The Major Schools of Cultural Geography17 minute read

Cultural geography has undergone significant theoretical and methodological changes since its inception as a sub-field of human geography, with recent ‘spatial and cultural turns’ in the social sciences repositioning cultural geography as a field of importance to debates in Anglo-American human geography (Duncan, Johnson, & Schein, 2004). However, what constitutes ‘cultural geography’ is susceptible to change with context, tradition and understanding or definitions of ‘culture’ (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). As such, cultural geography has many different definitions, with some pioneering academics famously avoiding giving a concrete definition of the field, most notably Carl Sauer (Oakes & Price, 2008). Cosgrove (1994) defines cultural geography as ‘a subfield of human geography that focuses upon the patterns and interactions of human culture, both material and non-material, in relation to the natural environment and the human organisation of space’. Crang (1998) later asserts that ‘cultural geography looks at the way different process come together in particular places and how those places develop meanings for people.’ Crang’s (1998) definition offers the idea that cultural geography is about diversity and plurality of life and how the different spaces and places of the world are interpreted and used by people to create a culture, and that these places continue to help perpetuate the culture they created. The development of cultural geography has not been so much a direct evolution along a particular trajectory, but an on-going process of redefining and expanding the scope of the field and its methods (Oakes & Price, 2008). For the purposes of organisation, this paper will discuss the major shifts in direction and methodology of cultural geography with reference to the chronological order in which they occurred, however the reader should bear in mind that this does not suggest one shift necessarily easily flows into the next, or that one theme ends when another begins. As such, I will first outline the ‘formal’ emergence of cultural geography with Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School of human geography in the 1920s, I will then move on to discuss the qualitative revolution in the 1960s, the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in the 1980s (Jackson, 1989), and finish with a discussion of the ‘new’ cultural geography of the 1990s and 2000s (Gibson & Waitt, 2009), whist making a distinction between the field’s development in North America and Britain. During this ‘timeline’ of cultural geography, I will discuss the development of methodology in relation to the progression of the sub-discipline from the ‘textual turn’ to the ‘ethnographic turn’ (Bell, 2009) and the introduction of ‘sound-scapes’, ‘smell-scapes’ and the use of everyday practices as methods of investigation (Pink, 2009).

The origin of cultural geography is often traced back to the 1920’s with the work of Carl Sauer. The ‘Berkeley School’, as it would come to be known, understood culture as ‘cultivation’ and ‘way of life’, and focused on the way that cultures and societies developed as a product of their landscape whilst simultaneously shaping and producing the landscape in which they were situated (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). This vision of geography can be described as idiographic, such that it seeks to describe the specifics of places (Crang, 1998).The dominant view of culture in North American academics at this time came from Kroeber and Lowie’s theory of culture as a ‘superorganic entity’, that is, culture as an entity above man that could not be reduced to the actions of individuals who are associated with it (Duncan, 1980). During this time, academics of the Berkeley School cited Kroeber as their definition of culture, however were not explicit with regards to their use of superorganic theory of culture, with the exception of Wilbur Zelinsky (1973) who’s work on superogranicism was vast and detailed (Duncan, 1980). Sauer’s ‘Morphology of landscape’ (1925) sought to explain human action, and is considered by some as the signature statement of the Berkeley School (Williams, 2009a). This was the introduction of the ‘cultural landscape’ and, more broadly, the concept of ‘cultural geography’ to the English-speaking world (ibid.). In the process of writing Morphology of landscape, in order to ‘emancipate’ himself from the environmental determinist thinking, which was the prevailing theory in North American geography at the time (Williams, 2009b), the term ‘cultural landscape’ was created, which sought to illustrate the manner in which place was ‘fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group’ and hence, cultivation and way of life were linked intimately through ideas of natural and cultural landscapes (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). It is well documented that cultural geography emerged as a critique of environmental determinist thinking (Leighly & Speth, 1995; Williams, 2009b; Gibson & Waitt, 2009), and it is said that, when researching and writing Morphology of landscape, Sauer commented that he would have to ‘disagree pretty thoroughly with almost all the geographers in this country’ (Williams, 2009b). Sauer’s rejection of environmental determinist theories – that is, theories that emphasised humans as response to physical influences (Ernste & Philo, 2009) – was first shown in his study of the Ozarks and later reinforced by his work on the Economic Land Survey, which showed that humans had significantly changed the Earth, most often detrimentally (Williams, 2009b).

A major critique of Sauer and the Berkeley School is that details on the methods used are ‘unfortunately slim’ (Cope, 2010), and as such it is notoriously difficult to follow and be sure of Sauer’s exact methodology. Williams (2009b) comments that it is ‘because he seems to dart about the geographical scene like some intellectual Voortrekker who moved on when he saw the other man’s methodological smoke’. The studies produced at this time were highly descriptive with field-based descriptions and observations making up a large part of the data collection (Cope, 2010). Sauer placed great importance on observation and contemplation in the field, which meant that his methods would give a more ‘intuitive insight into behaviour or object’ that would offer higher quality reasoning than tangible facts could achieve alone (Williams, 2009b). Sauer’s work in particular was distinctively chorological in the way that he studied material manifestations of culture with areal expression as a proxy for culture as a ‘way of life’ by employing descriptive accounts of the subjects of his studies (Solot, 1986). The material nature of culture at this time meant that studies of cultural geography focused on historical remnants of past cultures, often in rural areas where it was easier to trace and quantify material culture and its changes (Ziegenfus & Le Bossé, 2011). This methodology has been criticised for excluding areas of urban development and industrialisation (Crang, 1998) the explanation for which lies the rate of environmental change, which makes it difficult to study physical cultural artefacts, therefore any holistic theory covering rural and urban areas could not be delivered (Ziegenfus & Le Bossé, 2011).

For approximately half a century, the superorganic, Berkeley School understanding of cultural geography and cultural landscape dominated, particularly in North America, up until the emergence of humanistic geography in the 1970s, and the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1980s (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). During the 1960s, geography had been largely dominated by positivist exploration of spatial processes, which has been dubbed the ‘quantitative revolution’ (ibid.). This nomothetic approach – seeking to predict regular patterns over space – used spatial models, quantitative studies and so forth to discover spatial ‘laws’ (Crang, 1998).The rise of quantitative and systematic approaches, consigned cultural geography to the background of human geography (Cope, 2010), with the exception of David Lowenthal (1961) who worked throughout the 1960s on the interpretation of landscape as a reflection of cultural norms (Gold, 2009). Humanistic geography arose, in part, as a response to the quantitative methods of the 1960s by seeking to regard people and individuals through their own lived experiences, which reinvigorated the idea of geography as an ‘interpretative art’ (Crang, 1998). Ley and Samuels (1978) argued that spatial sciences and scientific approaches had divided humans into a ‘series of quantifiable attributes’ and that a more holistic and ‘actually human’ approach was needed. By the 1980s, British cultural geography experience a so-called ‘cultural turn’, adopting Marxian ideas and humanism to interpret culture (Crang, 1998).  At this point, friction arose between British and American cultural geography as a result of the rural-focus critique of the Berkeley School and the contestation of the superorganic theory of culture, which led British geographers to look to the Chicago School of sociology and the study of symbolism of cultures for inspiration (Crang, 1998). Critiques of both the Berkeley School of cultural geography and positivist spatial sciences came together to establish the ‘cultural turn’ (Philo, 2009).

Positivism in spatial sciences that sought to produce quantifiable laws and solutions to explain society was accused of losing its ‘grip on reality’ and failing to describe the real world accurately (Cope, 2010). The entire field of geography was simultaneously experiencing a shift as a result of the post-colonial critique, which questioned all ideas as Eurocentric and fundamentally flawed due to the effects of imperialism on historical conventional thinking, and the appropriateness of these ideas in a pluralistic world (Crang, 1998). Civil rights movements and identity politics at the time called into question the identities, practices and rules that were treated as ‘normal’ by geography and questioned whose identities were being excluded – a post-modern critique largely affecting Marxism and development theory (Crang, 1998). The result of these critiques was the restoration of culture as a central issue. It is argued that the quantitative revolution challenged and energized qualitative researchers to present the ‘methodologically articulate’ and ‘explicitly qualitative’ research of contemporary cultural geography (DeLyser, 2010; Cope, 2010). Feminism and feminist critique of ‘masculinist assumptions of geography’ compelled geographers to pay rigorous attention to methods by being explicit and reflexive (Cope, 2010). Thus followed the re-discovery of a rigorous, self-critical methodology of field work practices in cultural geography, in part also spurred on by the dehumanising effect of spatial science (ibid.).

In Britain, the result of the ‘cultural turn’ and host of critiques in the geographical scene during the 1970s and 1980s was the emergence of ‘new’ cultural geography, which sought to contrast traditional American cultural geography (Scott, 2003). The Institute of British Geographers (IBG) conference on ‘new direction in cultural geography’ saw Cosgrove and Jackson (1987) introduce the agenda for ‘new’ cultural geography – to assert the centrality of culture in human affairs. This reconstructed Sauer’s concept of ‘cultural landscape’ into a cultural construction in itself, thus turning the focus of research onto symbolic qualities of landscape that produce and sustain social meaning (Cosgrove & Jackson, 1987). The importance to cultural geography of ‘landscape as text’ that could be read or interpreted as a social document became clear at this time, originating from Clifford Geertz’s (1973) description of anthropology, such that social scientists introduce an additional level of meaning by ‘inscribing discourse’, or creating ethnographies. ‘New’ cultural geography can be considered to be the work of two strands; one drawing on work from behavioural geography, and the other, differentiated by method, drawing on work from the arts and humanities (Gregory & Herod, 2010).

The first strand involved a shift toward the representational, with the ‘everyday’ regarded as evidence and a source of study for signs and symbols that embodied meaning (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). To study urban cultures in modern everyday life, new cultural geographers used the long tradition of ethnography from the Chicago School of urban sociology (Gregory & Herod, 2010).  Meanings for culture were no longer assumed as fixed or stable; instead representations of peoples and places became the subject of analysis, with the concept of ‘discourse’ become particularly influential (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). The definition of culture ‘as art’ was exposed as elitist and imperialist, which allowed geographers to reclaim analysis of forms of ‘popular culture’ concurrent with the shift towards the representational and everyday (ibid.). Culture was also no longer regarded as a seemingly ‘natural’ property of a group, but a ‘medium of power, oppression, contestation and resistance’, thus work in this field began to look at the role of culture in maintaining the hegemony of superior groups in society and push at cultural construction of social categories such as race, age, gender and class (Gregory & Herod, 2010). Representational cultural geography placed great emphasis on things and how they had meaning for different people (Anderson, 2015). Critiques of this ‘new’ cultural geography included the idea that it lacked methodological rigour, and had become an ‘anything goes’ and non-material sub-discipline (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). This can be partially attributed to the ‘textual turn’. The textual turn included understanding everything, including places and landscapes, as cultural texts, written by someone and readable by someone else (Bell, 2009). Despite arguments for methodological expansion by Nigel Thrift, criticisms arose from within the field throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, such that the now-dominant representational strand of cultural geography had become over-reliant on discourse and textual analysis without essential ethnographic work to understand how representations impacted on people, and the material landscape (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). Representational cultural geography is accused of overemphasising theories and things at the expense of experience, and being too linguistic to communicate its findings effectively (Anderson, 2015). It’s overemphasis of the cognitive and the contemplative has meant that geographers have overlooked most of what is occurring in everyday experiences, including smell, sound, emotion, memory and touch (Gibson & Waitt, 2009).

The second strand drew on critical studies – often of high cultural artefacts, such as art and literature – and sought to extend these techniques to incorporate popular culture and its dominant forms, such as film and other media (Gregory & Herod, 2010). New cultural geography, however, went beyond this to use the expanded range of cultural forms to deconstruct the spatiality of the materials to analyse how the contributed to the representation and shaping of cultures (Gregory & Herod, 2010). Bell (2009) referred to this as the ‘ethnographic turn’ of cultural geography, where geographers experienced a new interest in empirical investigation, opening up new ways of doing cultural studies and helping to ‘reground’ some of the more theoretical methodologies previously employed. This turn allowed a productive interchange between textual analysis of non-material and representational cultural geography, and a new theory of nonrepresentation that would create a new way of researching culture (Bell, 2009). So, whilst representational and textual understandings of the spatial have remained important, nonrepresentational experiences have become central to understandings of culture and making sense of space (Cadman, 2009). Nonrepresentational theory is centred on aspects of life that we engage in without necessarily having worked out why, and to reflect this the methodologies for this strand of cultural geography have explored dance, musical performance, sensory geographies and artistic expression (Anderson, 2015). This turn has required a move beyond methodological orthodoxies to a broader range of skills and methodologies than required in the study of cultural geography in the 1920s to the 1980s (Gibson & Waitt, 2009). The necessity of this ‘methodological break out’ (Thrift, 2000) inspired experimental strategies ranging from performative writing, interactive websites, photo and film journalism, ‘soundscapes’, ‘olfactory geographies’ and three-dimensional perception mapping using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as ways to attempt to co-produce the world (Gibson & Waitt, 2009).

The methods employed by cultural geographers have largely influenced the direction that the sub-discipline has taken. Cultural geography is often the subject of controversy over its methods and approaches, it is not always clear whether the field is a study of culture or a study with culture as the approach used (Gregory & Herod, 2010). Over the past decade, cultural geography has flourished so much that it would be futile to attempt to conceptualise the field as unitary with one coherent agenda and a set of well-defined boundaries (Oakes & Price, 2008). As such, cultural geography is best thought of in plural terms without being divided into traditional and new halves because any attempt to impose a strong coherence on to the field will necessarily leave out a large amount of important work (Oakes & Price, 2008). It has been argued that ‘a false and unnecessary contract was made between the Berkeley School’s ‘traditional’ cultural geography and the ‘new’ cultural geography of the post 1970s’, as the new cultural geography defined itself in part by contrast with what went before, which belittled the scholarly achievements of the Berkeley School (Williams, 2009a). The problematic terminology of ‘new’ or ‘traditional’ cultural geography implies the methods and ideas of the traditional have been usurped by the superior ideas of the ‘new’ (Rowntree, 1988). However, in reality the two are so different that they cannot be considered two versions of the same field, rather they should be regarded as similarly-named but distinctly separate fields of human geography, especially given the disparate content of each of the transatlantic Schools (Oakes & Price, 2008). Anderson (2015) uses the metaphor of a family-tree to describe the discipline and its development, which is very fitting. He writes that it is important to recognise that ‘although each generation has been taken over by new growth, old branches have not entirely died away but continue to develop and influence the discipline as a whole’, supporting the idea that multiple versions of the sub-discipline can coexist. Cultural geography is beginning to develop further in the twenty-first century from the ‘representational’ to the ‘more than representational’ (Anderson, 2015) to study all ‘agents, activities, ideas and contexts that combine together to leave traces in places’. Anderson explains that traces and cultures can be material or non-material, durable or temporary, human or non-human and that researchers will have to consider themselves and their own personal cultural views to position themselves in the world that they study in order for the field to progress further.


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