A Critical Overview of the Development of Cultural Geography16 minute read

Provide a critical overview of the development of cultural geography paying particular attention to the methods it seeks to employ.

In the 1900s, those in the Western world believed that the West was superior to all others and that European culture was far more advanced than the rest of the world (Crang, 1998). Geography in the 1900s was a discipline still “in the process of defining itself” and cultural geography had not yet established itself as a standalone area of research (Penn State, 2014). Research into why European culture was supposedly more advanced than other cultures marked the beginning of the study of cultural geography.  Over time, research by early cultural geographers split into two opposing camps. The first theory proposed was that of environmental determinism, which was fronted by geographers such as Friedrich Ratzel and Ellen Semple (Penn State, 2014). Environmental determinism was met with heavy criticism, largely due to its racist undertones. This criticism paved for the way for the opposing school of thought, led by Carl Sauer, which advocated the idea of the cultural landscape. Carl Sauer was extremely influential, particularly in American cultural geography. As a supervisor for many PhD students, he inspired many more cultural geographers. One, who came to particular prominence was Wilbur Zelinsky who proposed the idea of ‘Superorganicism’. The quantitative revolution during the mid-1900s resulted in a reduction in cultural geography research. However, the revolution came under heavy criticism due to its positivist underpinnings, making way for a new intersectional approach to cultural geography, New Cultural Geography. This essay will critically explore the development of cultural geography, paying particular attention to the methods it seeks to employ.

Environmental determinism embodies some the earliest theory concerning cultural geography, established during the time of imperialism. It explains the development of culture as a process of human adaptation to its environment (Crang, 1998). The theory states that the natural environment caused cultural differences between places by providing varying conditions in which cultures are manifested and transmitted from generation to generation (Mitchell, 2000). Literature by Friedrich Ratzel supports this theory. Ratzel divided the human world into ‘natural races’ and cultured races’. Cultured races are those which have been ‘liberated from the soil’ and natural races are those still restricted to the natural world (Oakes and Price, 2008). Ratzel “assumed that such a divide marked a trajectory of historical progress; ‘cultured races’ were more advanced” (Oakes and Price, 2008: 83). Ratzel comments that many natural races were disappearing due to colonisation but “there was ‘consolation’ in the knowledge that ‘a great part of them is being slowly raised by the process of intermixture’ with cultured races” (2008: 83).

Environmental determinism was influenced heavily by scientific developments and the political situation of its time (Marshall, 2006). The methodology of determinism was quite quantitative, with pioneers of the environmental determinism theory taking a ‘cause and effect’ approach when theorising (Burton, 1963). Environmental determinism more generally has been widely criticised for its racist claim of Europe’s intrinsic superiority over its colonies (Oakes and Price, 2008). Environmental determinism theory was employed as a method of justifying the conquering of nations by the West and served to legitimise the “social, political, and economic ambitions of certain social formations” (Mitchell, 2000:18).

Formed as a reaction to the ‘errors of environmental determinism’, Carl Sauer and his theory of the cultural landscape came to dominate American cultural geography for a large part of the 20th century (Mitchell, 2000). Sauer criticised environmental determinism for going against evidence about the diversity of cultures and subjecting all cultures to a monocausal explanation (Crang, 1998). Sauer called for the establishment of a cultural geography that formed “a critical system which embraces the phenomenology of landscape in order to grasp in all of its meaning and color the varied terrestrial scene” (Sauer, 1963: 320).

Sauer, who fronted the Berkeley School of thought concerning cultural geography, believed that it was culture working with nature that created the cultural landscape (Mitchell, 2000). Sauer argues that “culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape the result” (Oakes and Price, 2008:103). Sauer suggests that cultural groups leave their imprint on the natural landscape “through their productive activities and their settlements” (Gregory et al.,1994: 149) transforming the natural landscape into a cultural landscape. Sauer’s focus was threefold, he studied: ‘the historical reconstruction of the environmental and human forces that shaped the landscape’, ‘the identification of distinctive and homogeneous cultural regions defined both by material artifacts (e.g. house types) and by non-material cultural attributes (e.g. language/religion)’ and the historical cultural ecology, where attention is focused on how human perceptions and uses of the landscape are culturally conditioned” (Gregory et al.,1994: 149). Sauer believed studying these three factors would allow one to explain why the same physical environment could result in very different cultural landscapes (Jackson, 1989). Sauer emphasizes this point in his book ‘The early Spanish main’ (1966). In this book, Sauer highlights the US border with Mexico. He argues that the border is a cultural rather than physical border. Either side of the border there is the same terrain: mountains, grasslands and forests. However, because the environments either side have been fashioned by different cultural groups in different ways, the two terrains resemble very different cultural landscapes (Jackson, 1989:13).

Sauer believed it was important to pay particular attention to material artefacts, forms of production and communication and how the population was arranged, (Mitchell, 2000) and believed that culture was ‘the property human groups, not individuals and that it was embodied in custom and tradition’ (Jackson, 1989: 17). Thus, Sauer stressed the importance of fieldwork, commenting that geographers should learn through the soles of their feet (Hovorka and Wolf, 2009). For Sauer, observation, reflection and re-inspection of human processes and, both material and non-material artefacts provided geographers with invaluable insight (Sauer, 1956). He encouraged those working under him to undertake fieldwork in order to become “qualified practitioners in all aspects of geography” (Kent et al., 1997: 313). Sauer’s strong belief in the power of fieldwork meant that most of his work was based on qualitative methods, which resulted in him receiving heavy criticism.

Sauer’s methods were criticised as his focus on cultural groups instead of individuals meant that regions ‘became too easily equated with a single actor without internal differentiation’ (Crang, 1998: 21) and power relations within a group were obscured (Mitchell, 2000). Crang (1998), referring to racial segregation in the US comments that it is unjustifiable to view the cultures of oppressed groups as being part of the same culture as their oppressors. Another critique of Sauer’s methods was that his analysis was only applicable to changes over long periods of time; his theory was difficult to apply to rapid change (Crang, 1998). Moreover, Sauer’s focus on American rural communities meant much of his research was not applicable to both foreign and urban areas (Mitchell, 2000). Sauer was also widely criticised for not acknowledging the inner workings on culture and only focusing on the outcome of culture on the world (Oakes and Price, 2008).

Despite Sauer’s heavy criticism, his work was largely influential in American cultural geography. Mentoring 10s of PhD students, his influence was felt through successive cultural geographers who both reinforced and advanced Sauer’s theory (Mitchell, 2000). One of Sauer’s most prominent students was Wilbur Zelinsky who, like Sauer, believed culture was an agent for landscape change. However, unlike Sauer, Zelinsky was directly involved in theorising about the inner workings of culture (Oakes and Price, 2008).

Zelinsky’s most prominent theory was that of Superorganicism. Superorganicism refers to the theory that culture is a tangible force that is transcendent and independent of human will or intention (Mitchell, 2000). This approach to cultural geography does recognise the need for individuals to participate in and flesh out culture (Jackson, 1989). However, culture in this sense is something beyond participating members, it is not created by human agency but instead ‘responds to its own internal momentum’ (Zelinsky, 1973: 40-1). This method of understanding culture led to Zelinsky making three claims concerning the cultural geography of the US:

“1. Useful nonstereotypic statements can be made about the cultural idiosyncrasies (that is, national character) of an ethnic group taken as a whole

  1. the population of the United States does indeed form a single large, discrete ethnic group
  2. statements about the character of the larger community cannot be, indeed should not be, transferred to individuals because of sharp discontinuities of scale.” (Oakes and Price, 2008:114).

Zelinsky’s superorganic approach means culture can only be explained in its own terms (Jackson, 1989) as it can neither be “read up from individual to culture, nor to read down from culture to individual’ (Mitchell, 2000: 32). This means that individual behaviour cannot predict cultural structure and in the same way cultural processes are unable to predict individual behaviour (Mitchell, 2000). Under Zelinsky’s methodology culture is theorised: firstly as a “assemblage of learned behavior”, secondly as a “structured, traditional set of patterns for behaviour, a code or template for ideas and acts” and lastly as a sum that “appears to be a superorganic entity living and changing according to a still obscure set of internal laws” (Zelinsky, 1973).

The theory of Superorganicism was met with criticism. One critique was that adoption of Zelinsky’s approach to understanding culture ignored the tense political climate that existed in the same period. Zelinsky was researching during the civil rights movement and in a period where women began to vigorously challenge the patriarchal structures of modern society (Mitchell, 2000). Considering the political climate is important as it gives insight into the power imbalances of particular societies, which are important to understand in order to recognise ‘how cultural geographies were really made in the everyday struggles of life’ (Mitchell, 2000:34). Building on this point Jackson (1989: 18) suggests that by basing explanations of culture in the transcendental realm, cultural geographers are failing to acknowledge “the wider social context in which cultures are constituted and expressed”.

During the mid-20th century geography as a discipline was highly scrutinised as it was widely believed that geographical research was overly descriptive, lacking rigour and analytical reasoning. This prompted the quantitative revolution during the 1950s and 1960s which set out to make geography more scientific (Marshall, 2006). The quantitative approach was guided by the ideals of logical positivism, which suggest that research should be value free i.e. it should be purely objective (Robinson, 1998). The emphasis on quantitative methods prevented further study into cultural geography as the two were incompatible.

During the 1960s/70s a number of criticisms were lodged against the use of quantitative methods in geographical research (Marshall, 2006). The biggest critiques targeted the positivist underpinning of the approach (Peet, 1998). It was argued that an objective quantitative approach ignored the importance of structure and agency (Marshall, 2006) and reduced people to just objects. The heavy criticism it received resulted in its decline in the late 1900s. Its decline allowed geographers to look beyond quantitative geography and reassess cultural geography in a post-positivist light; this gave rise to the New cultural geography theory.

In the wake of race riots, a collapsing manufacturing economy and multiple fiscal crises it was argued that cultural geography could no longer primarily focus on ‘the rural, the archaic, and the esoteric’ (Mitchell, 2000: 36). New cultural geographers such as Peter Jackson were calling for the same political relevance that influenced other aspects of geography to be considered in cultural geography research (Oakes and Price, 2008).

Influenced by Marxist theories and post structural thought, culture came to be thought of as inherently political and social (Creswell, 2010). Culture came to be recognised as saturated with power which ‘necessitated concern for established social categories of race, class and gender, soon to be further specified with attention to sexuality, disability and age’ (Creswell, 2010: 171). Mitchell (2000) emphasises this point, stating that the world was experiencing a new wave of feminism, continued globalisation of capital and changing sexuality politics; the world at the time was changing and cultural geography needed to change with it (Mitchell, 2000). The retheorisation of culture considers the contestation between different groups and as such culture came to be understood as politically contested (Kong, 1997). Acknowledgement of the power relations which influence culture encourage the recognition of a plurality of cultures rather than the assumption of a unitary culture that is expressed in old cultural geography theory (Kong, 1997). Duncan (1994) echoes this point suggesting that with the entrance of new voices (e.g. feminists/post structuralist etc.) it would be misleading to speak of cultural geography singularly.

An intersectional approach to the development of cultural geography was not the only change made to the area following the introduction of New cultural geography. During the late 1970s there was growing interest in the issues of space, place and meaning, and their impact on cultural geography. Influenced by the work of Marx and Gramsci, New cultural geographers became increasingly interested in the spatialisation of culture (Creswell, 2010). In Peter Jackson’s book ‘The Maps of Meaning’ (1989) Jackson calls for a divergence from American cultural geography, which he believes is now mostly irrelevant. He seeks to spatialize culture by ‘showing how space and place are central to the “maps of meaning” that constitute cultural experience’ (Mitchell, 2000: 42). Whilst old cultural geography suggested cultural traditions were passed from generation to generation, New cultural geography ‘stresses space, understanding culture to be constituted through space and as a space (Mitchell, 2000: 63).

Jon Anderson and his book ‘Understand cultural geography: places and traces’ (2010) embodies the New cultural geography approach. Anderson (2010) explains that cultural geography seeks to explore the intersection of context and culture in order to help us to better understand why cultural activities occur in particular ways and contexts. Anderson introduces the idea of place being ‘constituted by imbroglios of traces’ (2010: 5). Traces can be material in nature (e.g. buildings, signs, graffiti etc.) or non-material (e.g. events, performances, emotions etc.) and they function as connections, tying the meaning of places to the identity of the cultural groups that make them (2010: 5). Anderson uses the example of Trafalgar Square to illustrate his point.

Anderson (2010) focuses on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and comments that ‘taken literally, the statue, for example, is clearly standing on a column, which itself is standing in this square’ (2010:5). However, he states the importance of metaphorically assessing what it represents, as cultural geographers believe that traces can embody ideas. Cultural geographers argue that ‘traces not neutral’ and represent particular cultural preferences about what an ideal world should look like. The statue is no different, as it was ‘commissioned, developed, sited and maintained to foster particular value systems of particular groups’ (2010:5). Assessing what the statue represents through a ‘traces’ lens enables us to understand that this place ‘can be understood as a space of empire, built to commemorate British leadership’ (2010:5). ‘It seeks to inspire pride and patriotism in the country and demonstrate the values and urban design expertise of a civilised, industrial nation’ (2010:5).

Anderson (2010) in his book introduced a new idea concerning audience participation. He comments that ‘anyone who uses these places has the capacity to edit and re-edit them, adding their own cultural ideas through their specific cultural actions’ (2010: 5). This idea is recognised by artist Banksy through his stencil on Nelson’s Column pictured in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Designated Riot Area Banksy
Figure 1.  ‘Designated riot area’ – Banksy http://jmcgrane.com/art-terrorist/

Referring to Trafalgar Square as a ‘designated riot area’ recognises the notions of power and authority ‘highlighting how the public is now authoring the cultural geography of the square in a way not sanctioned by the state’ (2010:5). It shows how audiences can reappropriate spaces and give them new meaning reflective of the climate of a particular period in time.

To conclude, this essay has provided a critical overview of the development of cultural geography and the methods it seeks to employ. It is important to note that a chronological review of its development, while helpful, is not without its downfalls. Gregory et al (1994:163) suggest that such an approach runs the risk of ‘presenting intellectual history as the inevitable replacement of one approach by another: the latter more sophisticated than the former’.

It is clear that old cultural geographers have failed to addressed the inherently social and political aspects of culture which new cultural geographers advocate (Gregory et al.,1994). It’s argued that ‘human agency, in the sense of individuals or groups making choices, interacting, negotiating and imposing constraints on each other, was virtually ignored by Sauer’ and those who were influenced by his work (Duncan, 1994). Traditional cultural geographers were extremely object orientated, focusing on their dispersion throughout the landscape. Gregory and Ley (1998:116 in Gregory et al.,1994) summarise the critiques of this approach suggesting that this method was a ‘celebration of the parochial’ as it ignored the politics behind culture. New cultural geography theory attempts to correct this by creating a thoroughly politicized concept of culture (Jackson, 1989). Mitchell (2000) sums up the crucial difference between traditional and new cultural geography theory. He states that cultural landscapes and places are more than just the mash up of material artefacts. New cultural geography recognises the influence of race, gender, sexuality and identity on the cultural landscape.


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