Cultural Geography

Cultural Geography


Cultural Geography, a branch of geography studying the impact of human culture on the landscape and focusing on the ways in which individuals or groups create meaning in and thereby shape their environment. As a discipline, it has a history that is closely linked with developments in other sub-fields, including regional geography and economic geography.


Cultural geography has many disparate roots and influences which make a singular account of its history open to criticism and debate. It is generally accepted however that it first developed in the work of the influential American geographer Carl Sauer. Sauer was the founder of the Berkeley School of cultural geography that dominated American geography between the 1920s and the 1950s. Sauer’s work, like that of Paul Vidal de la Blache in Europe, reacted against the prevalence of environmental determinism in early 20th-century geography and, in contradiction, asserted the importance of human impact on the environment. He emphasized, therefore, the expression of culture in the character of the environment, including, for instance, the ways in which ecosystems and plant species were altered by human intervention. Sauer defined his object of study as the “cultural landscape”, the natural landscape as fashioned or modified by human activity. This, he asserted, was the fundamental focus for all geographical inquiry: a “peculiarly geographic association of facts” that helped to delineate a “strictly geographic way of thinking of culture”. In his work and in that of his graduate students in Latin America and other regions, Sauer concluded that culture was the most important agent that shaped the physical world. Consequently, it was elements in the physical world such as field systems, local architecture, and everyday artifacts that formed the focus of research, with an emphasis on the biological and physical processes set in train by human activities.

While the Berkeley School’s approach still influences the study of cultural geography in the United States, in recent years it has declined as the predominant methodology there. The new approach to cultural geography, which emerged in the early 1980s, criticized Sauer’s conception of culture as seeming to suggest it was beyond the control of most people and acted as a causal mechanism. Most importantly, it was a causal mechanism that remained unexplored in his work. In this sense, it could be argued that Sauer replaced one form of determinism with another: culture, in the form of traditions and institutions, working from above to actively constrain human behaviour. In fact, according to Sauer, it was the culture that was the agent of change in the environment and not the people. It was felt that geographers needed to work with a more dynamic conception of culture, one that would consider the ways in which cultures are altered by and made up from human interaction and particular social practices, such as the organization of society under capitalism. Nor should we assume that there is just one singular culture but, rather, that there are many competing cultures.


During the 1970s human geography developed two important perspectives: Marxism and humanism. Both were, in part, a reaction to the quantification of geographical inquiry in the post-war period and its apparent inability to address or explain social and environmental problems in the world. Each sought to explain the geographical patterns of society with reference to broader causal processes—processes ignored in the mathematical models of quantitative geography. Marxist approaches explained, for example, uneven economic development in terms of the evolution of capitalist modes of production and the existence of invisible socio-economic structures that constrain human action. The British geographer David Harvey is an advocate of this Marxist analysis. Humanistic geographers, such as the American geographer Yi Fu Tan, emphasized the ability of humans to create and alter those structures by creating meaning in the world through, for example, artistic expression. The cultural geographers of the era saw both the importance and the weaknesses of both approaches. They sought, instead, influences from both within and outside the discipline to enable a more complex understanding of culture and society. This approach is often labeled the “new” cultural geography to differentiate it from the Saurian proposition. These new cultural geographers searched for ideas of culture that would reconcile Marxism with humanism, which recognized the importance of cultural expression but also made connections with socio-economic structures.

Many found such a reconciliation in the work of the British scholar Raymond Williams. Williams defined culture as the medium through which individuals and social groups negotiated their experience of the world that in turn gave rise to the expression of this negotiation in cultural practices such as music, art, and literature. Culture in Williams’s conception is a set of symbolic codes through which meaning is negotiated. Culture, it follows, is not given, as Sauer might have understood it, but is contested by different social groups. Different groups struggle to make their culture the one through which the world is understood. For example, consider the ways in which a European way of seeing the world and expressing its meaning (European culture) went hand in hand with colonization and empire-building in the 19th century. However, meanings are never imposed or received without some negotiation or struggle. Williams used the complex idea of hegemony to theorize this process. Hegemony is the process through which different social groups struggle for power. In a simple model of society, there is a dominant and a subordinate class, and culture is the arena in which the two classes compete for social control. However, absolute control is never fully achieved but always contested. In reality, there are many counter-hegemonic (or subordinate) cultures contesting meanings imposed by hegemonic (or dominant) cultures. Power relations are thus fluid and are never totally fixed but are contested in the realm of culture.

Williams’s was a definition of culture that allowed scholars to consider the ways in which cultural expression interrelated with the economic and political organization of society. Notably, it leaned itself to the Marxist analysis of how capitalist relations of production may be shaped and sustained by cultural expression in a dynamic and fluid relationship. So, for instance, uneven development between city and country was both shaped and reinforced by the very different and changing ways in which each was represented in art, music, and popular culture.

Armed with this notion of culture, since the early 1980s, new cultural geographers have explored a range of cultural and social practices. The work of new cultural geographers can be divided into two approaches, simply labeled the landscape school and the cultural politics school.

A The Landscape School

Within the landscape approach, the work of British cultural geographers Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels has been some of the most influential. They consider landscape as a political phenomenon, one that expresses ideology. They see landscape not as merely a physical thing, as Sauer would understand it, but as a way of seeing, specifically, a way of seeing that relates to ownership and power. In other words, the landscape was a way of seeing the world from a privileged position. For instance, the great landowners of 18th-century England controlled not only their estates but also dictated how those estates should be seen by commissioning paintings and landscaping the grounds of their country houses. So, the study of the landscape should include not simply the physical landscape but the various cultural representations of that landscape because it is these that give a landscape meaning and help us to understand the society that produces them.

For cultural geographers, the landscape can be a picture (a painting, photograph, or plan), it could be written (as a poem or a novel), or it could be constructed. The meaning of a landscape draws upon the cultural codes of the society for which it was made and it is the job of the cultural geographer to decode the landscape to find its meaning. For example, landscape paintings of 18th-century country estates generally show beautifully tended picturesque scenes, but conventions of the period and dominant (hegemonic) tastes dictated that the rural poor who actually produced and were a part of those landscapes were excluded from its representation. This method is also used for contemporary representations of landscapes, environments, and places, exploring, for example, the importance of the media in shaping and transmitting the meaning of particular places. This focus upon meaning in cultural geography is not an interest for its own sake but is founded upon an understanding that there is a direct relationship between the world of ideas and the physical world. For instance, there is an understanding that we act in particular ways in specific places because we hold meanings connected with them, meanings which are drawn from the cultural codes of our society.

B The Cultural Politics School

The cultural politics approach is similarly concerned with meaning and the process of hegemony. The work of those geographers is not so much concerned with representations as with other kinds of social practices related to different social groups. There is an assertion that social groups—be they based on class, age, gender, ethnicity, tastes, and so on—hold very particular perspectives on the world, or “maps of meaning”. These maps of meaning, which are sometimes also called geographical imaginations, are the object of study for cultural geographers in this school. They research, for instance, the ways in which different subcultures react against a dominant culture and the ways in which the battles between subordinate and dominant social groups frequently take the form of a clash of geographical imaginations. Dependent upon our social or cultural position, we see the world differently and attempt to assert our perspective on the world through the process of hegemony. For example, dominant, or hegemonic culture attempts to impose categories of race and in the process constructs very powerful imaginative geographies of the world such as Western perceptions of Africa, or the perception of inner-city neighborhoods as no-go areas.


To explore these imaginative geographies or maps of meaning, contemporary cultural geographers employ a range of methodological and investigative techniques. Many of these techniques were developed from other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities and have been adapted to suit the needs of geographers. The landscape school, whose emphasis is largely upon representation, has adapted the methods of iconography from art history and post-structuralist perspectives from literary criticism. These methods enable cultural geographers to work with various graphical and textual sources including paintings, photographs, novels, poetry, and architecture. The cultural politics school, in general, uses methods adapted from anthropology and sociology, especially ethnography. Much of the geographers’ work is based in actual communities and involves some form of participant observation, or semi-structured interviewing with respondents in the locale. Both schools have made use of methods developed in media studies for understanding the media and popular culture, especially those which concern comprehending the ways in which dominant meanings are transmitted and contested through the media.

Both the landscape school and the cultural politics school of cultural geography focus upon the production of geographical meaning and its associated power struggles. Specifically, they explore the ways in which social groups understand the world and give it meaning, which in turn dictates the ways in which they shape their world. Explicit to this approach is the understanding that it is generally the most powerful social groups who are more able to impose their version of the world and thereby have a greater influence on both its meaning and shape.

Contributed By:
Simon Rycroft