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Cultural Geography: Cultural Geography Home


What is Cultural Geography?

The study of the relationship between culture and place. In broad terms, cultural geography examines the cultural values, practices, discursive and material expressions and artefacts of people, the cultural diversity and plurality of society, and how cultures are distributed over space, how places and identities are produced, how people make sense of places and build senses of place, and how people produce and communicate knowledge and meaning. Cultural geography has long been a core component of the discipline of geography, though how it has been conceived, its conceptual tools, and the approach to empirical research has changed quite markedly over time.

In the late 19th century, cultural geography sought to compare and contrast different cultures around the world and their relationship to natural environments. This approach has its roots in the anthropogeographyof Friedrich Ratzel and, in common with anthropology, it aimed to understand cultural practices, social organizations, and indigenous knowledges, but gave emphasis to people’s connections with and use of place and nature. This form of cultural geography was adopted, extended, and promoted in North American geography in the early 20th century, especially through the Berkeley School and Carl Sauer. They were particularly interested in how people adapted to environments, but more particularly how people shaped the landscape through agriculture, engineering, and building, and how the landscape was reflective of the people who produced it.

While this form of cultural geography is still practised, it was challenged in the 1980s by new thinking that created what has been termed ‘new cultural geography’, which led to a broader cultural turn in the discipline. During this period, cultural geographers started to engage with new theoretical ideas within social theory, including humanism, structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, and post-colonialism, recasting cultural geography in a number of significant ways. Most crucially, culture itself was conceived as a fluid, flexible, and dynamic process that actively constructs society, rather than simply reflecting it.

From the perspective of new cultural geography, landscape was not simply a material artefact that reflected culture in straightforward ways, but was laden with symbolic meaning that needed to be decoded with respect to social and historical context, using new techniques such as iconography. Similarly, it was contended that other cultural practices, artefacts, and representations needed to be theorized and analysed in much more contextual, contingent, and relational ways, sensitive to the workings of difference and power. Here, new cultural geographers argued that cultural identities are not essentialized and teleological, but rather need to be understood as constitutive of complex power geometries giving rise to all kinds of hydridity and diversity.

As a result, since the 1980s cultural geography has developed to examine the broad range of ways in which culture evolves and makes a difference to everyday life and places. Studies have examined the cultural politicsof different social groups with respect to issues such as disability, ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, and how the processes and practices of othering, colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, and religion shape the lives of people in different locales and contexts fostering senses of belonging and exclusion. Others have looked at how culture is reflected and mediated through representations such as art, photography, music, film, and mass media, and material cultures such as fashion, food, heritage, and memorials/monuments, as well as the practices of creating knowledge and communicating through language. More recently still, a move towards non-representational theory has developed the focus beyond representations. Through the cultural turn, there has also been a move to explore how culture intersects with other forms of geographical inquiry such as the economic and political, arguing that these domains are deeply inflected and shaped by cultural processes. Consequently, cultural geography is one of the most vibrant fields in human geography today.

Source: Castree, N., Kitchin, R., & Rogers, A. (2013). "Cultural geography." In A Dictionary of Human Geography. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 14 Mar. 2017

Subject Guide

Kaia Henrickson's picture
Kaia Henrickson


Thanks to Richard Simpson, Assistant Professor of Humanities, Geography, and Environmental Studies at UAS, for contributing ideas, resources, and content for this library guide.