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More Than Words: Place, Discourse and the

Struggle over Public Space in Barcelona

Andrés Di Masso & John Dixon

To cite this article: Andrés Di Masso & John Dixon (2015) More Than Words: Place, Discourse
and the Struggle over Public Space in Barcelona, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 12:1,
45-60, DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2014.958387

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Qualitative Research in Psychology, 12:45–60, 2015
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1478-0887 print/1478-0895 online
DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2014.958387

More Than Words: Place, Discourse and the

Struggle over Public Space in Barcelona


University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

The social construction of human-environment relations is a central concern of an

emerging tradition of research on place, which extends the so-called “discursive
turn” in social psychology. This research highlights the primary role of everyday
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linguistic practices in the production of place meanings, challenging the prevailing

tendency among environmental psychologists to treat place meanings mainly as an
expression of individual cognitions. By the same token, in this article we argue that
research on human-environment relations also has the potential to enrich the field of
discursive psychology, tempting discursive researchers to move beyond their custom-
ary focus on verbal and written texts. Specifically, we propose an analytic framework
that transcends the dualism between the material and discursive dimensions of human-
environment relations. In order to develop this argument, we outline the novel concept
of place-assemblage and illustrate its utility by conducting an analysis of a recent con-
flict over a public space in Barcelona. This analysis shows how discursive constructions
of the development of this public space over time were inextricably entwined with other
kinds of material and embodied practices—practices through which place meanings
were actively performed, reproduced and contested.

Keywords: assemblage; discourse; discursive psychology; dualism; environmental

psychology; place; struggle

Psychological research on human-environment relations has been conducted primarily
within the subdiscipline of environmental psychology. Such research has shown how indi-
viduals’ cognitions, emotions, and actions are shaped by the material settings in which
they unfold. It has also elaborated a range of concepts designed to elucidate the spatial
dimension of human experience, including place attachment, place identity, and territo-
riality (e.g., see Altman & Low 1992; Proshansky, Fabian & Kaminoff 1983). Recently,
this spatial dimension has increasingly engaged researchers working in the companion dis-
cipline of social psychology, who have explored, for example, how physical settings are
linked to collective processes of belonging, remembering, identification, and differentiation
(e.g., Bonaiuto, Breakwell & Cano 1996). More fundamentally, they have explored how the
very meanings we attribute to our material environments are themselves a product of social

Correspondence: Andrés Di Masso, PsicoSAO Research Group, Department of Social

Psychology, University of Barcelona, Pg. Vall d’Hebron, 171, 08035, Barcelona, Spain. E-mail:
Color versions of one or more of the figures in the article can be found online at www.

46 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

psychological processes of interaction, communication and collective representation (e.g.,

Bonaiuto & Bonnes 2000; Castro 2006; Devine-Wright & Lyons 1997).
The latter theme has been developed most directly by work capitalising on the so-
called “discursive turn” in social psychology (Aiello & Bonaiuto 2003; Dixon & Durrheim
2000; Taylor 2010). Among other contributions, this work has instituted an epistemological
break with research conducted in the mainstream of environmental psychology, particu-
larly with respect to its formulation of the relationship between language and social reality.
Environmental psychologists have generally treated individuals’ accounts of their located
experiences as (more or less) faithful expressions of their perceptions, cognitions, and
evaluations of objective physical environments. From this perspective, language is viewed
simply as mediating between a pre-established “internal” psychology and an already exist-
ing material world “out there.” The discursive approach, by contrast, treats language as
the mechanism through which people, together, actively create the meanings of the mate-
rial environments they inhabit and in the process construct varying kinds of psychological
relations with those environments. Moreover, rather than treating the language of place
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as a transparent expression of an interior subjectivity, a neutral mirror of the exterior

world, or some complex combination of the two, this approach highlights its occasioned,
action-oriented, contested, and often politically consequential nature.
This general epistemological tension gives rise to two more specific and seemingly
irreconcilable binaries, which are relevant to the central theme of this special issue. On the
one hand, the discourse-mind dualism divides the study of internal feelings, thoughts, and
perceptions from the study of discourse as the primary, if not sole, material through which
our “psychological” relationships with place are forged. On the other hand, the discourse-
space dualism divides the study of how “real” features of the physical world affect our
emplaced experiences from the study of how the physical world and emplaced experi-
ence become “real” through discursive practices. The discourse-mind dualism has been
extensively discussed by discursive psychologists (Edwards & Potter 1992; Potter 1996),
whereas the discourse-space dualism has barely been considered, at least outside of work
influenced by the Foucauldian concept of discourse as encompassing linguistic, institu-
tional and material practices (Foucault 1993; see also Hook 2007). This brief article builds
on the discursive-psychological framework in order to interrogate, probe, and dissolve this
second dualism, but also seeks to broaden its conceptual, methodological and empirical
horizons. By transcending this dualism and redefining the study of subjectivity as a complex
practice including space, words, emotions and the body, we hope to deepen into research
on the psychosocial.
What follows is the outline of what, we believe, is a more fruitful analytic framework.
Rather than presenting a narrative of ontological or epistemological priorities (i.e., one
that privileges material space over place-discourse or vice versa), we call for an integra-
tive approach that moves beyond the futile split between the discursive and the material.
Although resonating with work in the Foucauldian tradition, our approach deliberately pre-
serves a focus on talk-in-action as a distinctively discursive and rhetorical property of place
construction (i.e., in the creation of meaning-full spaces). At the same time, we argue that
this property cannot be understood outside the wider assemblage of material locations and
bodily practices with which it is inevitably intertwined. In order to develop this argument,
we outline the novel concept of place-assemblage and illustrate its utility by conducting
an analysis of a recent conflict over a public space in Barcelona. This analysis shows
how discursive constructions of the development of this public space were inextricably
entwined with other kinds of material and embodied practices—practices through which
place meanings were actively performed, reproduced and contested.
More Than Words 47

Grappling with the Discourse versus Space Dualism

The physical environment shapes subjectivity and social interaction (Proshansky et al.
1983), as much as environmental discourse constructs the meaning of place and the nature
of our emplaced relationships and experiences (Aiello & Bonaiuto 2003). For instance, the
neighbourhood in which we grew up may inform our sense of self and trigger deep-seated
emotions of belonging and continuity, there. Engagement with certain physical properties
of place (e.g., architectural features) over time may shape what that environment means (to
us). Equally, however, when talking about where we grew up, discursive constructions of
our “neighbourhood” may serve local rhetorical functions. Architectural features may fig-
ure, for example, in accounts that reject environmental change by questioning the presence
of “newcomers.” This tension instantiates what we call a discursive versus material dual-
ism. The physical reality of a given neighbourhood is opposed to the discursive construction
of “neighbourhood.”
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Four Perspectives
We can identify four potential approaches to the resolution of this discourse-space dual-
ism that are implicit within the existing literature. These resolutions are rooted in research
traditions that overlap and interpenetrate one another in complex ways, including critical
psychology, cultural geography, urban studies and affect theories.
The first approach is illustrated by Macnaghten’s (1993) analysis of a public inquiry
into a controversial landfill site plan. The inquiry pitted a group of developers, for whom
the planning application was framed as a business opportunity, against the county council
and community representatives, for whom it was framed as spoiling the local landscape.
Macnaghten identified the main discursive constructions of “nature” deployed to define the
meaning of the proposed location and explored their rhetorical functions. Most important,
he related these arguments to external constraints (i.e., power structures such as legislation),
to the dispute’s final outcome (i.e., the inspector’s report) and to the ensuing environmen-
tal consequences (i.e., for dealing with the landfill itself). After evaluating the competing
arguments, the inspector produced a report in which a particular construction of place war-
ranted a concrete material outcome (i.e., a physical landscape that remained unaltered).
Place-discourse, it seems, can have all-too-tangible consequences. To echo Macnaghten’s
evocative phrase, words can literally “move mountains.”
The second approach is illustrated by Cromby and Nightingale’s (1999) critique of
social constructionism. If Macnaghten emphasized the material consequences of place-
discourse—words can move mountains—Cromby and Nightingale foregrounded the role
of embodiment, materiality, and power as extra-discursive realities that limit the nature and
consequences of practices of linguistic construction. Indeed, they proposed that materiality
is a precondition for the discursive constructions that inform everyday experience, and,
more specifically, listed the location of bodies and the organization of space as two of
these preconditions. According to this approach, talk about the material environment is
both enabled and constrained by its concrete organization, which shapes the conditions of
possibility under which particular rhetorical constructions become meaningful, plausible
and consequential. For example, a neighbourhood whose design, infrastructure and archi-
tecture divides members of particular social groups from one another or relegates some
members to marginal spaces beyond community boundaries also delimits the constructions
of place and people-place relations that can be meaningfully or coherently formulated (see
Buizer & Turnhout 2011; Di Masso 2012; Durrheim & Dixon 2005).
48 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

The third approach is illustrated by Deleuze-inspired studies in urban geography, build-

ing on the recent “turn to affect” (Clough & Halley 2007) and on what has become known as
the Non Representational Theory in cultural geography (Amin & Thrift 2002). Latham and
McCormack’s (2004) discussion of the relationship between the material and the imma-
terial in urban experience exemplifies this approach. Here, the immaterial is conceived
as lying both beyond and before discourse: it is a set of “nonrepresentational forces and
practices and processes through which matter is always coming into being” (Latham &
McCormack 2004, p. 705). Advocates call this the “virtual dimension” of the material.
Accordingly, this approach encourages the analysis of the material not as a domain of tan-
gible objects, but as a form of reality already penetrated by pre-reflective relational forces
constantly reshaping the urban. Hence, in experiencing “our” neighbourhood, for example,
we would be flowing inside an affective process defined by an ineffable configuration of
architectural features, streets, automobiles, people, smells, lighting, movement, matter, and
technical machinery.
The fourth approach attempts to overcome the space-discourse dualism by bring-
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ing into sharper focus a new object of empirical and methodological enquiry: the messy,
complex, and constantly unfolding, entanglement of material geography, embodied prac-
tices, and language that structures place-experiences over time. Durrheim, Rautenbach,
Nicholson and Dixon’s (2013) study of nightclubs in South Africa offers one example
of how this kind of approach might work in practice, without pretending to resolve its
underlying philosophical tensions. Their ethnography examined both how cocktail bars
were linguistically constructed as sites of heterosexual opportunity that constitute women
as sexualised objects of desire and, simultaneously, how this process implicated a myriad
of other material structures and embodied practices. The material structures were instituted
within the design, visual imagery, and decor of place. The embodied practices were insti-
tuted within the dress codes and conduct of staff and patrons, which ranged from mundane
activities such as sitting, walking, and talking to overtly sexualised practices of flirting,
watching, and dancing. According to Durrheim et al. (2013), this “affective ensemblage”
of practices together constituted the cocktail bar as a space of heterosexual and hetero-
normative desire: a space that privileged certain ways of being and acting, certain bodies,
and certain gendered and sexualized identities.
In sum, these approaches clarify the relationship between material space and place-
discourse by providing four main ideas. First, discourse about space potentially affects
physical space; second, physical space limits the sorts of discursive place-constructions that
are available, possible and meaningful; third, in experiencing physical or discursive space
there is always an “excess” that eludes our analytical focus if we consider only the material-
as-physical and the immaterial-as-discourse; and fourth, the space-discourse dualism may
be potentially eroded by redefining the analytical unit of empirical work as an affective
patterning in which place-discourse, emplaced bodies and material space are treated as
inextricably intertwined in the production of human-environment relations. We develop
and illustrate the latter idea (see also Durrheim, Mtose & Brown 2011) in the rest of our

Human-Environment Relations as Dynamic Assemblage

Our starting point is simple. We believe that researchers should neither erase nor under-
play any of the main elements that constitute human-environment relations. Material
space, the body-in-space, talk in/about space or the “inner” experience of place, all of
these elements somehow combine to constitute the human-environment relations. The
More Than Words 49

challenge is to find an approach that reconciles—or at least accommodates—these disparate

Drawing on Durrheim et al.’s (2013) work and on Wetherell’s (2012) discussion of
affect and emotion, we re-conceptualise the discourse-material environment nexus as a
dynamic assemblage: an ever-shifting but temporarily stabilised entanglement of spatial
arrangements (including geographical locations, physical objects and spatial boundaries),
embodied practices, and discursive constructions (i.e., socially organised and oriented
patterns of language use) of environment and people-place relations. Treating human-
environment relations as an assemblage entails reconceptualising such relations as fleeting
crystallizations that emerge through the indissoluble composition of properties and prac-
tices, and not from the interaction between ontologically bounded spaces or bodies or
discourses. Developing this idea, we take theoretical bearings from Wetherell’s (2012,
pp. 15–19) concept of assemblage—“something, in other words, that comes into shape
and continues to change and refigure as it flows on,” as part of “an organic complex in
which all the parts relationally constitute each other.”
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From this perspective, the linguistic and the material, the intangible and the physical,
the imagined and the real, are re-specified as relational properties and processes that perma-
nently create, reproduce and modify human-environment relations as part of an indissoluble
unity. Materiality and the emplaced body are neither more nor less “real” than the discursive
productions with which they dynamically interrelate in order to produce environments that,
at some point, become “thinkable,” “feel-able,” “usable” and so on.
By redefining the practices that construct human-environment relations as dynamic
assemblages, we acknowledge that some elements will remain under-explored in any given
moment of analysis, which inevitably entails limitations of emphasis, focus, and perspec-
tive. We acknowledge, too, that the concept of assemblage may stand in lieu of a better
developed vocabulary, methodology and perhaps even political imagination. Nevertheless,
we believe that this concept allows us to begin to transcend the discourse-space dualism.
Most important, it replaces an analytics of disjunction (discourse or materiality) with an
analytics of articulation and jointness (discourse/materiality). Ultimately, in this article at
least, we are less interested in showing what discursive and spatial-material analysis inde-
pendently contribute than in showing what is missing if we do not explore them together
(for similar approaches, see Conlon 2004 on the mutual constitution of public space, bodies
and sexualities, and Tamboukou 2010 on assemblage as a new social ontology illustrated
through the interrelationships between education and art in women’s narratives). In the next
section, we seek to foster an emerging analytics of assemblage by outlining an illustrative
case study.

The Struggle over the “Hole of Shame”

The public space lying at the heart of the medieval neighbourhood of Santa Caterina
(Barcelona) was earmarked for urban development in 1985, but lack of progress raised
concerns amongst local residents. The neighbourhood was poor, deprived and in decline.
Its residents worried that the city council had abandoned a proposal to create a civic, green
space for residents in favour of developing upmarket flats, trendy shops and elite restau-
rants. The 6500m2 area in the middle of the neighbourhood—known locally as the Hole
of Shame—had stood vacant for several years, and suspicions arose that local inhabitants
were being gradually eased out of the area. In an expression of collective resistance, a
group of residents occupied the Hole of Shame in December 2000 and created the so-called
“Self-Managed Park of the Hole of Shame.”
50 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

Between 2000 and 2007, a complex, and occasionally violent, struggle unfolded
between the various parties interested in the space’s development. Some parties affirmed the
rights of local people to create a self-managed park (residents, neighbours and squatters);
others sought to enforce the original urban regeneration plan (city council and developers);
still others were opposed in principle to the occupation but also criticized the city council’s
plan (members of local civic organisations). Ultimately, following a controversial consul-
tation process, the Self-Managed Park of the Hole of Shame was demolished, its occupants
evicted, and an institutionally approved public square was created in its stead. The Hole of
Shame became “Figuera’s Well gardens.”
Elsewhere, we have presented a detailed analysis of discourse about the evolution of
this public space. We have described, for instance, how stakeholders constructed, contested
and warranted different versions of human-environment relations in order both to justify the
occupation and to oppose it (see Di Masso, Dixon & Pol 2011). However useful in its own
right, this earlier work also highlighted for us the limitations of a methodological and con-
ceptual approach based solely on the analysis of linguistic texts. It seemed to gloss over vital
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features of the struggle for the Hole of Shame and, perhaps most important, the intimate
connections between the discursive, embodied and material dimensions of that struggle.
At the same time, simply supplanting an approach focused on everyday language about the
Hole with an approach that emphasized its concrete and embodied nature seemed to us to
miss the point. The concept of place-assemblage thus emerged as a potentially useful ana-
lytical tool—a tool that highlighted how the Hole’s transformation comprised a process in
which material and discursive elements were complexly and dynamically imbricated and,
in fact, how understanding the role of one element literally demanded understanding the
role of the other.

A Methodological Perspective on the Analysis of Place-Assemblages

The analysis of place-assemblages presents two methodological challenges. On the one
hand, we require techniques for gathering data that can somehow capture a complex object
of inquiry: the emerging interplay between material features of place, embodied relations
in place, and linguistic constructions of place that crystallise into a dynamic unity. Here
place-assemblage defines a unit of analysis and operates as a methodological concept.
On the other hand, once data are gathered, a second analytic challenge emerges: How do we
unravel not only isolated instances of discourse or space or embodiment, but also moments
of assemblage? This points to the ontological dimension of assemblage as a “portion” of
reality, and it raises epistemological questions insofar as such an exercise of unravelling
inevitably requires an imaginative process of reconstruction that owes as much to the ana-
lyst’s interpretive frame and personal investments, as it does to self-evident features located
either within the environment itself or within the textual practices that surround it.
When analysing the Hole of Shame case study, for example, we began by collecting a
wide range of kinds of empirical data, including photographs taken by the first author while
doing fieldwork at the time of highest intensity of the conflict (2004–2005), pictures and
texts published by local newspapers, social movements’ blogs, visual material recorded as
part of a video-documentary entitled “El Forat” (“The Hole”), shot by a local inhabitant
in real-time as the struggle unfolded, and newspaper accounts. We then selected a series
of socio-spatial episodes that seemed to implicate, simultaneously, discursive constructions
of place, the transformation of material objects and architecture, and embodied practices.
Next, we divided episodes into two kinds of place-assemblages depending on the temporal
structure of the discourse-material-bodies entanglement. By temporal structure we mean
More Than Words 51

the “real timing” of the relational articulation of material, embodied and discursive prop-
erties meeting in the actual episode to create a “locational” reality. One set of episodes
included text or talk physically located in the Hole of Space that seemed to have a “place-
indexical” quality, making sense only when emplaced geographically (e.g., see Scollon
& Scollon 2003; Benwell & Stokoe 2006, pp. 209–10). The other set of events involved
circular sequences of text/talk, spatially located embodied actions and physical environ-
mental changes (i.e., materially consequential discursive action frames and discursively
consequential material actions). As we will illustrate, the timing factor is central. It keeps
analysis within the margins of what we could call a space-embedded criterion of “observ-
able relevance” (Antaki 1994). That is, analysis concentrates on what is actually going on
in the space, as a space-and-time pattern of assembled properties. However, this process
involves a narrative reconstruction of events years after the struggle happened. Since the
time factor is central in shaping place-assemblages, we may acknowledge that an “in vivo”
analysis of those episodes would have probably offered a perspective closer to the “zeit-
geist” of the ongoing struggle, not easily reproducible years later but nonetheless present
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in the first author’s personal background.

With these methodological notes in mind, we now present some examples drawn from
our Hole of Shame case study. Textual extracts were translated from Spanish or Catalan by
the first author, and are presented here as standard written text.

Empirical Analysis: Place-Assemblage in Action

For the purpose of this article, we have selected two sequences of events that, quite lit-
erally, became landmarks in the Hole of Shame struggle. The first event inaugurated the
occupation when a group of local inhabitants planted a Christmas tree in the middle of the
empty space. The second event involved the creation of a wall and shortly afterwards its
destruction. Both events set in motion an assemblage of practices that progressively shaped
and reshaped the local environment to create a new reality for those living there. The pho-
tographs and extracts 1 and 2 included in this analysis belong to the video-documentary
mentioned in the previous subsection.

Episode One: Planting the Christmas Tree. The Hole of Shame struggle was, above all, a
struggle over spatial occupation and control. Indeed, use of the term “occupation” is only
possible because the struggle involved the physical appropriation, use and transformation
of an empty patch of ground. The planting of a symbolic fir tree on December 15, 2000
(Figure 1) represented its (concrete) starting point. The neighbour who video-recorded this
event offered the following account:

Extract 1
Despite the fact the Ayuntamiento1 has not made clear what is going to be done
on the soil, the demolitions have started already. A small group of neighbours
claim for a green zone. That’s why they have planted a Christmas tree.

The planting of this tree began to create a place whose meaning, we would argue, arose
only through the interrelation of its various material, embodied, and linguistic elements.
A number of things are worth noting here. First, what was planted was a tree and not, say,
a flag, washing machine, or city council sign: the object was chosen to signify something
green, natural, organic and true—not as a matter of necessity, but in combination with
the other elements with which it was imbricated (e.g., Extract 1). Second and relatedly,
52 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

Figure 1. Fir tree planted inside the Hole of Shame (Source. “El Forat”; Falconetti 2004).
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this process depended upon a complex amalgam including the tree as a cultural sign, the
immediate physicality of the tree, the bodily practices involved in the planting, and the
discourse that arose around its planted presence. Third, it is not incidental that this tree
was installed inside the empty space. The location chosen had place-indexical properties,
made possible by that environment and not just any other. If the tree had been planted just a
street away, for example, its meaning would have been entirely different. Fourth, of course,
we concede that planting the tree did not, in itself, articulate, elucidate or finish a political
project. Accounts such as Extract 1 allow us to glimpse how the fir tree was rhetorically
constituted as an act of political protest. Nevertheless, we insist that this outcome arose
through the indissoluble combination of material, geo-indexical and discursive properties
that created, in that space, a meaning-full reality. It arose as an assemblage.
This theme can be illustrated further by considering the sequence of events that fol-
lowed the planting of the tree. To begin with, the act of planting was itself read as a seditious
action by local authorities, who responded by sending an official to chop the tree down on
February 21, 2001. Residents responded by planting a second tree on March 9, 2001. The
significance of this act arose partly through the discursive practices that defined its mean-
ings. As Extract 2 illustrates, for example, neighbours constructed the second planting as a
positive act of resistance, an act that somehow encapsulated their political project to give
the space “life” as a green environment for local people. However, at least in part, such
accounts made sense and became effective because they were entwined with other material
and embodied practices.

Extract 2
Here in the neighbourhood we have decided, the neighbours and the Hole of
Shame Collective, to buy another fir tree. Tomorrow with the kids we’ll deco-
rate it a little and if this is a problem for the Ayuntamiento because we haven’t
asked them for permission, we ask permission now: permission so they don’t
remove it because it has life, that one has life.

To begin with, the second tree was of the same species as the original tree (a fir) and it
was planted in exactly the same spot as its predecessor. In this way, it could materially
embody the tenacity of a grass-roots struggle whose environmental vision had not been
More Than Words 53
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Figure 2. Hand-written sign in the second fir tree (Source. “El Forat”; Falconetti 2004).

altered by the official intervention. If a different tree had been planted in a different place, its
political environmental meanings would also have been altered. In addition, once installed,
the new tree could become a focus of other kinds of place-making practices. Consider, for
example, the photograph presented in Figure 2, which depicts a hand-written sign hung
from the branches of the second tree shortly after its planting. The sign reads: “I have a life.
Don’t cut me. Don’t kill me like happened to my brother (the Neighbours’ Collective of
the Hole of Shame).” The “death in the family” image here is clearly part of the rhetoric of
environmental resistance: it serves both as a condemnation of past government action and
as an emotive plea against future intervention. Crucially, however, it signifies a particular
set of environmental meanings precisely because it is hanging from that tree in that space
and not, say, on the wall of an activist’s living room. That is, again, it operates as a part of
an assemblage of place-making properties.
To conclude our discussion of this opening example, we wish to add that this second
tree was also removed and, once more, an identical tree was replanted in the same place.
Indeed, over the next year, several more trees appeared in the site of the original fir tree
and numerous community activities were organised there, including meals, street-theatre,
musical events and bicycle workshops. When police finally removed the park and evicted
its defendants in November, 2002, a digger was sent in to uproot the Christmas tree (see
Figure 3) and the administration erected a wall around the Hole of Shame in order to pre-
vent access to it. Interestingly, in this context, occupants’ resistance replaced the planting
of “real” trees with the production of symbols, objects and graffiti that incorporated tree
symbolism as part of a place-indexical rhetoric of resistance (see Figure 4).

Episode Two: The Wall of Shame. The Hole of Shame was cleared in November 2002 and
a quite different assemblage of elements emerged. Its occupants were evicted en masse,
several being physically wounded and arrested in the process (see Figure 5). Systems
of defence and surveillance were implemented to ensure that they did not return. Trees
were uprooted and other traces of the occupation removed. New territorial boundaries were
erected—initially in the form of plastic tapes that read “Police – keep out” and later in the
form of a concrete wall designed to permanently restrict access to the Hole (see Figure 6).
54 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

Figure 3. A digger uproots the fir tree (Source. “El Forat”; Falconetti 2004).
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Figure 4. Graffiti in the Hole of Shame (Source. Nova Ciutat Vella n◦ 72).

Figure 5. Police charge in the Hole of Shame in November 2002 (Source. © Jordi Roviralta/Ediciones
El País, S.L., 2014).
More Than Words 55

Figure 6. Policemen standing by the Wall of Shame (Source. Isabel Esterman,
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To adapt Sack’s (1986, p. 21) phrase, these boundaries expressed simultaneously “. . . a

statement about direction in space with a statement about possession and exclusion.”
The bodily removal of occupants and the construction of the perimeter wall created, in
turn, a material context that profoundly shaped emerging discourse about the nature of the
Hole of Shame:

Extract 3
We denounce that, while the neighbour movement has dignified the Hole of
Shame planting trees in it, the Ayuntamiento has privatised this urban space by
building, under the police’s protection, a wall of shame that degrades the envi-
ronment and criminalises the neighbours. We denounce that the lack of means
to face the citizens’ fear of crime that we all suffer contrasts with the huge
abundance of forces of the Guardia Urbana2 to repress the neighbour move-
ment and to besiege the Hole of the Shame night and day during all week to
guard a simple wall. We believe that a popular initiative to defend a green area
from the threat of speculative projects and to humanise an urban space devas-
tated by the massive and indiscriminate demolitions deserves to be respected
by the public institutions.

In the account offered by the occupants’ social movement in Extract 3, for example, the
new defensive architecture of the Hole was portrayed both as an incarnation of the gov-
ernment’s neglect of local citizens’ demands and as an attempt to privatize what was
formerly an accessible and green space. This rhetorical contrast between the two spaces
was clearly designed to problematize the intervention. In pointing this out, we are not sug-
gesting that talk about environmental neglect and privatization was inevitably associated
with particular spatial or embodied transformations. Indeed, widely varying accounts of its
significance emerged at this time. Some framed the changes as a positive and necessary
step in the space’s development, others as a degradation of a valued environment of the
community. Some highlighted the legitimacy of police action, others its illegitimacy. Some
argued for calm acceptance, others for collective protest. Yet all of these accounts were
56 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

oriented, in one way or another, to the shifting realities of an environment that had been
transformed in its basic design, layout and patterns of access, occupancy, movement and
usage. Accounts did not float free or independent of this reality but were complexly focused
on, enmeshed with, and delimited by, many other non-linguistic properties shaping a
By the same token, of course, discursive constructions of the material changes wrought
by local council and police created the impetus for forms of action designed to uphold or
reverse precisely those changes. Thus, during a public assembly, one neighbour explicitly
proposed to “gather in a demonstration, starting in the Hole of Shame, knocking down
the wall and taking the debris to the Ayuntamiento.” This proposal met with applause
and, immediately afterwards, some revealing graffiti appeared on the wall of shame (see
Figure 7). It read “1, 2, 3, Boom,” anticipating the collective action that was soon to take
place there, across the talking bricks. The ensuing demonstration (see Figure 8) began after
a popular meal and a music concert had taken place close to the wall and took the form of
a march through the neighbouring streets of Casc Antic. Yet again, we would argue, these
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details of geographic placement and route are not inconsequential but an intrinsic part of
its meaning. As they arrived back at the wall of shame, protestors used their hands, stones,
fence posts, bricks, sticks and pliers to cut the wire and knock down the wall (see Figure 9).
Within half an hour, it had disappeared and hundreds of people had gathered inside the
Hole of Shame. They clapped their hands in joy and used spades to dig new holes in the
soil and put new plants in them.
The point of this brief outline is not to offer a detailed or exhaustive account of events
that led to the creation of the so-called second Self-Managed Park of the Hole of Shame.
Rather, we wish merely to indicate how such events implicated a complex, unfolding and
mutually constitutive set of practices in which the line between discourse, materiality and
the body was constantly being blurred. In this process of territorial reclamation, a complex
assemblage of tangible and intangible practices served to create, or perhaps more accu-
rately to recover, a particular form of human-environment relations, including speeches,
marching, writing on the wall, digging and planting, and the physical destruction of territo-
rial boundaries. This assemblage reconstructed the identity of place by “plugging” its many
texts, bodies, movements and spaces into one other in different ways and at different scales

Figure 7. Graffiti on the Wall of Shame (Source. “El Forat”; Falconetti 2004).
More Than Words 57

Figure 8. Demonstration before knocking down the wall (Source. Arquitectes Sense Fronteres).
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Figure 9. The people knock down the wall (Source. “El Forat”; Falconetti 2004).

(from the micro-location of signs to police actions and institutional bylaws) (see Malins
2004). The “green and public space” of the local community was resurrected, even if it was
not to last.

Our rationale for writing this article was to extend the emerging discursive psychological
approach to human-environment relations. Discursive psychological research has already
made several important contributions to this field of inquiry, notably by drawing attention to
the role of everyday language in constructing the meanings of place and person-place rela-
tionships. By the same token, however, such research has generally overlooked how such
meanings and relationships are not a product of linguistic practices alone. If the discursive
perspective on human-environment relations is to evolve, we feel that it needs to transcend
its traditional comfort zones—to look beyond the analysis of linguistic texts in isolation
58 A. Di Masso and J. Dixon

and towards a more expansive approach that incorporates a wider range of methods, data
and sensitizing concepts.
In this regard, we have advocated an analytic framework that seeks to transcend the
space-discourse dualism implicit in the human-environment divide, by providing a more
complex, psychosocial account of emplaced subjectivity and social practice. Our frame-
work presupposes that physical spaces, embodied practices and place-talk simultaneously
shape each other as constituents of a same (but shifting) unity of sense and meaning.
As such, neither arises as an independent or sui generis reality. Rather, they are always
parts of an unfolding assemblage of elements, which crystallize in moments of mutual con-
stitution and delimitation within particular contexts. We have used the Hole of Shame case
study to illustrate just a few ways in which such assemblages unfolded within a particular
environment. In so doing, this framework echoes Foucauldian work that treats language as
inseparable from other meaning-making practices within discursive formations that already
include material spaces and embodied relations. Here, the discourse-space divide is simply
irrelevant. However, we believe that even to this audience the analytic tool of assem-
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blage is useful as a sensitizing concept, particularly as a methodological resource to guide

analysis of the mutual constitution of space, language, material artefacts and bodies as
articulate-able properties of subjectivity that only make sense in relation to each other over
Empirically, of course, a focus on assemblage poses a number of methodological chal-
lenges. It requires data-gathering techniques able to record complex patterns of space,
bodies and discourse over time (e.g., video-records, ethnographic records), whether as
textures of meaning that are inevitably unstable (see Wetherell 2012) or as sequences of
action-oriented talk, bodily practices and physical environmental changes. It also requires
modes of interpretation able to trace the environmental-psychological implications of com-
plex entanglements of elements within specific spaces and also, perhaps, new ways of
reporting and evaluating our findings. We believe that these challenges can and should
be met. Their resolution promises to yield a richer understanding of spatial “experiences”
such as place identification and attachment, spatial behaviours such as boundary construc-
tion and territorial personalization, and spatial problems such as segregation and exclusion.
We can both capitalise on and develop the contribution of discursive to environmental

1. City council.
2. Local police forces.

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About the Authors

Andrés Di Masso, PhD, is a lecturer in Political Psychology and Qualitative Methods at the
University of Barcelona, Spain. His research focuses on the social construction of space
and the ideological regulation of people-place relations.
John Dixon, PhD, is Professor of Social Psychology at The Open University, United
Kingdom, and co-editor, with Jolanda Jetten, of the British Journal of Social Psychology.
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His publications include Racial Encounter: The Social Psychology of Contact and
Desegregation (2005), co-authored with Kevin Durrheim.