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cultural turn

  An intellectual shift which has brought questions of culture to the forefront of contemporary debates within both human geography and the human sciences more generally.

Within geography, this notion of a cultural turn has been used in three interrelated ways (see also Chaney, 1994, for a parallel view from Sociology).

First, it has signalled and promoted shifting disciplinary landscapes. At the sub-disciplinary level it highlights the growth of cultural geography over the last decade, especially pronounced in British geography, and its intellectual influence within the discipline more generally. At the super-disciplinary level it points to the emergence of Cultural Studies as a vibrant trans-disciplinary nexus of intellectual inspiration and debate (for a history of Cultural Studies see Brantlinger, 1990; for a sense of its remit and intellectual styles see Grossberg et al., 1994; and for an example of Cultural Studies writings on geographical issues see Carter et al., 1993).

Secondly, a cultural turn has been diagnosed on the basis of the growing preoccupation with culture-related concepts across all the sub-disciplines of human geography. This is seen as a shift from the focus on issues of political economy that emerged strongly in the 1970s and became dominant in the human geography of the 1980s. Geographers\' definitions and conceptualizations of cultural processes have always been complex and contested (see cultural politics), and hence a number of different notions of culture have been turned to. Nonetheless, some concerns have been seen as especially symptomatic of a cultural turn, including emphases on the discursive constitution of social life (see discourse), geographical representation, imaginative geographies, identity and identity politics, and the embedding of all human activities (whether economic, political, medical, demographic or whatever) within culturally differentiated ways of life.

Thirdly, a cultural turn has been identified beyond the academy, in so far as the intellectual preoccupation with questions of culture is related to wider transformations that make culture a pressing concern in the contemporary world. For example, economic geography has examined so-called \'cultural industries\' on the basis of their role within informational and service-based advanced capitalist economies (for an example see Sadler, 1997); and more generally radical geography has been influenced by a shift in radical political culture away from broadly Marxist emancipatory class politics towards identity-based, post-colonial and environmental social movements (see identity politics; post-colonialism and environmental movement).

In assessing these developments, some human geographers have welcomed the cultural turn, arguing that it rectifies a prior neglect of the cultural dimensions of social, economic and political processes (for an example of this argument see Jackson, 1991 on urban and regional studies). Others, however, view it as deeply problematic, especially insofar as it leads to the abandonment of many of the strengths of the political-economic approaches previously dominant within human geography (see, for example, Sayer, 1994; and for a less apocalyptic assessment, Barnes, 1995).

In order to move beyond this stalemate of polarized assessments of gains and losses it is perhaps helpful to scrutinize critically the very notion of a \'cultural turn\'. For instance, it should already be apparent that it operates as a shorthand description for a vast number of different and sometimes incommensurable trends within human geography, united only by their diverse appeals to concepts of culture and to the intellectual field of cultural studies. The cultural turn is not a coherent theoretical development within the subject. Instead it has both evoked and shaped looser shifts in subject matters, approaches, sub-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary affiliations, and intellectual politics. Therefore, just what it is that is cultural about these cultural turns needs to be unpacked, disaggregated and explicitly debated by proponents and opponents alike. Failure to do this runs the dangers of either over-simplifying the intellectual shifts occurring and/or increasingly moulding them into simplistic and under-theorized forms (Barnett, 1998).

Moreover, the idea of an intellectual \'turn\' needs just as much unpacking as its \'cultural\' destination. Implicit within it is often a very particular mapping of intellectual space, structured in terms of distinct areas of concern: the cultural, the economic, the political, the social and so on. Thus, advocates praise a turn to the cultural, and critics lament the turning away from these other areas of enquiry. Underlying this is a definition of the cultural in opposition to other intellectual concerns and realms of life. However, this emphasis on oppositional definition — for example the cultural as meaningful, imaginative, and intrinsically valuable in contrast to the economic as material, real, and instrumentally essential — actually runs counter to much of the best work on cultural processes, which emphasizes the transcendence of such dichotomies (Crang, 1997). In consequence, it would perhaps be more profitable to pursue the cultural turn not as an absolute change in the direction and destination of geographical inquiry — a turn away from the \'non-cultural\', whatever that might be — but as a complex and varied set of changes in human geographers\' means of transport, travelling companions and favourite guidebooks.

In summary, the cultural turn is a shorthand highlighting how human geography in the 1990s has seen a number of attempts to address the neglect of cultural processes apparent in the political-economic approaches of the 1980s. Any assessment of these attempts to enculturate human geography, however, is better made in terms of the qualities of the more specific developments referred to by the cultural turn rubric, rather than through summary judgments on the cultural turn in toto. (PC)

References Barnes, T.J. 1995: Political economy 1: the culture, stupid. Progress in Human Geography 19: 423-31. Barnett, C. 1998: Cultural twists and turns. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16: 631-4. Brantlinger, P. 1990: Crusoe\'s footprints: cultural studies in Britain and America. London: Routledge. Carter, E., Donald, J. and Squires, J., eds, 1993: Space and place: theories of identity and location. London: Lawrence and Wishart. Chaney, D. 1994: The cultural turn: scene-setting essays on cultural history. London: Routledge. Crang, P. 1997: Cultural turns and the (re)constitution of economic geography. In R. Lee and J. Wills, eds, Geographies of economies. London: Arnold, 3-15. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C. and Treichler, P., eds, 1994: Cultural studies. New York: Routledge. Jackson, P. 1991: Mapping meanings: a cultural critique of locality studies. Environment and Planning A 23: 215-28. Sadler, D. 1997: The global music business as an information industry: reinterpreting economies of culture. Environment and Planning A 29: 1919-36. Sayer, A. 1994: Cultural studies and \'the economy, stupid\'. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 12, 635-7.



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