3 Cultural Patterns and Processes

Understanding the components and regional variations of cultural patterns and processes are critical to human geography. This chapter will study the concepts of culture and cultural traits and learned how geographers assess the spatial and place dimensions of cultural groups as defined by language, religion, ethnicity, and gender, in the present as well as the past.

This chapter will also explore cultural interaction at various scales, along with the adaptations, changes, and conflicts that may result. The geographies of language, religion, ethnicity, and gender are studied to identify and analyze the patterns and processes of cultural differences. It will distinguish between languages and dialects, ethnic religions and universal religions, and folk and popular cultures, as well as between ethnic political movements. These distinctions help students understand the forces that affect the geographic patterns of each cultural characteristics.

Another important emphasis in this chapter is the way culture shapes relationships between humans and the environment. Culture is expressed in landscapes and how land use, in turn, represents cultural identity. Built environments enable the geographer to interpret cultural values, tastes, symbolism, and beliefs.

Concepts of culture frame the shared behaviors of a society.

  • Explain the concept of culture and identity of cultural traits.
  • Explain how geographers assess the spatial and place dimensions of cultural groups in the past and present.
  • Explain how globalization is influencing cultural interactions and change.

Culture varies by place and region.

  • Explain cultural patterns and landscapes as they vary by place and region.
  • Explain the diffusion of culture and cultural traits through time and space.
  • Compare and contrast ethnic and universalizing religions and their geographic patterns.
  • Explain how culture is expressed in landscapes and how land and resources use represents cultural identity.
  • Compare and contrast popular and folk culture and the geographic patterns associated with each.

3.1: Ethnicity and Race


Ethnicity refers to a population of people whose members identify with each other based on real or presumed shared ancestry and heritage. Shared geography, language, and religion can often, but not always, factor into ethnic group categorizations. Ethnic groups distinguish themselves differently from one period to another. Ethnic identity can be used by individuals to identify themselves with others who have shared geographic, cultural, historical, linguistic, and religious ancestry; however, like race, ethnicity has been defined by the stereotypes created by dominant groups as a method of “Othering.” Othering is a process in which one group, usually the dominant group, views and represents themselves as “us/same” and another group as “them/other.”

The 20th Century was also the deadliest century, regarding war, in human history.  This century experienced two world wars, multiple civil wars, genocides in Rwanda (Tutsis and moderate Hutus), Sudan, Yugoslavia, and the Holocaust that decimated the Jewish population in Europe during WWII. In addition to WWI and WWII, this century experienced the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the first Gulf War. Additionally, this century saw regional and civil conflicts such as those experienced in the Congo (6 million people died), as well as an upsurge in child soldiers and modern slavery.

Some of the worst acts by humans have been concerning ethnic cleansing and genocide. The United Nations Security Council established Resolution 780, which states that ethnic cleansing is “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Genocide is similar to ethnic cleansing, but only goes more in-depth. Genocide is usually defined as the intentional killing of large sums of people targeted because of their ethnicity, political ideology, religion, or culture. At first glance, it appears that ethnic cleansing and genocide are similar. With ethnic cleansing, the aim is to remove a group of people with similar ethnic backgrounds from a specific geographic region by any means possible. This could include forced migration, terror and rape, destruction of villages, and large scale death. With genocide, the real intent is the death of a group of people at any scale possible until they are extinct. This has happened many times in recent history including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and now Syria. Sadly, with all these ethnic conflicts, most were not officially declared as genocides by the United Nations Security Council, but the conditions on the ground and the reasons why they were occurring fit the definition.


Race, in biological terms, refers to a socially constructed way to identify humans based on physical characteristics, resulting from genetic ancestry. Shared genetic ancestry is a result of geographical isolation. Geographic isolation, since the era of colonization and even before then, has significantly decreased in most areas of the world. Less geographic isolation results in the mixing of racial groups. Thus, classifying people by their race with any accuracy is difficult.

Most biologists, geographers, and social scientists argue that race is a social construct and that the scientific basis for it is very weak because, as Larry Adelman (2003) argues, “most variation is within, not between, ‘races’: Of the small amount of total human variation, 84% exists within any local population. About 94% can be found within any continent.” Race, in this sense, presumes real or assumed shared biology or genes and in the 19th century, racial differences were used to justify colonization, racial inequities, immigration quotas, and slavery.

PBS has created an exciting website called RACE – The Power of an Illusion that looks at whether race indeed is a biological characteristic of humans or a social construct. Take the Sorting People quiz and watch The Human Family Tree and Black in Latin America: An Island Divided to “witness” how migration and geography play a role in the complex issues surrounding race and ethnicity. Pay attention to how the racial and ethnic landscape of the island of Hispaniola impacts cultural identity and the geopolitics both within Hispaniola and beyond its shores.

The following are some terms from CrashCourse regarding racism, bigotry, and more. 

A prejudice is a rigid and unfair generalization about an entire category of people. Stereotypes are exaggerated and simplified descriptions that are applied to every person in a category. Racism is the term used to describe the beliefs, thoughts, and actions based on the idea that one race is innately superior to another race. Discrimination is an unequal treatment of different groups of people. Racism is often times much larger than any one individual or group of people. Institutional racism is the biases built into a structured of society and institutions such as schools, financial institutions, government, and more.

We can also brake this down into explicit and implicit biases. An explicit bias is an attitude or belief one may have about a group that they are consciously aware of. Implicit biases are unconscious biases that we have about other groups. 

Though most people would not identify themselves as racist today, everyone has implicit biases that filter and distort their understanding of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and culture. Harvard University created the Project Implicit to help society better understand implicit biases.


Race, gender, and sexual preferences are geographic phenomena. Race is constructed in time and space, whereas “profile” is everything. Profiles may be developed by clothing styles, hairstyles, the type of automobile one drives, and more. Skin color, however, generally tends to dominate all other factors when it comes to the profiling of human beings. In the United States, until very recently, people’s destiny and their skin color were intrinsically linked. Race, like culture, is also a manufactured concept that is powerful only because it allows for the organization of people’s behavior for the benefit of particular classes and groups.

Not long ago, most Americans believed that a person’s race accounted for not only identifiable physical characteristics, but also personal traits including intelligence, the ability to work, leadership qualities, cleanliness, and moral values. More recently, as biologists and geneticists have demonstrated that there is no scientific basis for this view of race, most people have come to reject the notion that a person’s talents, character, and worth are a product of his or her race. Nevertheless, the imprints of “race” as a concept remain visible throughout the world.

Whereas there are many examples of racial geographies within the boundaries of the United States, including the inner cities, American Indian reservations present particularly vivid examples of the spatial manifestations of race. Although American Indian reservations have now come to represent the social and economic foundations upon which many Native Americans depend, they were initially created not to help indigenous people, but to imprison and isolate them.

One potential way to look at race is through the lens of geographic space. South African apartheid was a perfect example of how a geographical system can be used to maintain nearly impenetrable boundaries between “races.” Humans, using physical boundaries on the earth’s surface, have been able to construct clear distinctions, with no basis in biology, between people. Some have also argued that humans have used the idea of race for the advancement of capitalist societies. After all, in capitalist societies, some people “have,” and some people “have not.” Race would provide an understandable reason for the differences in privileges, and the segregation of people spatially reinforces the “natural” privileges of one group relative to another.

While capitalistic societies have used race as a way to establish and control the social order, the same can be said for socialistic countries who relied on race as a way to categorize people and control the economic and social order. The Soviet Union was notoriously racist. European Russians did not easily allow people from the outlying republics access to power. Often it was said that the Soviet Union consisted of a collection of Soviet Socialist Republics that were equal in power and influence; except, the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was the most equal of all. Therefore, socialism does not seem to guarantee equality or fairness automatically. Moreover, it is probably not possible for a government to make life fair in any case. Perhaps all that any society can legitimately attempt to guarantee is equal treatment under the law, and an opportunity to compete without regard to race, sex, color, or creed.


In addition to segregated places such as reservations or specific neighborhoods, race has been commonly used to restrict movement. In South Africa, before the demise of apartheid, “Whites” could move about freely while “Blacks” were restricted. Thus, racial travel restrictions are yet another example of how artificial concepts such as race and culture have been developed to further the interests of societal systems.

3.2: Understanding Culture

There are many different definitions of the word “culture.” People often speak of English, Chinese, American-Indian, African-American, or other cultures, and they also sometimes use the word “culture” to suggest a level of sophistication. Additionally, they speak of “high culture,” “low culture,” “popular culture,” and “folk culture.” Moreover, there seems to be a wide range of “cultural politics” associated with these definitions as well.

So, how should we define culture? Many are content to think of “culture” as the entire way of life of a people including language, dress, food, music, religion, family structures, attitudes, values, and beliefs. Others, however, consider “culture” to be products (artifacts) such as paintings, architectural structures, musical works, and more. To them, one can find culture at a concert, a museum, or perhaps a tour of a village, city, or stately home. According to cultural geographer, Don Mitchell (in Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction, Blackwell Publishers, 2000) however, “…culture is a nebulous structure of feelings that define the life of a people, and a set of productions [art, etc.] that reflect upon, speak to, or mold that structure of feeling through various strategies of representation.”

Mitchell also notes that economics, politics, and society are all intricately tied to culture. “Perhaps,” he suggests, “…culture, is that which is not natural.” Culture is an intellectual quagmire; both a way-of-life and a range of practices. Culture is:

  • the opposite of nature – it makes humans, human,
  • the actual, but sometimes unexamined, patterns and differentiation of a people (way-of-life),
  • the processes by which patterns develop “culture” thereby making “culture,” “culture,”
  • a set of markers that set one people off from another (so that we can identify our group),
  • the way that all these patterns, processes, and markers are represented, thereby producing meaning, and,
  • an indication of a hierarchical ordering of all these processes.

After considering these definitions, one could not be blamed for concluding that culture is everything, or perhaps, nothing (or at least nothing that is analytically useful).

Why is it difficult to precisely define the concept of “culture?” Partly, it is the result of the continuously changing meaning of the word “culture” over time. With each new definition, the meaning of “culture” has become more complex, and this is not an entirely innocent phenomenon. To the contrary, the concept – the word, is a product of a long developmental process greatly influenced by power relationships through which people have sought to make “culture” work to their advantage. Culture is a politically-charged, and sometimes a politically-powerful tool that people often manipulate to gain the upper hand (power).

At one point, “culture” was used to differentiate between the “good” and the “bad,” or the “cultivated” and the “primitive.” To be “cultured” was to be “civilized” or “refined,” whereas, to be “uncultured” was to be “unruly” or “uncivilized.” By the end of the nineteenth century, Europeans, Americans, and others, generally used the term “culture” to distinguish between “refined people” and “savages.” European culture was held up by many (at least in the Western World) as the epitome of all that is good and refined in the world (an idea that is now much maligned).

In the last half of the twentieth century, it became increasingly improper for people to describe “culture” in hierarchical terms. Now, many lean toward the notion that different cultures are of equal value, and therefore, should not be subjected to criticism ridicule (although “scholarly criticism” of traditional European culture is often considered appropriate). This romanticized concept of “culture” (that cultural practices, in general, should not be criticized) rests on the belief that “civilization” is material, whereas “culture” is spiritual and symbolic. This way of viewing culture has created many complications for scholars, academics, religious leaders, politicians, and ordinary people. For example, a few years ago, a teacher asked a group of teenage students whether or not the Aztec practice of human sacrifice could be justified because it was an integral part of Aztec culture. A surprising number of students took the position that the Aztec should not be condemned for their cruel, bloody sacrifices, because they truly believed that such behavior was proper. Therefore, “culture” has become an increasingly “relative” concept.

3.3: Cultural Relativity

The notion that cultural attitudes, values, beliefs, and practices are of equal value no matter the results is (even at a superficial level) indefensible. The idea that everything is relative; that there is no actual right or wrong when it comes to cultural practices; has created a level of tolerance for aberrant behavior patterns that now threatens the social fabric of the modern world.

The terrorism sponsored by radical Islam presents a vivid example of what can happen when individuals use “culture” to justify their need to dominate, destroy, cover-up their inadequacies, or seek revenge. Americans often wonder why some young Muslims (even some who have been raised in Western societies) are willing to follow apocalyptical leaders who have created a perverted version of Islam to justify their assumption of “God-like” powers for themselves, and who promise nothing but the opportunity to participate in bringing death and destruction to thousands of innocent people. Some have suggested that they (the terrorists) are willing to participate in such madness because they come from abject poverty and therefore seek revenge against those who have more. To be sure, poverty and the uneven distribution of wealth motivates some to join terrorist groups. The terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11th, 2001 however, were not (for the most part) poor. Instead, they were relatively middle-class, young, Muslim men who were willing to kill thousands of people while giving their own lives to do so. It seems that they made this choice because they believed firmly in their cause (to destroy the “evil” that is Western Civilization).

Furthermore, they were convinced that the religion upon which their culture rests commands them to destroy anyone who is critical of their values, attitudes, and beliefs, or anyone considered to be in disagreement with their version of Islam. Thus, from their vantage point, their terrorist acts are not immoral. Instead, they are necessary.

Even subcultures within the United States sometimes justify antisocial practices such as violence, abuse, and theft by arguing that it is not part of their culture to adhere to the social norms of the dominant society. A little more than a decade ago, a junior high class in an inner-city school system plotted to kill their teacher because she “got in their face!” Most of the students in the class were aware of the fact that one of their female classmates had hidden a knife in her books and intended to use it to kill the teacher before the school day ended, but said nothing. Finally, one of the students decided that it was a bad idea, and notified school authorities. They arrived in the classroom just in time to stop the student from attacking the teacher. When asked about the incident, an alarming number of students told authorities that it is reasonable to kill someone who “gets in your face!”

Sebastian Junger in his book TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging; (Hatchette Books; New York; 2016), provides useful insights relative to the importance of culture. His primary theme is that American warriors after serving in combat units with a strong sense of collective purpose and a clearly defined subculture, sometimes find it difficult to reintegrate into an impersonal dominant culture with a vague sense of purpose. In other words, in order to be mentally healthy, people need to feel that they belong, and matter. Culture is all about belonging and about finding an acceptable place in the social order.

The point is that the attitudes, beliefs, values, and practices of one culture are generally not superior, or inferior, to those of another. Some things such as human sacrifice, slavery, the abuse of those who cannot protect themselves, the exploitation of children, and murder are just wrong, even if these practices rest on ancient religious foundations. Fair-minded, educated people should not be afraid to admit that some cultural practices are indeed horrific, or at least, self-defeating.

3.4: Cultural Geography

Professor Don Mitchell argues that cultural geography as a subdiscipline did not come into existence merely to serve as a conduit through which geographers can describe and explain the various cultures of the world in the context of space and place. Instead, he contends that cultural geography is a product of “culture wars.” He builds this argument as follows:

In the nineteenth century, people in the Western World believed that Western civilization was superior to all others on earth, and they wanted to know why European culture was far more advanced (in their eyes) than any other. The British, in particular, were keen to pursue this line of research, but so, too, were the Germans, Americans, and French. After all, the nineteenth century was a time of almost unchallenged European imperialism. Therefore, nineteenth-century geographers tended to think of themselves as significant players in the imperial system.

Over time, the work of early cultural geographers split into two opposing camps. One group was epitomized by Carl Sauer, who is seen by many as the father of modern cultural geography, and the other by Friedrich Ratzel, Ellen Churchill Semple, and Ellsworth Huntington, who sought to deterministically connect human behavior to the physical environment.

3.5: Determinism

Environmental determinism argues that both general features and regional variations of human cultures and societies are determined by the physical and biological forms that make up the earth’s many natural landscapes. Geographers influenced by Semple and Huntington tended to describe and explain what they believed to be “superior” European culture (civilization) through the application of the theory of environmental determinism. From their writings, it does not seem that they ever recognized the inaccuracies of their position, let alone the arrogant, racist foundation upon which it rested.

Although modern geographers rarely discuss the impacts of environmental determinism except to note its serious flaws as a model for spatial analysis, its basic concepts were used by the Third Reich to justify German expansion in the 1930s and 1940s. Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer (American geographer, Ellen Churchill Semple was one of his students) argued that nation states are organic and therefore, must grow in order to survive. In other words, states must continually seek additional “lebensraum” (living room). The state, a living thing, was a natural link between the people and the natural environment (blood and soil). Moreover, the state provided a living tie between a people and a place. This application of environmental determinism, and Social Darwinism, eventually came to be more than a mere academic exercise because it was used to justify, or legitimize, the conquering of one people by another. At the height of European imperialism, academics depicted the great colonial empires as natural extensions of superior European cultures that had developed in the beneficial natural surrounding of the mid-latitudes. The concept of “manifest destiny” was used similarly to justify the expansion of the United States from the Atlantic to Pacific shores, at the expense of indigenous people.

Although Ratzel, Semple, and Huntington never expected their ideas to be used to justify Adolf Hitler’s conquest of Europe, Nazi geographers and political scientists built upon their work to develop theories of Nordic racial and cultural superiority. Semple and Huntington wanted nothing more than to define the boundaries of their discipline and to explain the differences in “cultures” and “places” throughout the world. They were merely striving to carve out a piece of academic or intellectual turf for themselves and like-minded colleagues.

By the 1920s, environmental determinism was already under attack by people such as Carl Sauer (at the University of California, Berkeley). Nevertheless, many scholars continued to base their work on the belief that human beings are primarily a product of the environment in which they live. Frederick Jackson Turner, the American historian who eloquently described the westward expansion of the United States, and Sir Halford Mackinder, the British political scientist who developed the “Heartland Theory,” explained away the conquering of indigenous people by Europeans as perhaps regrettable, but nonetheless, natural and unavoidable (given the superiority of cultures spawned in the mid-latitude environs of Western Europe).

3.6: The Cultural Landscape

Carl Sauer was probably the most influential cultural geographer of the twentieth century. Sauer’s work is characterized by a focus on the material landscape tempered with an abiding interest in human ecology, and the damaging impacts of humans on the environment. Additionally, and of equal importance, Sauer worked tirelessly to trace the origins and diffusions of cultural practices such as agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the use of fire.

Although there is no question that Sauer’s contributions to cultural geography are of great worth, some also criticize him for an anti-modern, anti-urban bias. Even so, his efforts to correct the inherent flaws associated with “environmental determinism” significantly strengthened the discipline of geography, and cultural geography in particular.

In 1925, Sauer published The Morphology of Landscape. In this work, he sought to demonstrate that nature does not create culture, but instead, culture working with and on nature, creates ways-of-life. Sauer considered human impacts on the landscape to be a manifestation of culture. Therefore, he argued, in order to understand a culture, a geographer must learn to read the landscape.

Sauer looked at “culture” holistically. Simply put, Sauer regarded “culture” as a way of life. Sauer, however, did not fully develop an explanation of what “culture” is. Instead, he left it to anthropologist Franz Boas to debunk “environmental determinism” and “social Darwinism” and to call for the analysis of cultures on “their” own terms (as opposed to using a hierarchical ranking system). Although mildly rooted in “cultural relativism,” he was not interested in necessarily justifying cultural practices. To the contrary, he simply wanted to eliminate the application of personal biases when studying cultures (as in Mitchell, Don, Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction).

3.7: Values and Economy

Cultural geographers should focus on two main themes relative to the relationship between culture and political economy. First, it is essential to understand the relationship between value and economy, and between cultural production and cultural consumption. Geographers should seek to know how values are produced, transmitted, and internalized. Moreover, how does economic value enter into how values are developed, accepted, adopted, or resisted? Second, geographers should want to know how the places in which we live (spaces) are part of the production and consumption of culture.

Arguments about values are often also fundamentally arguments about economics. According to Mitchell, cultural theorist Fred Inglis defines culture as “… the system of humanly expressive practices by which values are renewed, created, and contested.” Additionally, when people want to defend a practice or an action as good or important, they will often describe it as a part of the “value-system.” The next logical question is, of course, who considers this action or practice as “good or important?” After all, different classes and groups of people do not always view an action or practice in the same way.

By and large, Americans of European origins consider the conquest of the North American continent by their ancestors as brave, noble, and patriotic, whereas American Indians condemn it. How do people create cultural values and cultural meanings? Again, according to Don Mitchell, “… values, meanings, knowledge about good and bad, and about truth and falsehood, about moral ways of life – are inexorable, if not completely, integrated into the production of economic value.? The production of culture (systems of meaning, ways of life, and artifacts) is an essential element of all economic systems. In capitalism, culture is a means of motivating the labor that produces streams of goods and services, and a means of manipulating those who are convinced that they should consume these things.

In more socialistic systems, culture may be used to justify the actions of the government relative to the use of resources, the production of goods and services, and the distribution of wealth. Therefore, culture can be thought of as part of the system of production and consumption – as political and economic capital.”

3.8: Classifying Languages

Language and religion are two essential cultural characteristics for human geographers to study. Geographers describe the historical and spatial distributions of language and religion across the landscape as a way of understanding cultural identity. Furthermore, when geographers study religion, they are less concerned with theology and more concerned with the diffusion and interaction of religious ideologies across time and space and the imprint it has on the cultural landscape.


Languages relate to each other in much the same way that family groups (think of a family tree) relate to each other. Language is a system of communication that provides meaning to a group of people through speech. Nearly all languages around the world have a literary tradition: a system of written communication. Most nations have an official language. Most citizens of a nation with an official language speak and write in that language. Additionally, most official or governmental documents, monetary funds, and transportation signs are communicated in the official language. However, some regions such as the European Union have 23 official languages.

A language family is a collection of languages related through a common prehistorical language that makes up the main trunk of language identity. A language tree will have language branches, a collection of languages related through a common ancestral language that existed thousands of years ago. Finally, a language group is a collection of languages within a single branch that shares a common origin from the relatively recent past and displays relatively few differences in grammar and vocabulary.


There are various dialects within any language, and English in the United States is no exception. A dialect is a regional variation of a language, such as English, distinguished by distinctive vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation. In the United States, there is a dialect difference between southern, northern, and western states. We can all understand each other, but the way we say things may sound accented or “weird” to others. There is also a dialect difference between American English and English spoken in Britain, as well as other parts of the British Commonwealth.

3.11: Origins and Diffusions


All modern languages originate from an ancient language. The origin of every language may never be known because many ancient languages existed and changed before the written record. Root words within languages are the best evidence that we have to indicate that languages originated from pre-written history. The possible geographic origin of ancient languages is quite impressive. For example, several languages have similar root words for winter and snow, but not for the ocean. This indicates that the original language originated in an interior location away from the ocean. It was not until people speaking this language migrated toward the ocean that the word ocean was added to the lexicon (a catalog of a language’s words).

There are many layers within the Indo-European language family, but we will focus on the specifics. Though they sound very different, German and English, come from the same Germanic branch of the Indo-European language group. The Germanic branch is divided into High German and Low German. Most Germans speak High German, whereas English, Danish, and Flemish are considered subgroups of Low German. The Romance branch originated 2,000 years ago and is derived from Latin. Today, the Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. The Balto-Slavic branch uses to be considered one large language called Slavic in the 7th Century, but subdivided into a variety of smaller groups over time. Today the Balto-Slavic branch is composed of the following groups: East Slavic, West, Slavic, South Slavic, and Baltic. The Indo-European language branch spoken by most people around the world is Indo-Iranian with over 100 individual languages.

The origin of Indo-European languages has long been a topic of debate among scholars and scientists. In 2012, a team of evolutionary biologists at the University of Auckland led by Dr. Quentin Atkinson released a study that found all modern IE languages could be traced back to a single root: Anatolian — the language of Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey.


The next question that must be asked is why languages are diffused where they are diffused?  Social scientists, specifically linguistics and archaeologists disagree on this issue because some believe that languages are diffused by war and conquest, whereas others believe diffusion occurs by peaceful/symbiotic means such as food and trade. For example, English is spoken by over 2 billion people and is the dominant language in 55 countries. Much of this diffusion has to do with British imperialism. The primary purpose of British imperialism was to appropriate as much foreign territory as possible to use as sources of raw materials. Imperialism involves diffusion of language through both conquest and trade.

The linguistic structure of the Sino-Tibetan language family is very complex and different from the Indo-European language family. Unlike European languages, the Sino-Tibetan language is based on hundreds of one-syllable spoken words. The other distinctive characteristic of this language is the way it is written. Rather than letters used in the Indo-European language, the Chinese language is written using thousands of characters called ideograms, which represent ideas or concepts rather than sounds. Sino-Tibetan language family exists mainly in China—the most populous nation in the world—and is over 4,000 years old. Of the over 1 billion Chinese citizens, 75 percent speak Mandarin, making it the most common language used in the world.

There are a large variety of other language families in Eastern and Southeast Asian. There is Austronesian in Indonesia, Austro-Asiatic that includes Vietnamese, Tai Kadai that is spoken in Thailand and surrounding countries, Korean and Japanese. In Southwest Asia (also called the Middle East), there are three dominant language families. The Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken by over 200 million people in several countries in the form of Arabic and are the written language of the Muslim holy book called the Quran. Hebrew is another Afro-Asiatic language and is the language of the Torah and Talmud (Jewish sacred texts).

The largest group of the Altaic language family is Turkish. The Turkish language used to be written with Arabic letters, but in 1928 the Turkish government required the use of the Roman alphabet in order to adapt the nation’s cultural and economic communications to those in line with their Western-European counterparts. Finally, the Uralic language family originated 7,000 years ago, near the Ural mountains in Siberia. All European countries speak Indo-European languages except Estonia, Finland, and Hungary, which speak Uralic instead.

The countries that make up Africa have a wealthy and complex family of languages.  Africa has thousands of languages that have resulted from 5,000 years of isolation between the various tribes. Just like species that evolve differently over thousands of years of isolation, Africa’s languages have evolved into various tongues. However, there are three major African language families to focus on. The Niger-Congo language family is spoken by 95 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa. Within the Niger-Congo language is Swahili, which is the official language of only 800,00 people, but a secondary language is spoken by over 30 million Africans. Only a few million people in Africa speak languages from the Nilo-Saharan language family. The Khoisan language family is spoken by even fewer, but is distinctive because of the “clicking sounds” when spoken.

In a world dominated by communication, globalization, science and the Internet, English has grown to be the dominant global language. Today English is considered a lingua franca (a language mutually understood and commonly used in trade by people who have different native languages). It is now believed that 500 million people speak English as a second language. There are other lingua fraca such as Swahili in Eastern Africa and Russian in nations that were once a part of the Soviet Union.


Pidgins, also called contact languages, which develop out of contact between at least two groups of people who do not share a common language. A pidgin language is a usually a mixture of two or more languages, contains simplified grammar and vocabulary in, and is used for linguistic communication between groups, usually for trading purposes, who speak different languages. Pidgins are not first/native languages and are always learned as a second language. Many pidgins developed during European colonization of Asia, Africa, and other areas of the world during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

Creole languages are stable languages that develop from pidgins. Different from pidgins, creole languages are primary languages that are nativized by children. Additionally, creoles have their formal grammar and vocabulary. The grammar of a creole language often has grammatical features that differ from those of both parent languages. However, the vocabulary of a creole is primarily taken from the language of the dominant contact group.


An isolated language is one that is unrelated to any other language. Thus it cannot be connected to any language family. These remote languages, and many others, are experiencing a mass extinction and are quickly disappearing off the planet. It is believed that nearly 500 languages are in danger of being lost forever. Think about the language you speak, the knowledge and understanding acquired and discovered through that language. What would happen to all that knowledge if your language suddenly disappeared? Would all of it be transferred to another language or would major components be lost to time and be rewritten by history? What would happen to your culture if your language was lost to time? Ultimately, is it possible that the Information Age is causing a Dis-information Age as thousands of languages are near extinction? Click here to view an Esri story map on Endangered Languages

Consider the impact of language on culture, particularly religion. Most religions have some form of written or literary tradition or history, which allows for information to be transferred to future generations.  However, some religions are only transferred verbally and when that culture disappears (which is happening at a frightening rate), so does all of the knowledge and history of that culture.

The Endangered Languages project serves as an online resource for samples and research on endangered languages, as well as a forum for advice and best practices for those working to strengthen linguistic diversity.

3.12: The Resurgence of Non-Western Cultures

Samuel Huntington believes that the world is now experiencing a period of “indigenization,” or the resurgence of non-Western cultures. He notes that, at this time, European colonialism has ended and the hegemony of the United States is receding. As this has happened, indigenous mores, languages, beliefs, and institutions have grown in importance and influence. People in many parts of the world have long resented Western dominance, whether through colonialism or economic power. Even cultural groups who live in Western nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States now seek greater self-rule and greater opportunities to practice their traditional ways. Moreover, in many non-Western democracies, politicians actively run against Western influence (Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, for example). Even in modern industrial states such as Japan, Western values are increasingly attacked (at least superficially). Thus, Huntington concludes, “… we are witnessing the end of the progressive era dominated by Western ideologies, and are moving into an era in which multiple and diverse civilizations will interact, compete, coexist, and accommodate each other.” The rival of religion that is occurring in many parts of the world (in particular in Asian and Islamic nations) is a manifestation of a growing process of indigenization.

Given the current resurgence of nationalism and tribalism, perhaps Huntington was spot on. Still, even he would probably not expect the UK to withdraw from the EU or the United States to disengage from the Paris Accords on the Environment.

3.13: The Growing Importance of Religious Revival

According to Huntington, religious resurgence is the product of large-scale disenchantment with secularism, moral relativism, and the narcissism that characterizes modern consumer-oriented societies. It also represents a commitment to order, discipline, work, and solidarity with one’s people. In general, the revival of religion in many parts of the world is anti-Western (except in countries where the growth of religion has Christian manifestations – e.g., China). For the most part, people who swarm to these religious movements are against the individualism of the West, even while they embrace modern technologies, urbanization, development, and capitalism. They believe it is possible to create a modern state that rests upon a strong religious foundation. Moreover, most are not interested in adopting the Western view that church and state must remain separate. Instead, they are comfortable with a government that is dominated by the religion they believe to be at the heart of their culture and civilization. Interestingly, in almost direct contrast to the West, the young of the Islamic states are less secular than their parents. This is because religion provides meaning and direction to people who live in modernizing societies. Furthermore, embracing fundamental religion is considered tantamount to the rejection of Western values and Western control (this is especially true in Islamic states).

Is there an element of hypocrisy on the part of many of these newly minted religious fundamentalists who espouse the virtues of self-sacrifice and piety, while at the same time, striving to accumulate wealth and power?  While they loudly condemn the imperialism of the West, they seek to replace Western hegemony with their own. They, like many before them, justify their efforts to dominate the world by believing that they are carrying out “God’s plan.” It is always difficult to argue or negotiate with people who believe they are doing God’s will. Most people can negotiate about almost anything except the welfare and safety of their families, and their fundamental religious beliefs. Therefore, in places where religion and governments are the same, diplomatic endeavors can become studies in frustration. The current tension between the United States and Israel over Israel’s decision to continue building settlements on occupied land is an example. From the Israeli perspective, the land they are building on is not occupied. Thus, it is theirs. More importantly, it is theirs because God gave it to them. Therefore, some believe that these new settlements are altogether proper and in keeping with God’s will.

At this point, it is important to note that the Islamic World is in a state of flux. Recently, Libya had a revolution that has ended with the assassination of long-time Islamic dictator, Muammar Gaddafi from power. Egypt attempted to build a new government after the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. The Syrian government is battling thousands of disenchanted youth who want to topple Bashar Hafez al-Assad, which has created the world’s largest refugee crisis. Iranian youth have openly demonstrated against their government, and other parts of the Middle East are also either in rebellion or on the verge of it.

Currently, no one can predict with certainty the ramifications of these geopolitical changes. Some fear that radical Islamic groups may eventually take full control of the region, thereby creating a growing threat to the security of the modern world order. Most hope that instead, modern, more tolerant states will emerge under the leadership of rational and reasonable people who seek to constructively participate in creating a more stable and more peaceful world. It is most likely, however, that the future geopolitical reality of the Middle East lies somewhere in between these two extremes. In other words, some places may evolve into modern, more tolerant states, while others may become radicalized and thereby create significant threats regionally and internationally.

Whereas the materials presented above provide a solid summary of conditions in the Middle East during the Arab Spring in 2011, the situation has now evolved into increasingly volatile interactions that now include a virtual occupation of parts of Syria by the Russians, an increasingly complex relationship between the United States and Turkey (because Turkey does not like the growing power of the Kurds who are battling ISIS), a growing level of instability in Afghanistan, and growing tensions between a number of primary powers in the region.  Additionally, this situation is becoming more uncertain because of deteriorating relations between the United States and its traditional allies such as the nations of NATO.

3.14: Origins and Diffusion of Religion

Our world’s cultural geography is very complex with language and religion as two cultural traits that contribute to the richness, diversity, and complexity of the human experience. Nowadays, the word “diversity” is gaining a great deal of attention as nations around the world are becoming more culturally, religiously, and linguistically complex and interconnected. Specifically, in regards to religion, these important cultural institutions are no longer isolated in their place of origin, but have diffused into other realms and regions with their religious history and cultural dominance. In some parts of the world, this has caused religious wars and persecution; in other regions, it has helped initiate cultural tolerance and respect for others.

These trends are in some ways the product of a history of migratory push and pull factors along with a demographic change that have brought together peoples of diverse religious and even linguistic backgrounds. It is critical that people critically learn about diverse cultures by understanding important cultural traits, such as the ways we communicate and maintain spiritual beliefs. Geographers need to be aware that even though our discipline might not be able to answer numerous questions related to language structure or address unique aspects of theological opinion, our field can provide insight by studying these cultural traits in a spatial context. In essence, geography provides us with the necessary tools to understand the spread of cultural traits and the role of geographic factors, both physical and cultural, in that process. People will then see that geography has influenced the distribution and diffusion of differing ideologies, as well as the diverse ways they practice their spiritual traditions.

As is the case with languages, geographers have a method of classifying religions so people can better understand the geographic diffusion of belief systems. Although religions are by themselves complex cultural institutions, the primary method for categorizing them is simple. In essence, there are two main groups: universalizing religions, which actively invite non-members to join them, and ethnic religions, which are associated with particular ethnic or national groups. Everyone can recount moments in his or her life in which there was interaction with individuals eager to share with others their spiritual beliefs and traditions. Also, that same person might have encountered individuals who are very private, perhaps secretive, when it comes to personal religious traditions deemed by this individual as exclusive to his or her family and national group. A discussion of these life experiences can generate fascinating examples that serve as testimony to our world’s cultural richness when it comes to differing religious traditions.


A significant portion of the world’s universalizing religions has a precise hearth or place of origin. This designation is based on events in the life of a man, and the hearths where the largest universalizing religions originated are all in Asia. Of course, not all religions are from Asia. The three universalizing religions diffused from specific hearths, or places of origin, to other regions of the world. The hearths where each of these three largest universalizing religions originated are based on the events in the lives of key individuals within each religion. Together, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have over 2.5 billion adherents combined. Below are links to websites that analyze the diffusion of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.


Religion is often the catalyst of conflict between local values or traditions with issues and values that come with nationalism or even globalization. Religion tends to represent core beliefs that represent cultural values and identity, which along with language, often represent local ideology rather than national or international ideology. There are some reasons why, but some include:

  • Culture is often the manifestation of core belief systems determined by the interplay between language and religion.
  • Universal religions try to appeal to the many, whereas ethnic religions focus on the few in a specific region.
  • Cultural landscapes or language and religion are often represented in the physical landscape. When opposing forces come and threaten the physical landscape, it threatens the cultural landscape.
  • Universal religions require the adoption of values that make conflict with local traditions and values. If the universal religion is forced upon another universal religion or ethnic religion, conflict may ensue.
  • Migrants tend to learn and simulate the language of the region they migrate to, but keep the religion they originated from. This can be viewed as a threat to the people the migrant moved to.

3.15: Types of Religions

Geographers distinguish religion into two categories: universal and ethnic.  Universal religions try to appeal to everyone globally rather than specific cultures or regions.  Ethnic religions try to focus and appeal to specific groups of people.  Sixty-two percent of the world’s population belongs to a universal religion, whereas only 24 percent belong to ethnic religions.  The other 14 percent do not have any religious affiliation.


Christianity is divided into three branches: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. The largest of the three is Roman Catholic with nearly 52 percent of the Christian population. In the western hemisphere, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Christian, there are sharp divides between the Christian branches. In Latin America, 93 percent are Roman Catholic compared to just 29 percent in North America. In the United States, Roman Catholics are clustered in the southwest and northeast. Nearly 28 percent of North America is Protestant with Baptist being the major denomination followed by Methodist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, and Mormon.

Most major religions have laws, rules, commandments, or beliefs that all members should follow.  In Christianity, they are the Ten Commandments, and they are written as direct commandments from God.

  • You shall have no other gods before Me.
  • You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  • You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  • Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  • Honor your father and your mother.
  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbors.


Probably one of the most misunderstood religions in the world is Islam. Though predominantly centered in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world with 1.3 billion and is only second to Christianity is members. Founded by Muhammad, the core beliefs of Islam are called the Five Pillars of Faith, and they include:

  • There is no god worthy of worship except the one God, the source of all creation, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
  • Five times daily, a Muslim prays, facing the city Makkah (Mecca), as a direct link to God.
  • A Muslim gives generously to charity, as an act of purification and growth.
  • A Muslim fasts during the month of Ramadan, as an act of self-purification.
  • If physically and financially able, a Muslim makes a pilgrimage to Makkah–this is called the Hajj.

Probably one of the most misunderstood religions in the world is Islam. Though predominantly centered in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world with 1.3 billion and is only second to Christianity is members. Islam is also divided into two major branches: Sunni and Shiite. The Sunni branch is the largest, composed of 83 percent of all Muslims. The Shiite branch is more concentrated in clusters such as Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.

In Western nations, the primary loyalty of the population is to the state. In the Islamic world, however, loyalty to a nation-state is trumped by dedication to religion and loyalty to one’s family, extended family, tribal group, and culture. In regions dominated by Islam, tribalism and religion play determining roles in the operation of social, economic, cultural, and political systems. As a result, the nation states within the Islamic civilization are weak and generally ineffectual. Instead of nationalism, Muslims are far more interested in identifying with “ummah,” (Islamic civilization).

Furthermore, despite the lack of a core Islamic state, the leaders of the many Muslim nations created (1969) the Organization of the Islamic Conference in order to foster a sense of solidarity between Muslim states. Almost all nations with large Muslim populations are now members of the organization. Additionally, some of the more powerful Muslim states have sponsored the World Muslim Conference and the Muslim League to bring Muslims together in a unified block.

It is instructive to notice that the concept of ummah rests on the notion that nation-states are the illegitimate children of Western Civilization, designed to further Western interests at the expense of others. Currently, Islamic Civilization has no identifiable core state, but nations such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia could assume that role in the future.

It is common for Americans to suggest that they do not have a problem with Islam; only Islamic extremists. Huntington, however, argues that the lessons of history demonstrate the opposite. In fact, over the last fourteen hundred years, Christians and Muslims have almost always had stormy relations. After Muslims were able to take control of North Africa, Iberia, the Middle East, Persia, and Northern India in the seventh and eighth centuries, relatively peaceful boundaries between Islam and Christendom existed for about two hundred years. In 1095, however, Christian rulers launched the Crusades to regain control of the “Holy Land.” Despite some successes, they were eventually defeated in 1291. Not long after this, the Ottoman Empire spread Islam into Byzantium, North Africa, the Balkans, and other parts of Europe. They eventually sacked Vienna, and for many years, Europe was under constant threat from Islamic forces. In the fifteenth century, Christians were able to regain control of Iberia, and the Russians were able to bring an end to Tatar rule. In 1683, the Ottomans again attacked Vienna but were defeated, and from that time on, the people of the Balkans sought to rid themselves of Ottoman rule. By the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was referred to as the “sick man of Europe.” By 1920, only four Islamic countries (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan) were free of non-Muslim rule.

As Western colonialism began to wane in the twentieth century, the populations of about forty-five independent states were solidly Muslim. The independence of these Muslim nations was accompanied by a great deal of violence. 50% of the wars that occurred between 1820 and 1929 involved battles between Muslims and Christians. The conflicts were primarily products of two very different points of view. Whereas Christians believe in the separation of Church and State (God and Caesar), Muslims view religion and politics as the same. Additionally, both Christians and Muslims hold a universalistic view. Each believes that it is the one “true faith,” and both (to one extent or another) believe that they should convert others to their faith.

In addition to the importance of the religious foundations of the Western and Islamic Civilizations, practical, real-world factors also play important roles. For example, Muslim population growth has created large numbers of unemployed, angry youth who have been regularly recruited to Islamic causes. Furthermore, the resurgence of Islam has provided Muslims with confidence in the worth of their civilization relative to the West. Western policies and actions over the last century have also played a significant role in cracking the fault line between Islam and Christendom. From the Islamic point of view, the West (particularly the United States) has meddled in the internal affairs of the Islamic world far too often, and for far too long.

Huntington is convinced the Western and Islamic Civilizations are in for many years, perhaps more than a century, of conflict and tension. He points out that Muslims are growing increasingly anti-Western while at the same time, people in the Western Civilization are increasingly concerned about the intentions (and excesses) of modern Islamic states such as Iran. Europeans express a growing fear of (and impatience with) fundamentalist Muslims who threaten them with terrorist attacks. They are also growing weary of Islamic immigrants who refuse to adhere to European traditions, and in some cases, laws.

Huntington does not mince words. He boldly states,”…the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam; a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture, and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” He goes on to add, “…the problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West; a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture, and believe that they are superior, if declining, power imposes on them an obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.” From Huntington’s perspective, these differences will fuel conflict between Western and Islamic cultures for many years to come.

Many Western leaders do not agree with Huntington’s view. Instead, they argue that Americans need not to fear Islam; only radical Islam. They point to the millions of Muslims living throughout the world in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors. If, they reason, Islam were indeed a religion of war and conquest, why is it that millions of Muslims lead peaceful lives? Instead of applying a negative stereotype to all Muslims, they believe our national security would be better served by making more considerable effort to understand the motivations and goals of radical fundamentalists. In a sense, they are calling for in-depth cultural studies that will lead to accurate cultural intelligence about the nature of Islamic terrorists — simply branding all Muslims as potential terrorists are, from those who do not agree with Huntington, simplistic and dangerous.


The third largest universal religion is Buddhism with 400 million followers. This religion is mainly clustered in China and Southeast Asia.  Buddhism is a break-off of Hinduism and founded by Siddhartha Gautama. After seeing the suffering of people in India, Siddhartha left his riches to learn the root causes of pain and suffering. After a long journey, he became enlightened and became the Buddha. In order to transcend pain and suffering, the Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths, which leads to the Eight-fold Path.

  • All living beings must endure suffering.
  • Suffering, which is caused by a desire to live, leads to reincarnation (repeated rebirth in new bodies or forms of life).
  • The goal of all existence is to escape from suffering and the endless cycle of reincarnation into Nirvana (a state of complete redemption), which is achieved through mental and moral self-purification.
  • Nirvana is attained through an Eightfold Path, which includes rightness of belief, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, though, and mediation.
  • Eightfold Path: Right view; Right intention; Right speech; Right action; Right Livelihood; Right Effort; Right mindfulness; Right concentration

After Siddhartha Gautama died, Buddhism split between the Mahayanist, Theravada, and Tantrayana branches. The Mahayanist branch is by far the most popular and tends to be the most universal. It also more of philosophical practice/way of life rather than a religion. The Theravada and Tantrayana branches are centered on spiritual ideologies and practices, thus making them religious sects of Buddhism.


Some of the places that in some ways contributed to the foundation and development of a faith frequently gain sacred status, either by the presence of a natural site ascribed as holy, or as the stage for miraculous events, or by some historical event such as the erection of a temple.  When a place gains that “sacred” reputation, it is not unusual to see peoples from different parts of the world traveling or making a pilgrimage to this site with the hope of experiencing spiritual and physical renewal.

Buddhists have eight holy sites because they have special meaning or essential events during the Buddha’s life. The first one is in Lumbini, Nepal where the Buddha was born around 563 B.C. The second holy site is in Bodh Gaya, Nepal, where it is believed Siddhartha reached enlightenment to become the Buddha. The third most important site is in Sarnath, India where he gave his first sermon. The fourth holiest site is Kusinagara, India where the Buddha died at the age of 80 and became enlightened. The other four holy sites are where Buddha performed/experienced specific miracles. People who practice Buddhism or Shintoism erect and use pagodas to house relics and sacred texts. Pagodas are also used for individual prayer and meditation.

Islam’s holiest sites are located in Saudi Arabia. The holiest city is Mecca, Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was born. It is also the location of the religion’s holiest objects called the Ka’ba, a cube-like structure believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. The second holiest site to Muslims in Medina, Saudi Arabia where Muhammad began his leadership and gained initial support from the people. Every healthy and financially able Muslim is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime. For Muslims, a mosque is considered a holy site of worship, but also a place for community assembly. Usually assembled around a courtyard, the pulpit faces Mecca so that all Muslims pray toward their holiest site. Mosques will have a tower called a minaret where someone summons people to worship.

Meaning lord, master, or power, a Christian church is a place of gathering and worship. Compared to other religions, churches play a more important role because they are created to express values and principles. Churches also play a vital role in the landscape. In earlier days and smaller towns, churches tend to be the most significant buildings. Also because of their importance, Christian religions spend lots of money and commitment to the building and maintenance of their churches.

To learn more about various world religions, click on the following links:

  • Universal religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam
  • Ethnic religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Animists

Returning to our original discussion on genocide below is a documentary by PBS on the subject titled “Genocide: Worse Than War.” As quoted by Danial Goldhagen “By the most fundamental measure — the number of people killed — the perpetrators of mass murder since the beginning of the twentieth century have taken the lives of more people than have died in military conflict. So genocide is worse than war,” reiterates Goldhagen. “This is a little-known fact that should be a central focus of international politics, because once you know it, the world, international politics, and what we need to do all begin to look substantially different from how they are typically conceived” (Genocide: Worse Than War).


Few things determine human characteristics than ethnicity and culture. Many believe that humans can be categorized by ethnicity and by race. However, biological science is starting to show that race is more of a social construct and not grounded or supported by genetics.

For human geographers and sociologists, culture is primarily determined by language and religion. Language is a sophisticated way humans have learned to communicate with each other. Like a family tree, the history of a language can be traced back using language branches and language families. Linguists are concerned that globalization is causing many of the world’s languages to become extinct. The extinction of a language is also the extinction of knowledge that may not be replaceable.

There are a variety of religions, but most can be divided as being either universal and ethnic. Universal religions tend to focus a lot on missionaries and the spread of their religion, whereas ethnic religions do not focus on spreading their religion. The places of worship are and complex and the religions themselves because they are the symbols of the religion.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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