What’s It About?

‘As for heterotopias, how might they be described? What meaning do they have?

Bath house depicted by Persian miniature painter: Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād (1495)
Bath house depicted by Persian miniature painter: Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād (1495)

Heterotopias are defined as sites which are embedded in aspects and stages of our lives and which somehow mirror and at the same time distort, unsettle or invert other spaces. Foucault summarises six principles of these ‘different’ spaces. In brief, they:

  1. become established in all cultures but in  diverse forms (especially as sites of ‘crisis’ or later ‘deviation’)
  2. mutate and have specific operations at different points in history
  3. juxtapose in a single space several incompatible spatial elements
  4. encapsulate  spatio-temporal discontinuities or intensities
  5. presuppose an ambivalent system of opening/closing, entry/ exit, distance/penetration
  6. have a specific operation  in relation to other spaces as, for example, illusion or compensation

Foucault presents a bewildering array of examples, including:

  • cemeteries
  • brothels
  • Jesuit utopian colonies
  • ships
  • gardens of antiquity
  • Muslim baths
  • prisons
  • asylums
  • museums
  • fairs and festivals

He carefully contrasts these spaces with utopias. Both are connected to the rest of space and ‘yet are at variance somehow’, but whereas utopias are unreal, heterotopias are ‘actually localisable’.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the brevity and vagueness of his ideas, the subsequent uses of the notion of heterotopia have been startling in their range and diversity. His brief thoughts have cut through a host of disciplines and generated a plethora of interpretations. This web site introduces you to many of them.

revised July 2018


  1. Anwesha Mondal
    January 29, 2020 @ 3:27 pm

    Hello Peter,
    I’m currently researching on women’s literature of WWI, and I would like to know if war zones such as munitions factories, military depots and canteens, hostels, YMCA camps, hospitals and war fronts where women worked and lived together can be looked upon as “heterotopias”? Looking forward to your invaluable help.


    • Peter Johnson
      January 31, 2020 @ 5:21 pm

      Hi Anwesha
      The short answer is: Yes!Foucault refers to hospitals directly and the other sites you mention, particularly hostels and YMCA camps, seem rich with possibilities – women brought together at a time of crisis/war, stepping into roles and medical/military/production/living spaces perhaps for the first time..
      Good luck


  2. mush kuma
    October 8, 2019 @ 7:41 am

    thank you for this site it was great.


  3. Selimi
    August 16, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

    Hi Peter, I’m currently working on the idea of heterotopias in relation to all-women’s spaces in 16th century India. Would you be able to suggest any readings that link heterotopias and feminist studies?
    I’m trying to analyse the space of an all-women’s ship as a heterotopic space, but I get a bit confused when I read Foucault’s definition of the ship, as it’s a bit vague. Your help would be much appreciated! Thank you!


    • Peter Johnson
      August 27, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

      Hello Selimi
      All the publications I have come across related to feminists studies are to be found in my topic bibliography in Resources section of website – under gender studies. You will also find other publications related to ships but you will need to search through bibliography, particularly last section.
      best wishes


  4. Matilda
    June 20, 2019 @ 7:14 am

    Hi, I was wondering, can a folk religious village become a heterotopia?


    • Peter Johnson
      July 1, 2019 @ 10:55 am

      Yes, if it is looked at in a certain way. Heterotopia can be more about how a space is conceived as much as what it is.
      best wishes


  5. First Collaboration: Research – Becki Kirkwood
    November 8, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

    […] P. (2018) What’s it About? [online]. Available from http://www.heterotopiastudies.com/whats-it-about/ [15th Oct […]


  6. Charlotte Stock
    August 19, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    Hi Peter
    Great website – thanks for setting it up and sharing! I’m currently writing my MA on utopias and heterotopias within travel writing and have come across Mead’s description of heterotopias as “heterotopia is where things are different — that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another”, using the airport as his example. Would you agree this is an appropriate example and definition, or has he confused heterotopias with Augé’s non-spaces, are the two mutually exclusive, or have I confused myself?!
    All advice welcomed.


    • Peter Johnson
      August 22, 2018 @ 10:03 am

      Hi Charlotte
      Thanks for getting in touch. I am not convinced by Mead’s definition and don’t think an airport fits with Foucault’s general description or specific principles of heterotopia. Augé of course refers to airports in his explanation of non-places which I think are very different from heterotopia. This is from a section of my thesis:

      “For Augé, ‘places’ are concerned with a specific identity and are both relational and historical. He contrasts these with ‘non-places’ which lack these features and are a crucial aspect of what he calls ‘supermodernity’. These non-places include above all ‘mobile cabins’ or means of transport by air, road and rail, airports and rail stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retailers and communication networks. He finds an anticipation of the features of supermodernity in the work of artists and writers, mentioning specifically Benjamin’s fascination with Parisian iron and glass architecture (93). Augé is concerned with non-places as specific spaces with certain functions (e.g. leisure) and the relations that people have, with themselves and others, within them. These relations are not necessarily linked directly with the purpose of the space. One striking characteristic of these non-places is that they are defined partially by words and texts: instructions, prohibitions, information, advice, warnings found on signs, screens, posters, maps, guides and so on. Individuals interact with these texts and codes. This can be seen not just in confined places such as airports and supermarkets but also along motorways that no longer pass through towns but which have signs indicating historical and other sites that are nearby. We are informed of what we are missing. Such non-places create a shared identity of passengers, customers or drivers and a temporary anonymous identity, submitting perhaps with some pleasure to a passive, processed role. Individual identities, ‘complicities of language’, local references and ‘unformulated rules of living know-how’ are abandoned (101). The emphasis is on following the same procedures with the passenger, for example, following the same codes, receiving the same messages and responding to the same instructions. Such atopic spaces create ‘neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude’ (103). Any sense of history is lost unless it is a mere spectacle, usually provided by a text. What is interesting about the experience of non-places is their power to attract, ‘inversely proportional to territorial attraction, to the gravitational pull of place and tradition’ (118)”.

      Some heterotopias may have acquired features of non-places (signs directing strict pathways, loss of history etc.) but I think they are distinct.

      Hope this helps a bit! Get back if you need further clarification.
      Augé, M. (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso.


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