June 18, 2019

Canopies and Contact Zones

Jonathan WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Last month, the Speaker of the House for Ohio, a Republican named Larry Householder, was upset by a local library story time hosted by a drag queen. He said, “Taxpayers aren’t interested in seeing their hard earned dollars being used to teach teenage boys how to become drag queens.” But taxpayers should absolutely be interested in the idea that a public space like a library can be places where people who are different from one another can meet and engage with each other. In fact, State Rep. Householder should visit a few places like that.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently published a wonderful book on this very topic, called Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. The idea is as simple an idea as it is profound: societies need public places for people to engage with others in meaningful ways. Parks, libraries, public places of all sorts are where people from different places can come together. This idea has really taken off in the last few months, and I know that librarians are happy to have Klinenberg write in a New York Times op-ed that the effort should start with libraries!

Klinenberg cites sociologist Elijah Anderson, who wrote about Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, the (former) Gallery Mall, and Rittenhouse Square as a similar places where people move through and engage with people in ways that they might not outside of those particular spaces. He calls these places “cosmopolitan canopies.” (See him talk about it here.) In Anderson’s book, these places are where civility happens. They are places where lines of race and class are not obliterated, but they are ameliorated, where familiarity and civic-engagement are placed on pause. In these places people are “exposed to various kinds of people getting along with each other.” State Rep. Householder should visit places like those and get exposed to more kinds of people.

There’s another term (not used by Klinenberg nor by Anderson) that has a more expansive meaning and application. Mary Louise Pratt uses the term in an article called “Arts of the Contact Zone” to describe how the arts, defining them as places where different cultures “meet, clash, grapple, with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (1991: 34).

This term took off in anthropology, studies of the arts, and in geography, used to analyze how people from different communities interact in public transportation (“On Geography and Encounters”), cafes (“Possible Geographies”), museums (“Contact Zones, Third Spaces, and the Act of Interpretation”), and small towns (“Spaces of Encounters”). This term has also gained purchase when talking about globalization and colonialism, in highly segregated and unequal urban cities (see sociologist James Farrer’s book on global food). Contact zone is a more expansive term because it can incorporate non social/physical spaces.

I came upon this idea for my research on hospitals and the communities that surround them (with Dan Skinner and Berkeley Franz), as I have been looking at the ways that hospitals have (or, to be more specific, don’t have) places for people in hospitals to connect with the people who live right outside their doors. For the most part, people tend to come into contact with hospitals only when something is acutely wrong. The ER is the main contact point between communities and their hospitals, even though they are often a neighborhood’s anchor institution.

Contact zones help folks identify places for interactions between groups that can be meaningful encounters. From social psychology we know that increased contact between ethnic groups—so long as it is mediated and power relations are minimized—can reduce tension and prejudice. I felt that the concept of the contact zone could be quite useful for thinking about community/hospital relationships. What could a meaningful encounter mean in this context? There is something interactional about the idea of the contact zone that could be useful for thinking more sociologically about this concept.

How do organizations and institutions connect with their communities? Through branding and marketing? By hiring people from their communities? Are there better ways for connecting people? What are the anchor institutions in your communities—the libraries, public facilities, parks, and hospitals—doing to create contact zones?

Over the summer you might be going to a farmer’s market or a mall, a sporting event or a music festival, going to a café or to a museum. As presidential campaigns slowly get into gear, perhaps there are political events we can attend as well. These are places where we get to interact with others, get to be in public spaces collectively. We get to feel a sense of “collective” in these places and moments.


I agree that societies need public places for people to engage with others in meaningful ways. Parks, libraries, and other public places are good places for people from different places to come together, and at those places, diversity should be encouraged.

I definitely believe that communities need to have things for people. Public parks, sporting fields, movie theaters, libraries are all great for a community and everyone should be going and included.

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