100: James Duncan’s Superorganic

In “The Superorganic in American Cultural Geography,” James Duncan calls out cultural geography for laboring under an outdated and undertheorized concept of culture, and argues that cultural geographers and social geographers would both benefit from interconnections between their disciplines.

According to Duncan, cultural geographers in the 1970s (the essay was published in 1980) were largely still working from Carl Sauer’s “superorganic” theory of culture in his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape.”  Building on the work of Berkeley anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, Sauer theorized culture to be both autonomous and the determinant of individual human action.  This separation of the individual from culture causes several problems for cultural geographers because

  • it separates humans from the cultural symbols and meanings they themselves create, so it can’t explain how culture came to take a particular form
  • it reifies culture, which is problematic because it suggests that an abstraction can somehow be a causal agent
  • it assumes internal homogeneity within a culture, as if everyone participating in a culture thinks and acts alike
  • it characterizes culture as a configuration of modal personality types and idealized values, which too easily slides into “All Americans are outgoing” or “All Mexicans are hardworking”
  • it implies Pavlovian conditioning theory, where individuals grow up in a culture and absorb its norms and values, and then these guide us forever
  • it suggests that humans have no agency outside of culture

While this static view of the relationship between humans and culture has obvious implications for cultural studies, namely that it cannot explain diversity within a culture, human agency, cultural change over time, or even the relationship between this cultural superstructure and its economic base, it causes even more difficulties for cultural geographers, at the very least because it cannot explain individual variations in the relationship between humans and the landscape.  Duncan suggests that a better way to approach the relationship between culture and individuals is to follow post-1940 anthropologists, who see individuals as “strategists who manipulate the contexts in which they find themselves” and emphasize “how individuals, interacting with other individuals through institutions, create, maintain, and are in turn modified by their environment.”  In this far less static model,

  • culture is a context for, not a determinant of, individual choices
  • If culture dictates people’s behavior, it’s because they allow those norms in, not because culture is an autonomous, agentive force
  • Following Geertz’s emphasis on empiricism, “‘culture’ can be reduced to the interaction between people.  An individual’s interactions with others shapes the nature of his self.  The individual is thus in part a product of this context as well as a producer and sustainer of the context.”
  • Different individuals and groups, “depending on how much access to power and other resources they have, are differentially able to arrange and modify these different contexts.”  Power determines the scale of geographic influence
  • “culture” can also be seen as “a set of traditions and beliefs that may guide action especially when they are defined by the actors themselves as ‘natural’ or ‘correct’ modes of behavior.”

However, despite his emphasis on individual agency, Duncan is careful to couch that agency in the kinds of social, psychological, and political divisions and struggles studied by social geographers, so that his final recommendation is not to study geography as the product of atomistic individuals but as the product of “individuals and groups of individuals in relation to particular socio-historical landscapes.”

While I think Duncan oversimplifies Sauer’s theory of culture – Sauer was very interested in both empirical data of individuals’ interactions with the landscape AND the subjective interpretation of those data – his argument for human agency is a welcome antidote to the structural determinism that was still hanging around in the 1970s.

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