The Themes of Cultural Geography Rethought

Philip L. Wagner**

A dozen years ago Marvin Mikesell and I published our Readings in Cultural Geography.1 It seems that no one since that time has been so rash as we were in our bold attempt to give a structure to that portion of our discipline. Apart from articles selected from a rather large initial harvest to compose as unified a logical system as possible, there were  not only pointed introductions to each section, picking out the main consistencies and key transitions, but also a longish introductory essay entitled "Themes of Cultural  Geography,"2 the purpose of which was to give definitive shape to our conception of what had been accomplished up to then in the subdiscipline.  

I take this opportunity to renounce my earlier conception of cultural geography, as presented in the Readings, and through reexamination of its bases and its uses to set out  in search of more adaptable, productive ways of interpreting and interrelating the works of individual cultural geographers.

Culture and Culture Area

Looking now at that essay on the "Themes of Cultural Geography," I am struck, as an entire generation of students must have been, with a kind of smugness inherent in the  notion of the five neat themes that summed up everything. It was almost theological. Even more apparent, however, was the portrayal of cultural geography as the study of small, reasonably isolated, nearly homogeneous communities.

One can take seriously the notion of culture as closely shared symbols, norms, values, habits, and even possessions when one pictures it as nestled in a mountain valley  somewhere, populated by a thousand or so folk all by themselves, but it seems less plausible to apply such a notion to the United States or China. Cultural geographers and their spiritual kin in anthropology and archaeology could formerly find isolates enough to keep them busy, and our position in 1962 still reflected the predominantly rustic,  small-community orientation of the subject. Everyone seems to know this by now. This focus may, however, have retarded our investigation of the more extensive populations and their ways, and consequently hindered cultural geography's engagement in some interesting and urgent kinds of work. I am sure that the idea of culture  needs rethinking, in order that it may become a tool for larger tasks.  

The idea of the culture area as presented in the introductory essay likewise is outdated now. It was even then too static,  resting as it did on work done many years before and all too much depending on the accidental circumstance of natural or political boundaries for its seeming validity. We could sometimes catch a glimpse of actual culture  areas, but we did not really know what they were or how they worked. Henceforth it ought to be sufficient to pay due respect to those honorable ghosts of ancient culture  that we so long took to be the real and living thing. We need not deny the persistence of the ghosts of Roman legionnaires and colonists in Germany and Libya, nor overlook  the residues of all the other empires and associations that presided over great diffusions of ideas and goods and peoples. But, as I have argued elsewhere,3 "culture area" can mean a much more essential and dynamic thing, an extended human population living in intense and regular communication: a community. I know of scarcely any  geographic work that really takes the measure of a people bound together by their manifold communication systems.

Cultural Landscape

Again, the image of the cultural landscape as repository of past monuments and result of former exploitation is, apart from what it may suggest of ecological lessons, another ghost story. What counts is how contemporary people, or people of some definite past period, live or have lived in their surroundings, and use or have used them to express themselves through symbolism and, above all, how people learn from the transformed environment and are formed by it. Evaluations vary for the same environment and  change in time. The ruins of Rome were convenient piles of bricks to the builders of the Renaissance, and Gettysburg is a picnic ground. The cultural landscape does,  nonetheless, represent something more than mere resources. It can be symbolic, and function in communication. Without such landscapes to learn in and from, perhaps we could not learn at all to live in society.  

If the cultural landscape makes more sense when viewed as the environment of learning and communication, then perhaps the most fitting application of the term "culture"  itself is to the learning process. That humanity "possesses culture" has long been known and widely proclaimed. It is more momentous, I think, that all humanity participates in culture, that is, in the same single and ultimately unifying process of exchanging ideas and examples. What we call diffusion has, sporadically at least, linked all mankind in one true unity. Our species probably could not have remained, or become, a single one, had learning not been shared so freely and so widely, always overshadowing the  importunities of natural environments.  

Culture History and Cultural Ecology

The other two themes of the essay were cultural ecology and culture history. The former, despite brave beginnings, is still mostly a pious program so far as geographers go. A few meticulous anthropologists have tried it, but have tended to become preoccupied with associated problems in kinship or semantics. As for culture history, an old and honorable endeavor, I think it gives the necessary key for opening the door to new conceptions of what has been going on in cultural geography. We have traditionally appealed to culture history to account for the cultural peculiarities of those same small pure isolate communities I mentioned earlier. Migrations and trade contacts, as well as military and political events, have properly been seen as mechanisms of cultural spread and change. The connections between such causal mechanisms and their purported consequences are often vague, however. It is not easy to account for the behavior and prejudices of a Parisian businessman on the basis of Caesar and Charlemagne. I  acknowledge that attempts are made. Again, how do we get scruffy Vlachs out of proud legionnaires? The general course of culture history, in some parts of the world, can indeed be discerned. For the most part, however, written documents or archaeological remains are more reliable indicators than the run of geographic evidence as such, which tends only to echo these firmer testimonies.

The fault, it seems to me, lies in the vague and general depiction of the actors in our culture history. Unlike the histories of kings and battles, it attests few heroes and recalls few definite events. Specific changes are usually hard to pinpoint in so large a field. We tend to be able occasionally to recover a bit of the story of the individual, perhaps, or of a people, or more commonly of a "tribe" or something equally ectoplasmic.

Who were the Huns and Avars, though, and even more important, what kind of thing was Attila's "horde"? The identifications and meanings are obscure, and many of the vital circumstances lie beyond our reach.

Concepts of "Culture”

If vagueness and obscurity are faults in culture history, I maintain that they can still plague contemporary cultural studies  too. Our subjects most commonly are either individuals presumed to think and behave virtually the same, as in the blessed  small community, or peoples or nations similarly seen as homogeneous. At best, we get our personality and character served  up by regions like the "South." Do individuals really "possess culture," or do peoples and only peoples? This is a fundamental question.

No single individual, even in the small and ostensibly near uniform community, can fully represent a culture. Other individuals, whom we must regard as participating in the culture of  the small community, must necessarily behave differently. Remember, there are men and women. So the culture must be somehow an aggregate or composite—even way out in the hills.  Aggregating mightily, one can speak of national cultures.  

The chief attribute of such a broad concept is its uselessness. It may be possible to list all French traits exemplified anywhere by Frenchmen and by French women; but so what? The fact is that culture has to be seen as carried in specific, located, purposeful, rule-following, and rule-making groupings of people communicating and interacting with one another.

The concept works most usefully in geography, I think, when so defined. It is behavior, that is, meaningful activity, not mere activity as such, that counts, and behavior is activity interpreted conventionally. The individual alone is not the fitting unit for description and analysis of meaningful behavior and its consequences. The individual as a group member is a proper subject, though. On the other hand, the nation or people is too large to grasp, and few specific acts of behavior can best be referred directly to it as a context. Smaller, more immediately apparent units, mostly groups of people physically together, are the primary kinds of locus. We should learn this from linguistics.

When such groups endure and function over a period of time, they hold special interest for us.

Institutions As a Focus

I want to advocate attention to all kinds of institutions as geographical phenomena. An institution, in the commonly accepted sense, is a social form whose actual personnel may vary but whose major attributes and structure are relatively fixed. It often has a specific physical location—as in common parlance, where any large, public-looking building surrounded by a wall and lawns is so designated. It ordinarily functions in and for all or part of the population of a well-demarcated area or domain. It possesses and serves an explicit human purpose and operates according to definite rules, restricted in their scope to correspond to its limited purposes. It employs certain skills and practices, sometimes even a linguistic form of its own, and commands definite resources and equipment. An institution is distinctive geographically, behaviorally, and socially.

Most of the human behavior of interest to geography is institutionally motivated and managed. Much of the meaning we attach to human activity derives its significance as behavior from its institutional context. Such units as the family, the church, the club or other recreational body, the court, the workshop, the school, or the bureaucratic office function as differentiators of behavior. Cultural geography, in order to cope with man's role in changing the earth, comes consciously or otherwise to focus on the traditions embodied in institutions and perpetuated by them as effective cultural subsystems, or subcultural units, which occur in the real world at such a scale and in such kinds of situations as to make them perhaps the most telling vehicles of man's geographic influence.

We should cease worrying about whole cultures and the culture of the individual and pay great heed to institutional subcultures. Thus, and only thus, I think, is cultural geography able to contend with such complexity as it encounters in the workaday contemporary urban and industrial nations. Perhaps it can only then justly comprehend the rest of the world. Some pioneering work may be mentioned: studies of the plantation within and beyond the tropics; the historical geography of the Hansa trading cities; the story of the Spanish Mesta; the reconstruction of the Spanish missionary domains in Mexico. Still, to my knowledge, there have been but few geographical or anthropological studies of individual business concerns, recreational associations, military units, churches, or families as elements of cultural geography. The best results so far perhaps have occurred with studies of such subjects as the  spatial aspects of hospital care or types of farm management units.  

The ideas and skills transmitted by, or as, a culture produce their effect on the earth predominantly through meaningful activity controlled by instituted human groups. The spatial, ecological, and cultural properties of such institutions  will, I think, become the major concern of cultural geographers in years to come.

If I were now, with Mikesell, to rewrite our introduction, I hope that we would rather soon agree to view our cultural geography in this new way, emphasizing what I may call the institutional scale in human geography. We might have to look at work on novel themes like floodplains and regional development for the most thought-provoking examples. But even there, I think, the "application of the idea of culture to geographic problems" would prove both a startling novelty and a fruitful development.

Attention should be given, of course, not only to the spatial aspects of institutions, but to their ecological and cultural sides. The role of human beings operating institutionally to change or maintain their environments becomes the primary concern of cultural ecology. Similarly, the propagation and implementation of ideas, that is, culture, remains the key to behavior, institutional and otherwise. Further, we ought to comprehend the flow of information and expression of tradition in and through each institution, as well as its material manifestations, as keys to its ecological and spatial aspects. The time for crude aggregation of data is past. Many of the serious and loyal objections to the quantitative movement in geography have centered on the use of undifferentiated masses of numerical data, such as census material, in an inappropriate way. More structure is needed, and the legitimate use of more carefully structured and often more naturalistic models can improve our insight into reality. The introduction of concepts of structure at the  institutional scale, affecting communication, spatial order, and ecology, may well become the task of cultural geography, and serve as a corrective to less sophisticated mechanistic and aggregative thinking.  

All together, our human institutions are the most interesting of all of man's creations—great wonders of the world. We ought to take more heed of their geographies.** Despite my somewhat hortatory tone in this discussion, I think the need is primarily for a good logical description of the reasoning and implications of work actually being accomplished by geographers using cultural concepts, rather than for a totally new prescription for future work. Nonetheless, the idea of culture in particular could yield much fuller understanding of institutional behavior in geographic context than has so far been attained.

** Presidential address presented at the annual banquet of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, Corvallis Country Club, Corvallis, Oregon, June 13, 1974. Dr. Wagner is Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6.

1 Philip L. Wagner and Marvin W. Mikesell, eds., Readings in Cultural Geography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

2 Ibid., pp. 1-24.

3 Philip L. Wagner, "Cultural Landscapes and Regions: Aspects of Communication," in Paul W. English and Robert C. Mayfield, eds., Man, Space, and Environment. Concepts in Contemporary Human Geography (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 55-68.


“The themes of cultural geography rethought,” (presidential address) Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, volume 35, 1975. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1975. Pp. 7-15.