PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

Table of contents

Print this article

Cultural Geography and Material
Culture Studies1

Allen G. Noble, University of Akron

Although originally attracted to physical geography, and considering myself an urban geographer upon completion of graduate study, it has been cultural geography that has provided my greatest intellectual satisfaction. Perhaps this results from my first career as a United States Foreign Service Officer during which time I lived in India and Brazil, and the opportunities I have had as a Fulbright Lecturer in Sri Lanka, and as Visiting Professor in Canada, Israel, and Finland. The specific area of material culture studies has occupied most of my research attention in the past, and continues to do so. At the same time, unfortunately as I believe, fewer and fewer geographers today seem to be drawn in this direction.

One of my greatest rewards is the interaction I find with scholars trained in other disciplines, in history, folklore, anthropology, archaeology, and several others. Geographers often seem to write only for other geographers, which may explain why we often have problems establishing our field and techniques of enquiry, and the uniqueness of our approach.

Cultural geographers have been among the most active students of material culture, although they often employ the term “settlement landscape” rather than “material culture” to describe the object of their work. This distinction helps to explain the orientation of much of our research. It is here that geographers make their most effective research efforts. The early frame of investigation for American geographers interested in material culture studies, especially vernacular or traditional building, was set by the pioneering address of Fred Kniffen at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in 1965. His novel topic, entitled “Folk Housing–Key to Diffusion,” awakened active interest in the subject for a generation or more of American geographers, and helped establish material culture studies as a valid research branch of cultural geography. This sub-field of the discipline had earlier been evolved by Carl Sauer, Ellen Churchill Semple, and others, who viewed cultural research from different perspectives.

Because built structures, cemeteries, land-division systems, and settlement and field patterns are most conspicuous in the landscape, geographers have been preoccupied with these material objects, rather than with less visible phenomena, although these have not been entirely neglected. Examples of such latter studies undertaken by geographers would include the work of Malcolm Comeaux on the Cajun boats of Louisiana; Loyal Durand, Jr.’s study of mountain moonshining in eastern Tennessee; Terry Jordan’s sketch of early American windmills; my own look at later windmills; Stephen Jett’s outstanding article on Navajo games and amusements; Peirce Lewis’s fine article on illustrated children’s books; and by no means least, Cotton Mather and Fraser Hart’s classic “Geography of Manure.”

Nevertheless, dwellings, barns and cemeteries are the most likely subjects of research, but excellent studies of secondary structures such as smokehouses, domestic tankhouses, outdoor ovens, covered bridges, hop houses, corncribs, granaries, silos, and fencing are also encountered.

In all these works, there is a concern not only with the objects themselves, but also with what and how they contribute to the makeup of the landscape, especially that of the local area. Indeed, cultural geographers are often not especially interested in the objects for their own intrinsic worth, but see them primarily as opportunities to explain the patterns of the landscape. Thus, for the cultural geographer, the I-house, for example, may be significant only because it helps to reveal patterns of agricultural prosperity in the nineteenth century, and the routes of movement of the people who brought the idea of that house with them as they moved.

Hence, the research focus of the geographer is often on a regional scale. Cultural geography commonly defines space and unravels the threads of culture that make up a particular region, those things which give it character and meaning. It confirms oral history and augments cultural anthropology and archaeology.

Geographers also do not show much interest in the individuals who built the structure, a position which many others, particularly folklorists and historians, find strange to explain. In order to understand the position of cultural geographers, one must recognize that the focus of their discipline ultimately is upon how space is organized, and therefore, how space is differentiated. The built-form environment and the manmade settlement landscape are among the most important cultural elements providing an explanation for these concerns. However, because of the general lack of data on individual structures, geographers have, of necessity, devoted much time and effort in providing detailed analyses of particular structures. One senses, moreover, that such efforts are often merely to attain the more remote objective of being able to understand the differing approaches to organizing the settlement landscape by different groups with different ethnic origins and different life philosophies. Geographers rarely start out with the intention of examining a single structure or building complex, however interesting that might be.

Of course, we are also interested in how phenomena are diffused in space, and secondarily, in what changes occur in the phenomena themselves, or in their relationships to each other and to other phenomena. Up to the present time, not much has been done with these concerns, again primarily because of the lack of information on the various components of the landscape, and their impact on one another, but things are changing. The presence and existing description of just a few structures is not normally sufficient for the geographer who wants to draw larger conclusions about space, the behavior of individuals in that space, and the resulting spatial distribution of manmade objects or influences.

Also important for the larger intellectual community, is a clear understanding of the differing research requirements of those who study vernacular architecture, from those who concentrate on formal or academic structures. In the former instance there is much greater need, and at the same time, much greater difficulty to establish norms against which individual structures can be compared. The architect and the architectural historian start out with a clear knowledge of what the standard or norm for any style is and can discuss the implications of variations, or the challenge of entirely new styles. The initial task of the cultural geographer, in common with other scholars who examine vernacular buildings and who deal with types rather than styles, is to determine what the standard really was, why that standard was adapted or evolved, how and why the structures were modified over time, and especially where the type and its modifications and variants occur.

Following this pattern, who built the structure and precisely when it was constructed are for geographers frequently questions of lesser interest and left to folklorists and historians. This is not to say that these concerns are not of importance, and of course scholars in all disciplines must never be limited by narrow research restraints, although they may have different emphases and objectives.

Since the term “material culture” covers such a world–wide range of research topics, we need to be concerned with the enormous variations in terminology from study to study and from one location to another. The problem is exacerbated by the number of disciplines contributing valuable research to the study of material culture. Only a standardized terminology, or least an agreed upon equivalency of terms, will lead to valid comparisons from place to place and between groups. Hence, geographers are in the forefront of those actively seeking a standardized classification and nomenclature for material culture studies.

Closely related to the problem of deficiencies in terminology is the lack of detailed classification systems that would provide a framework for relating various structures. Only recently has much attention been given to place existing studies from different disciplines into a coherent review. Such a gap probably results from the wide divergence and background of scholars working on material culture studies. At the same time, such divergence provides an opportunity for crosscurrent of ideas and fresh perspectives.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing cultural geographers inclined to pursue careers in material studies is the time required to accumulate the perspectives necessary to appreciate culture in all of its ramifications, to understand the directions and the value of research produced by scholars in other disciplines, and to detect the often subtle differences and the nuances offered in different ethnic situations. To be such a generalist is the most difficult task of all. One must borrow from a host of other sources and at the same time retain objectivity and independence of thought, and not come under the sway of any particular ideological view, or methodological approach, no matter how attractive or popular it may be. The cultural geographer comes early to recognize that outlets for professional publication for material culture studies are limited, in part because of the fashions of the day. Perhaps most distressing to the beginning scholar is the recognition that most of their students, probably because of youthful age, and the understandable need to concentrate on career economic matters, may have scant interest in material culture.


1 This statement was originally presented in a different form in a symposium on cultural geography at the Denver meeting of the Association of American Geographers in 2005.


Return to top