Why study it?

This project studies emptiness as a specific social formation and as one of the most fundamental – yet least studied – developments in the landscape of contemporary capitalism, state power, and associated ideologies. We hear that more and more people live in cities, and there are many studies about global cities as command centres of the economy. We don’t hear as much that more cities are shrinking rather than growing, though there are studies of shrinking cities as problems of spatial planning and opportunities for urban design. But we hear very little about the emptying spaces between cities at a time when signs of emptiness are increasingly common around the globe. There are no studies of emptiness as simultaneously a lived experience, a framework of meaning, and a lens for the workings of economic and political power today.

Colleagues in social sciences and humanities have turned their attention to related phenomena: depopulation, deindustrialization, outmigration. This is important work that the project engages. At the same time, analysis tends to take place at mid-level, at the level of society, economy, the nation – all spheres of the so-called state sciences. But we cannot fully understand the phenomenon of emptiness if we stay on this scale. Emptiness is both more specific and much bigger. It is about details of life in specific places and the macro-scale historical processes that shape them. 

Today’s emptiness is not only increasingly common, but also new. Decline or abandonment of certain places have happened before. But most such events in the modern era have occurred as a result of production-based capitalism’s spatial fixes and within an overall narrative of progress. Today’s emptiness comes at a time dominated by finance capitalism and devoid of promises of better collective futures. Instead of being incorporated into the market economy and welfare networks, as was the case at the heyday of modernity, today people and places are expelled from circuits of capital and care of the state. Some people are able to move, while others are stuck in place. This makes the lived experience of emptiness strikingly new, on a variety of levels (see How to study it? for more information).

Collaborate with us

If you would like to find out more about the project or contribute a blog on a resonant aspect of your own research to the Field Reports section of our website, please get in touch by writing to emptiness@anthro.ox.ac.uk.