Shifts In Cultural Geographys Agenda Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

In the early 1980s, Jackson urged his peers to address questions of how culture operated, while Cosgrove similarly argued for a radical cultural geography that sought to understand symbolic productions and how they structured space (Scott 2004). This increased attention to the culture, not only exclusive to geography but widespread throughout social sciences and humanities, was linked to a broader dissatisfaction 'with existing conceptual tools and their ability to help understand the complexity and volatility of contemporary social change' (Gibson and Waitt 2009:414-415). The importance of understanding culture was recognized by academia as the Social Geography Study Group (SGSG) (of the Institute of British Geographers) was renamed as 'Social and Cultural Geography Study Group' (SCGSG) in the 1980s, and can be seen as a reconceptualization of human geography. This 'cultural turn' highlighted how 'the focus of disciplinary attention has been considerably enlarged since around the late 1980s, by attending to a much greater array of entitites, processes and relations that arguably warrant the designation of 'cultural' than had occurred previously' (Philo 2009:442). While there were fears about the imperialist effects of culture and its 'colonization' of the economic, political and social, this infiltration of the 'cultural' into almost all pores of the human geography discipline is rather a "place from which to ask valid and urgent questions of the world…The cultural has modified the geographical, making it possible to study more 'things', but also to bring more and more things under scrutiny…" (Anderson et. al. 2003: xix), and is what Philo (2009:445) meant by a 'deeply and broadly enculturated' human geography, which broke disciplinary boundaries to overlap with other divisions of social sciences and humanities. Despite doubts and criticisms (Barnett 2004), Scott (2004) suggested that the value of current works lie in how cultural geography continues to engage with other areas of scholarship, within and outside geography.

Intrinsic in this 'new' cultural geography was the criticism of structures and the Marxist school of thought as being essentialist, reductionist and class based. This however does not mean the outright rejection of the value of structures but rather that assumptions that the economy formed the basics of all social forms and oppression were problematic and inadequate in explaining other forms of oppression like racism and sexism. In addition, the dependence on structures for explaining social change was also increasingly problematic in light of the rapidly changing world. There was thus a need to move beyond the problematic superorganic idea of culture and systems/structures (Duncan 1980) to better understand the way 'in which ideas and attitudes about people and places infused social life, and were responsible for the ways that repression and cruelty materialized' (Gibson and Waitt 2009:415). This represented a shift towards poststructuralist approaches to understanding culture whereby it is no longer thought of as fixed or stable; it is instead fluid and constantly changing, a process of being rather than a possession. The value of poststructuralism thus "made it easier for cultural geographers to progress beyond simple descriptions, essentialist senses of uniqueness or determinist notions of construction…incorporating relativity and flux into geographical" (Shurmer-Smith 2002a:43-44)

The poststructural approach sought to unpack how ideas and knowledges about people are produced, maintained and circulated within societies. Culture geographers then became interested in interpretation and focused on representations of people and places for analysis. Landscapes as well as representations in books, media can all be considered a form of text from which it is possible to tease out the signs and symbols that embody meaning in all scales of life. For example, in deconstructing the map, a tool and embodiment of geography and scientific knowledge, Harley (1992:232) jolted the geography discipline by 'challenging its assumed autonomy as a mode of representation'. Cartography and maps then are 'ineluctably a cultural system' (ibid). However, Derrida (in Shurmer-Smith 2002) also reminded us that what is NOT written/represented is important as well. Unpacking these representations (or the lack of) thus meant that the 'new' cultural geography acknowledges that culture is inherently political in nature since people have the power to choose what is represented and what is not.

The focus on representations can also be linked to postcolonialism since it is a close alliance of poststructuralism (Shurmer-Smith 2002b). Postcolonial discourses seek to investigate and highlight the lasting legacies of imperialism, and often similarly employ deconstruction techniques in analyzing texts and representations, in critique of foundational and structural discourses. Often thought to be the catalyst and reference point for postcolonialism, Edward Said and Orientalism uncovered the ideological disguises of Western imperialism and showed how the 'Orient' was created and imagined so as to dominate and justify their colonization (Gandhi 1998).

The 'cultural turn' thus discovered the immaterialities/invisibilities of humans, social life and culture - perceptions, understandings, worldviews and religion, which were previously obscured and sidelined. This focus on values, meanings and ways of constructing knowledges highlighted the importance of understanding culture as being situated. During the then-known SGSG conference whereby new directions in cultural geography were discussed, Philo (1987:179) commented how most contributors saw 'relationships between situated cultures and myriad economic, social and political phenomena to be highly complex, extremely variable in space and time, and hence only properly appreciated through detailed empirical study'.

Running parallel to this acknowledgement of this 'situatedness', was a shift away from positivist and scientific methods that dominated the 1960s with the quantitative revolution that utilized mathematical modeling and focused upon spatial patterns. The key methodological axis of the cultural turn thus focused instead on qualitative methods like textual analysis and ethnography which were borrowed from literary studies and social anthropology respectively.

Current Concerns: ANT and NRT

A critique of the cultural turn was that the focus upon the immaterial and invisible facets of culture meant the loss of interest in material phenomena as well as the abandonment of material social relations. Similarly, Thrift (2000:1) suggested that the cultural turn has become 'culturalist', for "ignoring the gritty aspects of life like poverty". While this may suggest that cultural geographers have been caught up in a web of texuality, representations, deconstructions and meanings, and thus drifted away from the material world, Scott (2004) suggested that the material was by no means forgotten. Jackson (2000) proposed for a rematerializing of social and cultural geography and argued that the material world and culture provided a critical window to view globalization and its cultural impacts. This is because while globalization has resulted in the spread of particular cultures, local contexts still matter and that the interaction between local and global is mutually constitutive in complex webs of relations rather than unilaterally. Drawing upon some of his own works, Jackson (2000:10) then showed how the "meaning of material objects is embedded in specific cultural contexts as people use things to objectify social relationships…" through his studies on shopping, men's lifestyle magazines and South Asian commodity cultures, arguing that importance of materiality is when it makes a difference, rather than assuming its universality. This reclaiming of materiality can be seen in recent development and adoption of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in the late 1990s in human geography, with its grounding in material relationalism that recognizes the possibility of both humans and non-humans as actors. Objects and material thus are not passive components of our world but rather constantly work in relation with human actors in assembling social order (Johannesson and Baerenholdt 2009).

"On the whole, cultural geographers' use of theory remains resolutely representational…[and] dominated by tired constructionist themes" (Philo 2009:449). In recent years, there has been a shift away from representation, and towards performativity as the central focus of cultural geography. This came about with the recognition of the impossibility of objective representations of the world, despite researchers' efforts to be reflexive, since we are all coming from particular backgrounds and positions rather than disembodied and objective beings. There is thus a 'crisis of representation' (Marcus and Fischer, cited in Bennett and Shurmer Smith 2002). A shift to performative approaches to understanding the world is valuable in challenging forms of interpretation that depend on representations of meaning in texts. Performativity as a concept can be linked back to Judith Butler's work on the performance of gender and sexual identities, and is 'an attempt to find a more embodied way of rethinking the relationships between determining social structures and personal agency' (Nash 2000:654). Such a shift meant that there was a need for methodological advancement and move beyond the narrow range of interviews and ethnographic work to include methods in the performative arts in theatre, bodily techniques like dance and music therapy, performative writing, which "recuperate the spatial practices and bodily performances that may be detected within them" (Scott 2004:28). In response to criticisms that performative approaches have occluded politics, Thrift (2003:2021) argued that they aim to "make things… much more political…to expand the existing pool of alternatives and corresponding forms of dissent.". The links between performativity and the body as a site of action is what Thrift describes as non-representational theory (NRT), which is about 'practices…that shape the conduct of human beings towards others and themselves in particular sites' ( cited in Nash 2000:655). NRT thus expands understanding and knowing of space beyond sight by emphasizing embodied and other sensory pathways.

The focus upon experiences and thus the body as a site of experiences is important for understanding our emotions which serve as a "connective tissue that links experiential geographies of the human psyche and physique with(in) broader social geographies of place" (Davidson and Milligan 2004: 524). Emotional geographies thus recognize the interactional quality in human experiences between us and the environment, and is a response to the dominantly visual focus of work by taking into account the corporeal and sensual which involves touch, taste and hearing in addition to sight. Increasing literature on the field of emotions has led to a claim of an 'emotional turn' (Bondi 2005).

Expanding on the phenomenology and NRT, the psychoanalytical understanding of 'affect' is increasingly being discussed. Dewsbury (2009:21) defined it as being "encountered prior to any subjective framing and are rendered more in terms of felt intensity which produces a kind of understanding before it can be signified and articulated". In highlighting the importance of understanding affect, Thrift (2004) argued that affect is increasingly being engineered and that there is a need to rethink what constitutes the political. For example, Carter and McCormack (2006) showed how there is a need for the expanded understanding of relations between cinematic films and geopolitical intervention, by looking at the magnification and anchoring of affect through cinematic techniques in the film 'Black Hawk Down'. While emotions and affectual geographies share certain similarities, we should not conflate them for they are conceptually different (Pile 2010). The fundamental difference is that of 'thought/cognitive' vis-à-vis 'affect/non-cognitive' whereby the emotional geographies focus on the psychological subject of the body ( rational feelings) while affectual geographies see the subject as non-psychological as affect is conceptualized as in the realm of pre-consciousness and unconsciousness.

Future Directions

While geographers have engaged in discussion and paid attention to cultural politics, it is postulated that "the most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another" (Huntington 1993:25). In response to Huntington's work, Said (2001) provided a scathing attack that it was simplistic and essentialist thinking that sought to en-frame people according to spatial distribution while neglecting the complexities of culture. Nevertheless, what is important to note is the potential that cultural differences will be the source of politics in future. Traditional sources of conflicts can be found in struggles over identity politics in class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race. Culture is thus the medium from which different views of the world are contested (Rycroft 2009).

The contemporary era has produced new cleavages of conflict on both the macro and micro scalars of humanity. First, the global war on terror (GWOT) has created an international division of the West (led by U.S.) against the 'axis of evil' comprising of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. This term was coined by then U.S. President George W. Bush in 2002 to categorize these nations as a threat to global peace by seeking weapons of mass destruction. In the book The Colonial Present, Derek Gregory (2004:11) spoke of how the GWOT is a "violent return of the colonial past, with its split of geographies of "us" and "them", "civilization" and "barbarism", "Good" and "Evil" ". Secondly, on a more micro scale, increased modernity and development has led to cultural politics between indigenous people and the people of modernity. For example, a river can be a symbolic and natural form of capital for the indigenous Skokomish people but is simultaneously a potential hydropower site for private developers (Lansing et. al. 1998). Also, Escobar (1998) argued that 'biodiversity' was a discourse created by the scientific world that saw the need to preserve nature in light of environmental degradation, which priviledged the developed nations of modernity, often neglecting communities that live and depend on nature for survival. In addition, global environmental and climate change has also provided a new platform to study cultural politics as showed by Boykoff (2008) who investigated media coverage of climate change in the UK and explored the cultural politics of its discourse. The conflict over values and meanings by different people is what can be described as a 'culture war' that "center as much on questions of identity (personal, ethnic and national), social values, and control over meanings, as they do on more "traditional battlegrounds of territory, economy, and military might" (Mitchell 2000:5).

In terms of theory, advocates of ANT have increasingly distanced themselves away from it for the search for the end-point of network order has proved futile due to its multi-dimensional complex web of never-ending relations (Johannesson and Baerenholdt 2009). Nevertheless, the focus on certain parts of the network and non-human objects can be valuable in certain cases, like the role of the internet and mobile phones in understanding the maintenance of links of transnational communities (Collins 2009). On the other hand, affect, performativity and NRT looks set to blossom. For example tourism studies have broadened its approach to explore the relationship between bodies and tourist space (Edensor 2009). Landsberg (1997) study on the politics of empathy in museums can be considered a precursor to the growing literature on affect. Performativity has also been used as a frame of analysis of 'orchestrated museums' whereby 'space, object, and viewer converge in a highly refined theatrical performance' (Casey 2005:81). Such research show the potential of research in understanding humans in spaces, whereby there is increasing manipulation of space to induce intense feelings and affect. Other than tourist destinations, sites of consumption like shopping malls can also be studied.


Cultural geography as a discipline has seen tremendous changes in the past three decades since the 'cultural turn' in the 1980s. Adopting a poststructuralist perspective, it has focused upon the immaterial world of meanings and values that were previously obscured. This is done through the deconstruction of texts to tease out subtle meanings inherent in them. This interest in interpretations meant that texts and their representations became increasingly important in the study of cultural geography. As culture is argued to not exist (Mitchell 1995), and that it is practiced rather than what people have (Shurmer-Smith 2002c), recent developments of ANT and NRT in human geography both encapsulate this as they seek to resist a particular fixed form of social theory by highlighting the fluidity and complexities of the human world. These developments at the same time seek to reclaim the material of which critics of cultural geography have argued it has drifted away from. Concerns about the objectivity of representations and the 'crisis of representation' in particular have led a turn towards performativity and NRT that focuses upon the corporeal and embodied ways of understanding, which have been termed the 'emotional' or 'affectual' turn. While ANT has been too complex a theory to search for an end, it is still valuable if we are to look at particular parts of this network of connections between humans and non-human actors. With regards to NRT and performativity, they can be applied within and outside geography.

As culture is politics by another name (Mitchell 2000), the changing nature and landscapes of the world today has offered different contextual platforms to engage the cultural politics (and war) as well as new areas of focus. Rapid globalization that facilitates the flow of people results in greater interaction between different groups of people from which conflicts may arise due to different values and meanings. As we have seen, pressures of increasing modernity and development can result in clashes of civilizations over environmental/nature. In addition, changing global environment can as well serve as a point from which to investigate cultural politics. These areas of conflict in today's times thus look set to be intensified and remain on the cultural geographers' radar for the decades to come.