The Exciting and Diverse Field 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.’

Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher, famously argued “there is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.” It would be laughable, therefore, to suggest that the task of charting the development of cultural geography is in any way dull. This essay wishes to present the exciting and diverse discussions, which form the complex and varied intellectual landscape of cultural geography, in the hopes of providing a critical overview of the disciplines’ development.

Due to the textual constraints of this essay, it is necessary to make numerous omissions. The first challenge anticipated, in producing a critical outline of the development of cultural geography, centers on finding a geographically and temporally appropriate place to begin. As detailed in the work of Johnson, Schein and Winders, cultural geography has diverse meaning and is/has been conducted differently across both space and time (2013, p3). Despite this evident variation e.g. between North American and British academia, textbooks often present simplified teleological histories, which ascribe a neat and chronological order to the scholarly work of cultural geographies. Within such texts, the work of Sauer, and his colleagues of the ‘Berkeley School,’ is often deemed a suitable starting-place to chart the progress (a highly weighted word within this context) of the sub-discipline. Despite acknowledging the deficiencies of such work, we adopt this frequently explored traditional approach. This essay firstly demonstrates the problem of assuming a clear evolution from the Berkeley School to ‘new cultural geography’ in both the theory and method of the sub discipline. It then seeks to present a broad critique of new cultural geographies’ chosen methods e.g. discourse analysis, considering both the dematerialization and desocialisation of the discipline. Such characteristics are presented as the consequence of a perceived need to focus on identity and representation. Finally, this essay focuses on one current strand of debate between representational geography and non-representational theorists e.g. Thrift. In focusing on one singular discussion, we consider the merits and deficiencies of performance-based methods in more detail, but recognize our failure to duly consider the alternate knowledge systems in the current.

Developing on themes of deficiency, the work of Sauer is often presented in terms of lack and absence. A Sauerian approach to cultural geography is often considered, for example, fixated on ‘the rural and antiquarian narrowly focused on physical artifacts (log cabins, fences and field boundaries)’ (Cosgrove & Jackson, 1987, p96). This object-orientated methodology, which relied heavily on methods of fieldwork at the regional and local level, has been heavily criticized. The assumed reliance of this method on ‘a stroll, the drawing of a sketch, the taking of a photograph and the penciling of a few notes’ has been criticized as (re)producing the landscape as an objective reality, which could be accurately described but not explained (Cloke et al, 2004, p3). Such perceptions supported an ontological perception of culture as self-existent at a higher level than the individual and consequentially as constraining of human behaviour (Jackson, 1989). Following this line of thought, Duncan argued that Sauer’s work adopted a superorganic conceptualization of culture, echoing the work of Kroeber (1917) and his identification of four levels of reality – the inorganic, the organic, the psychological and the social or cultural level (Duncan, 1980, p184-185). Since culture was deemed the most influential determining force, other factors were neglected and a need to produce empirically valid evidence to support theoretical thought dismissed (Duncan, 1980, p191). Furthermore, such cultural determinism produced a perception of man as ‘passive and impotent,’ allowing scholars within the ‘Berkeley school’ to dismiss the significance of ‘the complexities of human decision-making’ in producing institutions etc (Duncan, 1980, 190; Freilich, 1972, p81-82). Geographers, including Cosgrove, Jackson and Gregory, were highly critical of the Berkeley School and instead presented theoretical approaches by which to incorporate human agency and social practice within cultural geography (Jackson, 2010, p64). Such critical debate marks one of many discussions in a series of ideological contestations over the positioning of structure over agency, and vice versa, within cultural geography. Essentially, the intellectual landscape of cultural geography has and is experiencing continued debate over the suitable ‘closeness’ of political economy to cultural studies. This discussion will be seen reflected throughout this essay, especially concerning critiques of the ‘new cultural geographers.’

Such critiques are often deemed responsible for the ‘rebirth’ of the ‘Berkeley School’ as a ‘set of hidebound and restrictive tenets against which a new generation of cultural geographers have defined themselves and their work’ (Wylie, 2007, p27). However, such accounts oversimplify the complexities of knowledge production and the political nature of producing timelines. Haraway’s warning of the dangers of the ‘God Trick’ is here relevant (1988, p582). ‘An Archimedean or sovereign gaze from nowhere over an entire array of stories which geographers tell about their practices’ (Buttimer, 1998, p90) masks the agency involved in presenting a unified and critical vision of the Berkeley School. The existence of a ‘new cultural geography’ does not represent a better, or evolved, version of Sauerian thought. This overemphasis on the binary of ‘old-and-new’/’lacking-and-evolved’/’traditionaland-modern,’ must be discarded as it allows all theory to be tarred indiscriminately disregarding individual merit. As we dip from the work of Ratzel to Sauer, a movement from an environmentally determinist viewpoint, with positivist law making as methodology, to a more refined ‘effort to emancipate’…’from determinist thinking’ can be traced (Anderson, 2010, p19; Williams, 1983, p5). Simply, although Sauer’s work did not directly confront or even overcome the problematic character of the culture-nature binary, it incorporated within it an alternate and new ontological position – namely the division between idealism and materialism – incorporated within the epistemologies of present-day cultural geographies (Jones III, 2003, p513).

In much the same way scholarly overviews portray the Berkeley School as a unified intellectual landscape, the cultural turn, which occurred within the field of human geography, is commonly presented as having produced a coherent and homogenous structure around cultural geography. Instead, such developments should be theorized as a ‘series of sometimes interwoven strands coming out of previous approaches’ (Johnston, 1997, p271). Reflecting on the general direction taken, we can recognize the adoption of discourse and metaphor as the ‘mantra’ of this intellectual landscape. In turn this has produced a new thematic focus on the relationship between power and expression within the multiple and complex experiences of the everyday (Chouinard, 1994, p35). Language is hence considered a core driver in the constitution of people as social subjects, and discourse therefore plays a central role in this process. The close analysis of text, as common in the work of cultural geographers post-cultural turn, uncovers the relationship between language and identity (Mills, 1997, p133; Fairclough, 1992, p44). Such analysis does not focus solely on the semantic or linguistic aspects of discourse, but seeks to interpret social and ideological interactions in addition (Johnston, 2014, p125). This adoption of discourse as methodology, and focus on identity and representation, have been subjected to two major critical reflections – namely a neglect of the social and evident dematerialization of the subject (Philo, 2000, p30, 36).

Jackson neatly summarizes the first critique, as a simple ‘evacuation of the social’ (2003, p38). For this purpose, society is presented as an intellectual landscape ‘tied intrinsically to material conditions of social reproduction, to the constitution of society through and by economy and polity’ (Gregson, 2003, p43). This overview asserts that the newfound attention given to cultural difference and the political natures/effects of representations, produced research, which lacked the necessary focus on society, larger structures of inequality and ‘associated spatiality.’ Simply the cultural turn justified an abandonment of political economy and accompanying considerations of material inequality (Jackson, 2003, p37-43). This shift is evident in work on geographies of race and gender, which have experienced a refocus from concerns of social justice to a new emphasis on representation (as exemplified by the adoption of discourse analysis and deconstruction methods) (Valentine, 2001, p168). This adoption of discourse-related methodologies has been criticized by feminists from the ‘West’ and ‘Global South’ as elitist and divorced from larger structures that reinforce inequalities. Concerns with representation reflect an abandonment of material conditions and represent a schism between theoretical knowledge and the everyday politicized experiences of many (McEwan, 2003, p410).

A wider feminist perspective may, however, deem the cultural turn as a driving process in the expansion of notions of the political (Jackson, 2008, p39). Gregson, an interdisciplinary social scientist, expands this logic further; positing that cultural geography has both actively reconfigured and deserted ‘the social.’ Whereby previous critiques of the cultural turn in geography preset the social as entwined with political economy, the author argues that ‘the social’ has been reconfigured and situated within everyday, lived experiences. The thematic undercurrents of ‘body-centeredness’ and the positioning of the body within this ‘everyday’ landscape exemplify a reorientation and reconstruction of notions of society. A dismissal, however, of wider social structures and a reluctance to place the social within an economic arena mark a departure from previous conceptualizations of ‘society’ (2003, p45-47). Application of Foucault’s work is here vital in grasping this theoretical position. Simply, commonsense assumptions that inform knowledge and discourse are temporally and spatially disparate. We must acknowledge that ‘society’ or ‘the social’ has not maintained a consistent meaning but has instead adopted the typical assumptions of the institutional landscape it exists within (1966.) Valentine echoes such statements, attributing this reconfiguration of the social to a shift in scale from national/international structures to social relations of the everyday. For Valentine, however, despite the continued embeddedness of society within the work of cultural geographers (albeit in a new form,) this shift has depoliticized the intellectual strand, limiting its own ability to address social questions and challenge social injustices (2001, p169). The analysis of discourse and considerations of representation allow scholars to consider, following the work of poststructuralist scholars, how power is embedded in our varying sites of practice and experience. Although, such analysis allows us to engage in questions of human agency and social relations, it is too far removed from questions of political economy and dematerialized in nature. Essentially, cultural geography has retreated from engagements in the political struggles external to it. Methods, which engage with discourse, often privilege white, male, middle-class accounts, whilst leaving the ‘voice’ of numerous disadvantaged groups absent, since the interpretive lens adopted focuses on landscapes that are, in part, exclusionary. Such elitist interpretations must be rejected and scholars must seek to engage in research with nonacademics (Jackson, 2010, p53; Chouinard, 1994, p36).

Furthermore, since scholars of the Berkley School attempted to catalogue the vagueness of ‘life’ through expressed products of culture (Solot, 1986, p512) efforts to emancipate cultural geography from this ontological privileging of the material occurred. Emanating from the cultural turn the refocus on ‘meaning, identity, difference and representation’ marked a rejection of theories grounded in the material (Valentine, 2001, p168). This is unnecessary since, in considering both social and communicative aspects of material cultures, we can realign both the aims of new cultural geographers, whilst ‘continuing to illuminate the human endeavor’ (Richardson, 1981, p287). As exemplified by White, what is often to be culture or cultural, exists within material objects external to individuals and within those internal to the social interactions between them (1959, p235).

Calls for a careful refocus on the material, have therefore developed in response to this anxiety about dematerialization (Anderson & Tolia-Kelly, 2004, p669.) Such a dematerialization of cultural geography is argued to have produced a neglect of ‘more “thingy,” “bump-into-able stubbornly there-in the-world kinds of “matter,” with which earlier geographers have tended to be more familiar’ (Philo, 2000, p33.) The work of Crow, a feminist disability theorist, exemplifies how adopting such an ontological perspective is insufficient, as it neglects the lived experience, suffering and emotional pain of the disabled person (1996). Thomas (1999), in response to such criticisms developed a new materialist approach to disability, considering ‘impairment effects,’ which acknowledge that disability and impairments produce restrictions on a person’s social life. In considering the individually unique interconnections between disability and impairment effects, the necessity and value of theories, which refer to both the material and immaterial, is evident (Thomas, 2004, p40). The multidisciplinary field of material culture studies emphasizes such value, recognizing the importance of considering how objects often act as significant ideological mechanisms, which (re)produce our social world (Crang, 2013, p276).

In this way, Jackson suggests that a form of object fetishism has not simply been renewed and readopted, but that instead new understandings consider the specific temporalities and spatialities of the material (2000, p13). Such theoretical underpinnings are commonly found within geographies of material culture, including Hebgdige’s work on the multiple meanings and different values ascribed to the Italian motor scooter across geography, time and culture (1988, p80). This increasing attention to the material geographies of commodity can involve varied method, which may provide a bridge between the agency of the individual and larger political and economic structures. In considering both criticisms, this hopeful strand of scholarly enquiry demonstrates that the dualism, which pervades cultural geographies, between the social and cultural; material and representational; discursive and practice-orientated must be, and is being challenged. Grosz’s (1994) work, for example, challenges the binary between discourse and materiality. This analysis of the volatile nature of identity and unpredictability of the body develops the material body as a site for theoretical development and work. Discourse must remain a core component of analysis in cultural geographies, but not without recourse to other additional methods.

Critics of new cultural geography have attempted to overcome such concerns with discursive analysis. Scholars, such as Thrift, seek to maintain engagements with everyday practices, whilst deprivileging textual representational analysis. Since the ‘world is more excessive than we can theorize’ methodological approaches previously relied upon e.g. discourse analysis and surveys are suggested to lack the ‘immediacy of experience’ (Dewsbury et al, 2002, p437; Nayak & Jeffrey, 2011, p284). Thrift’s non-representational theory (NRT) has been adopted across a broad range of scholarly work within cultural geography to overcome this ‘crisis of representation’ (Clifford & Marcus, 1986). ‘Non-representational theory is an umbrella term for diverse work that seeks to better cope with our self-evidently more-than-human, more-than-textual, multisensual worlds’ (Lorimer, 2005, p83). It seeks to essentially capture the flows of everyday practices and life, through an emphasis on events, the study of relations, doings (performance and practice,) affects and backgrounds (Vannini, 2015, p9; Thrift, 2008, p5).

Drawing upon the work of Bourdieu and de Certeau, nonrepresentational cultural geographers attempt to explain mundane and normative practices as embodied dispositions. Methodologies of non-representational theory focus on non-cognitive experiences, meaning methods engage with micro-geographies of the habitual (Nash, 2000, p656). A literal interpretation of performance is evident within human geography, specifically within work relating to the performing arts e.g. Revill’s (2004) paper on performing French folk music. As a participant within the UK French folk music scene, Revill used semi-structured interviews, field notes on his own participation and musical/historical analysis of repertoires to consider the significance of nonrepresentational everyday practices. Thrift and Dewsbury adopt similar performance-methods as a solution to make ‘dead geographies’…’live.’ They suggest that performance extends the previously limited methods of geographical enquiry in teaching, research and presentation, for example the body can be taught through techniques of dance or music, whilst research results may be presented through theatre (2000, p425). The work of feminist scholars e.g. Butler (1990) on performativity recognized the significant ‘role that norms must play in any body politics’ and have provided the foundations for much of geographies’ movement towards the non-representational (Chambers & Carver, 2008, p71). It can be suggested however, that in Butler’s analysis of power, performance is considered a force of resistance, which exists through the repetition of the mundane. This is deemed a driving force in undermining the creative and improvisational nature of performance. Individual agency is placed within the confines of the political economy, even when expressed in mundane everyday embodied practice and experience (Mitchell & Elwood, 2012, p800). Drawing on this critique, a shift towards performative work, which disengages with a simple material/discursive binary, is evident (Richardson, 2013, p127). NRT and critical cultural geographies have, hence, disengaged with performativity, whilst engaging with performance through commitment to the present.

Despite this movement and the engaged critical discussion that surrounds it, the performance-based methods adopted by non-representational cultural geographers are still deemed problematic. Although advocates of the intellectual field suggest that NRT acknowledges power – albeit a different kind – many suggest that a strong and sufficient commitment to the political already exists. Race and gender studies are both posited as disciplines, which present explicit expressions of the politics of feeling. Whilst an emphasis on the micro is deemed to disregard larger societal structures and relations of power, as difficulties exist in producing generalizations from lived experience. (Nayak & Jeffrey, 2011, p301).

To conclude, this essay hopes to demonstrate the exciting and diverse intellectual field cultural geography marks, whilst demonstrating that it cannot be reduced to a singular epistemological or ontological understanding. In providing a critical overview of the discipline, we have struggled to incorporate all of the existing broad strands of thought, and have instead focused on the most coherent ‘turns’ within cultural geography. Furthermore, so to afford sufficient attention to the methods cultural geographies employ, this essay has limited its focus further to discourse-centered and performance-based methods. Although this may be perceived as a limitation in the production of a critical overview of the discipline, due to the word constraints of this essay, we hope it has allowed us to produce a more detailed and thorough analysis, of that which is included. In contrast to those who herald each ‘turn’ in cultural geography as a necessary move to overcome the challenges inherent in the field, this essay firmly argues that further engagement with method and theory requires consideration of not only the deficiencies of the work of cultural geographers, but the merits also.


Anderson, K (2010). Understanding Cultural Geography. New York: Routledge. p19.
Anderson, B., Tolia-Kelly, D.. (2004). Matter(s) in Social and Cultural Geography. Geoforum.
35 (1), p669.
Butler, J (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:
Buttimer, A. (1998). Geography’s Contested Stories: Changing States-of-the-Art. Journal of
Economic and Social Geography. 89 (1), p90.
Chambers, S., Carver, T (2008). Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics: Critical Encounters. New
York: Routledge . p71.
Chouinard, V. (1994). Reinventing Radical Geography: Is all that’s Left Right?. Environment
and Planning D: Society and Space. 12 (1), p35, 36.
Clifford, J., Marcus, G (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography.
Orlando: University of California Press.
Cloke, P., Cook, I., Crang, P., Goodwin, M., Painter, J., Philo, C (2004).Practising Human
Geography. London: Sage Publications. p3.
Cook, I., Tolia-Kelly, D. (2010). Material Geographies. In: Hicks, D., Beaudry, M The Oxford
Handbook of Material Culture Studies . Oxford: OUP Oxford. p110.
Cosgrove, D., Jackson, P. (1987). New Directions in Cultural Geography. Area. 19 (2), p96.
Crang, P. (2010). Cultural Geography: After a Fashion. Cultural Geographies. 17 (2), p191-
Crang, P. (2013). Landscape. In: Cloke, P., Crang, P., Goodwin, M. Introducing Human
Geographies. 3rd ed. London: Routledge . p276.
Crow, L. (1996). Including All of our Lives: Renewing the Social Model of Disability. In:
Barnes, C., Mercer, G Exploring the Divide. Leeds: The Disability Press. p55-72.
Dewsbury, J., Harrison, P., Rose, M., Wylie, J. (2002). Enacting Geographies. Geoforum. 33
(1), p437.
Duncan, J. (1980). The Superorganic in American Cultural Geography.Annals of the
Association of American Geographers. 70 (2), p181, 184-185, 190, 191.
Fairclough, N (1992). Discourse and Social Change. London : Polity Press. p44.
Freilich, M (1972). The Meaning of Culture. Lexington Mass: Xerox College Publishing. p81-
Foucault, M (1966). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences . London:
Pantheon Books.
Gregson, N. (2003). Reclaiming ‘the Social’ in Social and Cultural Geography. In: Anderson,
K., Domosh, M., Pile, S., Thrift, N Handbook of Cultural Geography. London : Sage
Publications. p43, 45-47.
Grosz, E (1994). Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism . Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the
Privilege of Partial Perspective . Feminist Studies . 14 (3), p582.
Hebdige, D (19888). Object as Image: The Italian Scooter Cycle. London: Routledge .
Jackson, P. (2010). Families and Food: Beyond the “Cultural Turn”?. Social Geography. 6
(1), p53, 70.
Jackson, P. (2008). Pierre Bourdieu, the Cultural Turn and the Practice of International
History. Review of International Studies. 34 (1), p39.
Jackson, P. (2003). Rethinking the Social. In: Anderson, K., Domosh, M., Pile, S., Thrift,
N Handbook of Cultural Geography. London: Sage Publications. p37-43.
Jackson, P. (2000). Rematerializing Social and Cultural Geography. Cultural Geography. 1
(1), p9, 13
Jackson, P (1989). Maps of Meaning. London: Unwin Hyman.
Johnson, N., Schein, R., Winders, J. (2013). The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural
Geography. John Wiley & Sons: London. p3.
Johnston, R (1997). Geography and Geographers: Anglo-American Human Geography
since 1945. 4th ed. London: Edward Arnold. p271.
Jones III, J P. (2003). Reading Geography through Binary Oppositions. In: Anderson, K
Handbook of Cultural Geographies. London: SAGE Publications. p513.
Kroeber, A. (1917). The Superorganic. In: Kroeber, A The Nature of Culture. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press. p182-186.
Lorimer, H. (2005). Cultural Geography: The Busyness of Being ‘More-thanRepresentational’.
Progress in Human Geography. 29 (1), p83.
McEwan, C. (2003). Bringing Government to the People: Women, Local Governance and
Community Participation in South Africa. Geoforum. 34 (4), p410.
Mills, M. (1997). Contesting the Margins of Modernity: Women, Migration and Consumption
in Thailand. American Ethnologist. 24 (1), p133.
Mitchell, K., Elwood, S. (2012). Mapping Children’s Politics: the Promise of Articulation and
the Limits of Nonrepresentational Theory.Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.
30 (5), p800.
Nash, C. (2000). Performativity in Practice: Some Recent Work in Cultural
Geography. Progress in Human Geography. 24 (4), p656.
Nayak, A., Jeffrey, A (2011). Geographical Thought: An Introduction to Ideas in Human
Geography. London: Pearson. p301.
Philo, C. (2000). More Words, More Worlds: Reflections on the ‘Cultural Turn’ and Human
Geography. In: Cook, I., Crouch, D., Naylor, S., Ryan, J, R. Cultural Turns/Geographical
Turns: Perspectives on Cultural Geography. Harlo: Prentice Hall. p30, 33, 36.
Revill, G. (2004). Performing French Folk Music: Dance, Authenticity and
Nonrepresentational Theory. Cultural Geographies. 11 (1), p199-209.
Richardson, E. (2013). Using Performance in Human Geography: Conditions and
Possibilities. Kaleidoscope. 5 (1), p127.
Richardson, M. (1981). On ‘The Superorganic in American Cultural Geography’. Annals of
the Association of American Geographers. 17 (2), p287.
Solot, M. (1986). Carl Sauer and Cultural Evolution. Annals of the Association of American
Geographers. 76 (4), p512.
Thomas, C (1999). Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability. Buckingham:
Open University Press.
Thrift, N (2008). Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect . London: Routledge .
Thrift, N., Dewsbury, J. (2000). Dead Geographies – and how to Make them
Live. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 18 (1), p425.
Thomas, C. (2004). Developing the Social Relational in the Social Model of Disability: A
Theoretical Agenda. In: Barnes, C., Mercer, GImplementing the Social Model of Disability:
Theory and Research. Leeds: The Disability Press. p40.
Valentine, G. (2001). Whatever Happened to the Social? Reflections on the ‘Cultural Turn’ in
British Human Geography. Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift- Norwegian Journal of Geography.
55 (1), p168, 169.
Vannini, P. (2015). Non-Representational Research Methodologies: An Introduction. In:
Vannini, P Non-Representational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research. New York:
Routledge. p9.
Williams, M. (1983). “The Apple of my Eye”: Carl Sauer and Historical Geography. Journal of
Historical Geography. 9 (1), p5.
Whatmore, S. (2006). Materialist Returns: Practising Cultural Geography in and for a MoreThan-Human
World. Cultural Geographies. 13 (1), p603.
White, L (1959). The Concept of Culture. American Anthropologist. 61(1). p235.
Wylie, J (2007). Landscape. New York: Routledge. p27.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.