Igu commission on the cultural approach in geography

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The interest of geographers in cultural problems developed early, but the cultural approach was deeply modernized during the last 20 years. As a result, many new paths were explored with different orientations according to countries.
1996 - Newsletter n° 0

- Editorial, p 2.

- Recent evolution and present situation of the cultural approaches, December 1996, p. 2

- Newsletter n° 1

- Editorial. An agenda for the cultural approach, p 5

1997 -Newsletter n° 2
- Editorial. The lessons of the Paris symposium, p 9

1998 -Newsletter n° 3
Editorial. The major types of cultural approaches in geography, p. 11

- The Tomar Conference, August 1998. Maritimity and insularity, p. 12

- Anglo-French seminary on the cultural approach in geography. Problems of fundamental research. December 1998, p. 13

1999- Newsletter n° 4.

- Editorial. The cultural approach and the geography of tomorrow, p. 19.

- Reflections on the Santa-Fe Conference on the geography of religion, May 1998, p. 23.
2000- Newsletter n° 5

- Editorial. The cultural turn in geography, p. 28

- Reflections on the Mashhad Conference. Culture and development. The dialogue between civilizations. 15-18 May 2000, p. 31.

- Seoul Conference, August 2000. Geographers, landscape and modernization, p. 36.

- Activity report 1996-2000 and perspectives 2000- 2004, p. 40.
2001- Newsletter n° 6

- Editorial. Geography and culture today, p. 41.

- The Xian Conference, China, September 2001. The preservation of ancient capital cities and other historical cities, p. 52.

2002- Newsletter n° 7

- Editorial. Three themes of reflection, p. 53.

- Report on the Durban Conference, 6-7 August, 2002,. Cultures and post-colonial geographies, p. 55.

- Report on the Dublin Conference, 12-14 December 2002. Perspectives on landscdape, memory, heritage and identity, p. 56.

2003- Newsletter n° 8

- Editorial, p. 57.

- Rio de Janeiro Conference, June 10-12 2003. The historical dimensions of the relationships between space and culture, p. 58.

- Gorizia Conference, 22 – 24 September 2003. The cultural turn in geography, p. 63.
2004- Newsletter n° 9

- Editorial. The cultural approach. A perspective on eight years, p. 66.

- Köln/Cologne Conference, February 17- 20, 2004. Urban cultures and identities, p 73.

- Glasgow Conference, 15-20 August 2004, p. 74.




Cultural geography never arose such an interest as to-day. There are many publications everywhere, but orientations differ according to countries and researchers do not always know what is going on elsewhere. The creation of a Commission on Cultural Geography would be useful. The French National Committee of Geography will ask for such a creation at the I.G.U. Congress in Den Hagen. If the answer is positive, I am ready to be responsible for this Commission for the next four years.

The International Commission on Cultural Geography would treat the following themes :

1- The construction of space, environment and society by culture.

2- The foundations of the cultural differenciation of the Earth.

3- The expression of the diversity of cultures in space and landscapes.

4- The applications of cultural geography to political and economic life, tourism and physical planning.




1- Geographers are much interested today in the cultural approaches to geography, but they do not conceive them in the same way. As a result, we consider that the Study Group had to better advertise the diversity of these approaches, and to favour reflection on their epistemelogical foundations

For the meeting on 8 December 1997, we should be glad to have presentations of the major contemporary orientations in the field of cultural geography. The following pages aim to propose some beacons to those who will prepare papers on these problems.
2- It was about a century ago when geographers started to be interested in cultural realities. They progressively learnt how to avoid paths with no way out, and conceptions which gave birth to uninteresting or unsolvable problems. They know :

a- that culture has not to be hypostazied, that it is not a superior, or "superorganic", reality, according to James Duncan's expression;

b- that culture has not be abstracted from the other aspects of social life;

c- that it plays as important a role in contemporary societies than in paste ones, even if it does not take exactly the same forms.

All geographers share today these ideas, but they differ widely in other respects.
A wide variety of approaches
The approaches chosen by the geographers with an interest for culture are numerous. Those which are practiced today share the idea that culture is a construction constantly renewed and improved by individuals and groups, more than an entity which would be superimposed from the outside. Their methods are getting close from those of hermeneutics and refute the positivist positions of yesterday. Beyond these few shared features, the diversity of approaches is great. In order to see it clearly, one has just to observe the dominating conceptions.

1- Along the lines of the studies developed in the first half of our century, some geographers focus their analyses on the material productions and expressions of culture : artefacts, housing, food; the way there are named and spoken of; discourses and texts; works of art.

2- Modern developments in linguistics and structuralism have induced an interest in the codes which allow for the generation of human action and provide frames to classify what it produces in a few mutually linked categories and rules : linguistic codes; geographic orientation codes; kinship and societal relations codes; spatial structuration codes.

3- Another approach starts from the ways in which men and women experience their environment : what is the role of seeing, smelling, tasting and touching ? How these experiences are shaped and institrionalized by human groups ?

For some authors following Michel Foucault, seeing plays a paramount role in the development of power structures. The cultural approach thus seeks to analyze the modes of domination working in societies.

4- Contemporary geography has a keen interest in territoriality. Analyzing the way human groups cling, identify themselves to specific places, and build their identites through the way they inscribe their action in space, is an original approach to cultural geography

5- Many geographers prefer to start with the analysis of landscapes. They do not treat it in the same way. At the beginning of this century, focus was put down on the functional characters of present landscapes, and on the clews they provided on past functionings. Today, the prevaling interpretations stress the meanings of landscapes, and the way they are perceived in an aesthetic perspective.

For those who stick mainly to significations, landscape is conceived as a text, or as a sheet on which various symbols are printed. In such a context, it appears at the same time as a testimony on past epochs, and as one of the bases of collectiv memory.

The study of the building of landscape as an aesthetic category may be conducive to two types of questions : they may provide insights into the understanding of the relations woven between man and environment within the mesologic perspective; they may be considered as expressing the symbolic modes of production and reflecting social structures and the interplay between power and ideologies.

6- For other geographers, analysis is centered on the processes at work in the building of cultural categories. It deals with the constrution of the categories of environment, city and countryside, place region, nation, or race, otherness, foreigner, sexes and ages. It stresses the role of discourse and the way the reality is expressed and its perception shaped, but also the influence of these categories on spatial organization.

Seizing in such a way culture alive, when it is built, transformed or revamped, gives a privilege to micro-scale realites as well in space as in time. Stress is rather given to the modulations permanently given to culture than on its main and more general characters. The idea of overall features is dismissed. The interest of this approach is to emphasize the ambiguity of cultural codes, and the way the groups, confronting new situations, build cultures of negociation, metisse cultures

The significance and importance of researches devoted to the construction of nature and environment grew steadily in the geographic production of the past few years. In France, Augustin Berque tried to systematized them through its mesologic studies. It became one of the essential component of the english speaking cultural geography.

7- There is also an approach which strives to precise the role of culture in the life and functioning of societies : 1- It starts from an inventory of cultural forms (practices, know-hows, knowledge, attitudes, values). 2- It stresses the processes through which they are created and transfered. It then shows how these elements are linked. 3- with the building of the self, the we, the other, and 4- with the definition and functioning of systems of societal relations (kinship, feudality, castes, pure power, legitimate power, bureaucracies, etc.). 5- It analyses the symbolic dimensions of institutions, and of their spatial bases, and explores for which reasons space is here sacred and there profane. 6- It tries to distinguish the role of distance from that of voluntary closing in the slowing down diffusion processes.

When cultural facts are thus delimited, it is possible to see what kind of codes men use in order to orient and structure space, and to understand how groups build their dominion over the space they shape and weight with symbolic values.

This inventory of cultural approaches is not exhaustive. Its aim is only to orient the activities of the Study Group on the Cultural Approach in Geography. Its target is not to promote one conception of culture and forbid others, but to see their mutual relations and how they contribute to the comprehension of the World diversity.
The cultural approach and other disciplinary fields
To adopt a cultural approach is to chose a point of view among others; in a certain way it is to throw light on a thing which can be observed from other standpoints. Cultural geography can not be conceived as an isolated field. Geographers who are working in this field necessarily meet those with an interest in environment, economics, politics, social aspects of life, or countryside and cities.

What are the relations between culture and the other aspects of reality ?

1- The image which is generally chosen by those who are inspired by marxism is more or less directly that of a stratification : they speak of different layers, the economic, political, social and cultural ones, for instance.

They are interplays and mutual influences between these different layers. The more simplified interpretation confers a dominant role to the economic layer. For many, it is the overall determinant of everything. Others profess a more balanced view, and stress the fact that the economic layer is the most determining one, but that others play also an active role.

The humanistic marxism of Raymond Williams is bases on the idea that, for each level of economic development, there are both a material and a symbolic mode of production. They are complementary, but do not answer to the same logic and may eventually not evolve at the same pace. Such a view gives a central role to culture.

2- The geographers who choose micro-scale research are analysing the relations between culture and the other aspects of social life from a different perspective. They show in fact that culture is not a unified reality but a mosaic of changing interpretations. The problem of the relations between culture and other aspects of social life has rather to be analyzed in terms of individual or collective strategies than in terms of relations between stratified levels.

3- Another way to conceive the relations between culture and the other fields of social investigation is to stress the conditions of intellegibility of all that concerns human groups : we can understand them in so far that they involve a small number of codes, the nature, genesis and impact of which are precisely illuminated by the cultural approach. The cultural approach ceased then to appear as a useful complement, but only a complement, to social, economic or political approaches. It is one of their prerequisites.

4- Most scientific approaches dealing with social realities are based on a functionnalist bias : their aim is to show how society produces all that it needs for its subsistence, and how it performs its biological, institutionnal and social reproduction. So the symbolic dimension is completely forgotten. It however holds an essential role in the life of individuals and groups. Social action is possible only if it is loaded with meaning.

In this perspective, culture is not a level superimposed over the others; it is an inner component of each of them.
For those who conceive society as made of distinct levels, the question asked by the cultural approach is that of mutual influences of culture and economic, political and social realities.

The other perspectives link indssolubly culture to the analysis ot the other aspects of social reality : its explanation involves the capacity to decipher the codes used in structuring society (structuralist perspective), and focuses on the symbolic dimension inherent to the different levels of reality.

This double concern explains that the weight given to the material aspects of culture has receded to the benefit of the importance given to some of their mental aspects, grammar of collective life and symbolic investments. This change was undoubtly neeeded in order to get cultural geography closer to the other subfield of human geography.
Cultural approaches and the contemporary world
a- All the cultural approaches do not concern equally contemporary problems. Inventories of the material features of culture were often emphasizing the past, and valuing it. They have less significance in the contemporary world since technical diversity recedes with modernization.

Researches dealing with the building of cultural categories or with territory have a more direct bearing on present. The approaches which stress culture as set of codes, landscape, and the role of culture in the whole social life, deal as well with past than with contemporaray societies.

b- The transformations of the World create important cultural problems :

1- The globalization of trade, easier travel, and the multiplication of information flows favour the diffusion of a few types of codes, attitudes and values, which introduces the threat of an uniformization of the World. Reactions of rejection do appear as an answer to such a threat. They take many forms, those of nationalisms or fundamentalisms for instance. It is a field where cultural geography encounters political geography.

2- Globalization is linked with an increased mobility of men. Never were travels as numerous, those of businessmen or executives, as well as those of workers or tourists. Thanks to these contacts, many syncretisms develop, which are parallel to reactions of rejection, and are equally worth to be studied. In this field, a cooperation is needed with specialists of the developing societies, and tourism.

3- Globalization and easier travel went along with the continuing urbanization and the strengthening of great metropolises linked with the networks of international life. The urban scene is more motley than ever. It puts into contact groups from various origins, old or new diasporas, with reactions of rejection and retreat to ghettos as well as syncretisms and renewed creativity. The cities of the modern world are increasingly shared cities.

These perspectives open a common field for research with urban geographers.

4- Modernization leads to a redefinition of roles and statuses, the genesis of new identities. Actors, who never got conscious of their solidarities, develop a new conscience of class. A cooperation will thus be fruitful with colleagues working on social stratifications and gender geography.

5- Geographers curiously neglected the analysis of relations between men and their environment at the time of the Quantitative Revolution and New Geography. They have rediscovered their significance. The relations between nature and culture are today at the core of many researches. They invite to cooperate with geographers working on environmental conservation, particularly at the global scale.
Here are some reflections which could help in analyzing the recent trends and the diversity of cultural approaches.

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