The Ethics of Space: Homelessness, Squatting and the Spatial Self

Grohmann, Steph. 2015. The Ethics of Space: Homelessness, Squatting and the Spatial Self. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis discusses the interconnection between spatial practices and the construction of moral personhood, based on the example of homelessness and squatting activism in ‘Austerity Britain’. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork with persons who have no fixed address in the West of England, I explore the connections between spatiality, embodied cognition and the moral construction of self and other.

Because bodies are spatial objects, embodied cognition is necessarily spatial – ‘human beings are spatial beings’. Moral personhood is therefore also and especially spatially constructed, most importantly through metaphors of ‘inside’ vs. ‘outside’. Drawing on cognitive anthropology and psychoanalysis, I identify two distinct models of the self informed by spatial metaphors, which I refer to as the ‘territorial self’ and the ‘spatial self’. These cognitive models, and the types of relations between self and other they imply, come to inform the construction of distinct spatial configurations which can be observed from a small scale – for example an individual ‘home’ – to a large scale, e.g. the territorial nation state. The territorial self corresponds to a ‘moral space’ characterised by notions of securisation, defensible boundaries and a dual mode of exclusion and internment that produces (racialised and gendered) ‘spatial others’. The spatial self, on the other hand, implies an ethical stance that takes seriously the spatial component of embodiment, and thus the vulnerability of the self to the absence of shelter, understood as the minimum amount of safe space – within and without the body – that embodied persons need in order to physically, cognitively and socially function.

On this basis, I argue that homelessness can be understood as the result of multi-layered social processes based in a pervasive logic of territoriality. ‘The homeless person’ is characterised by a lack of territorial entitlement that translates into a loss of moral personhood, often referred to in the literature as ‘social death’. I conclude that squatting, as a political and ethical practice, aims not only at the removal of an immediate material lack, but also and especially at the re-construction of moral personhood through a practical ethics of recognising and responding to the vulnerability inherent in embodiment.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Homelessness, Squatting, Cognitive Anthropology, Space, Spatial Self

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



30 November 2015

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

22 Dec 2015 10:42

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:13


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