14 Ways of Looking at Place

by David Miller Jun 22, 2010
David Miller identifies and examines 14 common ways that people look at place.

TWO SEMI-STRANGE things in the last couple days have occasioned me to think more about place than usual:

A. On a call with a group of travel marketing people, an executive said “position place” as in “there are ways we like to ‘position’ place” [doggy-style?]

B. One of my favorite writers posted a bizarre blog post that talked about a country music song and how the lyrics would lead you to think that the guy singing was from “the country, ” but then after researching the singer’s hometown (and posting statistics about education, jobs, median income there), his conclusion was “I’m way more hick than he is.”

Using these two examples (as well as several others that will follow), I’d like to examine some of the common ways people seem to look at place. It should be noted that I don’t look these ways in the context of “right or wrong” but more as reflections of people’s relationships with place that exist in certain points in time. I don’t think anyone looks at place in one of the forms below exclusively, but as a constantly changing and evolving mix.


We’ll begin with two main ways of looking at place, mythologizing and commodifying, and from there look at other ways, most of which are combinations of these two.


Mythologizing place is looking at place as an abstraction. People mythologize place by (a) assigning some kind of abstraction [ex: virtue, nostalgia, chivalrousness, level of ‘hickness’ ] to it, or similarly (b) assigning some kind of abstraction or quality to themselves because of it (This is what the writer in example B above was doing).

Ex: “The South taught me how to be a gentleman.”

No, your parents did.

Mythologizing is the act of creating illusions about place. These illusions “exist” within the discrepancy between the concrete reality a person experiences in a place (examples: how long he/she has lived there, where he/she lives–downtown, suburbs, outlying areas, his/her role in the local economy, his/her community / friends) versus the “image” he or she has of the place.

Mythologizing often happens when people look back at where they grew up, or lived, or once traveled, and feel certain emotions that didn’t exist when they actually lived or traveled there.

Ex: “I’ve never been in a hotter place than a soccer field in North Georgia in the summer.”

No, actually it was much hotter when you were in Ecuador.

Commodifying [fundamental]

Commodifying (on a fundamental level) is reducing place into a singular context of resources in concrete reality. Examples would be looking at forests as “timber to be harvested” or rivers as “hydroelectric potential.”

Commodifying [common]

There exists however a much subtler and more pervasive form of commodifying where instead of concrete reality, the context of “resources” includes abstractions, associations, “appeal,” or “image.” This is how the marketing lady in the call above was looking at place–as an image which needed to be packaged a certain way, transformed into a product to be “positioned” in the market.

Most people seem to engage in this form of commodifying without ever thinking about it. For example, when I lived in Seattle, oftentimes I told people more or less “Seattle is good because you have easy access to the mountains.”

Here’s another example:

In one of Lola Akinmade’s blogs, a woman said: “I’ve just been back from The Gambia. . .Desperately poor country. Desperate. . .But they’ve got 500 species of birds!”

One of my bros once described San Francisco as having “culture and surf.”

This all reflects how people tend to reduce place into a few resources which may not even be resources in concrete reality, and then evaluate place within this context.

As terrain

This way of looking at place is a specialized form of commodifying that’s prevalent among surfers, mountaineers, kayakers, snowboarders, and other people who “live for” exploring place. The world may be seen in the context of “terrain” to be ascended, descended, surfed.

As “Inspiration”

This ties in both with mythologizing and commodifying: Some people may look at place within the context of inspiration. These are often writers, photographers, poets, filmmakers, artists, and others who travel or move to places because they have a positive effect on their work.

As “Escape”

This is similar to “inspiration”: Some people look at place as a potential “escape” from whatever they are experiencing “at home.”

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Community Connection

What other ways do people look at place?
How has your ways of looking at place evolved / changed over time?

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