Hubert Knoblauch, Martina Löw, Jörg Stollmann & Gunter Weidenhaus
Polycontexturalization: A Spatial Phenomenon – A Thematic Introduction and an Overview of the Contributions of this Special Issue
Hubert Knoblauch, Martina Löw, Jörg Stollmann, Gunter Weidenhaus 
Within the context of the Collaborative Research Centre “Re-Figuration of Space” (https://sfb1265.de/en/), the spatiality of polycontexturalization is a major research topic. In order to approach the study of refiguration empirically, Löw and Knoblauch (2017) have suggested to focus on three groups of phenomena summarized by “mediatization”, “translocalization” and “polycontexturalization”. While the effects of mediatization and translocalization on the spatial transformation of societies have been discussed in previous research, to our knowledge, the spatiality of polycontexturalization has not. In order to make this phenomenon amenable to empirical research, we introduced it as a “sensitizing concept” which allowed it to guide our research. Now, after a first phase of empirical research, the preliminary results not only demonstrate how useful the concept of polycontexturalization is in providing orientation for empirical studies on social space. It also opens up perspectives for new types of spatial phenomena and, based on their empirical study, enables a more specific and empirically grounded notion of polycontexturalization to emerge. The contributions to this Special Issue are dedicated to the discussion of this evolved notion of polycontexturalization.
Before we turn to the individual contributions, we want to (1) shortly sketch what we, as a research center, mean by refiguration; in this context, we want to adumbrate the preliminary notion of polycontexturalization with which we started our research some four years ago. In the second part (2), we want to briefly clarify why we consider polycontexturalization a useful category for the social study of space, before (3) we give an overview of how the various papers of this Special Issue contribute to an understanding of this new phenomenon.
Refiguration of space constitutes the larger framing of polycontexturalization. As we have already elaborated on this notion in quite some detail elsewhere (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020a, 2020b; Knoblauch, 2020), we only want to provide a rough outline here. The basic idea of refiguration forms part of the spatial turn, which we share as a key orientation (Löw, 2008). Despite some promising early research (Lefebvre, 2000 ; Rémy, 1975), the task of understanding and analyzing the changes, transformations and crises of contemporary societies in terms of space is still pending. While the notion of social change appeared far too general to us, the state of research (e.g. Jameson, 1984; Jessop, Brenner, & Jones, 2008) seemed to suggest that spatial transformations are not just following a linear path. Rather, the many crises we have witnessed in recent decades, such as the financial crisis, the migration crisis and, not least, the Corona pandemic, indicate that the social changes we are observing are inherently conflictual and have similarly conflicting spatial effects. Thus, the tendency to transgress national boundaries, e.g. in trade, tourism or electronic communication, is obviously countered by tendencies toward closure, re-bordering and various kinds of privatization.
Our suggestion was to grasp these diverging tendencies by drawing on Norbert Elias’s notion of figuration (Baur & Ernst, 2011). Figuration is a term which focuses on the interdependence of relations; it is, therefore, explicitly relational in a way that does not a priori separate different levels, such as “macro”, “meso”, or “micro”. Furthermore, figuration is not only an institutional phenomenon (sociogenesis) but affects individual actors themselves (psychogenesis).
Although Elias also used spatial metaphors to certain extent, we understand figurations as a fundamentally spatial concept. For instance, in this sense, the “centralized” figuration of society in the French nation state has an intrinsic spatial dimension, i.e. the national territory. As figuration is designed as a processual term, we understand refiguration as a process of changing figurations. More specifically, we assume that dynamics of change are driven by the conflict between different kinds of figurations. Initially, we had assumed that two major conflictual figurations were driving contemporary processes of refiguration. The wording of refiguration was intended to highlight a process which resulted from the contact, tension and conflict between these two: on the one hand, we could observe a tendency toward flat, networked and egalitarian social relations, institutions and institutional orders including the opening and transgression of spaces, the transcending of spatial scales and the translocalization of identities, communities and collectivities driven by communication, tourism, commerce, migration etc.; on the other hand, we are witnessing a tendency of modern spatiality to reassert itself by stressing local, regional or national borders and national identities. It is in relation to this tension and conflict that we can address the refiguration of power in local settings (e.g. urban spaces), in national settings (e.g. borders) and even in transnational relations (as in the EU, in Islam and Islamism or TTIP). However, in the course of our research, we came to understand that the types of spatial figures characterizing these processes are more diverse. Next to territorial and networked spaces, they also include places and trajectorial spaces. The different logics of spatial figures results from the different orientations of actions and practices constituting their social relations. It is for this reason that the mediatization of action directly affects spatial logics. As Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp (2017), for example, argue, it is particularly the process of digitalization which leads to “deep mediatization”, new “communicative figurations” and thus a refiguration. We can currently witness a major increase in the digitalization of communication during the pandemic, e.g. in webinars, which makes very evident what we mean by translocalization of action.
While mediatization and translocalization have already been subject to a wide range of research, polycontexturalization is the third phenomenon we consider to be an essential part of the refiguration of space. This notion was first suggested by the logician Gotthard Günther and subsequently transferred to social theory by Niklas Luhmann (1997, p. 36). To Günther it referred to the use of different logical orders within one logical operation. Based on his understanding of modern society, Luhmann adopted it to denote the multiple references of communication. It is this multi-referentiality that we suggested to transfer to and translate into the social theory of space. As refiguration is driven by the coexistence of conflictual figurations and different spatial figures, we conceived of polycontexturalization as the integration of and/or conflict between multiple institutional, technological and media contextures, e.g. in transport, in the circulation of objects and people in tourism, trade or forced migration. Polycontexturality implies that we do not expect the mere dissolution of territorial and homogenizing spatial logics. Rather, we assume that actions are increasingly embedded in multiple contexts and multiple spatialities, i.e. “spatialities of different forms, of different things and working at different scales” (Walker, 2009, p. 615), for example the multiple spatial references in international environmental law.
2. Polycontexturalization and Space
So how exactly do we think about the relationship of polycontexturalization to spaces? Communicative actions are firstly interpreted in more and more contexts (i.e. from more and more different perspectives), each with its own logic. This is the basic contemporary diagnostic assessment underlying the hypothesis of increasing polycontexturalization. But we do not understand these contexts as purely cognitive provinces of meaning. They are not disembodied, idealistic, mental constructs; rather, they are always connected to material arrangements. Thus, contexts become contextures.
Contextures are spatial in two ways: at the outset, they are themselves arrangements of goods and living beings synthesized into spaces (cf. Löw, 2001); for example, they may be comprised of a network of video cameras connected by a central control room. Secondly, the interpretation of actions in the context of a contexture may involve (already existing) spatial constitutions, for example, when a person is observed from a control room of a gated community and judged by the observers to be illegally trespassing in the monitored territory. This territory is not formed by the infrastructure of the contexture but is an antecedent, institutionalized spatial constitution – in this case, buildings connected by property titles and common access rules. This spatial constitution is then used to arrive at a meaningful interpretation of the observed action. Thus, linking polycontexturalization and space opens up two empirical lines of inquiry: The first question is interested in the spatial nature of the different contexts themselves. The second question concerns the implicit spatial constitutions of the different interpretations. Both questions are addressed in the following contributions.
3. Overview of the Papers of this Special Issue
This Special Issue of sozialraum.de on “Polycontexturalization: A Spatial Phenomenon” assembles five thematic articles.
In his contribution “Conduct of Life as the Handling of Polycontexturality”, Uwe Schimank argues that in modern societies, polycontexturality has become the major paradigm for individual decision-making processes. He defines polycontexturality as a second-order observation of more than one first-order observation and illustrates this with an example of self-reflexive recognition of multi-perspectivity. After discussing the concept in relation to social theory and theories of modern societies, he applies it to the interpretation of a turning point in the biography of a middle class woman employed as a manager in a multi-national company. Thereby, he detaches polycontexturality from systems theory (the framework in which Luhmann initially introduced the concept to social science) and opens it up for approaches in action theory. Even though more focused on factors of functional differentiation, cultural pluralism and multiple inequalities in producing polycontexturality, Schimank also reflects on possible spatial aspects and effects, e.g. the impact of territorial versus networked spatial arrangements on the self-reflection of his protagonist.
Hubert Knoblauch departs from both Luhmann’s exclusively cognitive approach to polycontexturalization and Schimank’s extension of the concept to action theory, instead focusing on the materiality and spatiality of processes. In his essay “Contexts, Contextures and the Polycontexturalization of Control Rooms”, he differentiates contexture from context, stressing the material and sensual connotation of contexture as a “fabric.” This aspect is exemplified with case studies of train and underground control centers. The contextures of the communicative acts between the station assistant and the trains are established by communication infrastructure as well as the spatial set-up and technical equipment of the control room itself. Infrastructural contextures relate to different contexts by means of a particular spatial arrangement, and the simultaneous interweaving of different contexts through contextures established by ICT or digital communication leads to an increased polycontexturalization and the refiguration of spaces.
In their contribution “On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Everyday Polycontexturality in Times of Digital Mediatization”, Gunter Weidenhaus and Jörg Stollmann focus on everyday self-refection of individuals. They show how polycontexturalization can be empirically demonstrated as a first-order construct. Simply put, individuals today are very aware of the polycontexturalization of their actions. This notion expands Schimank’s and Knoblauch’s definition of a second-order observation and a second order construct, respectively. The authors differentiate between desirable and non-desirable polycontexturalization. Using the two cases of crowd-funding in Kenia and gay cruising in South Korea, they exemplify how potential consequences affect everyday communication and actions. With digitalization, polycontexturalization has become so comprehensively formative in today’s societies that it already pre-structures action from a first-order perspective.
The contribution “Dynamics of Polycontexturalization in Commodity Chains” by Nina Baur, Elmar Kulke, Linda Hering and Julia Fülling engages with dynamics of polycontexturalization in the field of economy, studying commodity chains for fresh fruit and vegetables. They investigate how different spatial figures characterize the processes in the three economic contexts of production, sales and consumption of the produce. Analyzing the interplay between the spatial knowledge of the actors involved and the spatial arrangements, the authors thereby specify the reciprocal dynamics of polycontexturalization in relation to translocalization and mediatization, the three key concepts of refiguration.
In “Imbricated. A Conceptual Morphology of Polycontexturality”, Dominik Bartmanski introduces imbrication as a mode of polycontexturalization. As patterned interconnection of elements in which every element remains in principle analytically distinguishable, imbrication describes the multiple and mutual ways in which contextures are brought together. Contextures are understood as entanglements of cultural texts, material textures and social contexts. The concept of imbricative cultural polycontexturality is closely linked to relational perspectivism in anthropology or the relational Raumsoziologie, all aiming at reinscribing space into the discourses of the cultural sciences.
With this compilation of contributions, we hope to have illustrated the importance and suitability of polycontexturalization for understanding current social phenomena and their spatial constitutions. Furthermore, we wish to pave the way for a broader use within different theoretical schools of thought – from systems theory via action theory to cultural theory and beyond. Last but not least, we hope that this Special Issue inspires future empirical work to engender a better understanding of polycontexturalization as it pertains to societal, institutional and individual realities.
And finally, we have to remark that this Special Issue would not have been possible without the insightful and tireless support of Lucie Bernroider.
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Couldry, N., & Hepp A. (2017). The Mediatized Construction of Reality. London: Polity.
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Jessop, B., Brenner, N., & Jones, M. (2008). Theorizing Sociospatial Relations. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 26, 389–401.
Knoblauch, H. (2020). The Communicative Construction of Reality. London, New York: Routledge.
Knoblauch, H., & Löw, M. (2020a). Dancing in Quarantine: The Spatial Refiguration of Society and the Interaction Orders August 2020. Space and Culture, 23(3), 221–225. doi: 10.1177/1206331220938627
Knoblauch, H., & Löw, M. (2020b). The Re-Figuration of Spaces and Refigured Modernity – Concept and Diagnosis. Historical Social Research, 45(2), 263–292. doi: 10.12759/hsr.45.2020.2.263-292.
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Löw, M., & Knoblauch, H. (2017). On the Spatial Re-Figuration of the Social World, Sociologica, 2, doi: 10.2383/88197
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Walker, G. (2009). Beyond Distribution and Proximity: Exploring the multiple spatialities of Environmental Justice. Antipode, 41(4), 614–636.
 This special issue was conceived with support of the Collaborate Research Centre “The Re-Figuration of Spaces” (CRC 1265) funded by the German Research Association (DFG) (project number 290045248).
Hubert Knoblauch, Martina Löw, Jörg Stollmann, Gunter Weidenhaus  (2021): Guest Editorial. In: sozialraum.de (13) Ausgabe 1/2021. URL: https://www.sozialraum.de/guest-editorial.php, Datum des Zugriffs: 01.12.2023