What it isn't makes it what it is

A Companion to Cultural Geography. First edition - Cultural Geography in Practice. First edition
May 28, 2004

Human geography is experiencing a "cultural turn" involving not only major changes to the long-established sub-discipline of cultural geography but also a growing stress on cultural variables in the study of economic, political and social topics.

Its exact nature is hard to discern: indeed the editors of A Companion to Cultural Geography "cannot (and would not want to) offer a single definition" of the field: all they offer as "a guiding principle" is "the contingent, diverse and contradictory manner in which human societies approach the hermeneutic project of making sense of their existential and material spaces for living". They largely define cultural geography by what it is not, presenting it as a challenge to "spatial model-building" characterised by "scientific reductionism and economism": cultural geographers emphasise "the symbolic dimension of human activities, the relevance of historical understanding and a commitment to interpretative epistemology".

The project's full nature is difficult for the outsider to unravel, therefore, and hence to judge whether it is making progress - though perhaps that concept, too, is challenged under the cultural turn. The difficulty is exacerbated by these two books.

If this is the "decade of culture" in geography, it is also the decade of "Companions" and "Handbooks", substantial "critical overviews" of the field. For the editors of this Companion , the cultural turn involves an introductory section setting the historical context and five other sections emphasising particular themes: theoretical intersections (with Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism and so on); nature/ culture; culture and identity; landscapes; and colonial and postcolonial geographies.

The essays are mostly of very high quality - well written, informative, and covering a wide canvas. But is there a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts? Indeed, it is difficult to see how some of the essays, such as David Livingstone's excellent piece on "The culture of science", qualify as cultural geography, except that they are characterised by neither scientific reductionism nor economism. And in many ways the most intriguing essay in the book is Clive Barnett's "A critique of the cultural turn", which the editors summarise in two sentences but offer no response to.

A new way of approaching a discipline calls for new methods; those associated with scientific reductionism and the dreaded positivism are of no use. Hence Cultural Geography in Practice , a book designed to help students find out "how it is done, and how they themselves can do it". This is achieved through 17 case studies in which academics explain how (and sometimes why) they undertook a specific piece of research, interleaved with 11 brief exemplars written by students sharing their first experiences of research.

This book, too, contains an interesting, readable and valuable set of essays - and once again, it is hard to discern a whole from the parts. The four sections - on writing cultural geography, living cultural geography, visualising cultural geography and performing cultural geography - overlap very little with those in the Companion . Indeed, about one-fifth of the Companion is given over to the subject of landscapes (probably the least successful part of the book), while there is virtually nothing about landscapes in the book on practice. Few of the contributors make any links to a coherent larger project. Their contributions are very much stand-alones, and one is left with questions. For example, after reading James Kneale's interpretation of William Gibson's science-fiction novels: this may tell us how a piece of research was/ can be done, but why do it? What project do these "how to" pieces contribute to?

On the other hand, the editors do identify 14 key concepts within their subdiscipline: power, discourse, social construction, representation, identity, situated knowledge, reflexivity, difference, gaze, deconstruction, iconography, semiotics, performance/performativity and embodiment. Each is considered in a separate "concept box" in the text and printed in bold every time it appears. Presumably these are at the core of the sub-discipline.

So, we have a body of work that is more readily defined by what it is not - or what it does not do - than by what it is, and one in which the "overviewers" and the "practitioners" apparently have little in common (only one contributor is common to both books). These two volumes contain a wealth of intriguing material. But it seems we are a long way from a definitive statement about cultural geography - if that is even considered desirable. Is cultural geography, at least for now, a series of braided channels that have yet to merge into a river?

Ron Johnston is professor of geography, Bristol University.

A Companion to Cultural Geography. First edition

Editor - James S. Duncan, Nuala C. Johnson and Richard H. Schein
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 529
Price - £80.00
ISBN - 0 631 23050 5

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