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Is there a post-place politics?

John Agnew


Have mass communications such as television and the Internet undermined the role of places as social contexts in which politics, both electoral and contested, is grounded? Are we entering an age of post-place politics? This article considers the case using examples mainly drawn from recent Italian electoral politics.

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1Is it true that places used to matter to politics but no longer do? This is the point of departure for this brief paper. My answer is that they still do, if in different ways from how once was the case. Throughout, when I have examples they are drawn from Italy where I have done much of my research on politics (e.g. Agnew 2002; Shin and Agnew 2008).

Place and Politics

2A commonplace of social psychology is that people’s attitudes are shaped by where they are. Situational factors enter into interpersonal interactions, the attribution of trust and knowledge, judgments about ethics, and consumption decisions. From this viewpoint, there is no such thing as discrete individuals. The boundaries of the “me” are fluid. As a result, decisions, choices, and actions are all inspired by links with others. Terms such as “social networks” and “the social logic of action” have been coined to describe these interdependencies. “Network effects” are well established: people can and often do change preferences simply on the basis of what others say and do. Face-to-face relationships are absolutely central to the development of selves. From parental and household influences to friendship and acquaintanceship circles, people are social beings whose lives and behavior circulate around well-worn paths and routines. These are anchored to the sites in which social situations are located.

3Numerous studies have shown that the social contexts in which people develop their attitudes are spatially defined (e.g. Zuckerman 2005). The social heuristics or rules-of-thumb that we come to rely on to make decisions are the result of social interaction conditioned by where we work, play, worship, and learn. This does not mean that everyone in a given place agrees on everything. Far from it: rather, it is from the experience of anchored social networks that emanate whatever attitudes people exhibit. But different people have different experiences that reflect their command over resources, their relative social power, and restrictions on the range of their sites of social interaction. Hence, though some common orientations can be expected, there is absolutely no expectation of complete uniformity in attitudes.

4It is the social spaces arising in different places, therefore, that are most at stake in defining how political attitudes and behavior arise and change. But the relative presence of different types of sites or locales for interaction ultimately conditions how interpersonal and communal influences really operate. The “background geography” of places underpins the social spaces of interaction (e g. Newburger et al. 2011; Sampson 2012). Some places have big factories, others do not; some places have many peasants, others do not; some places are dominated by agribusiness, others are not; some places have longstanding cultural and recreation activities tied to churches, others do not; some places are heavily urbanized, others are not; some places are well tied into transportation and communication networks, others are not; some places have been affected by natural calamities, others have not; some places have very specialized economies (and equally narrow elites), others do not; some places are magnets for immigrants, others are not; and so on. There are systematic correlations between these different types of place and the sorts of political attitudes and behavior that they encourage (Agnew 1987).

5Places, the settings for sites of social interaction, structure the ways in which political attitudes and organization develop. In Italy, a number of obvious historic geographical features lie behind the more dynamic churning of the economy and society to produce the basic template of geographical differences. These would include, for example, the long-established political division of the peninsula before final unification in one state only in 1870, the settlement system with its lack of a single dominant city and its orientation fundamentally affected by the long coastline and long mountainous spine of the Apennines, the more successful history of large-scale industrialization in the country’s northwest, the diffuse urbanization that has characterized large parts of central and northeastern Italy since the 1970s, notwithstanding major efforts at redistributing industry and supplementing incomes the lag of most southern regions behind the North in terms of economic growth, and the peculiar geography of Catholic Italy , with practice reflecting the prior political divisions of the peninsula and attendant views of the Church as much as the relative pace of secularization (e.g. Coppola 1997; Cartocci 2011; Cozzo 2011). Other countries have their own if very distinctive repertoires of such differences. In that regard, Italy is by no means unique.

6This way of thinking about politics is by no means new, if the ideas of social psychology that inform it could sound unfamiliar to many current students of politics. Indeed, down until the 1950s in the United States and elsewhere, the social logic and social geography of politics was everywhere predominant. Political sociology retained an emphasis on “territorial” or geographical cleavages and the impact of “neighborhood effects” on voting behavior for even longer. Italian Fascism, for example was widely understood as a movement that had its roots in the towns of the Po Valley and among the middle classes of areas with a powerful socialist presence. The US South was the dominion of the Democratic Party until the 1960s when the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 led many southern whites to turn against the party whose President, Lyndon Johnson, introduced the legislation. Two trends in social science since the 1960s have obscured this heritage of geographical thinking about politics and made writing about “place and politics” appear more novel or exotic than is actually the case. The first was the borrowing from microeconomics, arguably the most “scientific” of the social sciences in terms of its reliance on a nineteenth century model of physics, of an ontology of action focused on autonomous individual actors engaged in rational calculation about political goals (often called “methodological individualism”). From this viewpoint, social environments are solely sources of informational and material constraints not the identities, interests, and preferences associated with the individuals themselves. Recently, however, the more sociological view has undergone something of a revival, suggesting, for example, that prejudices as much as reasons underpin motivations and that social influences cannot be reduced to the effects of separate individuals simply bumping up against one another (Massey 2012).

7The second was the presumed victory of the nation-hyphen-state as the sole focus of political activity. This has had two implications. One is the focus on national electoral politics as a sort of sporting event or horse race in which national-level majorities are all that is of much interest. The actual “making” of such majorities might involve political operatives with detailed local knowledge but academic students of politics need to know only how to predict the overall outcome not to explain how it comes about. The other is to collect national-level survey data that gives you the traits and opinions of individual voters divorced from any concern about social context, other than the national. The presumption is that as long as you sample sufficiently across demographic characteristics (age, sex, race, ethnicity, class, etc.) you can know enough to predict results. Yet, increasingly not only local and regional differences but also influences emanating from beyond national borders make the presumption of national containment of political determinants open to doubt (Veltri 2010). But the combination of methodological individualism and “methodological nationalism” has undoubtedly become the “common sense” of political studies In Italy as elsewhere.

8Whether it represents “good sense” is another question entirely. The increased complexity of political offerings, rising electoral abstentionism, and the emergence of place-specific political movements have made it less and less useful in its own terms. The paradigm is in trouble. In the words of Ilvo Diamanti (2012a: 103), after offering a similar diagnosis to mine, “It is therefore difficult to understand what is happening in politics without taking account of the everyday life, of the common sense of the territory; without profoundly exploring the places where the parties, the institutions, and democracy find the roots to their legitimation and their consensus.”

Placeless Politics?

9Recent trends in Italian politics can be read as signifying a crisis for thinking in terms of politics in terms of place. This takes two forms, albeit both relate to issues of communication over distance.

10The first, illustrated by the phenomenon that is the former premier Silvio Berlusconi, is the signal importance of control over the mass media, particularly television, for political outcomes. In this light, the conventional wisdom about the rise of Berlusconi has been almost entirely that his control over the main private television channels (gifted to him by his mentor Bettino Craxi when he was prime minister) plus his influence over the public ones (RAI) when in office have given him a stranglehold over political messages and through viewing a diet of shows devoted to consumption and the promise of celebrity habituated the population at large to his interests. Daniele Zolo (1999, 739) puts this as follows:

11Not only is political communication almost totally absorbed by television, but so is the whole process of the legitimization of politicians, of the production of consensus and of the definition and negotiation of the issues that have no other location and, so to speak, no other symbolic places except television studios and popular entertainment programmes – to which the stars of the political firmament are invited.”

12Berlusconi undoubtedly has benefited from the agenda setting potential of his television interests. Italians in general watch more television and receive more of their news from television than in many other countries. That said, however, television tends to reinforce and mobilize voters who already share the perspectives they are absorbing (Diamanti 2012a, 93-101). These they tend to acquire by other means, including from face-to-face social interaction. Television messages also must be interpreted in familiar terms. This is so much the case that, as Giovanni Sartori (1989, 189) says, television can encourage localism more than national homogenization because it takes attention off parties and puts it on politicians and their service to constituencies. Sartori worries that any sort of national “good” is lost between the extremes of “no place” and “my place.” Berlusconi’s success, therefore, must be put down more to his capacity to weld together a nationwide center-right coalition more successfully than his adversaries than simply to his control over television (Shin and Agnew 2008).

13A second trend involves the increased significance of so-called social media organized in relation to the Web and the technologies such as smart phones, laptop computers, and Skype associated with it. Politics need no longer have much if any grounding in place but people can be mobilized for various political goals over differing time spans by social media such as Twitter and Facebook and by means of Internet Listserves and Billboards. Exhibit A for this phenomenon in Italy has been the recent success of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S movement) organized by the comedian Beppe Grillo (Corbetta and Gualmini 2013; Bartlett et al. 2013). In the 2012 local elections, the M5S movement polled about 10 per cent of the vote nationally and won several mayoral contests, including Parma. In the 2013 national elections it polled the largest number of votes of any single “party” although was outnumbered overall by the two main electoral alliances. Its success led it to having the balance of power in the Senate. The movement is organized almost entirely on the Web that Grillo has used to effect mainly through a funny blog about the sins and vices of all existing parties and politicians, above all those in and supporting Italy’s current technocratic government.

14The appeal, as with many current politicians, is to an “anti-politics” that casts political parties in a particularly dim light as instruments of corruption and destitution (Urbinati 2012). It finds resonance with those most mostly younger generations tuned in to the new technologies (although Grillo himself is in his sixties) and facing a terrible job market in an Italian economy that has seen better days. But it also reflects the increasing disassociation between politics, in terms of popular demands and issues, on the one hand, and the realities of representative democracy, with politicians increasingly out of touch with ordinary people, on the other (Diamanti 2012b). It is not simply an anti-politics movement. The “Grillo” phenomenon signifies a new way of articulating interests and identities but as yet without the capacity to aggregate these satisfactorily into a legislative agenda in the presence of existing parties with which the “movement” must negotiate. Mainstream political parties everywhere are in deep trouble because they no longer seem to adequately either articulate or aggregate interests and identities. Consider, for example, current US and French presidential politics. To outlast its current basis as a protest movement, the M5S will have to both articulate and aggregate votes.

15As with television but more interactively, the Web does portend a different range of information sources and cross-place mobilizing opportunities than existing mass media such as newspapers and magazines. But much of the newness associated with the technologies is simply a matter of fingertip delivery and timeliness more than a qualitative break with past modes of information and mobilization. Even as the new technologies have expanded the total amount of communication, data from the United States suggest that some other modes of communication such as print and inter-personal of all types have kept up their magnitude while radio and television have declined (Economist 2012). More interestingly in terms of the presumed effects of the new technologies, numerous studies of social networking show that geographic constraints still exercise a strong influence over all social media. The probability of having social ties still decreases as a function of distance suggesting strongly that the social media tend to facilitate flows among existing social networks rather than serving to create them (e.g. Onnela et al. 2011).

16In fact, some polling data suggest that irrespective of how they have been mobilized, the supporters of M5S differ little in fact from other voters in terms of their expectations of how future Italian governments should be formed (Nasi 2012a, 2012c) and that they can be found in some places much more than in others (lower religiosity and higher income areas, in particular) (Nasi 2012b). Beppe Grillo himself has taken to traveling around Italy by bus to give his movement the “ground game” that retail politics still requires (Diamanti 2012c). The “party” was the primary party in votes cast in fifty provinces out of 108 in 2013 but achieved its greatest successes in Sicily (where the Internet is not that widely used) and in Lazio and Lombardia where a better case for the Internet’s role can be made but which are also the seats of Italy’s largest metropolitan areas and plausibly the largest concentrations of those most disillusioned with the existing party system. A placeless politics in which social media and mass communication completely replace face-to-face social interaction and the vagaries of everyday life grounded in particular places does not yet seem on the immediate horizon.

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John Agnew, « Is there a post-place politics? », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Les 20 ans de Cybergeo, mis en ligne le 04 avril 2016, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

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