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Getting to the Roots (and Rhizomes) of Place

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With Dan Williams


Places are spaces where we make meaning.  But what are the different meanings a place can hold?  Dan Williams, a researcher who has looked at relationships that people have to locations such as national parks and second homes, invited us to consider two different ways in which we make meanings of spaces:  functional and relational.   Functional meaning focuses on the instrumental meaning we have with a space:  it works for our activities and goals.  Relational is about identity:  it speaks to how we see ourselves.  These can intersect but we can see interesting differences that might help us support folks who are navigating disruptions of where they do their work.   In a way, how we make these meanings reveals how rooted we are in a place.


The roots we have to or with a place describes how grounded we feel.  The deeper the roots, the stronger the attachment we have to it.  Think of where we grew up or where we went to school.  Likely, though not always, these formative locations create feelings of connection to how we see ourselves, then and now.  Roots often best reveal identity connections


I wonder:  Could we have deep functional roots?  Perhaps.  A place could provide us with some unique affordances to do our work – a phone, a place to write, the kitchen to serve clients, etc.  However, the disruptions we are seeing in the workplace suggest that contemporary experiences of many types of work are increasing less rooted to a specific space.  Perhaps what we need are new metaphors, such as rhizomes, which are networks that connect a variety of roots.


In way, rhizomes – or the systems of connections of roots – can be best seen when we ask the question, where are you from? A question that seems simple, but asks us to describe our point or places of origin.  In other words, where did we begin?  Perhaps a century ago, when we were less mobile, we might just say the place where we were born.  Which likely is nearby where we currently live.  However, today, we might have important formative “beginning” experiences in across a range widely dispersed of physical locations.  Perhaps we traveled as a teen, when to college in a different state or country, or worked in contrasting countries or cultures.  Where are we from subtly prompts us to describe clusters of origins not just a single root of where we were born.


How might this help us support others?  Dan’s work invites us to look for the different sorts of meanings we have to locations and the different ways these might be in tension.  As we aim to craft spaces for a range of people to “be” (not just work), understanding roots and rhizomes could offer us metaphors to consider a more fluid way to design places for growth, learning, and development.

Harvard Graduate School of Education