Social space revolution: aerial photography, social science, and urban politics in postwar France

Haffner, Jeanne Marie, Department of History, University of Virginia
Rosenfeld, Sophia A., Department of History, University of Virginia
Upton, Dell, School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Carlson, W, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Contino, Alon, Department of History, University of Virginia

In the aftermath of World War II, France was faced with a wide assortment of urban problems, among them a severe housing shortage in large cities such as Paris and Toulouse. In response to this crisis, a group of French ethnographers, sociologists, historians, geographers, and urbanists, including the urbanist Gaston Bardet, the ethnographer Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, the geographer Max Serre, and the sociologists Raymond Ledrut and Henri Lefebvre, developed a theoretical tool for understanding the intersection of spatial relations and social relations within urban environments such as Paris. They referred to the central category of this method as "social space" (l'espace social). This dissertation seeks to reconnect this social scientific model with the intellectual, political, and urban contexts that engendered it. I contend that the concept of "social space" was a product of postwar urban reconstruction and, more specifically, the construction of the grands ensembles or large-scale, publicly funded housing estates in the outlying areas (banlieues) of cities across France. Going further, I argue that the roots of this idea are located in aerial photography, a technique of observation and representation that developed during World War I. In the interwar period, as we will see, this novel technique gave rise to new ways of seeing and understanding the spaces of human habitation in multiple social scientific fields and to a critique of contemporary French society. After World War II, these new modes of vision led to a new approach to urban planning (un nouvel urbanisme) that remains highly influential even today. By examining the history of this key category of analysis in the social sciences, we can learn more not only about the French response to the postwar housing crisis, but also about the history of more contemporary methods and approaches in the social sciences and urban planning.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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