Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography



Human–environment relationships are increasingly regarded as complex and worthy of interdisciplinary scrutiny. In this context, several physical geographers have made calls for their subdiscipline to take a ‘cultural turn’ and engage more fully with human elements of environmental change. However, despite sharing a general commitment to thinking about the material implications of human behaviours, definitions proposed for a cultural physical geography lack theoretical rigour and consistency. This paper interrogates the prospects for a refreshed cultural turn in physical geography by situating it within its constitutive, historical and institutional dimensions. First, how might ‘culture’ be defined and constituted, and with what implications? This question recognises that conceptual work around culture depends upon the sociotheoretical paradigms that are chosen. Second, an exploration of key moments in the definition of geographical research projects and trajectories provides insight into why this turn has not happened before, and what kind of work was pursued in its place. Third, a cultural turn positions physical geography to do particular kinds of work within wider ecologies of knowledge production. Careful reflection on the methods and commitments of different approaches is needed to assess where and how such a project might be at all geographical. The notion of culture embraced and practised by physical geographers has material, epistemological, institutional and ethical implications. Broadening the scope of ‘work’ from the outputs to the outcomes of geographical practice creates the conceptual space for much needed reflection and dialogue. A cultural turn that acknowledges the ‘webs of significance’ within which physical geography is embedded presents a progressive trajectory of inquiry.