian Bretthauer on Berlin, Mark Caldwell on New York City, Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands on youth activities, and Murray Melbin on the night as frontier.

[3]    Night spaces can be approached conceptually via the process of territorialization and its associated idea of territory. Territorialization involves the social practices, norms, and representations of space that seek to establish some sort of legitimate and compulsory order on the landscape. However, territories as areas of (attempted) social control are not temporally stable across the 24-hour day. As Michel Foucault wrote of the European Enlightenment, there was, and there remains, a fear of darkness because it obscured from human vision the events and behaviors taking place. Any presumed temporal stability of a territory is undermined by the spatial practices of individuals and groups and by the varied meanings and representations that the night holds for humans and their imagination. Although the physical landscape possesses the same basic topographic and architectural features across the 24-hour cycle, the darkness deterritorializes society whenever—and wherever—it impedes the deployment of techniques, strategies, and technologies that reinforce social order and its instrumental rationality. The danger for society is potentially acute: under the cover of darkness transgressive behaviors (e.g., criminal acts, unconventional lifestyles of marginalized groups, social movement organizing, etc.) can occur with an impunity that usually does not happen in the light of day.

[4]    At night societies implement various strategies and techniques to bring darkness under control in an effort to reterritorialize the night, so to speak. Examples include the illumination and surveillance of areas for protection of life and property, as well as the lighting of places of consumption during the hours of darkness. Three typically interrelated modalities of reterritorialization can be set forth: channeling, marginalization, and exclusion.

[5]    The channeling modality orients our activities and desires into places deemed socially acceptable and thus helps to reconstitute order on a darkened landscape. Channeling typically entails discourses conveying the right places to be at night as well as the use of technologies like illumination and advertising. It also involves the implementation of official zoning policies. The social codes of night emphasize home and/or leisure activities, thereby establishing norms of behavior that discursively constitute night spaces via channeling our intentions and desires toward particular locales. Technologies such as street lamps assist by lighting the paths to home, restaurants, shopping malls, and late shifts at work. Floodlights enable surveillance for purposes of individual safety and property protection. Advertising technologies, such as illuminated billboards or uniquely lit architecture, point the way for consumers of goods and services in the darkness of the night: the brighter the lights the better to attract customers and to out-compete rivals. In addition, zoning ordinances serve to channel people and desire by attracting the types of businesses considered to be economically valuable.

[6]    The reterritorializing modality of marginalization serves to categorize people in terms of their perceived social inferiority or potential for dangerous behavior; it spatially segregates such persons from others and from certain parts of the city. In its consequences marginalization establishes and maintains subordinate places for so-called undesirables. Historically, curfews and patrols have been used to keep people in their places in the darkness. Other techniques of marginalization include zoning ordinances and informal social codes of conduct. Zoning can be used to prohibit or otherwise restrain businesses deemed less appropriate to an area. Informal codes of conduct will include prejudicial designations of people by class, race, gender, sexuality, and so forth, all intended to isolate some persons or groups into particular places at night.

[7]    The reterritorializing modality of exclusion constitutes night spaces by establishing superordinate places of security or consumption, even within marginalized areas. Similar to marginalization, the modality of exclusion entails spatial segregation, but it is a segregation that erects barriers to construct a protected enclave for the persons inside. Examples include physical walls, human or canine patrols, key-card access control, and alarm systems, all designed to create spaces of exclusivity via defensive technologies and techniques. With gates open during the daylight hours, housing complexes are welcoming, but with the coming of dusk the gates can be closed, thereby constituting night spaces via exclusion. However, walls and alarms are not the only ways that exclusion is created. Exclusionary techniques, such as the employment of bouncers at nightclubs or cover charges at bars, reinforce a particular atmosphere and attract a particular clientele for some businesses during the nighttime.

[8]    The three modalities of reterritorialization can involve both formal governmental or business policies as well as the informal codes of conduct accepted and practiced by individuals and communities. The modalities can reinforce each other and hence can enhance the probability of effective social control. However, the modalities can also be contradictory: marginalization can reduce the number of customers in stores that are nevertheless safe within their zones of exclusion. The modalities also can create unintended situations because the administered night spaces may be challenged.

[9]    Night spaces result from the temporal-spatial articulation of social conflicts between and within class, cultural, gender, racial, and sexuality groups, among others. In their dialectical turn, the spaces influence those conflicts via structuring the context and resources available for action and reaction. The night spaces created by reterritorializing government policies or business strategies attempt to exercise a power to physically control personal actions and also a power over human desires and perceptions.

[10]    Yet, the creation and enforcement of hegemonic night spaces can be, and often will be, challenged by individuals or social groups, such as criminals or youth subcultures. Those groups and others in the community embody the capacity to conceive of and to promote less conventional uses of the places of the night. Such "transgressions" also may incorporate socially progressive activities and egalitarian values, and thus seek to establish spaces of difference at the interstices of society. Transgressive practices and representations of the city at night, whether progressive or not, can exacerbate the concerns of other, perhaps more traditional citizens. As a consequence, governments and other institutions formulate and implement countervailing policies, which in themselves could generate further transgressions that increase fears and thereby prompt still more reterritorializing responses—a dynamic that characterizes the ongoing production of night spaces.

Robert W. Williams   
Further Readings
Bretthauer, Bastian. 1999. Die Nachtstadt: Tableaus aus dem dunklen Berlin. Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag.
Caldwell, Mark. 2005. New York Night: The Mystique and Its History. New York: Scribner.
Chatterton, Paul and Robert Hollands. 2002. "Theorising Urban Playscapes: Producing, Regulating and Consuming Youthful Nightlife City Spaces." Urban Studies 39(1): 95-116.
Foucault, Michel 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Writings & Other Interviews 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books.
Hobbs, Dick, Stuart Lister, Philip Hadfield, Simon Winlow, and Steve Hall. 2000. "Receiving Shadows: Governance and Liminality in the Night-Time Economy." British Journal of Sociology 51(4): 701-17.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Melbin, Murray. 1978. "Night as Frontier." American Sociological Review 43 (February): 3-22.
Palmer, Bryan. 2000. Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression (From Medieval to Modern). New York: Monthly Review Press.
Williams, Robert W. 2008. "Night Spaces: Darkness, Deterritorialization, and Social Control." Space and Culture 11(4): 514-32.

Williams, Robert W. 2010. "Night Spaces". Pp. 566-568 in E. Ray Hutchison (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, Vol. 2 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications) (Book's web page).
This plain text version of the encyclopedia entry is presented here through the kind permission of Sage Publications.
Nota Bene:
For a longer exposition on this topic, with more examples, please read:
Williams, Robert W. 2008. "Night Spaces: Darkness, Deterritorialization, and Social Control." Space and Culture, 11:4 (November): 514-532. (Abstract  /  Issue TOC).
[Note: The final accepted (pre-publication) version of the Space and Culture article is available at my academia.edu page; it differs in small and inconsequential ways from the published article.]

www.robertwilliams.org/ns/nstheory.html Rev. 1-31-10