The following explanation derives from Joe Painter's Politics, Geography & Political Geography: A Critical Perspective (London: Arnold 1995).
Joe Painter of the University of Durham notes that in the last few decades, social and cultural geography, following other social sciences, has shown an interest in some new approaches. As Painter notes, this involves concerns including (and I quote him):
- The communication of meaning.
Drawing from work in cultural and media studies, geographers have become increasingly interested in the ways in which social life is rendered meaningful to people. The process of ascribing meaning (signification) is seen as an unequal one, so that different meanings operate to advance the interests of different people or social groups. Meaning is not seen as transparent and clear, but as socially produced and contested.
- The production and effects of discourse.
Related to 1, the concept of "discourse" refers to a range of meanings, or meaningful statements, which come to be linked together in a broader framework. The framework, or discourse, provides a particular "mode of thinking" which allows us to understand things in a certain way. For example, a discourse might identify some issues as more important than others, or some forms of behavior as better than others. They are not (necessarily) more important or better in any absolute sense, but they are made to seem so by the discourse.
- Human subjectivity and identity.
Our subjectivity is "who we are," or rather "who we feel ourselves to be" and "who we are made to be" by society. Social and cultural geographers have been interested in the development of different subjectivities and identities in different places and among different social groups and the ways in which the construction of identities happens through the operation of discourses. Many writers have suggested that as individuals we all have multiple identities: we are different people in different contexts.
- Critiques of geographical knowledge.
Geographical knowledge does not consist of transparent and value-free truths in the way that has often been assumed in the past. Like all knowledge, it is the product of particular social and political contexts, and as such it advances certain interests, often at the expense of others. One aspect of the "cultural turn" in geography has involved investigating the process through which geographical knowledge has been (and is) produced, and uncovering the (often unequal) power relations which it serves.
- The Operation of Human Agency.
"Human agency" refers to the capacities of human beings and their roles in producing social outcomes. While human beings are not able to do just anything they please, human agency does "make a difference," even if its affects are not always intended. Human agency is always situated in and conditioned by particular geographic contexts. Unequal access to resources and knowledge means that the capacity of some groups and individuals is greater than that of others.