Analysing the Movements Within Cultural Geography16 minute read

Culture is ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams, 1988: 87). Geographers have long sought to study and understand culture, as a series of ‘necessarily geographic’ (Mitchell, 2000:69) values held by groups of people, materialised through expressive praxis. As culture is a term so widely and differently used and understood, so too becomes cultural geography, whereby competing paradigms within the sub-discipline of human geography stand opposed on fundamental ontological bases (Gibson and Wiatt, 2009:412). One must note that the performance of cultural research and the production of cultural knowledge are different depending on the place in which it is performed due to the different interpretations of cultural geography (Johnson et al. 2013:2). This essay sets out to critically map the development of cultural geography, through the study of broad cultural geographic movements such as the Berkeley School, ‘new’ cultural geography and the Frankfurt School, through which we can see a general divide in cultural geographic scholarship over representation, materialism and ontology. Whilst there is certainly an academic problematic in tracing changes which may have compounded slowly but placing them in broad-brush ‘Schools’, it does help to delineate some of the central changes in cultural geography over time. This essay will largely neglect non-representational geographies as criticisms-from-within representational geography, as the scope of the essay cannot address every intricate faction of cultural geography, though this is not to say that non-representational and more-than-representational geographies are insignificant. Not only do we see changes over time in the way in which culture is challenged geographically, but we also see geographical shifts in the centres of knowledge production in cultural geography, from Sauer’s North American notion of cultural landscape to the more critical new cultural geographies which were largely generated in the UK. Despite these locational shifts, the production of cultural-geographical knowledge remains the mainstay of Western academia (Gibson and Wiatt, 2009:414). The philosophical foundations of such movements, as well as their seminal texts will be critically engaged first, in order to provide the necessary academic context for their methods to be analysed. What will emerge from this essay will be an analysis of the movements within cultural geography and the methods each employs, thinking critically about the ways in which each general school of thought addresses culture both practically and ontologically, concluding that the fundamental conflicts between the ways in which ‘culture’ is conceptualised cause the methodological differences in different cultural geographical movements.


Carl Sauer’s theories of cultural landscape, famously generated in 1925 are widely perceived as the inception of contemporary cultural geography. Sauer’s ideas, and those of what came to be known the Berkeley School, are steeped in cultural particularism and cultural relativism (Mitchell 2000) through a series of cultural landscapes which are ‘peculiarly geographic association of facts’ (Sauer, 1925:299), in which the amalgam of all of the traceable objective facts create a material landscape to be studied. Sauer treats landscape in the sense where ‘culture was the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape the result’ (Sauer, 1925:310), whereby only the understanding of the whole cultural landscape can give us a complete vision of cultures, as the constitutive parts alone are not sufficient as fields of study. The material landscape was a ‘manifestation of the culture that made it’ (Mitchell, 2000:21). The role of the geographer, then, was to read the landscape, which in some interpretations could be seen as more similar than different to more recent representational geography and semiotics, where the meaning behind things that can be seen is the object of study. This was a holistic view disseminated by Sauer, an academic who was very reluctant to set any dogmatic methodological or theoretical praxis to his students, as such creating a fairly free atmosphere for those within this Berkeley School of methodological pluralism (Williams, 2009). Sauer’s early virulent focus on historical geography, whereby no landscape can be studied with any merit without the study of the artefact of landscapes has largely been misrepresented by subsequent cultural theorists who wish to delineate their ‘new’ cultural geography as that which is not the ‘traditional’, as such portraying Sauer’s work in overly simplistic terms. The notion that deeply historical artifactual research was central to Berkeley School methodology is, therefore, incorrect, as shown by Price and Lewis’ (1993) analysis of works by Berkeley School scholars, where only 49 of 1148 articles are concerned with artefacts, effectively ending the charge of ‘object fetichism’ previously given to Berkeley School academia (Williams, 2009:302). Sauer sees the role of the geographer to be to read into the natural landscape how the culture has shaped, created and destroyed the natural, whilst still understanding that the natural landscape was the central ingredient and stage of the cultural landscape. The researcher, then, is to peel back cultural processes to understand the spatialised cultural history. Hence, as the effects on man’s cultural activities on the landscape were to be studied, the research objects were deeply material. Methodologically, the Berkeley School would sit within the ‘textual turn’ as opposed to the ‘ethnographic turn’ as described by Bell (2009), whereby there is cultural meaning in the material landscape which can be studied. The landscape becomes a cultural text written by compounding human culture throughout history, onto which meaning is placed tone read and interpreted.


The approaches set out by the Berkeley School are, however, not without their valid critiques. Most fundamentally, this way of approaching the study of culture assumes that culture is a real thing, an ontological entity which itself can be studied. Mitchell (2000:28-9) argues that because Sauer and his contemporaries in the Berkeley School were concerned with the effects of man’s culture on the natural landscape that their theories of culture itself were deeply insufficient. Culture was seen as a general way of life for groups in places, as a superorganic ontological given. Ironically, given Sauer’s resistance to modernism, the way in which Sauer treats culture has been seen by Haraway (1989:308-9) as a highly modernist concept, where culture has been ‘carved out of an unruly world as an object of knowledge’ which seems to have ‘its own internal, architectural principles of coherence’. Culture then becomes a bounded object with spatial differences. Zelinsky, one of Sauer’s students, furthers the notion of culture as a superorganic ontological ‘thing’, arguing that culture is ‘something both of and beyond the participating members’ (Zelinsky, 1973:40-1, original emphasis). These notions of superorganicism and the unquestioned ontological existence of culture are deeply problematic, as they provide deterministic notions of culture.


Some of the same criticisms apply to the ‘new’ cultural geography which emerged out of the ‘cultural turn’ (a so called paradigm shifted, the actual existence of which has recently been somewhat disputed, see Bell, 2009:438), though ‘new’ cultural geography was somewhat borne out of opposition to the descriptiveness of Berkeley School methodology, as well as the way in which this School dealt ontologically with culture, as discussed above. ‘New’ cultural geography was interested in a Foucauldian deconstruction of culture as power relations; linking closely with growths in feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism and postmodernism, ‘new’ cultural geography portrayed a complete change in the theoretical and ontological treatments of culture as well as methodological concerns and focus of Berkeley School cultural geographers. ’New’ cultural geographers, as part of both the cultural (Mitchell, 2000) and the spatial turns (Soja, 1989), aimed to generate a field of study which was relevant to the everyday and to popular culture, and as such the possible research field became very wide, possibly so wide it eventually became bordering on the all-encompassing and ridiculous. In ‘new’ cultural geography the ‘symbolic qualities of the landscape’ (Cosgrove and Jackson, 1987:96) become areas of interest, the role of the geographer being to interpret the meaning cultural texts visible in the landscape. This representational approach to culture is based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s notions of the sign and the signifier, whereby images or cultural texts are the material representations of other meanings. This leads to a Geertz (1973) – inspired ethnographic approach to understanding the true symbolic meanings of the landscape. Jazeel (2013:19) reveals a twofold conceptualisation of ‘representation’, which is both a form of showing something through text and a ‘speaking for’ in there political sense. Inspired by postcolonial and feminist thought, ‘new’ cultural geography sought to understand the marginal or fringe communities and groups in order to study the power relations of representation, and who is spoken for by those with representational power. This led to significant works in studying the subaltern, in both contemporary and historical contexts, unpicking the colonial generation of knowledge and the inextricably linked power and knowledge production. This cements the view begun by the Berkeley School that all cultures must be studied in their own terms, with no hierarchy of culture able to be created.


The extent of the ‘newness’ of ‘new’ cultural geography is, however, questionable due to the ability of other critics to charge ‘new’ cultural geographers with surprisingly similar criticisms to those of the Berkeley School. Harvey (1989) and Soja (1989) have both famously mapped the development of postmodernism in human geography, with which ‘new’ cultural geography has been closely linked (Bell, 2009:437), and the links with Western Marxism that human geography has developed with the rise of postmodernism. In both of these seminal texts there has been significant emphasis on the role of the human geographer in creating a spatialised discourse about historical materialism, with ‘historico-geographical materialism the method of inquiry’ for postmodern geographers (Harvey, 1985:144). It is clear here that in this sense there is a direct comparability with Berkeley School historical materialism, making the claims that ‘new’ cultural geography being genuinely ‘new’ seem more than a little thin. Mitchell (2000:64-5), in his analysis of ‘new’ cultural geography, finds irony in the striking similarities in the superorganic way in which these geographers treat culture, since ‘new cultural geography cut its teeth by attacking the Saurian tradition’. Further criticism has been mounted at the strength of ‘new’ cultural geography’s theorisation of culture, as it seems to exist both as a socially constructed discourse and a material construction of the likes of homosexuality and race (Mitchell, 2000:64). The treatment of an idea of culture being formative and as a system of creating meaning ultimately treats culture as superorganic and thus is again not so distant from the works of Sauer and Zelinsky. The studying of border and subaltern cultures only serves to cement the reification of culture and the idea that humans can be spatially grouped, identified and controlled (Lewis, 1991:605). Further criticism is generated by Thrift and others who can be generalised as subscribers to non-representational geography, and Lormier’s more-than-representational geographies, which regard the over-simplification of representational geography, as it seems only to uncover material and human processes of meaning, ignoring everyday experiences which are embodied by humans through precognitive sensual experiences (Castree, 2005:229-30). Whilst these notions of exploring more embodied experiences of culture are both interesting and relevant, this essay sadly lacks the space to explore them in the depth which they would require, so they shall be used here only as a passing critique of representational approaches to cultural geography.


One final way of theorising culture is somewhat a lateral step rather than an attempt which many have made to create a chronological genealogy of cultural geography. The culture and capitalism debate does not hold particularly to a ‘culture war’ or a progression of geographical thought on the matter, rather it  presents are vastly different, and more subversive and critical approach. It is the only set of ideas which effectively links the base and the superstructure, and economics, politics and culture. This viewpoint holds that ‘there is no such ontological thing as culture’ (Mitchell, 2000:74), rather an idea thereof which is only ever made real when people who have the power to generalise, such as cultural theorists, and create cultural meaning. In this sense culture is an idea which comes into being as an exercise of power. Latour (1987) argues that it is only in the generation of difference and dispute about cultural meaning that culture can have a genuine meaning. In this sense it becomes the role of the researcher both to reflexively aim not to cement such power relations and to study who has the power to disseminate the idea of culture. A natural transition in this theorisation links this power to create ideas of culture and capitalism, as there can be real material benefits of disseminating views of culture. This is what Adorno (1991) calls the Culture Industry. Adorno and Horkheimer, along with other members of the Frankfurt School as well as Don Mitchell and David Harvey, create what could be seen as a metanarrative about the normalisation of so-called open-to-all capitalistic consumption and the intrinsically unfair capitalist production through the creation and selling of ‘culture’. The culture industry envelopes resistance to capitalism and sells it back to consumers to create a consumption of difference. The idea of culture, then, is produced by the culture industry, and consumed by consumers. For those in the Frankfurt School, mass society was an atomised one in which people lived in false consciousness under industrial mass culture (Brantlinger 1983:226). In Frankfurt School theorising, much of the sentiment of which is echoed by Debord’s (1967) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, high forms of art and ‘high’ culture become the ways in which mass society can unshackle itself from the terror of the false consciousness of mass culture. Marcuse (1977:7) claims thats real art can transcend the immediacy of reality and create a rebirth of the rebelliousness. Man realised his individuality from the ‘plastic surgery of the prevailing economic system which carves all men to one pattern’, argues Horkheimer (1972:273), in furthering the cause for artistic subversion. Debord and the Situationists International promoted both derive and detournement as acts of the subversive geographer. Derive is subversive urban wandering, a tradition continued by the likes of Ian Sinclair and Will Self, where someone walks the city following their senses and desires, rather than by the way planners would have had us walk.


There are clear problematics associated with the above arguments surrounding mass culture. An obvious one is that these people are merely using their own academic power to create knowledge to shift the cultural hierarchy in favour of what they deem to be better than the mass culture of which they talk, and are therefore guilty of many of the things again which they actually argue. Swingewood (1977) argues that the Frankfurt School has a deeply contrived view of culture, one which is under formulated, static, ideological and superorganic. Indeed, it does seem that some of the attraction of the Frankfurt School and others is the interesting critique of capitalism through the medium of culture, linking societal atomisation, capitalism and mass culture, rather than in its academic record or rigour.


To conclude, this essay has provided a critical analysis of the cultural geographical developments over both time and space. Conscious effort has been made not to provide a mere genealogy of a general progression of cultural studies within human geography, as these tend to over-emphasis the ‘turns’ and paradigm shifts which are said to occur. As we have seen, there is often more similarity between cultural geographical theories, as in the material focus prevalent in both Berkeley School and ‘new’ cultural geography methods. Indeed, although ‘new’ cultural geography has been seen as antithetical to Berkeley School cultural geography, they end up treating culture fairly similarly ontologically as well as both perpetuating space-bound notions of culture, resulting in a problematic superorganicism in their treatment of culture. That much of the research by the Berkeley School was not in fact focused only on artefacts, despite strong post-critique of its favouring of time over space, shows a greater degree of similarity than difference between the two ways of seeing culture in geography. The addition of the Frankfurt School analysis may at first appear out-of-stn with the general line of the essay- no one is claiming that Adorno and Horkheimer etc were geographers outright. Rather the treatment of culture by some in this varied critique of capitalism (Mitchell and Harvey) as inextricably linked to capitalistic production is so novel that this author feels it should not be ignored. This provides a theoretical framework for much more politicised research on entirely new subjects. On second reading, much of the original works of the Frankfurt School seems laughably polemic and fear-mongering, whilst lacking academic rigour in the treatment of culture. Rather their reversal of geographical trends to spatialise culture is worth noting as a counter to prevailing postmodern claims of deep spatialisation of culture theory. No theory here provides a flawless view of cultural geography and the ways in which culture should be measured. The notion presented by Sauerian geography of historical materialism is of the utmost importance; one must understand both the social and historical construction of cultural ideas, whilst the critique by Mitchell (1995, 2000) that culture actually exists is of equal significance. Similarly the notion that the idea of culture and the production of knowledge cannot be separated from power relations is prevalent throughout the two latter ideas of cultural theory discussed in this essay. As such this author would posit an alternative theory of culture based on the three above cultural theories, whereby culture does not ontologically exist, is linked closely and inextricably to power and capitalistic production, and one important research facet, though not the only one, would be through historical materialism.


Adorno, T.W. (1991) ‘The Culture Industry’ New York: Routledge

Adorno, T.W. (1972) ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ New York: Verso Publishing

Bell, D. (2009) ‘Cultural Studies and Human Geography’ from Kitchin, R. and Thrift, N. (Eds) ‘International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography’ Elsevier

Brantlinger, P. (1983) ‘Bread and CircusesTheories of Mass Culture and Social Decay’ Cornell: Cornell University Press

Castree, N. (2005) ‘Nature’ London: Routledge

Debord, G. (1967) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel

Gibson, C. and Wiatt, G. (2009) ‘Cultural Geography’ from Kitchin, R. and Thrift, N. (Eds) ‘International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography’ Elsevier

Haraway, D. (1989) ‘Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science’ New York: Routledge

Harvey, D. (1989) ‘The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change’ Oxford: Blackwell

Horkheimer, M. (1972) ‘Critical Theory: Selected Essays’ New York: The Seabird Press

Jazeel, T. (2013) ‘Postcolonialism’ from Johnson, N.C.l Schein, R.H.; and Winders, J. (Eds.) ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography’ Wiley-Blackwell

Johnson, N.C.; Schein, R.H.; and Winders, J. (2013) ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography’ Wiley-Blackwell

Latour, B. (1987) ‘Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society’ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Lewis, M. (1991) ‘Elusive Societies: A Regional-Cartographical Approach to the Study of Human Relatedness’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 81

Lorimer, H. (2005) ‘Cultural geography: the busyness of being ‘more-than-representational’ Progress in Human Geography, 29

Marcuse, H. (1977) ‘The Aesthetic Dimension’ Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag

Mathewson, K. (2009) ‘Carl Sauer and his Critics’ from Denevan, W.M. and Mathewson, K. (Eds.) ‘Carl Sauer on Culture and Landscape: Readings and Commentary’ Louisiana State University Press

Mitchell, D (1995) ‘There’s no such thing as culture: Toward a reconceptualisation of the idea of culture in cultural geography’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Mitchell, D. (2000) ‘Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction’ Oxford: Blackwell

Price, M. and Lewis, M. (1993) ‘The reinvention of cultural geography’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83, 1-17

Sauer, C.O. (1925) ‘The Morphology of Landscape’ University of California Publications in Geography

Soja, E. (1989) ‘Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory’ New York: Verso Publishing

Swingewood, A. (1977) ‘The Myth of Mass Culture’ Humanities Press

Thrift, N. (2004) ‘Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect’ Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography Volume 86 Issue 1

Williams, M. (2009) ‘Berkeley School’ from Kitchin, R. and Thrift, N. (Eds) ‘International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography’ Elsevier

Zelinsky, W. (1973) ‘The Cultural Geography of the United States’ New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.