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GEO 101 World Human Geography
Discussions Spring 2011
Discussion 10: The Geography of Culture and Landscape

Reading To Be Done before This Discussion:

The Introductory Text Below

Things to Bring to Class: Walking shoes and coat, hat, gloves, etc.  

Due in Discussion This Week: The reading below.

Due in Discussion Next Week: Answers to questions below as well as questions for next week’s reading.

Concepts/Ideas/Places: Landscape, Cultural Landscape, Culture, Power, Gender, interconnections, Power / How to interpret meanings in landscapes / Valparaiso.

How This Discussion Connects To Lecture: During lecture we will explore the related concepts of “culture” and “landscape” as a means of making sense of the complex interconnections that make the geography of our worlds. The point of this discussion is to see the relationship between “culture” and “landscape” in a way that is impossible during lecture. This discussion allows you to take the lecture material and make it real – and relevant to your own everyday lives. We will use a framework for understanding cultural landscapes developed by geographer Denis Cosgrove (1989). His argument that “geography is everywhere” is at once obvious, but also an important reminder of the usefulness of geography for better understanding the everyday landscapes we travel through day-in and day-out. Keep this in mind as you walk through campus and Valparaiso.

To Prepare for Discussion: One of the most important lessons we hope to communicate through this class is that geography is deeply intertwined with our everyday lives – that is, as Denis Cosgrove argues, geography is truly everywhere. One obvious way to begin to understand this is to take a look around you at the landscapes you move through in your everyday lives, to take seriously Cosgrove’s (1989:133) assertion that “taken-for-granted landscapes of our daily lives are full of meaning. Much of the most interesting geography lies in decoding them.” Today’s discussion will be spent trying to decode the landscape of the college campus and the surrounding town of Valparaiso as we take a brief walking tour of this everyday landscape. As we proceed on the tour, you will be asked to think about the degree to which the landscape can be read. Can you see “culture”? If so, of what sort? How about gender? Or “race”? Or class? Does the landscape tell us all we need to know about a place? If not, what does it leave out?

According to Knox and Marston (1998:235) landscape is “a comprehensive product of human action such that every landscape is a complex repository of society. It is a collection of evidence about our character and experience, our struggles and triumphs as humans.” We create ordinary landscapes as we go about our daily lives. In turn these landscape influence our perceptions, values, and behaviors. Symbolic landscapes “stand as representations of particular values or aspirations” that their creators want to communicate. Geographers study both the meanings that are “written” into landscapes by groups and individuals as they are constructed as well as the meanings consumed by people who “read” the landscape (Knox and Marston 237). Often times the simple look of an everyday landscape hides an interesting story about its origins. One can gain clues to these stories just from looking, but it may also take research in historical archives, a look at an old map, or interviews with the people involved in making the landscape to get the full story.

One important question that landscape geographers increasingly consider concerns the relationship between culture and power. Geographer Don Mitchell (2001) argues that the cultural landscapes around us are the result of struggle, negotiation, and conflict. That is landscapes are quite literally formed out of “culture wars”—conflicts concerning questions of identity, values, and control over meaning. Think for a moment about what it takes to create the landscape you see when driving or walking around the city. How did the streets get there? Who decided that the houses along that street should be there? Who decided what they should look like? What does the landscape mean? Does it mean the same thing for everyone or do some places have more meaning for some groups of people and less for others? All of these questions are indeed questions of power. Who has the power to construct the landscape and define what it means?

One way to think about power and landscape is by thinking about the social status of the cultures that helped produced the landscape. Cosgrove (Cosgrove 1989) differentiates between dominant cultures and alternative cultures. The dominant culture, of course, has the most influence in shaping a landscape. Most of what you see is likely to be a product of the dominant culture in a region. However, you are also likely to see evidence of alternative, or subcultures in the landscape. Within the category of alternative culture, Cosgrove (1989:124-5) differentiates between residual cultures (historic cultures that have disappeared or are in the process of fading away), emergent cultures (those that are just now appearing), and excluded cultures (those that are actively or passively excluded by the dominant culture). As you travel from one end of campus to the other you can see the contrast between residual and emergent culture in the architecture of many of the campus buildings. At different time periods different cultural values influenced different ways of constructing the landscape. Finding signs of excluded culture in the landscape is often much more difficult but not impossible. You might observe expressions of cultural identity in murals, different styles of architecture, or decoration. You can observe differences in class in the different styles of houses as well as in the types of cars and lawn ornaments out front. You might observe signs of resistance including graffiti or quite literally signs expressing a political message. Finally you might observe the barriers that the dominant culture has created in the landscape in order to exclude a subculture. Walls, railroad tracks, highways, “No Skateboarding” signs, and fences may not be just about defining property boundaries, defining behaviors, or providing transportation; they may also be methods of enforcing segregation. The topic of segregation brings up one more very important point. What is a dominant culture at one scale may be an excluded culture at another. For instance, in a Chinatown it might be quite obvious that the dominant culture is a Chinese one, but at the scale of the city it can hardly be argued that Chinese culture is dominant. As we walk around the neighborhoods adjacent to campus think about what dominant and alternative cultures might have helped to shape the landscape. The questions that you will hand in after the walking tour will help you in this task.

Works Citied

Cosgrove, Denis. 1989. Geography is everywhere: culture and symbolism in human landscapes. In Derek Gregory and Rex Walford (eds.), Horizons in Human Geography, Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books, 118-135.

Knox, Paul and Sallie Marston. 1998. Places and Regions in Global Context: Human Geography. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mitchell, Don. 2000. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Questions Also to be Discussed during Walking Tour:

        Can you see representations of dominant, residual, emergent, and excluded cultures on campus and in Valparaiso? Where and how are each represented? Where do they clash with each other? How do they compose the whole of Valparaiso University and city landscape?
        What indications of cultural change can you see in the landscape of campus and Valparaiso? Is that change recent or old – or both?
        In what ways are relations of power represented in the local landscape? Do these representations change over the course of the day? How?
        Cosgrove asserts that the “organization and use of space [and therefore landscape] by women presupposes a very different set of symbolic meanings than by men.” Why might this be the case, and how would one go about uncovering these different symbolic meanings in the landscape?

Questions to be answered after the walking tour

Honor Code:

1.     What is the dominant culture in the landscape we walked through? What signs of this culture did you observe?



2.     What evidence of residual culture did you observe?



3.     What evidence of emergent culture did you observe?



4.     What excluded cultures have helped to shape the landscape we walked through? What signs of these excluded cultures did you see?



5.     What did you see on our walk that would seem to indicate the presence of a “culture war”? That is what do you see that indicates that the landscape is constructed out struggle, conflict, or negotiation among cultures?


6.     What aspects of the landscape we walked through were gendered? Did you see any distinctly male or female spaces? What signs lead you to believe that these spaces are gendered?



7. What is one question about the cultural landscape that you would like to see addressed?