Cultural geography, Human geography, Social geography

RELATED TERMS: Geography; Scape metaphors; Anthropo-Scenes

Those parts of the discipline of geography which are of most value to narrative environment design and analysis are cultural geography, human geography or social geography.

Three eras of cultural geography can be identified, according to Merle Patchett (2010): traditional, new and more-than-representational.

Traditional cultural geography is primarily an American field of scholarship, linked closely to the mid-20c work of Carl Sauer. He took the landscape as the defining unit of geographic study. For Sauer, while cultures and societies both developed out of their landscape, they also shaped their landscape. It is this interaction between the ‘natural’ or ‘physical’ landscape and human communities which creates the ‘cultural landscape’. Cultural geographers following this tradition focused on studying the range of human interventions in transforming the ‘natural’ or ‘physical’ landscape. They were most interested in quantifying material culture, such as buildings and architectures, agricultural technologies and other industries.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a quantitative revolution in geography and interest in cultural geography declined as human geographers turned their attention to developing the discipline as a spatial science. However, during the 1980s, the critique of positivism in geography instigated a renewed interest in cultural geography in North America and particularly in the UK.

This ‘new’ cultural geography had different theoretical assumptions, methods and subjects than those of traditional cultural geography. Rather than focusing on material culture, mostly of non-modern and rural societies, the ‘new’ cultural geographers of the 1980s and 1990s examined culture in contemporary and urban societies, and focused primarily on investigating non-material culture, such as, for example, identity, ideology, power, meaning and values. Among the main themes that were incorporated into ‘new’ cultural geography were colonialism and post-colonialism; postmodernism; popular culture and consumption; gender and sexuality; ‘race’, anti- racism and ethnicity; ideology; language; and media. ‘New’ cultural geographers also drew on a diverse set of theoretical traditions, including Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis.

In turn, this ‘new’ cultural geography, with its emphasis on identity, is challenged by non-representational theory, as formulated by Nigel Thrift. Instead of studying and representing social relationships, non-representational theory focuses upon practices, i.e. how human and nonhuman formations are enacted or performed, not simply on what is produced. This is a post-structuralist theory drawing in part from the works of Michel Foucault, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and phenomenonologists such as Martin Heidegger. However, it also weaves into its rich tapestry the perspectives of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Bruno Latour and Michel Serres. Non-representational theory’s focus upon hybrid formations parallels the conception of ‘hybrid geographies’ developed by Sarah Whatmore, where she prompted cultural geographers to attend to the ‘more-than-human’ geographies in which we live.

It is perhaps this last approach, with its emphasis on hybrid formations, that is of most interest from a narrative environment perspective, although not in the form of abstract accounts of body-practices and phenomenological accounts of ‘being-in-the-world’ but rather in the form of an approach which enables exploration of the interactions between representations, discourses, material entities, spaces and practices, considered as actants and moments of actantiality.

As Patchett notes, given the diversity of approaches available, cultural geography is perhaps best characterised as a living tradition of disagreements, passions, commitments and enthusiasms.

At a general level, Anderson (2009) contends that cultural geography seeks to explore the intersections of context and culture, exploring how cultural activities and contexts interact, influence and perhaps even become synonymous with one another. The product of the intersection between context and culture is identified as place, constituted by imbroglios of traces, i.e. marks, residues or remnants left in place by cultural life. Traces are most commonly considered as material in nature, including buildings, signs, statues, graffiti, in the form of discernible marks on physical surroundings. Nevertheless, they can also be non-material, including, for example, activities, events, performances or emotions.

Traces tie cultures and geographies together, influencing the identity of both. As a consequence of the constant production of traces, places are dynamic entities in fluid states of transition, as new traces react with existing or older ones to change the meaning and identity of the location.

Cultural geography, by interrogating these traces, their interactions, and repercussions, critically appraises the cultural ideas and preferences motivating them, and the reasons for their significance, popularity and effect. Cultural geographers, therefore, Anderson argues, analyse and interrogate all the agents, activities, ideas and contexts that combine together to leave traces in places.

Again, this resonates with how a narrative environment might be understood.


Anderson, J. (2009). Understanding cultural geography: places and traces. London, UK: Routledge.

Patchett, M. (2010). What is cultural geography? Experimental Geography in Practice. Available from [Accessed 2 September 2016].