Reference : Eye contact, clientele alignment & laissez-faire: the production of public space and ...
Scientific congresses, symposiums and conference proceedings : Unpublished conference
Social & behavioral sciences, psychology : Human geography & demography
Social & behavioral sciences, psychology : Multidisciplinary, general & others
Arts & humanities : History
Eye contact, clientele alignment & laissez-faire: the production of public space and neighbourhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Kolnberger, Thomas mailto [University of Luxembourg > Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education (FLSHASE) > Identités, Politiques, Sociétés, Espaces (IPSE) >]
RC21 Conference - Sociology of Urban and Regional Development Session: Nr. 12 – Belonging, exclusion, public and quasi-public space
7-9 July 2011
University of Amsterdam
The Netherlands
[en] public space ; visability ; Phnom Penh ; Cambodia 1970s-1990s ; urban development
[en] The struggle to belong
Dealing with diversity in 21st century urban settings.

Amsterdam, 7-9 July 2011

Eye contact, clientele alignment & laissez-faire: the production of public space and neighbourhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Thomas Kolnberger(*)

Paper presented at the International RC21 conference 2011
Session: Nr. 12 – Belonging, exclusion, public and quasi-public space

(*) Université du Luxembourg, Luxembourg,
Research Unit IPSE (Identité, Politiques, Sociètes, Espace)
Universität Passau, BR Deutschland
Southeast Asian Studies


Private, public or quasi-public spaces are terms that seem particularly difficult to apply to non-Western societies: as in the ‘West’, their boundaries are fluid and routinely transgressed, but in ways that are distinctive to the local situation and history. This paper is arguing that these concepts retain practical descriptive power, particularly for the city of Phnom Penh, a case study of demographic extremes, as nearly all her inhabitants could be classified as immigrants. In deed, the Khmer Rouge had forcefully evicted the ca. two million people-strong population of the capital in 1975, virtually erasing all ‘bourgeois urbanity’ during Pol Pot’s Cambodian ‘auto-genocide’. After the fall of the regime, the new socialist government slowly repopulated the deserted metropolis with new urban dwellers. Their social and spatial belonging needed to be set up from scratch. “Who belongs to whom” (in terms of political clientelism and patronage), “who is doing what” (regarding face-to-face control and eye contact investigation), and “who owns what” (concerning redistribution and also new original accumulation of capital) were the essential questions in this ‘struggle to belong’. In this urban setting, people have been employing a mixed set of strategies for implementing ‘belonging’ ever since. Based on empirical surveys (mapping & interviews) and research in Cambodian and French colonial archives, this paper presents the constant negotiations of private and public space in a changing economic environment from three angles:
- streets, squares, and parks as spaces of interaction: the spatial inheritance of the French colonialism in a new context
- the emergence of different types of gated communities since 1975: at first by spatial inclusion strategies generating patronage networks, then by urban planning separating rich from poor
- the economy of espionage and imitation of Phnom Penh’s retail trade: the neighbours’ curious gaze


- The city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a case study for a `rush economic evolution´ - This paper aims in one part to highlight the role and influence of place and space for a specific process: the spatial location of business sites in a unique window of opportunity as a self-organizing process `from below´. By applying spatial analysis (GPS mapping), a specific pattern of retail agglomeration and dispersion of this `atomistic´ metropolis could be identified.
The analysis is based on fieldwork investigating the use of the city’s space for economic ends. 1,000 kilometres of built frontage (`streetscapes´) with 14,647 cases of land use features (e.g. shops, `pavement economy´ etc.) have been surveyed and mapped. Subsequent to this quantitative part, 100 semi-structured interviews and numerous ad hoc conversations were conducted including a dozen of expert interviews (city administration, NGO, city planners).

Results and Thesis

- The city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a case study for a `subsistence urbanization´ -
Much economic geography research has focused on the importance of the social context for various transactions. ‘Face-to-face contact remains central to coordination of the economy, despite the remarkable reductions in transport costs and the astonishing rise in the complexity and variety of information – verbal, visual and symbolic – which can be communicated near instantly’ (Storper and Venables, 2003, p. 43 ). Visual proximity and eye-contact are particularly important in environments of imperfect information, like in Cambodia after Pol Pot. Information was scarce at this time and communication hardware rare. Thus, in Phnom Penh’s initial retail business formation, an ‘economy of espionage and imitation’ provided the necessary information for deal-making, decisions concerning the assortments of goods, prize, and trends. The first merchants and producers were heavily dependent on visual contact ‘around the corner’ and close contact also proved to be beneficial to customers. This specific knowledge and information externality (an externality or transaction spillover is a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices) could only be reaped by spatial agglomerations. While screening and socialization of network members and potential partners were essential for the build-up of Cambodia’s original clientele-system during the gradual resettlement, visual contact became the decisive steering mechanism for the original distribution of business agglomeration or its dispersion.
For a `subsistence urbanization´, the public and quasi-public space are the most important `common-pool resource´. The influx of the population into the city produced a `non-rivalrous´ and `non-excludable´ economic good by the neighbours’ curious gaze.

- The city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a case study for a `spatial club´ -
From a New Institutionalism’s point of view ‘City’s neighbourhoods – residential, industrial and commercial clusters – are like firms, nexuses of agreements and understandings about entitlements to share and pooled resources. They differ from firms in that they are spatial clusterings and in that they cluster around resources that remain to varying extents in the public domain. They are like spatial clubs. Members co-operate by various forms of informal and formal rules and agreements in order to ensure the continued supply and enhancement of shared public domain goods. Municipal government is itself a type of club, delivering collectively consumed infrastructure and regulations from a tax on its citizens, firms and visitors. Communities, in the social sense, are also clubs – delivering collectively consumed benefits such as a sense of belonging, security and culture’ (Webster and Lai 2003, p. 58).

This spontaneous `neighbouring´ as ‘rational herding’ (Banerjee 1992; Hung and Plott 2001) helped to reduce transaction costs during the initial resettlement process (and beyond). It can be described as a continuous act of self agglomeration of business, creating bazaar-type streets over the whole of the city, which specialise in specific goods and services forming thus, from a bird’s view perspective, a `mental retail map´ for the inhabitants. This is one side of building neighbourhoods in Phnom Penh.

The base for this laissez-faire et laissez passer behaviorism of the government in (micro)economy was the redistribution of Phnom Penh’s real estate amongst trustworthy followers. A `New property Deal´ of first in, first served allocated the built environment piecemeal. In this political economy, two steps are discernable. First, a community-building process regarding the public administration. Each ministry was assigned to a certain area of the city and in a top-down process, starting from the top echelons to the simple civil servants and officials, distributed land and housing. Initially, each responsible could pick `his´ followers and could reward him/her with the allocation of living space, a social structure, which represents a spatially bond replica of the traditional clientelism and patronage-network in Cambodia. These ’strings’ (ksae) formed the first neighbourhoods as a kind of `original´ gated community because each administrative unit was planned to be self-sufficient. Each ‘cité’ (Carrier 2007) was thus clearly demarcated. Its decisions were autonomous, too. In certain areas of Phnom Penh, remnants of this socio-politically gathered community can be found. In a second step, and with increasing immigration, secondary ksae (the mother’s cousin, the friend of a friend) proliferated and the city was being `filled up´.

Today, the pattern of co-residence in technically secluded areas of Phnom Penh resembles the typical economical founded example of gated communities as neighbourhoods around the world: the rich and the better off separate from the rest. The once moral economy of the civil war and initial post-conflict years is dissolving. Regulation, commodification and the government’s efforts to demarcate public and private space is replacing/reducing the common good ‘public space’.
Fonds National de la Recherche - FnR
Researchers ; Professionals ; Students ; General public

File(s) associated to this reference

Fulltext file(s):

Open access
RC21_2011-Amsterdam.pptAuthor preprint88.57 MBView/Open

Additional material(s):

File Commentary Size Access
Open access
RC 21_2011_Session 12_Amersterdam.doc69 kBView/Open

Bookmark and Share SFX Query

All documents in ORBilu are protected by a user license.