GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

1.8 Culture and Cultural Geography


The subject of our course, cultural geography, is one of the many subdisciplines of human geography. It focuses on the relationships between human culture, space, and place.

Culture is a notoriously difficult term to define—in part because we use it in casual speech. There is a long history of debate about the meaning of the term and its utility (see the reading by Mitchell for more on this). For our purposes, we will follow Rubenstein’s simplified definition of culture: “the body of customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits that together constitute a group’s distinct tradition” (2019, p. 365).

In everyday life, we see culture manifest in both material and nonmaterial forms. Culture is reflected in things like which language we speak and how we use it; the clothing we are expected to wear and the clothing we choose to wear; the foods we eat and the utensils we use to eat it; the holidays we celebrate and the symbols that represent them; the way people greet one another, both formally and informally; the expectations we carry regarding age and gender; what constitutes responsibility or respectful versus disrespectful behavior; and so on. Culture also appears in things like architectural style and the materials we use for constructing buildings; modes of transportation and the rules (explicit or tacit) surrounding them; the way we dance, the music we listen to, and the television or movies we watch; and even things like the size of a roll of toilet paper and how many of those rolls are sold in a single package.

Although we often think of culture as something that exists somewhere else, we live within, use, argue with, and push back against culture every day. Given the incredible breadth of culture (it encompasses, to some degree, everything within the realm of human activity), it becomes normalized in everyday life, and thus operates in ways that are often invisible to people—until they find themselves at odds with it, encounter a new culture, or find themselves returning to their home culture from some other cultural environment.

At this point you may be wondering what a spatial perspective brings to an understanding of culture. A core aspect of cultural geography is the examination of how culture manifests across and through space, how it coalesces in place, how it is (or becomes) spatialized, and how it changes within places. For example, in recent years cultural geographers have studied things like: lived experiences of insecurity among refugees and asylum seekers in Britain as a result of precarious labor situations (Waite, Valentine, and Lewis, 2014), the way daily rhythms in a Toronto neighborhood have changed as a result of gentrification (Kern, 2016), and even the spatial origins and odyssey of an antique car during the process of its restoration (DeLyser and Greenstein, 2015).


Mitchell, D. (1995). There's no such thing as culture: Towards a reconceptualization of the idea of culture in geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (1), 102-116.

Note: Registered students can access the readings in Canvas by clicking on the Library Resources link.


DeLyser, D. and Greenstein, P. (2015). “Follow that car!” Mobilities of enthusiasm in a rare car's restoration. The Professional Geographer, 67 (2), 255-268.

Kern, L. (2016). Rhythms of gentrification: Eventfulness and slow violence in a happening neighbourhood. Cultural Geographies, 23 (3), 441-457.

Rubenstein, J. M. (2019). Contemporary human geography (4th ed.). Pearson.

Waite, L., Valentine, G., and Lewis, H. (2014). Multiply vulnerable populations: Mobilising a politics of compassion from the ‘capacity to hurt.’ Social & Cultural Geography, 15 (3), 313-331.