Introduction to Cultural Geography

Cultural geography is the study of impact of environment on cultural landscape and vice-versa. In simple words, the cultural geography studies the way environment and human culture shape each other across different regions of the world. Carl O Sauer is considered the Father of Cultural Geography. Culture in geography is not just the way of life, food, dresses, dances etc. but it is a product of man-environment relationship. A student of geography would often ask what is culture and what is the distinct outlook of geography towards culture! To answer those questions, one must understand the meaning of culture, ways of its development and different components of culture. Therefore, this article addresses these questions.

What is Culture?

The word culture is derived from the Latin word ‘cultus’ meaning tilling, refining and worship. It means cultivating and refining a thing to such an extent that the end product evokes our admiration and respect. Culture is a way of living a socially respectable life and consists of food habits, religion, dressing, music, thinking process, tradition, festivals and outlook etc. Above all, it is a human made complex environment which includes all tangible and intangible products of group life. Preceding generation transmits the culture from itself to the successive generation. For example, the lack of agriculture in very cold climates necessitates the hunting of animals for food. Contrarily, the people of fertile plain with warm climate eat more grains and vegetables.

How do cultures develop?

Culture is a result of human’s interaction with its environment. There are three major viewpoints regarding human-environment relationship and resultant cultural landscape.

  1. Determinism: This means that the environment is the controller of human activities. It controls what humans eat, drink, wear etc. It also determines their temperament. For example, the determinists consider the people living in cold regions as harsh and blunt. Similarly, they consider the people of hot and humid regions as timid and lazy.
  2. Possibilism: Lucien Febvre and Vidal De La Blache are the proponents of this approach. They proposed that nature provides us with immense opportunities and possibilities. Hence, it is upto human beings to use those possibilities with the help of technology. Therefore, the human culture is not a slave to environment but it is the human knowledge and culture which determines the use of natural resources. In this sense, possibilism is the complete opposite of determinism.
  3. Neo-Determinism: Griffit Taylory is proponent of this approach. He argued that it is true that the environment provides us with possibilities, however, there is a limit upto which we can exploit those possibilities. If we exploit our environment beyond repair, human knowledge and technology will not be able to control the negative repercussions of the actions of human beings. Hence, culture evolves as a result of a sustainable relationship between humans and the environment.

Components of Culture

i) Cultural Traits

It refers to the individual elements of the culture such as behaviour, values, beliefs, norms, adaptations etc.

ii) Cultural Complex

A Cultural complex refers to the combination of different traits in different ways.

iii) Cultural System

It refers to the interconnected cultural complexes.

iv) Cultural Region

It is a portion of the Earth surface that has homogeneous cultural traits, complex and system. Furthermore, it has a distinct cultural identity from other regions. There are three characteristics of a cultural region. Firstly, cultural regions are of varied sizes. Secondly, they may be rural or urban. Thirdly and lastly, different cultural regions may share some common traits.

V) Cultural Realm

A large geographical region where cultural traits maintain homogeneity. Futher, a cultural realm may contain many different cultures with some fundamental similarities. Blanche and Spencer encouraged the geographical study of cultural realms.

There are different variables which are used to identify cultural regions. For instance, economic activity, language, religion, social customs, social setting, spirituality etc. are some major variables of cultural distinction. Based on these variables, Brock Webb has divided world into Four Major Cultural Realms.