What is cultural
geography and how has it evolved

The discipline of cultural geography has been around since
the 16th century where geography was rooted in exploration and
discovery. It went through three phases: Geography fabulous, Geography militant
and Geography triumphant (Anderson, 2009, p.p. 14-15). The focus of this essay,
however, will be on the explosion of cultural geography that occurred in the
early 20th century and afterwards due to Carl Sauer’s retaliation to
Ellen Churchill Semple and her idea of environmental determinism (Peet, 1998). Since
then cultural geography has developed into three notable schools: Traditional cultural
geography; Representational cultural geography and Non-representational cultural
geography. The following essay will detail a brief history of cultural
geography, discussing each school and how they define cultural geography as
well as illustrating cultural geography’s evolution through history.  

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Before Sauer
and traditional cultural geography was the geographical practice of environmental
determinism. Ellen Churchill Semple developed the theory of environmental
determinism after interpreting the works of Friedrich Ratzel and his ideas on
the nature-culture relationship (Frenkel, 1992, p.2) Semple popularised the
view that society and culture was shaped by the natural
environment/geographical location. She suggested that progress is the “increasing
exploitation of natural advantages” (Adams, 2011, p.5) and that more developed
civilisations were better at using their natural resources/landscape and were
therefore more ‘evolved’, justifying the imperialistic nature of America and Europe
at the time. Her views led to geography being legitimised as a subject as they
supported commercial expansion and allowed the state to expand and exploit
other nations as they believed they were more socially developed, therefore
they could use the landscape more efficiently. Her views were problematic and
are rarely used in modern cultural geography due to their connections with
social Darwinism and imperialism, but she was a huge hand in getting geography
recognised academically and led to the ‘explosion’ of cultural geography  that was kick started by Sauer.

Traditional cultural
geography developed from the work of Carl Sauer and the Berkley school of
Geography during the 1920’s in direct contrast to Semple and Ratzel’s work on
environmental determinism. Sauer developed the view that landscape is shaped by
human activity (culture); human ecological dominance affects the course of
organic evolution (Peet, 1985, p. 328) opposed to the landscape leading to
human evolution. Sauer sought to bring cultural geography back into the field as
he believed that observation/empirical research was key to studying the
relationship between the physical, material landscape and culture (Anderson,
2009, p.19). This brought about the study of artefacts in the cultural
landscape, studying the history of an environment by looking at the ‘scars’
left on the landscape by each cultural group. Sauer called the layering of cultural
scars in the landscape ‘palimpsests’ as like a palimpsest landscapes are
surfaces with multiple ‘inscriptions’ that build up over time (Anderson, 2009,
p.20). Sauer’s approach to cultural geography is still widely practiced today such
as in Rancho Santa Margarita, Orange County, California where land use and
presentation is the main focus for community life, with the city council
legislating on appropriate behaviour/appearance (Ryecroft, 2017). Overall
traditional cultural geography focuses on how humans shape the landscape both
in a historical and modern context.  It
can be argued that this approach to cultural geography is too focused on rural
areas and cultural products rather than the processes that create the products
(keough, 2016). Traditional cultural geography is too critical of modern
society and fails to see the value of urban culture.

Representational
cultural geography was established in the 1960s in opposition to Sauer’s work,
it “emerged in an era where
sign, symbol, and meaning in the landscape and the processes of cultural
landscape creation became important considerations” (keough, 2016). For representational cultural Geographers humans were no
longer the ‘agents’ creating landscapes but were the active producers of
culture and its processes (Anderson, 2009, p.27)  Culture was no longer this invisible being
controlling what people make, culture is people and what people do. The way
Representational cultural geographers see landscape is as a combination of both
material (place) and mental (ideas), like a book people can interpret places as
they please and often in different ways (Cresswell, 1996, p. 13) this explains
the variation in culture across the globe as different groups of people have different
views and ideologies. The study of ‘cultural place’ led to the expansion of cultural
geography as there were more objects of study, place could be urban, rural,
metaphorical or film it didn’t have to be a material landscape like before as
they places are formed by human ideas, symbols and meanings. They see culture
as more fluid and dynamic; it can shift depending on social values and
interpretation. This focus, however, on theory and the abstract could be argued
to distract geographers from the importance of everyday actions in people’s
lives. People do not go through life looking at the deeper meaning of landscape
all the time, not all actions are thought through, not all aspects of culture
are seen as ‘symbolic’.

Non-representational
cultural geography looks at ‘everyday geographies’