Four Stages of Cultural Geography19 minute read

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

Recognising social and historical foundations of our thought is imperative to understanding present thinking, cultural geography is no exception to this rule (Mitchell, 2000). Defined as ‘a subfield of human geography that focusses upon the patterns and interactions of human culture, both material and immaterial, in relation to the natural environment and the human organisation of space’ (Cosgrove, 1994), cultural geography can be traced back to ancient geographers like Strabo, who theorised that humans made things happen through their own intelligence over time (Jones, 1917). Formally, however, cultural geography has been predominantly shaped since Carl Sauer’s work on ‘landscape morphology’ at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1920s. To analyse the subject’s methods since then, this paper divides cultural geography’s development into four stages, each of which seeks to understand the relative importance of regional divides, political influence, social climates and scientific superiority.

Section I: Environmental determinism and the Berkeley School

Sauer’s work – often referred to as the ‘Berkeley School’ of geography– originated as an alternative to theories of environmental determinism in the late nineteenth century. Environmental determinism asserted a ‘neo-Lamarckist’ idea (Livingstone, 1992) that the physical environment naturally predisposed human and social development towards specific trajectories (Mitchell, 2000). The assertion was the environment’s varying attributes caused cultural differences that grew over generations, building upon Lamarck’s (1809) theory that organisms transfer acquired traits to their offspring.

In terms of the popularity of the outlook, it has been convincingly critiqued by Richard Peet (1985) who referred to environmental determinism as a ‘legitimation theory’ that served to realise the ambitions of those who purported it. At the time, British geographers were outspoken in suggestions that they were ‘essential for our well-being, and even for the continuance of the nation as a Power among states of the world’ (Mill, 1901). Similarly, German geographers provided ‘scientific’ credence for Bismarck’s unification wars by suggesting the state was alive, a natural link between the environment and society, and growth was required for survival (Raptzul, 1876). These two examples instantly highlight the regional divides within geography, as well as blatant racism in early work. Raptzul had theories that humans were either born into ‘natural’ or ‘cultured’ races, with the latter being more advanced. By suggesting Europeans were a cultured race, it was a clear agenda to promote Europe’s superiority, and evidently lacks substantive grounding. In addition to this. both examples link to the government and – combined with Kahn’s (1995) note that colonials didn’t view geographers with legitimacy – imply a connection between applied geographical methods and gratification from powerful bodies; an idea that geography was ‘a servant of the state’ (Mitchell, 2000).

Following this, it’s interesting that the collapse of environmental determinism coincided with the phasing out of active European colonial expansion from early 1900s. It’s almost suggesting that this form of geography had served its purpose for superiors so was now being replaced. This would have been aided by its failure to explain the new ‘postcolonial’ period where the world had become increasingly ‘closed’ and (European) political and economic expansions could no longer be absolute, meaning geography had to be relative and constantly reconsider power relations in controlled territories (Peet, 1985).

One suggested replacement was ‘landscape morphology’ – the first formal trace of cultural geography – where Sauer argued that the reverse of environmental determinism was true (1925). In his view, culture was the agent of change on the natural environment, and the result was a ‘cultural landscape’ that manifested underlying culture. Sauer was particularly concerned with the outcomes of culture, a perhaps overly materialistic view, and purported that geographers could access a window to particular cultures by reading their landscapes. Geography’s role, in the eyes of the Berkeley School, was to systematically describe landscapes by isolating the underlying factors beneath them and their changes through time, similar to the way Goethe viewed biological organisms (1790).

While there is little to suggest that Sauer was acting as a ‘servant of state’ in his paper, Mitchell’s (2000) note that Sauer’s ‘goal was to re-establish geography as a respectable science’ is implicit that being seen as scientific was a priority for Sauer, perhaps re-inforced by the connection to Goethe. This appears to be a theme that continued from environmental determinism into landscape morphology with Ellen Churchill Semple, widely attributed as the most obvious exponent of environmental determinism, being described by Peet (1985) as ‘popularising geography as the science of human differentiation and culture’, for example. It’s an interesting quandary as while Sauer himself does not appear politically motivated, it could be suggested that politics at the time enabled ‘landscape morphology’ to garner attention and that geography being considered ‘scientific’ in its methods remains important.

Section II: Regional geography, quantitative revolution and superorganicism

Geography’s focus then shifted away from Sauer to Richard Hardstone’s 1939 paper ‘The Nature of Geography’, where he suggested that geography should be redefined as the ‘science of regions’. Hardstone was one of the main critics of Sauer’s advocacy to put landscapes at the heart of geography, with the Berkeley School’s tolerance for humanistic perspectives and emphasis on material culture being particularly objectionable to him. Hardstone’s counter proposed a focus on ‘areal differentiation’, where geography considered ‘all reality found within the earth surface from a particular point of view’ (1939). This notion built-upon the work of Paul Vidal de la Blache’s theory that regions are distinguished from each other through the distinct character of those who live there (1918).

Areal differentiation stemmed from the idea of possibilism, where natural environments set constraints but social conditions determine culture. Put crudely, this could lead to conclusions such as Yorkshire being straight-talking and unimpressed by pretence. The thinking of regional geography underlines the racism within methods at the time and in itself was fairly problematic – with questions like ‘what is a region?’ arising naturally. However, while Sauer’s work in America did not appear politically motivated, it is interesting to note that Vidal de la Blache was requested by the French Prime Minister at the time, Aristide Briand, to devise ideas on how France could be split into regions (Les régions françaises, 1910). This reintroduces the notion that gratification from government was a powerful influence in the methods employed by geographers, particularly in Europe.

Both cultural and regional geography, however, became sidelined during the ‘quantitative revolution’ of the 1950s and 60s which called for a shift from idiographic (descriptive) geography to nomothetic (empirical, law-making) geography (Inkpen, 2004). The reason for this was a belief that numerical analysis had a superior scientific pedigree, and that both regional and cultural geography were too ‘descriptive’ (Hart, 1982). A key idea rooted in this was positivism, which rejects normative statements to eliminate subjectivity and discover laws that – once testing is survived – can successfully predict the future (Spedding, 2001). While Livingstone (1992) noted that in a philosophical sense geography wasn’t purely positivist at the time, and that describing the period as such is merely a reference to ‘modern scientific aspirations’, these aspirations had a large impact on the thought surrounding cultural geography. To exemplify this, many geology departments actually separated from geography departments due to the focus on positivism, and Harvard – a highly influential university at the time – went as far as to abolish their geography programme completely, suggesting Sauer’s work was irrelevant and reiterating the importance for geographic methods to be ‘scientific’ (Hilton, 1999). It also had stronger impacts for the US, as European geography had always been accommodating of quantitative methods (Barnes, 2001), reiterating the divide in the development of methodologies.

That said, while there is repetition here of geographical methods striving to be viewed as scientifically superior, it would be wrong to suggest that regional geography and the quantitative revolution led to the extinction of cultural geography over the aforementioned periods. Some geographers, particularly the forty students who Sauer personally tutored, continued to develop ideas within cultural geography. David Lowenthal attempted to reiterate the importance of landscapes, writing ‘essential perception of the world, in short, embraces every way of looking at it’ (1961). While Wilbur Zelinsky (1973) theorised culture as ‘superorganic’, building upon earlier work of Kroeber and Lowrie in the 1920s, and suggested culture was alive and living independently above the individuals that sit beneath it.

From Zelinsky’s perspective, the mechanisms behind culture are highly complex and ‘totality is palpably greater than the sum of its parts’, meaning culture is more than its components. He believed that culture couldn’t be understood by taking a top-down or bottom-up approach from culture to individual. He theorised it first as ‘an assemblage of learned behaviour’, second as a ‘structured, traditional set of patterns’ and third as a ‘totality [that] appears to be a superorganic entity living and changing according to a still obscure set of laws’ (1973). By doing so, he was shifting the focus of cultural geography onto the study of how culture alone operates across both place and space. Like Sauer, Zelinsky viewed culture as an agent of landscape change but, unlike him, he theorised about the inner workings of culture. While subcultures could be highlighted within the landscape or other bodies of culture, in Zelinsky’s view, it was imperative to understand how subcultures relate to the entirety of American culture.

Section III: Superorganicism and its critiques

Zelinsky’s work came at a time of increased identity politics, where previous years had seen increasingly violent disagreement over the USA’s war with Vietnam, while militant ‘Black Panther’ groups were fighting to realise Malcolm X’s promise that racial equality would be achieved ‘by any means necessary’. This coincided with a rise of identity politics, particularly in Berkeley (where Zelinsky and Sauer were based), with actions including a ‘Third World’ student strike against racial ‘othering’ at universities in response to the California State of Trustees attempting to dissolve ‘Black’ programmes of study. In this regard, statements within Zelinksy’s work such as ‘the United States does indeed form a large, discrete ethnic group’ appear to be a direct intervention into ongoing cultural conflict (1973). This is in stark contrast to environmental determinism which appeared to ‘legitimise’ governmental actions, and perhaps indicates a shift in geographical methods to try and ‘influence’ governments, particularly as he was writing a contrarian view during the later stages of an established quantitative revolution. This view is given support by Mitchell (2000) who refers to Zelinsky’s book as ‘an incredible (and in many ways admirable) leap of faith’.

His publication further coincided with increased rejection of positivism in the 1970s, with Horkheimer (1972) convincingly highlighting that its reductionism falsely represented human social action and ignored the role of the observer. By doing so, he believed representations of social reality were artificially conservative and supported a status quo, rather than challenging it. This hunger for change from positive, quantitiative methods led to Zelinksky’s note receiving increased attention, and perhaps increased criticism than it normally would have. James Duncan (1980) rejected the idea and argued that superorganic notions of culture had already been explicitly and implicitly adopted by cultural geographers, but superorganicism incorrectly implies that culture is a ‘thing’ rather than a process. In his view, superorganicism made it impossible to comprehend the psychological and sociological components of culture. Duncan argued that superorganicism removed individual’s roles in society and made them the products of a ‘dictatorial’ culture where they would be ‘conditioned’ into set responses. His view was that culture should ‘not be treated as an explanatory variable in itself but used to signify contexts for action or sets of arrangements between people at various levels of aggregation’, reducing the idea of culture into a more sociological definition of interactions between people.

Duncan was not the only critic of the Berkeley School and, as the 1980s progressed, Sauer and Zelinsky’s thought was coming under increased attack from a new generation of cultural geographers, influenced by shifts in British cultural studies and American anthropology (Oakes & Price, 2008). In America, the goal shifted from a ‘complete’ understanding of culture to studying ongoing social contexts that produce cultural meanings, and how culture’s production mattered in these contexts (Geertz, 1973). While in Britain, ‘cultural materialism’ – an idea that material, behavioural and etic processes should be prioritised, where an ‘etic’ study is one that explores a single trait across multiple cultures – was increasingly popular (Williams, 1983). To detail the extent of this rise in alternative thought, the latter of these concepts formed the conceptual centrepiece of Jackson’s (1989) critique of the Berkeley School. Jackson commented that Sauer’s ‘excessive focus on the material elements of culture and their representation in landscape’. While cultural materialism further helped shape Mitchell’s (2000) approach to culture, where he provocatively wrote ‘as American (and British) cities burned in the wake of race riots, the collapse of the manufacturing economy, and fiscal crisis upon fiscal crisis, American cultural geographers were content to fiddle with the geography of fenceposts and log cabins’. The result of this animosity was the demise of both positivism and the Berkeley School’s thinking in cultural geography, and the birth of what is now commonly referred to as ‘new cultural geography’. The increased rejection of Sauer in the US also perhaps marked potential for increased global convergence in geographic thinking, as European geographers had never really regarded it but they were both keen to explore a new era of cultural geography.

Section IV: New cultural geography – an explanation and critique

This idea of a ‘new’ cultural geography was first defined by Cosgrove and Jackson in 1987, who explained the term to mean ‘contemporary as well as historical (but always contextual and theoretically informed), social as well as spatial (but not confirmed exclusively to narrowly-defined landscaped issues), urban as well as rural, and interested in the contingent nature of, in dominant ideologies and forms of resistance to them’. Central to this cultural turn was postmodernism as it came at a ‘heady time for geographers’ where Thatcher and Reagan were rising in Britain and America, Western Europe exhibited increased white nationalism, and there were steady increases in wealth disparity on national and international levels. Although there is debate surrounding the definition and degree to which postmodernism exists (Bengo & Strohmeyer, 1997), it represents heterogeneity and looks to multiple, competing discourses while searching for meaning derived from an intersection of knowledge, language and social practises (Mitchell, 2000). It was also accompanied by an increased focus on space, with Michel Foucault (1986) noting ‘the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space..’ A suggestion that the language of space and place began to dominate since the rise of new economic geography, made necessary by economic and social postmodernisation, but made possible by the postmodern change in theory.

Within this ‘new’ cultural geography was an idea of expressing the tensions between popular and elite in ‘political’ and ‘vernacular’ landscapes that evolved through the activities of the occupiers (Jackson, 1984). It purported for humanistic and cultural geography to converge through landscapes represented by text (Ley, 1985), in the same fashion that Geertz described anthropology as an interpretation of cultural texts (1973). In essence, the notion was to draw greater meaning from text than the words themselves, as the concept of performativity (Foucault, 1986) views communication as not simply just speech but a consummation of actions and the construction of identity. However, this idea of representation gave rise to the criticism that new cultural geography held ‘static’ views on identity and space. Nigel Thrift (2007) directly challenged this through his development of ‘non-representational theory’. He presented a poststructuralist notion – beyond identity politics – that rejects modelling based on linguistics and purports to focus on dynamic processes that are occurring now, rather than theoretically representing the world at moments in time. That said, this is a contentious issue and critiques of Thrift advocate that returning to phenomenological accounts of ‘being in the world’ represents a retreat from intersectionality, belittling Thrift’s proposal to ‘abstract accounts of body-practices’ (Nash, Cultural geography: postcolonial cultural geographies, 2002). The clear division in this area makes Lorimer’s (2005) suggestion of ‘more-than-representational’, a description of the geography’s diverse body of work that seeks a greater understanding of ‘our self-evidently more-than-human, more-than-textual, multisensual words’, seem a reasonable balance between the two.

An important factor within new cultural geography is clearly the intersectionality among representations, discourses, material, practices and spaces, a term that emerged from feminist legal scholarship (Crenshaw, 1991). Within this, people are not seen as white and middle class but white-middle class, an idea that interlinking different identities together at the same time will shape particular experiences. This is a reflection of new cultural geography’s rise alongside identity politics, and led to cultural geography becoming a ‘full-blown discipline of cultural studies’ (Mitchell, 2000); ranging from gender to class, race, (dis)ability and religion. It has been a source of great debate within the subject, with claims that there is an unevenness, and gender and race studies being particularly prominent (Brown, 2012). To this extent, Nash (2008) noted that black women are pedestalled when it comes to intersectionality and this is clearly a key challenge for cultural geography going forward as both oppression and privilege are crucial (Nash, 2005). This has perhaps been heightened as there is so much work emerging in the field, as exemplified by studies on trans* identities explaining ‘how sexist and transphobic homonormative conditions can be’ (Rooke, 2010).

Section V: Conclusion

            While it would be impossible in this scope of this paper to provide a wholly comprehensive critique of cultural geography; key themes are dominant within the analysis. Working towards intersectionality remains a challenge, particularly as the findings of new cultural geography evolve. Although the term wasn’t coined until recently, intersectionality interestingly appears to have always been a challenge for geographers; stemming as far back as the ‘racist’ methodologies of Friedrich Ratzel in environmental determinism. Another common theme apparent from this review is that while the quantitiative revolution and regional geography served to legitimise governments to an extent, Sauer appeared more concerned with challenging the agenda when cultural geography was ‘born’ and this has remained the case throughout its development. In a similar vein, during comparably quiet periods for cultural geography there seemed to be a focus on presenting methods as ‘scientific’ in the eyes of others. Today, however, new cultural geography is clear in its purpose and value so it can be assumed this will not bear significant influence as the subject continues to develop.

One of the more challenging notions presented has been a difference in cultural geography’s development in Europe versus North America. While it is obvious to state the subjects have been divergent in their purpose and method, with Europe never replicating Sauer’s ideology, the shift towards intersectionality and new cultural geography is a clear signal that these may converge in the future. Although this process will take time as history will be manifested, it is important for geographers to have an understanding of how their counterparts think in order to add balance to their work. One of the pitfalls of this review was that such a thorough overview has already been written by Don Mitchell in 2000. As such, it would be difficult to suggest that this analysis is free from his influence. This paper has also sought to critique more around the motivations underlying popular geographic theory and build on his work through extensions into the intersectionality of new cultural geography.


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