Cultural Landscapes

The Pizza Hut logo, in reverse, floats in front of a view of the pyramids at Giza
Visitors can get a great view of the Great Pyramids at Giza from the window of a local Pizza Hut. The meaning of the landscape has changed over the millennia from a sacred space that marked the power of god-kings, to a symbol of Egyptian national pride and a major source of tourist dollars. The landscape around the pyramids, such as the fast food chains serving tourists in Giza, has been modified to support the new meaning given to the structures.
photo from Flickr/sebr

What is Culture? [link]

Culture is a critical part of how human beings (and arguably a few animals) exist in the world, but it is notoriously difficult to define precisely. For the purposes of this book, we can give a relatively general definition of culture as: shared patterns of meaning and behavior. Culture is shared because it involves things people do together or in the same way. Culture is about patterns, rather than one-time idiosyncrasies. And culture involves both people's overt behaviors (swinging a stick to one side) as well as the meanings or interpretations people have of them (hitting a home run).

Every person participates in one or more cultures. A person without culture would be unable to figure out what's going on in their world and successfully navigate it. Some people, particularly middle-class white Americans, like to imagine that they don't have any culture. This is usually based on a mistaken belief that "culture" consists only of traditions that people do for the sake of tradition, or that having culture involves being brainwashed into acting certain ways. "I'm doing things because I want to do them and they are reasonable, not because of culture," such a person might say. But even actions that are perfectly rational choices are still part of culture. Think about your choice to enroll in this class. To do so, you had to understand the English language, and know that university education is doled out in units called "courses," and that a list of courses could be found in the course catalog. You had to make value judgments about what your goals are as a student (based on such factors as your expectations about the job market, parental pressures, or desire to avoid certain types of classwork), and evaluate the materials in the course catalog and advice from others to decide which courses best satisfied your goals. Then you had to navigate the course registration system, using your computer skills. Those are all processes that make up culture. A person transported directly to your university from a remote village in New Guinea would be at a complete loss as to how to enroll in classes -- while you would be similarly lost if dropped in that village.

An important concept in talking about culture is the idea of a social or cultural structure. Structures are rules or habits that guide people to consistently act and think in a certain way rather than another (Bourdieu 1990, Giddens 1984). Structures are important to people's ability to get along in the world -- we wouldn't be able to meet our needs and advance our goals if we didn't have consistent patterns of behavior to help us decide what to do and to count on others following. For example, as a student, you can expect to come to class at a regular time, sit at one of a large set of student desks, and have your professor get up in front of the class and direct your learning activity -- because those are all structures guiding the practice of learning in US and similar college systems.

Sometimes we slip into talking about structures as if they exist on their own, like an outside force bearing down on humanity. This is not a good way of envisioning structures. Structures only exist in and through people's actions that reproduce them (Bourdieu 1990, Giddens 1984). Think for example about the family of structures we call grammar rules. "Subjects and verbs should agree in number" is not some metaphysical entity that exists apart from the actual use of the English language. All there is in the world is lots of people saying "she is" rather than "she are" (and Microsoft Word being programmed to put a green squiggly line under "she are" when I type it!). But structures are also not just statistical regularities in people's behavior (the way laws in natural science are just regularities in the way that, for example, increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere lead to warmer temperatures). The fact that everyone else is acting in a particular way is what makes others inclined to act that way as well -- if I as an individual decide to reject the prevailing custom of subject-verb agreement, I'll sound like a weirdo to those around me and may have trouble making my ideas understood. But if a number of people all change together, then the structure itself may be modified, or perhaps those people will split off and form a distinct culture with a different structure.

Landscapes [link]

Large houses are spread out along a grid of streets, as seen from the air.
An aerial view of tightly-packed skyscrapers in lower Manhattan.
Figure 1: Views of the landscapes of Phoenix, AZ (top) and Manhattan, NY (bottom).
photos from Flickr/Jared Zimmerman and rsfrd

As geographers, we can examine how aspects of culture are distributed across space, as well as how the different elements of culture in a particular place interact with each other, and with non-cultural things existing in that place. One important angle that geographers can add to discussions of culture in other disciplines (such as anthropology or area studies) is the cultural landscape (Meinig 1979, Robertson and Richards 2003). A landscape refers not just to a piece of scenery that can be viewed from some lookout point, but to a patch of land that has some sort of socially-created unity as a result of the behaviors people carry out on it, or the meanings they ascribe to it, or both. Cultural activity leaves traces -- deliberately or inadvertently -- on the landscape, which subsequent cultural activity has to cope with. Landscapes often have a conservative function. Building the landscape to make one way of life easy encourages people to continue living that way, while making it harder to live a different way. Consider the two landscapes shown in Figure 1. The Phoenix, Arizona metro area was built for a culture in which private automobiles were the preferred method of transportation. Phoenix has wide roads often without sidewalks, large parking lots at most destinations, and a very spread-out arrangement of homes and businesses. Someone moving to Phoenix from a less car-oriented place like New York City will face pressure from the landscape to conform to car-based culture, as getting around by foot, train, or bus will be significantly more difficult. Those Phoenix residents who might like to shift to a less car-oriented culture will find the landscape to be an obstacle to instituting more bus service or encouraging people to walk to the store. The reverse would be true for someone accustomed to Phoenix's culture who wanted to continue that way of life after moving to the densely packed, narrow streets of New York.

Tensions can arise when the demands of culture are out of alignment with how the landscape has been constructed. These tensions result in struggles to remake the landscape. Take, for example, changes in the economic structure of a country (Smith 1984). For economic activity to occur, relatively permanent structures must be built -- roads, houses, factories, etc. But over time, opportunities for profit shift to new places, and the existing infrastructure becomes a weight dragging the economy down. The "rust belt" of the northeast and Great Lakes region of the United States is a good example. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, this region had the right combination of factors like cheap labor and easy access to transportation to make it a suitable area for industries like automobiles and steel to build their factories. The towns and cities that grew up around these factories involved not only a huge investment of relatively immobile infrastructure in those locations, but also a cultural investment -- places like Detroit or Worcester became "home" for people and fostered the development of social networks. But over time, locating in the rust belt became less profitable for companies. They began to pull up stakes and move, for example to the "sun belt" of the southern US, where they could access cheaper non-unionized labor. This was a short-term cost with longer-term benefits for the companies, once they got their new factories built. And it was a big opportunity for people in sun belt areas. But for those people whose cultural landscape had been centered around the industrial activity, it was a disaster. The people of the rust belt are now faced with the choice between abandoning their landscape and everything they had invested in it, or finding a way to re-use a landscape heavily marked by the legacy of industrialism in a new way.

In addition to exerting practical constraints on cultural activity, landscapes can also embody meaning. We refer to such landscapes as symbolic landscapes (Meinig 1979). In some cases, the meaning is directly inscribed on the landscape through the construction of monuments. Take the case of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan (Power 2004). These were two giant Buddha statues, carved in the 500s CE, which honored the Buddhist religion of the local people and served as a site for conducting the ceremonies that make up the practice of Buddhism. In 2001, the Buddhas were destroyed by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan. For the Taliban, the Buddhas not only turned the landscape into a giant proclamation of a false religion, but they also contravened a specific commandment in some strains of Islam not to make depictions of humans. Following the fall from power of the Taliban after the US invasion in 2003, various donors from Afghanistan and around the world have expressed interest in rebuilding the Buddhas. If they succeed, the landscape will have a new meaning. In addition to symbolizing the local Buddhist history (few practicing Buddhists remain in Afghanistan), they will also symbolize the triumph of international goodwill and tolerance over religious fundamentalism, and be a source of tourist dollars for the country.

A gently curving residential street is flanked by rows of similar houses, each with a wide grassy front yard
Figure 2: A classic view of suburbia in the US -- specifically, Ashburn, VA.
photo from Flickr/dwaynehoov

But meaning does not inhere only in deliberate monumental architecture. Consider Figure 2, which shows a picture of a typical US suburb, with detached single-family homes surrounded by grassy yards along a quiet residential street. This mundane landscape is a powerful icon of the good life for people in the US. It symbolizes the "American dream" of owning a home with one's opposite-sex spouse and 2.3 children. (Note that this landscape also makes it easy to actually live out this dream, but harder to live out an alternative cultural form such as a large extended family living together under one roof.) This suburb is as much a symbol of the US as a more explicitly symbolic landscape like the Capitol in Washington, DC or the carved portraits of presidents on Mount Rushmore. We thus see such landscapes used extensively as symbols, for example in ads that want to make you associate the advertised product with wholesome, normative American life. Other landscapes may symbolize something bad. The "inner city," shown in Figure 3, is a powerfully symbolic landscape in mainstream US thinking. It highlights what are commonly taken to be the major ills of our society -- crime, drugs, broken families, poverty -- and locates them in a particular place inhabited by particular sorts of people. Note that the symbolic value of these landscapes may not match the experience of the people actually living there -- the wholesome suburb may be a place of alienation and discrimination for some people, such as gays and lesbians (Valentine 1993), while the inner city may house relatively functional social systems and serve as a refuge from discrimination in the wider world (Anderson 2000).

A black woman stands in the doorway of a shuttered store, whose walls are covered in graffiti. Next door is an empty lot
Figure 3: A classic view of the "inner city" in Camden, NJ. Because of the symbolic meaning that this landscape carries, the photographer concluded that the woman in the photo is a prostitute.
photo from Flickr/Cavalier92

The symbolic value of a given landscape may be contested between different groups. Take, for example, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. For the US Forest Service and its contractors who operate a ski lodge there, the peaks represent the beauty of nature and the prospect of outdoor recreation. On the other hand, for local Native American tribes like the Hopi and Navajo, the peaks represent a sacred source of life-giving water (Glowacka et al. 2009). Each of these groups would like to use and modify the landscape in accordance with the meaning it bestows on it. Thus, the Native Americans would like to limit most human interference while maintaining the trails they use to visit sites on the peaks where religious ceremonies are carried out. The Forest Service, on the other hand, wants to expand the ski area by using reclaimed wastewater for snow-making. The incompatibility of these two versions of the cultural landscape led to a lawsuit in which the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the Forest Service's right to expand the ski area (Navajo Nation v. US Forest Service 2008).

An important way that symbolic landscapes are reinforced is through place names, also called toponyms. What a place is called both reflects what the namer thinks is the importance of the place, and helps to encourage later people to see the place that way. "Plymouth," Massachusetts aimed to put a familiar stamp on a strange new land for the Puritan settlers, while "Oil City," Pennsylvania leaves no doubt about what that town's founding industry was. Australians convey an unpretentious yet magical image when they call their country "Oz," while New Zealanders signal their respect for indigenous rights by using the native name "Aotearoa" for their country. The importance of toponyms is most obvious when the name of a place changes. For example, the Russian city of St. Petersburg was named in honor of the Tsar Peter the Great, who founded the city as part of his project of linking Russia more closely to the West (St. Petersburg being Russia's only port facing west toward Europe and the Atlantic). In 1914, the city was renamed "Petrograd," because "St. Petersburg" sounded too German. Under Soviet rule, the city's name was changed to "Leningrad" to reflect a rejection of Peter's pro-Western views and to honor the country's first communist leader, Vladimir Lenin. After the fall of communism, the city's name was changed back to "St. Petersburg" as part of a national project of removing things that honor Lenin, such as statues and toponyms, from the Russian landscape. Note that this is a contested move, as many communist loyalists in Russia still see Lenin as worth honoring (Buckler 2005). In a few cases, the meaning of a name is changed without the name itself changing. This is the case for King County, Washington. When the county was created, it was named for then-US Vice President William Rufus King. King was a slave-owner and died shortly after taking office, so later generations ceased to see him as an honor-worthy figure. In 1986, the county voted to change the name's official significance to honor civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. instead (Associated Press 1986).

Cultural Diffusion [link]

The culture that is present in any given place is the result of a combination of local development and ideas imported from other places. The process by which cultural traits move between places is referred to as diffusion (King and Wright 2010). Cultural landscapes often contain a record of successive waves of cultural diffusion.

Diffusion can take many forms. In some cases, diffusion is caused by the movement of people. Immigrants to a new place bring with them the cultures they obtained from their original home country. Depending on the number of immigrants relative to natives, and the political power of the two groups, aspects of the immigrants' culture may be taken on by the receiver country. For example, when British immigrants came to what is now the United States, they brought the English language. Because the Native Americans were nearly wiped out by disease and war, the immigrant language became the de facto national language. But later waves of immigrants, such as Germans, Italians, and Mexicans, have been less powerful and numerous vis-a-vis the (now English-speaking) majority, and hence have tended to give up their old languages for English.

Diffusion may also occur without the movement of people. It is common for people in one society to take up cultural traits they learned from another. Sometimes this is done with active enthusiasm. People in one area see that their neighbors have a good idea, and so they adopt it as well. Propaganda campaigns -- from religious missionaries, to Voice of America broadcasts into communist countries, to corporate advertising -- urge people in new areas to take up new forms of culture. Other times, diffusion happens under some degree of duress. Many of the world's great religions, such as Christianity and Islam, were spread in part by the use of military force. Societies may sometimes preemptively adopt new cultural traits to help them resist coercion by outsiders, e.g. by adopting new military technologies or forms of economic organization.

When a cultural trait diffuses, it never remains precisely the same. The trait will always have to be adjusted to its new cultural circumstances -- and those circumstances will have to be adjusted to handle the new trait. Thus, to understand the diffusion of a cultural trait, we need to examine processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (Androutsopoulos and Scholz 2003, Appadurai 1990). Deterritorialization is the process by which a single trait or group of traits is cut out of the cultural system. The trait is identified, and its boundaries are established, so that the agents of diffusion know what it is they're trying to move. Reterritorialization is the process by which the trait is tied into its new home. The trait may have to be adjusted to fit with the other cultural traits in the new location. Even a product as standardized as a McDonald's hamburger has to adjust to new places -- in India (where religious rules forbid many people from eating beef), veggie burgers are available, while Australian restaurants serve the "McOz," a burger with a big slice of pickled beet in accordance with the local custom of putting beets on most sandwiches.

Painting of crucified Jesus on a black stone, surrounded by a gilded frame and red and white flowers
Figure 4: Señor de Muruhuay. This image of Christ, which is said to have miraculously appeared during a smallpox epidemic, is a major pilgrimmage destination in Peru. The site had previously been associated with indigenous water and stone rituals, elements of which have been incorporated into modern worship at the site.
photo from Flickr/fabrixio

Consider, as an example, the way Christianity has been diffused around the world. As a religion claiming universal truth and adherence to a specific set of written scriptures, Christianity would seem to be a pretty clearly bounded and defined cultural practice, easy to distinguish from the rest of the culture it exists within and easy to move as a package to another cultural context. But in fact Christianity has been extensively modified in order to bring its message to new cultural contexts. At a seemingly superficial level, we see things like the translation of the Bible into new languages (something that many Muslims would see as violating the integrity of their scripture) and portraying Jesus with features like blond hair in Europe or black skin in Africa to make him look like the local people.

The deeper content of Christianity was modified too. For example, the religion of much of rural Peru is Roman Catholicism -- yet it may be barely recognizable to Roman Catholics in Rome or the US (Bastien 1978). Native Peruvian religion was highly place-based, with ceremonies directed toward a multitude of sacred places called "huacas." Catholic missionaries arrived in Peru in the 1500s aiming to forcibly diffuse their religion to the new lands. They sought to wipe traces of the native religion off the landscape as well as out of the hearts of the people. The native people responded by re-territorializing Catholicism in ways that preserved both what the missionaries thought was most central to Christianity (reverence for the Bible and its god) with what was important in their native religion (reverence for the huacas). The result was a version of Catholicism in which the various Catholic saints and apparitions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary were matched up to huacas with similar significance, and the old rituals associated with those places were blended with Catholic celebrations (Figure 4). This is not a unique occurrence -- the Catholicism of the US or Rome has itself been heavily influenced by merging with European pagan traditions as the religion diffused northwestward from its origin in Judea (consider the history of the Christmas and Easter holiday celebrations).

At times, the process of diffusion may be taken by members of the originator culture to have invalidated the diffused trait. To use another religious example, many non-Native people see spiritual value in Native American religious practices. They then take up practices like Native songs and sweat lodges, bringing them back to their urban locales and perhaps blending rituals from numerous tribes. From the perspective of the Native people whose cultures originated these practices, however, the attempt to remove them from their cultural and geographical context takes away their spiritual significance. The rituals must be practiced in their places of origin (at particular sacred mountains, streams, etc.), and integrated into a daily life guided by the same Native philosophy enacted in the rituals (Deloria 2003).

The diffusion of cultural traits leaves its mark on the landscape. An astute geographer can look at a landscape and see how a sequence of different cultural forms has been overlaid onto the place. Sometimes the layering is obvious, as with the header image for this chapter of a US fast food chain built at the site of an ancient Egyptian monument. Other times it is more subtle, as in the case of the different ethnic groups (African Americans, Dutch, Native Americans) who have lived in the area of Camden shown in Figure 3. In either case, such geographic research would help us understand how the landscape, and the culture of the people who live in it, got the way it is.

Works Cited [link]

Anderson, Elijah. 2000. The Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Androutsopoulos, Jannis, and Arno Scholz. 2003. Spaghetti funk: appropriations of hip-hop culture and rap music in Europe. Popular Music and Society 26 (4): 463-479.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Public Culture 2(2) : 1-24.

Associated Press. 1986. What's in a name? King County renamed for civil rights leader. Spokane Chronicle, February 25, p. A2.

Bastien, J. W. 1978. Mountain of the Condor: Metaphor and Ritual in an Andean Ayllu. St. Paul: West Pub. Co.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Buckler, Julie A. 2005. Mapping St. Petersburg. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. 2003. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glowacka, Maria, Dorothy Washburn, and Justin Richland. 2009. Nuvatukya'ovi, San Francisco Peaks: balancing western economies with Native American spiritualities. Current Anthropology 50 (4): 547-561.

King, Gail and Meghan Wright. 2010. Diffusionism and acculturation. In Anthropological Theories: A Guide Prepared by Students for Students, ed. Michael D. Murphy.

Meinig, D.W., ed. 1979. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Navajo Nation v. US Forest Service, 535 F. 3d 1058 - Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, 2008.

Power, Matthew. 2004. Rebuilding the Bamiyan Buddhas. Slate, July 23.

Robertson, Iain, and Penny Richards, eds. 2003. Studying Cultural Landscapes. London: Arnold.

Smith, Neil. 1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Valentine, G. 1993. (Hetero)sexing space: lesbian perceptions and experiences of everyday spaces. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 11: 395-413.

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