Oldenburg’s Notion of the Third Place: Still Relevant Nearly Two Decades Later?

In their recent article in the journal Leisure Sciences, Felice Yuen and Amanda Johnson reconsider Ray Oldenburg’s conceptualization of “third places.” Since Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place was published in 1999, the college union has been offered as an example of a third place, and many of the critiques Yuen and Johnson offer in the context of leisure studies translate to community-building spaces in higher education. 

While numerous definitions of community exist, Yuen and Johnson apply the philosophy of “communitarianism.” This concept, introduced by researchers Susan Arai and Alison Pedlar in 2003, involves shared values, joint effort, mutual support, and solidarity as essential components. Exploring the ways in which this type of community is created, Yuen and Johnson questioned Oldenburg’s assumptions about technology and public designations. However, they also reinforced Oldenburg’s social dimensions of third places, deepening and updating their meaning.  

In Great Good Place, Oldenburg asserted: “The only predictable social consequence of technological advancement is that they will grow ever more apart from one another.” Yuen and Johnson call attention to the infusion of social networking platforms into “our everyday lives and our leisure time,” asserting that instead of facilitating socially isolating experiences, such media can be “used as methods through which social connections and developed and maintained.” The authors diverge from Oldenburg in considering that these technologies “have the potential to be considered third places.” 

Yuen and Johnson also take issue with Oldenburg’s definition of third places as “a generic designation for a great variety of public places.” Their primary criticism of such a definition is that just because a space is public does not mean it is democratic or accessible. “[Oldenburg’s] discussion on the ease of access focused on the long hours of third places and their close physical proximity to its patrons,” Yuen and Johnson wrote. “Our conceptualization of accessibility is related to social inclusion and judgment-free spaces where there is a sense of acceptance and connection to the broader community. … Subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, forms of exclusion such as ‘No Loitering’ signs or defensive architecture are often present in public spaces.” Yuen and Johnson use examples such as how homeless people might be deterred from entering a public space and how a private space for people living with cancer might serve as a third place. “We believe third places exist not because the place is defined as public, but because of certain existing social dimensions,” they explained. “By considering specific social dimensions of third places, we move beyond polarizing and limited discussions of public and private spaces.” 

Oldenburg, Yuen, and Johnson seem to agree that when examining community-building spaces, place can often be thought of as a social construct, relying on the enjoyment, regularity, pure sociability, and apparent diversity. Among these dimensions, “we argue that diversity is the most relevant when exploring third places as a platform for community,” Yuen and Johnson wrote. For example, they asserted that Starbucks may be misidentified as a third place because its high coffee prices attract an educated and affluent clientele while marginalizing those with lower socio-economic standing. “If we talk about leisure spaces as places of community, then we should be discussing who is present and who is not,” Yuen and Johnson wrote. “The requirement for diversity narrows the spectrum of leisure setting that may be considered a third place.” The authors acknowledge the complexity and intersectionality associated with the discussion, but indicated that in third places, purchasing goods cannot be the main motivator nor contributor to one’s sense of enjoyment. 

Access was integrally linked to Yuen and Johnson’s discussion of diversity and inclusion in third places. They reflected this literally in terms of those with disabilities being able to participate in leisure sports, but they also offered less straightforward examples, such as whether the presence of “regulars”—“necessary to create and maintain a sense of familiarity and solidarity”—are “balanced with openness to diversity and change.” Yuen and Johnson also showed how spaces that foster community may also breed inequality. As an example, they referenced Corey Johnson and Diane Samdahl’s Leisure Sciences study of a gay bar as both a providing “patrons reprieve from heterosexual discourse while encouraging misogynistic practices.”  

In conclusion, Yuen and Johnson summarized that Oldenburg’s notion may be taken as a romanticized notion of community-building spaces. However, “Leisure spaces are complex. Even as a third place, they carry both the possibility to create community and potential to normalize and exacerbate the oppression and marginalization of others. The experience of a leisure setting as a third place does not automatically imply that this setting will facilitate a third place experience for all who come.” Whether such spaces be online, designated as public or private, or attract diverse participants, Yuen and Johnson recommended moving beyond Oldenburg’s third place to one that emphasizes the social dimension of diversity and a community’s inherent complexity. When thinking about the college union, its public and more restricted spaces, and who feels a part the community built there, research that connects Yuen and Johnson’s reflections to these “third places” may advance our shared understanding of how the modern college union builds community. 

References 

Arai, S., & Pedlar, A. (2003). Moving beyond individualism in leisure theory. A critical anaylsis of concepts of community and social engagement. Leisure Studies, 22(3), 185–202. 

Johnson, C.W., & Samdahl, S.M. (2005). “The night they took over” misogyny in a country-western gay bar. Leisure Sciences, 27(4), 331–348. 

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of community. New York: NY: Marlow & Company. 

Yuen, F., & Johnson, A.J. (2017). Leisure spaces, community, and third places. Leisure Sciences, 39(2), 295–303.

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