The Twists and Turns of Cultural Geography19 minute read

A significant number of theoretical and methodological changes have shaped the existence of ‘cultural geography’. Whilst many essays tend to begin with a definition of the key topics and arguments that will follow, a paper on cultural geography has to be aware and be comfortable with the lack of fixed, univocal definition as the field has been altered greatly to create a multitude of different incarnations. As suggested by Cosgrove (2000) much of what constitutes the study of human geography would be characterised as ‘cultural’ in its scope but to assume a singular definition of cultural geography takes precedence would be misleading. Therefore, if there is no univocal definition of cultural geography, the processes by which the field of study operates within need to be understood in its historical and social roots (Mitchell 2000) and that these factors are fluid and susceptible to change depending on their context, tradition and methodology, or their definition of ‘culture’ (Gibson and Waitt 2009) The structure of this paper will discuss the major shifts in cultural geography in the chronological order with which they occurred as well as the critical analysis of the field that helped shift the different paradigms. Therefore, this essay will begin with a discussion surrounding the “undisputed progenitor of cultural geography” (Duncan, Johnson and Schein, 2008, p13), particularly in the USA; Carl Sauer who is often assigned the title of leader of the Berkley School of Cultural Geography. From here the essay will analyse other important ‘turns’ in cultural geography’s history such as the adoption of positivist, quantitative methodologies in the 1960s, and the British-led ‘new cultural turn’ of the 1980s, which sought to challenge the traditional American cultural geographies by drawing on cultural studies and post-structural theory (Scott 2009).

The generally accepted origin of cultural geography is tied to the work of Sauer and the publications that emanated from the geography department at Berkley during his department headship, (Williams 2009). Sauer’s work focused on the conception that ‘culture’ should be understood through both ‘cultivation’ and ‘a way of life’ (Gibson and Waitt 2009), thereby suggesting that societies changed and developed as a result of their environment, whilst also having an influence over this environment. Sauer went on to coin the term ‘cultural landscape’ to describe the way in which place is fashioned by a cultural group acting upon a natural landscape in a fluid and ever changing manner (Sauer 1925). In his work, Sauer’s concept of ‘culture’ draws from Lowrie and Kroeber’s own work where they distinguish ‘culture’ as a ‘superorganic’ entity (Duncan 1980). A superorganic model of culture entails the entity of ‘culture’ being placed above man, indicating that culture acts upon its own accordance and not just as a result of the actions taken by individuals (Duncan 1980). The prominence of superorganic conceptions of culture drawn from Sauer, Lowie, and Kroeber’s work can be seen to have longstanding impacts on cultural geography through the further advancement of the study by scholars such as Zelinsky who sought to further show ‘culture’ as a higher entity that exists “both of and beyond the participating members” (Zelinsky 1973, p40). Sauer’s work was a deviation from the prevailing literature and methodology around concepts of culture and human development because it was ‘idiographic’ and therefore concerned with the “unique outcomes of combinations of circumstances” (Crang 1998, p15) more than it was the general spatial patterns or natural laws. This framework acts in opposition to the mainstream dialogue of environmental determinism that sought to understand the causal relationship between humans and the environment, perhaps a mode of thought most synonymous with the works of Ratzel and Mackinder. Sauer’s work was therefore a hugely important moment in the history of cultural geography because it deviated from the insipidly racist (Crang 1998) and “logically inconsistent” (Gibson and Waitt 2009 p413) school of environmental determinism.

One of the criticisms launched at Sauer and his work often comes from a methodological perspective. The issue of methodology arises partly because Sauer was not committed to a singular methodological framework or structure such as the one that would be found later in the ‘quantitative revolution’, which focused far more on the ability to rigorously test hypotheses and search for spatial patterns (Barnes 2000). Rather, Sauer’s choice of methodology was fluid and constantly changing as if he was an; “intellectual Voortrekker who moved on when he saw the other man’s methodological smoke” (Williams 2009, p301). However, we can see that the concerns that dominated Sauer and the Berkley school’s work were “dominantly rural and antiquarian, narrowly focused on physical artefacts (log cabins, fences, and field boundaries)” (Cosgrove and Jackson 1987, p97). Therefore, much of Sauer’s work in the superorganic school of thought relied heavily on extensive fieldwork though the cataloguing and comparison of different instances of human interaction with the natural world, the predominant factor in Sauer’s definition of culture. However, this process has been heavily critiqued by recent cultural geographers as an example of using a cataloguing and fieldwork to create an objective reality within the natural world that can described, but not explain interactions between groups of people and the landscape (Cloke 2004). Furthermore, whilst Sauer’s work and the concept of superorganic basis to explain culture and human development were lauded within academia and maintained a place among the peak of knowledge within cultural geography for decades, the validity and scope of the theory has not been without criticism. Although the Berkley modus of cultural geography and the notion of the cultural landscape paid close attention to the physical engagements between humans and nature, the immaterial aspects of the relationship between civilisations and culture; meanings, perceptions, customs, mythology, and religious links remained largely obscured or ignored through the Sauer’s work (Philo 2009). Furthermore, ‘new cultural geographers such as Duncan (1980) have described the superorganic concept of culture as making several incorrect assumption, such as; the tendency to see humans as passive or impotent, the generalisation of infinite human characteristics into a few simple traits, and the assumption of homogeneity within culture (Schein 2004). Moreover, Sauer’s work is criticised due to its narrow focus on rural human engagement, and a pattern of following the deterministic and racist dialogues that Sauer had sought to avoid after his deviation from environmental determinism (Mathewson 2009) (Pred 1983).

The criticisms of scholars such as Pred (1983) are a useful beginning for a discussion surrounding the importation of positivist, quantitative theories into human geography during the ‘quantitative revolution’. Described as a “radical transformation of spirit and purpose” (Burton 1963, p151), the ‘quantitative revolution’ represents the 1950-1960s Anglo-American trend of moving from the ‘old cultural geography’ idiographic focuses on regional and cultural landscapes towards a nomothetic spatial science (Barnes 2000). The desire to move the discipline towards a positivist-dominated future was in part motivated as a result of the desire by some geographers to be recognised alongside natural sciences (DeLyser 2010). The principle concern of the discipline during the quantitative revolution was the search for generalisable patterns and occurrences in spatial phenomena, conducted through objective, falsifiable, and often macro methodologies, that would lead to the discovery of patterns of behaviour amongst people or spatial laws (Crang 1998), which would help policy makers to better understand the societies they governed. This shift in the discipline was a stark contrast due to its heavy focus on researcher objectivity and spatial laws, which consigned the Sauerian notion of cultural geography to the margins of human geography. Positivists sought to separate themselves from the Sauerian notions of cultural geography, with scholars such as Gould (1978) comparing the new quantitative revolution to the Augean stables; a parable where Hercules clears the Augean stables after 30 years of neglect. Gould thereby compares the geographers at the forefront of the quantitative revolution to Hercules and the previous cultural, non-quantitative geographers to that of a filthy stable (Gould 1978) (Barnes 2000).

However, some cultural geographers such as Lowenthal (1961) ensured that the study of cultural geography never became consigned to history. Lowenthal’s work on geographical epistemologies was not concerned with spatial laws or generalisable statistics, but rather the engagement of individuals with the physical environment and their “properly human geographies” (Cloke et al 2004, p172). The emergence of a humanistic geography through scholars such as Lowenthal was not only different to the quantitative revolution due to its interpretative basis, but it also diverged from earlier conceptions of cultural geography as the deterministic and singular entity of ‘culture’ and the passive nature of man began to fade. Rather, an evolution of the discipline was breaking new ground and concerning itself with how “the surface of the Earth is shaped for each person by refraction through cultural and personal lenses of custom and fancy” (Lowenthal (1961, p260). Whilst ideas of humanistic geography were being increasingly entertained, the quantitative revolution was beginning to lose its hold on the dominant notions of human geography and worthwhile methodology. Critical scholars such as Harvey (1973) saw the quantitative revolution as inherently incapable of dealing with pressing issues such as the environment, spatial inequalities, and urban decay that meant a movement within the discipline against positivist geographies was desperately needed. Furthermore, the works of critical scholars such as Ley and Samuels (1978) show the inherent issues of purely quantitative geographies when compared to humanistic geographies; the search for spatial laws to help govern and understand people had turned those same people into quantifiable attributes rather than explanations as to their actions and the agency with which they could operate.

A combination of dissatisfaction towards the spatial sciences, which much of human geography had become, and the emergence of humanistic geographies in the 1970s led to a ‘cultural turn’ within human geography and the advancement of this cultural turn laid the groundwork for ‘new cultural geographies to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s. The ‘cultural turn’ can generally be seen as the influence that wider cultural studies had on human geography (Bell 2009) in (re)centring the concept of culture as well as drawing on writers outside of geography such as Bourdieu and Geertz, “whose work centred around the concepts of power, meaning, and symbolic representation” (Gibson and Waitt 2009, p415). Many of the ideas and perspectives given prominence during the cultural turn were drawn from sub-disciplines of human geography in a shift towards the issues of political economy and how different groups of people interacted with and interpreted the world around them (Crang 2000). As a result, a greater light was shone on many key areas, including; Marxist-geographies, feminism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, ‘queer theory’, agency, power structures, and power relations (Philo 2000) (Shurmer-Smith 2002a). Not only was the discipline of human geography changing, the origins of the scholars were also diverging: much of the ‘new cultural geography’ that emerged as a result of the cultural turn was being conducted by British rather than American geographers (Scott 2004). For example Jackson (1980) and Cosgrove (1983), who sought a greater focus on the inner-mechanisms of culture, and cultures role in shaping the modern world. New cultural geography was drawn from the work of Sauer and the Berkley school by reintroducing the concept of the ‘cultural landscape’ but through a constructed assemblage of symbols and signs, which meant that new cultural geographers could interact with the landscape in a purely interpretive rather the morphological manner (Cosgrove and Jackson 1987). The notion of interpreting and ‘reading’ a landscape as if it were ‘text’ is extremely important development in new cultural geography, drawing from Geertz’s (1973) anthropological-based textual interactions. A textual methodology to interacting with landscapes allowed new cultural geographers to add another layer of meaning to the landscape through the process of “inscribing discourse” (Cosgrove and Jackson 1987, p97), by recording interactions with the landscape as a series of texts or through the conduction of ethnographies.

As new cultural geography has been further studied, developed, and drawn from more sub-disciplines, it has typically been classified as breaking into two divergent strands. The first strand, often referred to as representational human geography is concerned with ‘everyday’ discourses that helped decipher the relationship between power, culture, and human agency (Gibson and Waitt 2009). Nonrepresentational theories of human geography on the other hand, move away from themes of representation and the text-based discourses, because; “text only inadequately commemorates ordinary lives since it values only what is written or spoken over multisensual practices and experiences (Nash 2000, p655)”.

Within representational cultural geography, scholars branched away from their traditional anthropological biases in order to draw from a wider range of sources, such as; humanism, feminism, postmodernism, and social and cultural theory in order to find a more all-encompassing and eclectic modus to understand how culture operates (Anderson 2010). Within representational cultural geographies, culture as a concept lost its previously fixed meaning in order to better ascertain how ideas, beliefs, and practices were produced, maintained, and diffused into everyday life (Gibson and Waitt 2009). As culture lost its rigidity, the previous representations of groups of people and landscapes became more accessible to conduct analytical research upon. Consequently conceptions of the political economy and power relations became far more important in understanding why previous representations had been produced and circulated. Moreover, the work of scholars such Foucault (1980), who suggested that knowledge is power and promoted different discourses became increasingly influential in providing a way to see how both formal and everyday actions could shape the world around individuals. This strand is divergent to that of Sauerian concepts of culture because rather than indulging in “antiquarian object fetishism” (Price and Lewis 1993, p3) it did not merely produce an idiographic document, but instead became concerned with the meaning, significance and value given to objects or places by different groups (Anderson 2010).

Whilst this movement in cultural geography can be seen as a positive step forward, and even laudable for its desire to dig deeper beyond idiographic geographies and give a greater voice to groups of people who were often marginalised, it is not without its critics, particularly with regard to its ‘stretching’ of culture as a concept. Critical theorists such as Mitchell (2000) have stated that new cultural geographies have created a chaotic notion of culture that is ultimately meaningless. A further criticism levelled against representational cultural geography is in regards to its methodology. Some critical theorists have suggested that representational cultural geography lacked a sound methodological rigour and often became too reliant on textual discourses, which resulted in analysis that lacked the ethnographic framework of nonrepresentational cultural geographers and consequently ignored everyday cognitive experiences such as smell, touch, and sound (Gibson and Waitt 2009).

Nonrepresentational theories of cultural geography do not follow the ‘textual turn’ of representational geographies, but rather an ‘ethnographic turn’. The ‘ethnographic turn’ was born out of criticism or representational geography’s problematic assumptions about who reads textual analysis, the positionality of the reader, and the need to ‘reground’ some of the theoretical framework (Bell 2009). Nonrepresentational theory is concerned with going beyond constructivist concepts and leading scholars such as Thrift (2008) are determined to maintain analytical links with everyday practices and altering textual-based representational theory through a process of un-privileging. The use of nonrepresentational theories can be highly beneficial to geographers as it seeks to establish a fluid and experimental (Thrift 2008) system of thought that ensures the micro-geographies of mundane modern life are not excluded from theories seeking to understand how individuals interact with, shape, and can be shaped by culture, particularly when engaging with how individuals give inherent consent to be dominated by power (Foucault 1982). Nonrepresentational theories are therefore useful even when they are not used as the main analytical discourse as they can ask the researcher questions of style, technique, and method (Lorimer 2008).

However, critical feminist scholars of nonrepresentational theory have shown that there are issues with the disciplines concepts of performativity, a too descriptive methodology to achieve political goals, and a lack of engagement. Nash (2000) points out that whilst Thrift (1996, p41) claims nonrepresentational theory as “radically contextual” he separates performative dance from the cultural and social world, ignoring the linguistic elements of how dance is taught and introduced to individuals. Colls (2011) also states the worrying lack of engagement with female authors within nonrepresentational theory when discussing the body, and thereby ignoring large numbers of individual discourses of difference. Furthermore, Sharp (2004) discusses the way in which nonrepresentational geographies do not seek to intervene in structural differences between men and women, but rather use their discourses to describe these instances, thereby not helping some feminists achieve their political goals.

From the aforementioned points, this essay has shown the diverse development of cultural geography that has been transformed through critical scholarship to create a sub-discipline of human geography that has far too broad a scope to ever be given a univocal definition. Furthermore, cultural geography has undergone a number of different ‘turns’ as the discipline has changed over its history from the Sauerian school of superorganic culture, to humanistic, postmodern, representational, and micro analysis’ of culture, agency, and power relations. However, an inevitable weakness of this essay is that it cannot comment in great detail on all the different ‘turns’ within cultural geography because it is a vast and fluid discipline that engages with many sub-fields of human geography. Another aspect of any discussion concerning the development of cultural geography is the terminology used to describe the different forms of cultural geography. Labels of ‘old’ and ‘new’ cultural geography are defunct because they imply that one of the methodologies hold superiority and permanence over its predecessors rather than being the accepted mainstream paradigm of the discipline (Rowntree 1988). Poor terminology such as this needs to be challenged, because as seen in this essay, the field of cultural geography and its development occurred over decades, in different countries, and with different methodologies, making them multiple divergent disciplines with a similar core of ‘culture’ rather than an ongoing process of replacement with a singular ontological and epistemological understanding.


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