3.2 Understanding Culture

What are the rules when you pass an acquaintance at school, work, in the grocery store, or in the mall? Generally, we do not consider all of the intricacies of the rules of behavior. We may simply say, “Hello!” and ask, “How was your weekend?” or some other trivial question meant to be a friendly greeting. Rarely do we physically embrace or even touch the individual. In fact, doing so may be viewed with scorn or distaste, since as people in the United States we have fairly rigid rules about personal space. However, we all adhere to various rules and standards that are created and maintained in culture. These rules and expectations have meaning, and there are ways in which you may violate this negotiation. Consider what would happen if you stopped and informed everyone who said, “Hi, how are you?” exactly how you were doing that day, and in detail. You would more than likely violate rules of culture and specifically greeting. Perhaps in a different culture the question would be more literal, and it may require a response. Or if you are having coffee with a good friend, perhaps that question warrants a more detailed response. These examples are all aspects of culture, which is shared beliefs, values, and practices, that participants must learn. Sociologically, we examine in what situation and context certain behavior is expected, and in which situations perhaps it is not. These rules are created and enforced by people who interact and share culture.

In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between the terms culture and society, but the terms have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to a geographer. A society describes a group of people who share a community and a culture. By “community,” social scientists refer to a definable region—as small as a neighborhood (Brooklyn, or “the east side of town”), as large as a country (Ethiopia, the United States, or Nepal), or somewhere in between (in the United States, this might include someone who identifies with Southern or Midwestern society). To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other. In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail and pay special attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and cultural changes. A final discussion touches on the different theoretical perspectives from which human geographers research culture.

Defining Culture

Humans are social creatures. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens nearly 250,000 years ago, people have grouped into communities in order to survive. Living together, people form everyday habits and behaviors – from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. In modern-day Paris, many people shop daily at outdoor markets to pick up what they need for their evening meal, buying cheese, meat, and vegetables from different specialty stalls. In the United States, the majority of people shop once a week at supermarkets, filling large carts to the brim. How would a Parisian perceive U.S. shopping behaviors that Americans take for granted?

Almost every human behavior, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. In the United States, people tend to view marriage as a choice between two people, based on mutual feelings of love. In other nations and in other times, marriages have been arranged through an intricate process of interviews and negotiations between entire families, or in other cases, through a direct system, such as a “mail-order bride.” To someone raised in New York City, the marriage customs of a family from Nigeria may seem strange or even wrong. Conversely, someone from a traditional Kolkata family might be perplexed with the idea of romantic love as the foundation for marriage and lifelong commitment. In other words, how people view marriage depends mostly on what they have been taught.

Behavior based on learned customs is not a bad thing. Being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives, confident that their behaviors will not be challenged or disrupted — however, even action as seemingly simple as commuting to work evidences a great deal of cultural propriety.

Culture consists of thoughts and tangible things. Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. These material and nonmaterial aspects of culture can vary subtly from region to region.

Cultural Universals

Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences. However, all cultures also share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In the United States, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit that consists of parents and their offspring. Other cultural universals include customs like funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. However, each culture may view the ceremonies quite differently.

Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals, including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock 1949). Social scientists consider humor necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance and maintain an ample “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies significantly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, it’s most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favorite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travelers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Often, people in the United States express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine and think that it is gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they do not question their habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of ethnocentrism, or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as social scientists William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others. Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Americans tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than on the “other” side. Someone from a country where dog meat is standard fare might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant—not on the menu, but as a pet and patron’s companion. An example of ethnocentrism is referring to parts of Asia as the “Far East.” One might question, “Far East of where?”

A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. However, ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures and could cause misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, because they see them as uneducated or backward – inherently inferior. In reality, these travelers are guilty of cultural imperialism, the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the sixteenth century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who needed European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices. A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to the particular region.

Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all of the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration, called culture shock. A traveler from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions – a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveler was initially captivated with Montana’s quiet beauty, and the Chinese student was initially excited to see a U.S.-style classroom firsthand. However, as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture, they recover from culture shock.

Culture shock may appear because people are not always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when he conducted a participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Initially, from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he would never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. However, the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Throughout his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.

During his time with the Inuit tribe, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies — ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies — would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Human geographers attempting to engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture that they are studying.

Sometimes when people attempt to rectify feelings of ethnocentrism and develop cultural relativism, they swing too far to the other end of the spectrum. Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and refers to the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own. (The Greek root word xeno, pronounced “ZEE-no,” means “stranger” or “foreign guest.”) An exchange student who goes home after a semester abroad or a geographer who returns from the field may find it difficult to associate with the values of their own culture after having experienced what they deem a more upright or nobler way of living.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for geographers and other social scientists studying different cultures is the matter of keeping a perspective. It is impossible for anyone to keep all cultural biases at bay; the best we can do is strive to be aware of them. Pride in one’s own culture does not have to lead to imposing its values on others. Moreover, an appreciation for another culture should not preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.

Elements of Cultural Values and Beliefs

The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are its values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs. Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share common values. To illustrate the difference, Americans commonly believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is useful and important.

Values help shape a society by suggesting what is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, sought, or avoided. Consider the value that the United States places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful. The United States also has an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value.

Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It is easy to value good health, but it is hard to quit smoking. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.

Values often suggest how people should behave, but they do not accurately reflect how people do behave. Values portray an ideal culture; the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. However, ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. However, in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers continuously strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices

One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold their values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviors by giving their support, approval, or permission, or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and nonsupport. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers. From a criminal justice perspective, properly used social control is also inexpensive crime control. Utilizing social control approaches pushes most people to conform to societal rules, regardless of whether authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present.

When people go against a society’s values, they are punished. A boy who shoves an older woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions, such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.

Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It is rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in the United States, where that behavior often symbolizes romantic feelings. However, in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. This difference in cultural values came to light when people reacted to photos of former president George W. Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2005. A simple gesture, such as hand-holding, carries significant symbolic differences across cultures.


So far, the examples in this chapter have often described how people are expected to behave in certain situations – for example, when buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured, or what social scientists call norms. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them.

Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviors worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and they are the most strictly enforced. However, even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees and are reflected in cultural values.

For example, money is highly valued in the United States, so monetary crimes are punished. It is against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install anti-theft devices to protect homes and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is driving while intoxicated. While it is against the law to drive drunk, drinking is, for the most part, an acceptable social behavior. Moreover, though there are laws to punish drunk driving, there are few systems in place to prevent the crime. These examples show a range of enforcement regarding formal norms.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms – casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to – is longer. People learn informal norms through observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly, while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm. However, although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. Most people do not commit even benign breaches of informal norms. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviors without the need for written rules.

Norms may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores (mor-ays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are legally protected with laws or other formal norms. In the United States, for instance, murder is considered immoral, and it is punishable by law (a formal norm). However, more often, mores are judged and guarded by public sentiment (an informal norm). People who violate mores are seen as shameful. They can even be shunned or banned from some groups. The mores of the U.S. school system require that a student’s writing be in the student’s own words or use special forms (such as quotation marks and a whole system of citation) for crediting other writers. Writing another person’s words as if they are one’s own has a name—plagiarism. The consequences of violating this norm are severe and usually, result in expulsion.

Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. Rather, folkways direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture. They indicate whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek when greeting another person. Many folkways are actions we take for granted. People need to act without thinking in order to get seamlessly through daily routines; they cannot stop and analyze every action (Sumner 1906). Those who experience culture shock may find that it subsides as they learn the new culture’s folkways and can move through their daily routines more smoothly. Folkways might be small manners, learned by observation and imitated, but they are by no means trivial. Like mores and laws, these norms help people negotiate their daily lives within a given culture.

Fold and Popular Culture

It may seem obvious that there is a multitude of cultural differences between societies in the world. After all, we can easily see that people vary from one society to the next. It is natural that a young woman from rural Kenya would have a very different view of the world from an older man in Mumbai—one of the most populated cities in the world. Additionally, each culture has its own internal variations. Sometimes the differences between cultures are not nearly as significant as the differences inside cultures.

Do you prefer listening to opera or hip-hop music? Do you like watching horseracing or NASCAR? Do you read books of poetry or celebrity magazines? In each pair, one type of entertainment is considered highbrow and the other lowbrow. Social scientists use the term high culture to describe the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the highest-class segments of a society. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, political power, and prestige. In America, high culture also tends to be associated with wealth. Events considered high culture can be expensive and formal—attending a ballet, seeing a play, or listening to a live symphony performance.

The term popular culture, also called pop-culture, refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society. Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or the season finale of a television show. Rock and pop music – “pop” is short for “popular” – are part of popular culture. Popular culture is often expressed and spread via commercial media such as radio, television, movies, the music industry, publishers, and corporate-run websites. Unlike high culture, popular culture is known and accessible to most people. You can share a discussion of favorite football teams with a new coworker or comment on American Idol when making small talk in line at the grocery store. However, if you tried to launch into an in-depth discussion on the classical Greek play Antigone, few members of U.S. society today would be familiar with it.

Although high culture may be viewed as superior to popular culture, the labels of high culture and popular culture vary over time and place. Shakespearean plays, considered pop culture when they were written, are now part of our society’s high culture. Five hundred years from now, will our descendants associate Breaking Bad with the cultural elite?

Subculture and Counterculture

A subculture is just what it sounds like – a smaller cultural group within a broader culture; people of a subculture are part of the broader culture but also share a specific identity within a smaller group.

Thousands of subcultures exist within the United States. Ethnic and racial groups share the language, food, and customs of their heritage. Other subcultures are united by shared experiences. Biker culture revolves around a dedication to motorcycles. Some subcultures are formed by members who possess traits or preferences that differ from the majority of a society’s population. The body modification community embraces aesthetic additions to the human body, such as tattoos, piercings, and certain forms of plastic surgery. In the United States, adolescents often form subcultures to develop a shared youth identity. Alcoholics Anonymous offers support to those suffering from alcoholism. However, even as members of a subculture band together, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.

Human geographers and sociologists distinguish subcultures from countercultures, which are a type of subculture that rejects some of the larger culture’s norms and values. In contrast to subcultures, which operate relatively smoothly within the larger society, countercultures might actively defy larger society by developing their own set of rules and norms to live by, sometimes even creating communities that operate outside of greater society.

Cults, a word derived from culture, are also considered counterculture groups. The group “Yearning for Zion” (YFZ) in Eldorado, Texas, existed outside the mainstream and the limelight, until its leader was accused of statutory rape and underage marriage. The sect’s formal norms clashed too severely to be tolerated by U.S. law, and in 2008, authorities raided the compound and removed more than two hundred women and children from the property.

Cultural Change

Culture is always evolving. Moreover, new things are added to material culture every day, and they affect nonmaterial culture as well. Cultures change when something new (say, railroads or smartphones) opens up new ways of living and when new ideas enter a culture (say, as a result of travel or globalization).

Innovation: Discovery and Intervention

Innovation refers to an object or concept’s initial appearance in society – it is innovative because it is markedly new. There are two ways to come across an innovative object or idea: discover it or invent it. Discoveries make known previously unknown but existing aspects of reality. In 1610, when Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered Saturn, the planet was already there, but until then, no one had known about it. When Christopher Columbus encountered America, the land was, of course, already well known to its inhabitants. However, Columbus’s discovery was new knowledge for Europeans, and it opened the way to changes in European culture, as well as to the cultures of the discovered lands. For example, new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, and horses brought from Europe changed hunting practices of Native American tribes of the Great Plains.

Inventions result when something new is formed from existing objects or concepts—when things are put together in an entirely new manner. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric appliances were invented at an astonishing pace. Cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions were all new inventions. Inventions may shape a culture when people use them in place of older ways of carrying out activities and relating to others, or as a way to carry out new kinds of activities. Their adoption reflects (and may shape) cultural values, and their use may require new norms for new situations.

Consider the introduction of modern communication technology, such as mobile phones and smartphones. As more and more people began carrying these devices, phone conversations no longer were restricted to homes, offices, and phone booths. People on trains, in restaurants, and other public places became annoyed by listening to one-sided conversations. Norms were needed for cell phone use. Some people pushed for the idea that those who are out in the world should pay attention to their companions and surroundings. However, technology-enabled a workaround such as texting, which enables quiet communication and has surpassed phoning as the leading way to meet today’s highly valued ability to stay in touch anywhere, everywhere.

When the pace of innovation increases, it can lead to generation gaps. A skeptical older generation sometimes dismisses technological gadgets that catch on quickly with one generation. A culture’s objects and ideas can cause not just generational but cultural gaps. Material culture tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change. Sociologist William F. Ogburn coined the term culture lag to refer to this time that elapses between the introduction of a new item of material culture and its acceptance as part of nonmaterial culture (Ogburn 1957).

Culture lag can also cause tangible problems. The infrastructure of the United States, built a hundred years ago or more, is having trouble supporting today’s more densely populated and fast-paced life. There is a lag in conceptualizing solutions to infrastructure problems. Rising fuel prices, increased air pollution, and traffic jams are all symptoms of culture lag. Although people are becoming aware of the consequences of overusing resources, the means to support changes take time to achieve.

Diffusion and Globalization

The integration of world markets and technological advances of the last decades have allowed for greater exchange between cultures through the processes of globalization and diffusion. Beginning in the 1980s, Western governments began to deregulate social services while granting greater liberties to private businesses. As a result, world markets became dominated by multinational companies in the 1980s, a new state of affairs at that time. We have since come to refer to this integration of international trade and finance markets as globalization. Increased communications and air travel have further opened doors for international business relations, facilitating the flow not only of goods but also of information and people as well (Scheuerman 2014 (revised)). Today, many U.S. companies set up offices in other nations where the costs of resources and labor are cheaper. When a person in the United States calls to get information about banking, insurance, or computer services, the person taking that call may be working in another country.

Alongside the process of globalization is diffusion, or the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates to a similar process in the integration of international cultures. Middle-class Americans can fly overseas and return with a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato. Access to television and the Internet has brought the lifestyles and values portrayed in U.S. sitcoms into homes around the globe. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political protesters in other countries. When this kind of diffusion occurs, material objects and ideas from one culture are introduced into another.

Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture. However, what do they mean? How do human geographers perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Let us finish our analysis of culture by reviewing them in the context of three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a whole. In this way, societies need culture to exist. Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making choices. Just as members of a society work together to fulfill a society’s needs, culture exists to meet its members’ basic needs.

Functionalists also study culture in terms of values. Education is an essential concept in the United States because it is valued. The culture of education—including material culture such as classrooms, textbooks, libraries, dormitories—supports the emphasis placed on the value of educating a society’s members.

Conflict theorists view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a conflict theorist, culture is seen as reinforcing issues of “privilege” for certain groups based upon race, sex, class, and so on. Women strive for equality in a male-dominated society. Senior citizens struggle to protect their rights, their health care, and their independence from a younger generation of lawmakers. Advocacy groups such as the ACLU work to protect the rights of all races and ethnicities in the United States.

Inequalities exist within a culture’s value system. Therefore, a society’s cultural norms benefit some people but hurt others. Some norms, formal and informal, are practiced at the expense of others. Women were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920. Gay and lesbian couples have been denied the right to marry in some states. Racism and bigotry are very much alive today. Although cultural diversity is supposedly valued in the United States, many people still frown upon interracial marriages. Same-sex marriages are banned in most states, and polygamy—common in some cultures—is unthinkable to most Americans.

At the core of conflict theory is the effect of economic production and materialism: dependence on technology in rich nations versus a lack of technology and education in emerging nations. Conflict theorists believe that a society’s system of material production affects the rest of the culture. People who have less power also have less ability to adapt to cultural change. This view contrasts with the perspective of functionalism. In the U.S. culture of capitalism, to illustrate, we continue to strive toward the promise of the American dream, which perpetuates the belief that the wealthy deserve their privileges.

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that is most concerned with the face-to-face interactions between members of society. Interactionists see culture as being created and maintained by the ways people interact and in how individuals interpret each other’s actions. Proponents of this theory conceptualize human interactions as a continuous process of deriving meaning from both objects in the environment and the actions of others. This is where the term symbolic comes into play. Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and communicate their interpretations of these meanings to others. Those who believe in symbolic interactionism perceive culture as highly dynamic and fluid, as it is dependent on how meaning is interpreted and how individuals interact when conveying these meanings.

We began this chapter by asking what culture is. Culture is comprised of all the practices, beliefs, and behaviors of a society. Because culture is learned, it includes how people think and express themselves. While we may like to consider ourselves individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought language that shapes our perceptions and patterned behavior, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics.

To an extent, culture is a social comfort. After all, sharing a similar culture with others is precisely what defines societies. Nations would not exist if people did not coexist culturally. There could be no societies if people did not share heritage and language, and civilization would cease to function if people did not agree on similar values and systems of social control. Culture is preserved through transmission from one generation to the next, but it also evolves through processes of innovation, discovery, and cultural diffusion. We may be restricted by the confines of our own culture, but as humans, we can question values and make conscious decisions. No better evidence of this freedom exists than the amount of cultural diversity within our society and around the world. The more we study another culture, the better we become at understanding our own.

Defining Cutural 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.


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 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 tremendous 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).

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 wanted to eliminate the application of personal biases when studying cultures (as in Mitchell, Don, Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction).


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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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