Cultural Geography

The near infinite varieties of culture are what make human society exciting and life worth living. Think of it: where would we be without art, music, dance, language, story-telling, religion, cuisine, and movies? How would we communicate? What would we believe in? How could we even have real identities?

Cultural Geography Cultural Geography

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    Culture goes hand in glove with geography. Wherever people go, culture tags along. People leave cultural artifacts in the places they settle, fashioning a cultural landscape. Read on to find out more about the fascinating ways that cultural geography shapes not just us, but the whole planet.

    Culture in Human Geography

    Culture includes mentifacts like religion and language, artifacts like books and movies, and sociofacts such as gender identity. Culture helps create identity, meaning, and continuity in human society.

    In human geography, culture is not just limited to cultural geography. Economic geography recognizes that one of the reasons that economic activities vary from place to place is cultural difference. Political geography derives much of its insights from cultural geography, given that so many political issues that involve ethnicity, boundaries, and territory stem from cultural differences. Agricultural geography is also based in culture, and in population geography, the roots of migration are often cultural.

    Therefore, cultural geography can be seen as a fundamental part of human geography. This is because, if we want to understand a human society, we naturally must first ask what ethnicity or ethnicities it includes, what languages are spoken, and what religions are practiced. Without cultural geography, it is largely impossible to interpret even data like population or income. So, you will see that in almost every geographical study, culture is key to understanding.

    Introduction to Cultural Geography

    Let's take a look at the foundations of this critical field.

    History of Cultural Geography

    US cultural geography grew out of Carl Sauer's rejection of Environmental Determinism (more on this below). Sauer (1889-1975), a geographer at the University of California-Berkeley, was the "godfather" of the Berkeley School of Latin Americanist Geography. His students, and their students, fanned out across the geography departments of the US, diffusing "Sauerian" cultural geography far and wide.

    Sauer advocated the study of cultural landscapes over time to understand the imprint societies have on the physical landscape. His most famous article on this topic was 'The Morphology of Landscape' (1925).1

    Cultural geographers are skilled in "reading the landscape," which means interpreting places, spaces, and regions based on the cultural artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts found there. They might find this evidence of culture by talking to people, taking photos, or poring over maps, for example. To them, the cultural landscape is like a palimpsest, a type of ancient manuscript whose pages have been erased and written over numerous times. Every landscape is a jumble of "texts" you can interpret from different eras and cultures. And some geographers go deeper than just looking—they also analyze the tastes, smells, and sounds of the cultural landscape.

    Since the 1970s, cultural geographers practicing the so-called "new cultural geography" have searched far and wide for inspiration in their quests to interpret the cultural landscape in ever more complex and nuanced ways. Marxism, feminism, cultural studies, post-structural philosophy, and many other approaches have been used to turn cultural geography into a highly theoretical field that is as varied as culture itself. Within this variety of subjects and approaches, some commonalities stand out.

    Basic Concepts in Cultural Geography

    Below are some commonly invoked geographic terms that cultural geographers use.


    In cultural geography, places are geographic locations that humans imbue with meaning. This meaning is often called the Sense of Place.

    Cultural Identity

    Each culture or subculture has defining characteristics that make up a separate identity. Individual people can have multiple cultural identities. Cultural identities shift over time and are passed down from generation to generation.

    Cultural Landscape

    The physical landscape is overlain by human culture. Specifically, it bears the imprint of mentifacts, artifacts, and sociofacts left there by the cultural identities that have inhabited all the places that comprise it. The most common unit of analysis in cultural geography is the cultural landscape.

    A cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a culture group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium. The cultural landscape is the result.1

    Patterns and Processes

    Cultural geography studies the ways that culture is organized in space. An example of a cultural pattern is the spatial arrangement of the speakers of a language. An example of a cultural process is diffusion.


    A core concept in cultural geography, diffusion refers to the many ways that cultural artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts move from one place to another.

    For an in-depth understanding of cultural diffusion, see our articles on Stimulus Expansion, Hierarchical Expansion, Contagious Expansion, and Relocation Diffusion. For the AP Human Geography exam, you will very likely need to know how the different types of diffusion relate to religions and languages.

    Relationship between Geography and Culture

    Carl Sauer became the most important US geographer because he rebelled against a dominant paradigm of Environmental Determinism of luminaries like Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932): that the physical landscape determines human culture. Instead, he, and his many students, asserted that people are powerful forces in shaping the physical landscape. Sauer advocated possibilism, in other words.

    Yes, there are constraints put on human activity by the Earth, its climate, geology, and other species. But human culture, according to Sauer, has had a far greater impact on the Earth than most people realize. He and his students explored Latin America and other regions in vast detail to document and interpret just how much impact humans have had and continue to have.

    Cultural Geography, Agricultural terraces in Peru, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Agricultural terraces in the Peruvian Andes are a cultural landscape demonstrating how people shape the physical landscape

    Importance of Cultural Geography

    Cultural geography's importance in overturning paradigms of environmental determinism should not be forgotten, as it is still relevant. Cultural geography often searches for harmony between human activity and nature, and as such as been highly influential in fields such as urban geography and urban planning.

    Many cultural geography studies look at how people create resilient rural landscapes over time, by shaping the physical landscape while adapting to natural processes. The cultural geography viewpoint is that people are not separate from nature, but rather intertwined with nature, particularly in traditional settings where societies respect the environment rather than seeking to control or destroy it for profit. In this way, via its Sauerian roots, cultural geography has influenced environmentalism and environmental studies.

    Cultural Geography Examples

    Cultural geography offers us a vast panorama. Here are just a couple of examples.

    Diffusion of Religions

    All religions start in a single place known as a hearth. Some religions then diffuse, spreading outward in different directions. A few religions encircle the globe. The reasons this happens, and the consequences, are profound.

    Southwestern Asia is notable as the hearth for several different religions. This is because these religions have similar origins. Three significant religions from southwestern Asia—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are culturally related and have all diffused worldwide, though in different ways and for different reasons. Judaism, an ethnic religion, was carried mainly by ethnically Jewish people who lived in concentrated communities within urban areas, forming the Jewish diaspora. Then, after centuries of terrible persecution ending in the Holocaust, Jews were able to return to the hearth of their religion—Palestine—and re-establish a Jewish state known as Israel. Christianity, a universalizing religion, spread worldwide via conquest and conversion; Islam spread in a similar way over much of Africa, Asia, and Europe, but did not make much headway in the Americas. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have much in common, but are also often in conflict within their own religions and across the three religions.

    Cultural Geography, Islamic landscape New York, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Islamic landscape in Queens, New York

    You can see from this that cultural geography leads right into political geography. Again and again, culture forms the basis for the ways humans govern themselves and set up boundaries and territories.

    The AP Human Geography exam often incorporates culture and politics into the same questions. Cultural constructs like ethnicity are frequently tied to political processes like Devolution. You can read more in our article on Political Geography.

    Diffusion through Colonialism and Imperialism

    The political geographical processes of colonialism and imperialism have always had cultural dimensions. "Gold, God, and glory," the three oft-mentioned motivations for European global expansion after 1450, include the cultural dimensions of spreading Christianity together with the economic dimension of financial wealth. Indeed, every time humans set out to conquer other parts of the world, they bring their culture with them, even if the primary motivation isn't changing the culture of their new subjects.

    cultural geography capsicum studysmarterFig. 3 - Capsicum chili peppers grown in San Rafael Bulacan in the Philippines. Chilis diffused via the Columbian Exchange from Mexico across the world, including other Spanish colonies like the Philippines

    European colonialism explains why the dominant religions in the Americas are Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (both of which are forms of Christianity); why the dominant languages are English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese; why the dominant architectural forms are copied from Europe; and why the dominant value systems are based on European cultures. It is also how the Columbian Exchange resulted in the worldwide diffusion of indigenous crops like hot peppers, potatoes, and corn.

    Visit most cultural landscapes in the Americas and you will see that evidence of artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts from Europe dominate, though these will be a mixture from different eras and cultures. Depending on where you are, you may also detect a predominance of indigenous culture as well as culture from African and Asian diasporas. The fascinating varieties of influences in each and every landscape have come about through the ways that all these cultures have interacted with each other and with the physical landscape.

    Cultural Geography - Key takeaways

      • Carl Sauer, a US geographer, was the 'godfather' of cultural geography
      • The cultural landscape is an all-encompassing term for the artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts that overlay the physical landscape
      • Cultural geography includes the key concepts of place, cultural landscape, cultural patterns, cultural processes, cultural identity, and diffusion
      • Examples of cultural geography include the diffusion of religions and the diffusion of culture via colonialism and imperialism. Processes of cultural diffusion are closely tied to political geography.


    1. Sauer, C. O. 1925. 'The morphology of landscape.' University of California Publications in Geography 2 (2):19-53. 1925.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Geography

    What are 5 examples of cultural geography?

    -Diffusion of Islam to New York City

    -Diffusion through imperialism and colonialism

    -Cultural landscapes

    -Reading the landscape

    -Cultural artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts

    What is the new cultural geography?

    Modern cultural geography that looks at the cultural elements of space, place, and landscapes through lenses such as Marxism, feminism, and other methods.

    What are cultural geography and its importance?

    Cultural geography is the study of the imprint of human cultures on the physical landscape, and it is important because it shows us the influence of human beings across time and space on the planet.

    What is the focus of cultural geography?

    Cultural geography focuses on the artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts produce by human cultural identities as they occur in space, place, and landscape.

    What is the scope of cultural geography?

    Cultural geography's scope includes the entire spectrum of human cultural activity in space and across time, as it is manifested in the landscape.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following was Sauer rebelling against?

    The following is NOT an example of cultural geography:

    A definition of Sense of Place is :


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