Victoria Proxemics

by Yule Heibel on April 8, 2007

Last Monday I sent off my May submission to Focus, the local monthly magazine I’m currently writing articles for. This particular piece is based in part on the work of Edward T. Hall, specifically his book The Hidden Dimension. Hall, an anthropologist, introduced the concept of proxemics, which he described thus:

The hypothesis behind the proxemic classification system is this: it is in the nature of animals, including man, to exhibit behavior which we call territoriality. In so doing, they use the sense to distinguish between one space or distance and another. The specific distance chosen depends on the transaction; the relationship of the interacting individuals, how they feel, and what they are doing. (The Hidden Dimension, p.120.)

I found Hall’s work particulary helpful in this weird quest I’m on to understand urban space, architecture, the built environment from a psychological (anthropological?) perspective. How does your city feel? — that is not your typical architectural review question. It is one of mine, however. I mean, what’s the point of living in a city — or anywhere — if you don’t have some kind of toolkit to describe how it feels?


I also can’t deny that, reading Hall, I was thrilled to be introduced to the ideas of Humphry Osmond, the English psychiatrist who came to Saskatchewan (of all places) to work at Weyburn Hospital, where he treated alcoholics and schizophrenics with LSD and vitamins. Osmond coined the word psychedelic, and, based on his observations of patients and their environments at Weyburn, he also came up with the concepts of sociofugal and sociopetal space. Osmond had noticed that some commonly encountered spaces, “like railway waiting rooms,” keep people apart, while others, like booths in drugstores or table arrangements in French cafes, moved people together and encouraged mixing. He called the former sociofugal, the latter sociopetal. This obviously also has implications for urban spaces and how we live in them.


Some of Hall’s conclusions about ethnic habits or even “racial” behaviours would today raise an eyebrow or two, and his Malthusian ideas about running out of room also need to be qualified and tempered by his own assertion and insight that density and crowding can be tolerated by humans quite well, provided that people have enough amenities to offset the stress caused by increased density — rat experiments on crowding and the development of “the behavioral sink” notwithstanding. In spite of reservations provoked by how his text has become dated in some areas, there is so much to learn from what he wrote.

(Note that, perhaps in contrast to what Calhoun might have concluded, Hall observed:

The sink [in Calhoun’s rat experiment] was reached when the population density was approximately double that which had been observed to produce a maximum of stress in the wild rat colony. The term “density” must be expanded beyond simple ratio of individuals to available space. Except in the most extreme cases, density alone seldom causes stress in animals. [emphasis added] (The Hidden Dimension, p.24)

In other words, the reader senses an underlying generosity toward the human spirit in Hall’s writings — we are somewhat more than rats, after all.)

Hall’s empirical approach, his pragmatism especially, appeals to me in a time of theory at hyperspeed and life in a blur (as seen from a car window, no less…). In answer to the question of what advice he has for teachers or researchers in the intercultural field, he offered this in a 1998 interview with Kathryn Sorrells, associate editor at The Edge:

Go out and take photographs of different people doing the same thing and then study that. See what you get then is pattern recognition. If you don’t get pattern recognition, you can just forget it. This is the whole thing with cultural differences. It has to do with patterns. (…)

(…) If we can get away from theoretical paradigms and focus more on what is really going on with people, we will be doing well. I have two models that I used originally. One is the linguistics model, that is, descriptive linguistics. And the other one is animal behavior. Both involve paying close attention to what is happening right under our nose. There is no way to get answers unless you immerse yourself in a situation and pay close attention. From this, the validity and integrity of patterns is experienced. In other words, the pattern can live and become apart of you.

The main thing that marks my methodology is that I really do use myself as a control. I pay very close attention to myself, my feelings because then I have a base. And it is not intellectual. (source)

Most of all, I have found Hall’s writing really useful for understanding the role of texture in the visual experience of space. What he writes resonates deeply with something I wrote ages ago — 1987? — about cubism. At the time I based my thinking on Piaget and on Carl Einstein, but now I see that there are other precedents. And all in all, it makes me think that I need to consider how and why cities are like cubist paintings. So: the lessons of Braque and Picasso continue…

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