Geography Landscape Interpretation
Tom Mels
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0201


In geographical research, the interpretation of landscape has been theorized in a number of ways. The work considered in this article concerns primarily interpretations emanating from socio-cultural relations rather than interpretations of environmental processes. Classic works on landscape, both throughout Europe and the United States, characteristically took the historical transformation of physical forms by culture groups as their main interest. Landscape interpretation amounted essentially to the explanation of how natural and cultural forces combined in shaping environments. From the 1970s onward a number of important maneuvers away from this tradition can be identified, and they emanated as much from changes in postwar planning, environmental degradation, and social upheaval as from theoretical debate. Under the influence of a humanistic surge, largely initiated within American geography, landscape interpretation moved closer to the philosophical and methodological concerns of phenomenology, existentialism, and modern hermeneutics. Attention to the importance of the human subject and cultural values stimulated a wide-ranging scholarly engagement with interpreting landscapes within their shifting societal contexts as places of, inter alia, aesthetic pleasure, cultural value, spiritual refuge, ordinary experience, or alienation. As a critical response to both the theoretical proclivities of traditional landscape studies and the humanistic understanding, landscape interpretation became more heavily influenced by developments in social and cultural theory. While classic interpretations of landscape were perceived as lacking in theoretical understanding of culture and social struggle, humanistic work was questioned for a limited attentiveness to power and the politics of landscape. Inspired by literary theory and semiotics, landscape was interpreted not only through various literary texts and discourse, but also as a text with authors, authority, and audiences. Other influential work in art history emphasized the importance of landscape as a visual space, shaped through social processes and expressing shifting ways of seeing. Crucial to the new cultural geography of the late 1980s and 1990s was that landscape needed to be considered in terms of practices of representation, and, by implication, landscape interpretation entailed tracing the expressions of social power as much in the outdoors and the built environment as in the discursive spaces of images, maps, and texts. Against the increasing sway of postmodern thinking in such work, a considerable amount of scholarly attention was directed to transcending the limits of discursive, symbolic, and visual approaches. By the mid-1990s, a steadily rising interest arose in landscape as polity and place of justice, in particular in the Nordic counties. In reclaiming a Marxian vocabulary for the interpretation of landscape, attention also turned to the ways in which capitalism produces landscapes characterized by inequalities, ideology, hegemony, and alienation. Another affirmation of geographical materiality, including the attention to embodied practice, emotion, affect, and the nonhuman, emerged more recently in the wake of nonrepresentational theories.

General Overviews

Howard 2011 does a good job in introducing various traditions of landscape perception and interpretation, while connecting to landscape practice. Mitchell 2000 offers a rich overview of 20th-century landscape interpretation, colored by the author’s historical materialist vantage point and intermingled with many other themes in cultural geography. Winchester, et al. 2003 is a more introductory reading of cultural landscape work. Wylie 2007 provides a highly readable overview of past and present approaches to landscape, including the influences of the cultural turn and more recent developments in nonrepresentational theory. All three are rewarding readings for both beginning and advanced students. Wylie 2011 briefly discusses the meaning of landscape as material record, as way of seeing, and as dwelling. Duncan and Duncan 2010 and Morin 2009 are concise, theoretical rather than practical guides to the subject of landscape interpretation. Johnson 2006 illustrates the broad scholarly interest in landscape interpretation, including geographical approaches, from an archaeological point of view. For feminist readings of landscape imagery, vision, and masculine power, see Rose 1993.

  • Duncan, James S., and Nancy Duncan. “Doing Landscape Interpretation.” In The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. Edited by Dydia Delyser, Steve Herbert, Stuart C. Aitken, Mike Crang, and Linda McDowell, 225–247. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4135/9780857021090.n15

    Gives a brief overview of landscape interpretation from morphological analysis to engagement with semiotics, nonrepresentational and performative theories, and other forms of current debate. Considers how various conceptual and methodological choices entail implications for the way landscape is interpreted.

  • Howard, Peter. An Introduction to Landscape. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Provides a rather comprehensive and accessibly written overview of interpretational strategies and perceptions of landscape, as developed in a range of disciplinary traditions. Examples from the United Kingdom, but with a useful outlook on more general questions of landscape perception and management in relation to the European landscape convention.

  • Johnson, Matthew. Ideas of Landscape: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

    Gives a general introduction to theories of landscape, primarily written from within the disciplinary concern of landscape archaeology. Claims that landscape interpretation has long been influenced by romantic ideas.

  • Mitchell, Don. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    A wide-ranging introduction to cultural geography, wherein the interpretation of landscape looms large. Struggles over representation always condition and are conditioned by and lived experiences and its ramifications of gender, race, class, and social inequalities. Offers a Marxian outlook on past and present cultural geography, including landscape studies.

  • Morin, Karen M. “Landscape: Representing and Interpreting the World.” In Key Concepts in Geography. 2d ed. Edited by Nicholas J. Clifford, Sarah L. Holloway, Stephen P. Rice, and Gill Valentine, 286–299. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009.

    Provides a short exposition of the ideological implications of landscape and of current stakes of Marxists, post-structuralists, and feminist geographers involved in landscape studies. Good for students as a general overview.

  • Rose, Gillian. Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1993.

    Influential in-depth feminist study of the gendering of the academic discipline of geography. Rose argues that women tend to be marginalized in geographical knowledge production. The book also criticizes dualistic thinking within the discipline, presents work on embodiment, and insists on the possibility of challenging the dominant masculinist imagination. Identifies a system of masculine power at work in, inter alia, cultural geography’s pleasure in looking at landscapes and the conflation of seeing and knowing.

  • Winchester, Hilary P. M., Lily Kong, and Kevin Dunn. Landscapes: Ways of Imagining the World. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2003.

    Pedagogically structured introduction to landscape studies in cultural geography. With chapters introducing different approaches to landscape work and offering empirically grounded insights on power, the body, everyday culture, marginalization, and resistance. Good for undergraduate students.

  • Wylie, John. Landscape. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    A comprehensive but accessibly written textbook with a balanced and appositely detailed overview of ways of interpreting the landscape within human geography from the 1980s onward, including recommended readings and exercises. Rewarding reading for undergraduate and more advanced students.

  • Wylie, John. “Landscape.” In The SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge. Edited by John A. Agnew and David N. Livingstone, 300–315. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446201091.n23

    A succinct overview of landscape interpreted from a morphological perspective as a material record, from a visual perspective as a way of seeing, and from an existential position as a mode of dwelling. Useful short essay for undergraduate students, illustrating a reasonable breadth of interpretative strategies.

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