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
- 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.”
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.