What is Cultural Geography?

In this post I would like to address a question which is often asked of me in Canada: what is “Cultural Geography”?

"Passing Place", Durness Scotland. Photo: Gleduis Varnas

Cultural Geography is a subfield of Human Geography which focuses “upon the patterns and interactions of human culture, both material and non-material, in relation to the natural environment and the human organization of space” (Cosgrove 1994).

Three branches of cultural geography exist: ‘traditional’ cultural geography, sometimes referred to as the ‘Berkeley School,’ ‘new’ cultural geography and, what is now starting to dominate the field (in the UK at least), ‘more-than-representational’ geographies (Lorimer 2005).

‘Traditional’ cultural geography is a mainly American tradition of scholarship linked intimately to the mid-twentieth century work of Carl Sauer (a Geography professor working out of Berkeley). Sauer defined the landscape as the defining unit of geographic study. He saw that cultures and societies both developed out of their landscape, but also shaped them too. According to Sauer this interaction between the ‘natural’ landscape and human communities creates the ‘cultural landscape’. Cultural geographers following this tradition focused on studying the range of human interventions in transforming the ‘natural’ landscape, and were thus most interested in quantifying material culture (e.g., buildings/architectures, agricultural technologies and other industries).

In the 1960s and 1970s, during the height of the ‘quantitative revolution’ interest in cultural geography declined as human geographers turned their attention to developing the discipline as a ‘spatial science’.

During the 1980s, however, the critique of positivism in geography instigated a renewed interest in cultural geography in North America and particularly in the United Kingdom, but with different theoretical assumptions, methods and subjects than those of the Berkeley School. Rather than focusing on material culture, mainly of non-modern and rural societies, the ‘new’ cultural geographers of the 1980s and 1990s examined culture in contemporary and urban societies, and focused primarily on investigating non-material culture (e.g. identity, ideology, power, meaning, values etc).

Some of the main themes that were incorporated into ‘new’ cultural geography were: colonialism and post-colonialism; postmodernism; popular culture and consumption; gender and sexuality; ‘race’, anti- racism and ethnicity; ideology; language; and media. ‘New’ cultural geographers also drew on a diverse set of theoretical traditions, including Marxist political-economic models, feminist theory, post-colonial theory, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis.

A particular area of interest for ‘new’ cultural geographers has been that of identity politics and the construction of identity. However some within the ‘new’ cultural geography camp have turned their attention to critiquing some of its ideas, seeing its views on identity and space as static.

While some of the themes of ‘new’ cultural geography are still of interest, Nigel Thrift, through his development of ‘non-representational theory’, challenges those using social theory and conducting geographical research to move beyond an interest in identity politics and other static representations of culture.

Instead of studying and representing social relationships (like in ‘new’ cultural geography), non-representational theory focuses upon practices – how human and nonhuman formations are enacted or performed – not simply on what is produced. This is a post-structuralist theory drawing in part from the works of Michel Foucault, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and phenomenonologists such as Martin Heidegger, but also weaving in the perspectives of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Bruno Latour and Michel Serres. Non-representational theory’s focus upon hybrid formations parallels the conception of ‘hybrid geographies’ developed by Sarah Whatmore, where she prompted cultural geographers to attend to the ‘more-than-human’ geographies in which we live.

Instead of theoretically representing the world then, those involved in the non-representational project have deliberately sought to attend to ‘things taking place’ – hence the empirical focus on embodied practices and dynamic processes  (see for example Harrison 2000; Wylie 2002, 2005; McCormack 2002, 2005; Dewsbury 2000, 2003).

However, many commentators have expressed a concern that ‘abstract accounts of body-practices’ and the return to phenomenological accounts of ‘being-in-the-world’ constitutes a retreat from exploring the intersections between representations, discourses, material things, spaces and practices (e.g. Nash 2000).

Hayden Lorimer (Glasgow University) has therefore suggested the term ‘more-than-representational’ as preferable for describing diverse work in geography that currently seeks to better understand “our self-evidently more-than-human, more-than-textual, multisensual worlds” (Lorimer 2005: 83).

Cultural geography is probably is therefore best characterized as a living tradition of disagreements, passions, commitments and enthusiasms and best understood as a ‘style of thought’ interested in expanding and illuminating diverse geographies.

For myself at least, I am a cultural geographer interested in:

  • geographies of creative and cultural practices
  • geographies of human-animal interactions
  • museum geographies and their material cultures
  • geographies of craft and craftwork
  • experimental and sonic geographies
  • the correspondences between geographic research methods and creative and artistic practices
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6 Responses to What is Cultural Geography?

  1. I appreciated your post and your work in cultural geography. I finished reading Hill’s “The Book of Negroes” tonight so those themes and ideas are very active in my mind and seem to align in some ways with what you’ve written here. Your post showed up in a Google alert for “Michel Serres” that I use to see what is going on around his work and his rich and boisterous band of ideas and metaphors would appear to connect with what you are doing as well.

    Cultural geography seems rather fitting for a Canadian as it seems so much of who and what we are is permeated by our sometimes overwhelming geography (if I may speak from my experiences driving through extensive tracts of it). Thanks again for the post.

    • Merle says:

      Hi Milton,

      thanks for your comment. I haven’t read Hill’s novel but its themes definitely resonate with cultural geography concerns. Hopefully it will be available at my local library.

      Michel Serres work similarly resonates with the work of cultural geographers, particularly his concept of ‘translation’ and his idea of certain figures (Hermes and angles) acting as ‘messengers’ who translate (or map) back and forth between domains (i.e., between maps). I really like your website on Serres – would you consider yourself a messenger? In my own research into the craft of taxidermy I have drawn particular resource from his ‘philosophy of mingled bodies’ as a way to move beyond the more anemic accounts of body-practices found in the work of Bruno Latour and other STS scholars. Overall though, his work stays too much in smoothlands of philosophical enquiry for my liking, i.e. can be quite difficult to ‘translate’ into methodology.

      Thanks again for your comment and keep up the great work on your blog!


  2. Serres is difficult in part because his language and metaphors are so dense, connected, changing and in motion. He is no doubt very conscious of the work itself reflecting the ideas being explored in both the text, images and metaphors.

    My role in hosting the website is very much driven by a messenger function rather than an expert function. It is a place where Serres’ ideas can mix with the thoughts of others, where people might find others who are reading Serres but without creating Serresian disciples. His work seems designed to make us suspicious of specialization, forumla, and predictability. I like that. It is truly a catalytic/messenger role rather than being prescriptive.

    Reading Serres is like adopting an openess to possibilities of connection, relation and synthesis rather than adherence to something static and ready-made.

    • Merle says:

      I really like the idea of taking on the role of a messenger rather than an expert – staying in the position of a learner so as to more openly respond to the world.

      I also like this idea of the researcher or messenger taking on a creative catalytic role rather then being prescriptive. Have you written/published on Serres at al? Sometimes I find it is easier to get to grips with a philosopher through a ‘messenger’… maybe you could write: ‘Serres: a guide for the perplexed’… thanks for getting in touch again. Merle

  3. Funmi Adewole Kruczkowska says:

    Dear Merle,

    Thanks for your interesting article. I was looking for a beginners guide to Cultural geography and this have been very useful. I am researching transnational practices in dance.

    Best wishes -‘Funmi

  4. Prabhakar Kumar Awasthi says:

    Cultural Geography = {Earth + Man / Time} Observed from Space & Felt from the ground.

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