Geography Geography and Popular Culture
Tristan Sturm
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0009


Though problematic, the term “popular culture” will here be defined as products (materiality) and practices (actions and performatives) that are widely available to and consumed by the general public, regardless of social class, in everyday life. Popular culture in this bibliography also includes “folk cultures” and “mass cultures” so as to be inclusive of geography’s wide-ranging theoretical, methodological, and topical commitments, and also to challenge the literature’s normative assumptions about what popular culture is and has been in geography. This interest in popular culture comes out of the “cultural turn” within geography, which sought to create cognitive maps of imaginary spaces. Geographers of popular culture are presently and largely concerned with how popular cultures constitute spaces and identities. Geography since the cultural turn has been concerned with how popular culture—ideas, perspectives, and attitudes toward television, fashion, print media, and other images and ideas—enables and disables identifications of one’s own position within society relative to other individuals, groups of people, and places. These questions concerning identity ask not simply what difference is being produced between cultures (or what social “class,” as Marxists historically have put it in geography; see Theories), but also how difference in identification is consumed. The critical argument concerning popular culture is that its interpretation is an act of power that seeks to discipline its “high” from its “low” iterations: gallery-presented paintings versus street graffiti, symphony versus hip hop, literature versus magazines, and so on. Geography’s theoretical engagement in recent decades with art, music, film, books, sports, and other topical categories has attempted to criticize the privileged assumption that “culture” is knowledge consumed by social elites or is geographically bounded by anthropological geo-packages of people. Popular culture is much more fluid than these definitions will allow in a globalized world where products and practices are available to various groups, communities, subscribers, masses, or nations, therefore, throwing the adjective “popular”—as a synonym for “low” or “mass” culture—into question along with “culture.” Popular culture here also includes what has been identified as marginal or fringe under the category “subculture.”

General Overviews

As a limit to this bibliography, the literature available on geographies of popular culture is predominantly about urban spaces and contemporary themes and predominantly concerns the developed or Western world. The problem with this conception is that geographical studies of popular culture still draw a distinction between “popular” and “folk” cultures and thus reduce the complexity of people to simplified dualistic geographies contrasting “rural” and “urban.” This dualism is made possible by the assumption that rural and folk represent indigenous cultures, where ideas of rural and non-Western cultures are bound up not only with terms like “traditional” but also “naive” and “backward.” Despite being originally concerned with thick descriptions of rural landscape, cultural geographers have always been interested in culture as popular culture, if one includes folk and rural topical matter in the fold. Sauerian landscape studies, for instance, were studies of everyday cultural spaces, which defined culture in geography until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Meinig 1979, a work on ordinary and vernacular landscapes, was seminal to the shift to language where music and tourism became central concerns in exploring how both material and discursive forces changed the landscape. Included within these new topical forays into popular culture were Relph 1976, Tuan 1977, and Ley and Samuels 1978, works by the so-called humanistic geographers, all of whom thought phenomenologically about literature, art, feeling, and sense of place. Zelinsky 1973, however, was perhaps the most influential voice in considering “culture” within geography, studying religion, place names, and cemeteries. Zelinsky’s emphasis on analytical and descriptive methods for describing regional cultural diffusion would be the standard for studying the topics of music, sports, festivals, motels, tourism, and fashion, which Carney 1995 encapsulates. But this method and theory fell out of fashion in the 1980s and were replaced by the late 1980s and 1990s explosion of social theory-driven interest in popular culture. Popular culture, however, did not gain wide attention until Jackson 1989 and the burgeoning of “new cultural geographies,” especially as related to urban cultures. Burgess and Gold 1985 points out that geography was more interested in “high culture” in this collection of some early cultural theory>driven articles. Here the focus moved to discourse and how it was constitutive of space and identity.

  • Burgess, Jacquelin A., and John R. Gold, eds. Geography, the Media and Popular Culture. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

    Argues that geography has long been suspicious of popular culture because it has always focused on the “high arts” of literature and landscape painting. This is the first collection of cultural theoryedriven essays on popular culture and remains influential to the study of geographies of popular culture.

  • Carney, George O., ed. Fast Food, Stock Cars, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Place and Space in American Pop Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.

    A collection of previously published works from the 1980s that wraps up the Zelinskian thick regional description of geographies of pop culture. Students should be aware that Carney’s work has been accused of plagiarism.

  • Jackson, Peter. Maps of Meaning: An Introduction to Cultural Geography. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203421239

    Chapter 4, “Popular Culture and the Politics of Class,” is devoted to how a student of geography would approach the topic, especially with an interest in music cultures. Although this was an influential social theory engagement with popular culture, it tended to portray it as a Marxist diversion to class interest.

  • Ley, David, and Marwyn S. Samuels, eds. Humanistic Geography: Prospects and Problems. Chicago: Maaroufa, 1978.

    An influential edited collection of essays by leading humanistic geographers on phenomenology and existentialism, illustrated by popular cultural topics such as literature, religion, and tourism.

  • Meinig, Donald D., ed. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    A collection of essays largely concerning American landscape experiences in everyday life.

  • Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion, 1976.

    Seminal work that sought to define place as experiential, or phenomenological, and crucial to the construction of everyday life, thus seeking to expose the taken-for-granted nature of place. An interest in phenomenology has resurfaced recently in landscape descriptions of everyday life and peripatetics.

  • Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

    Defines space and place as codependent, and suggests that place is something experienced not just geographically, but that it has many experiential foci, from literature to religion.

  • Zelinsky, Wilbur. The Cultural Geography of the United States. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

    Introduced diffusive geographies of place names, given names, and the distribution of religions as popular examples that reveal the geographical character of the United States.

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