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Daily RC Article 89

Exploring the Dynamics of Popular Culture: A Geographic Perspective


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Critical human geographers have adopted a more political definition of culture that emerged out of the works of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, among others. Rather than viewing culture as a fixed attribute of societies, this approach views culture as always emerging out of struggles among groups with diverging interests and unequal access to power. A key term in this definition is hegemony, that is, the process by which dominant values and practices are maintained through the cooption and dilution of alternative and often oppositional ways of life. Therefore, critical geographic approaches to popular culture tend to focus on how hegemonic meanings and values are reproduced and/or challenged by particular representations of spaces and identities or by certain spatial practices. The denigration of the Appalachian region and subculture in popular film – for example, the perpetuation of the “backward” hillbilly stereotype in Sergeant York and Deliverance – helps urban and suburban Americans to feel better about their own material conditions and lifestyle choices.

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Much contemporary geographic research involving popular culture consists of analyses of mass media – especially of the visual media. Photography, film, and television all represent geographies and, therefore, widely disseminate information about places and cultures. Some geographers focus on what they perceive as misrepresentations of places and seek to correct errors found in news stories or even fictional accounts. Other geographers, reacting to critiques of the ability of researchers to objectively know and portray their research subjects that appeared across the social sciences during the 1980s and 1990s, theorize that mass-media images contribute to, or are actually parts of, the production of social spaces and places. Economic development departments in many cities, for example, recruit film production companies to use their streetscapes as movie sets. A successful movie can increase the number of tourists who choose to visit that city. In fact, entire neighborhoods may be altered or preserved for years so that the landscape continues to recall the film in the minds of tourists.

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Human geographers also study popular music. Some of this work follows older traditions in cultural geography and maps the hearths and diffusion of particular musical forms. Other research focuses on how music lyrics establish or reproduce particular senses of place. Finally, John Lovering’s study of the global music industry provided insights into how the processes of commodification and globalization interact with local music generation and performance. There is also an emerging body of work focusing on the bodily practices associated with popular culture. Nigel Thrift uses dance as an example of expressive bodily movements occurring in places that convey thoughts and feelings beyond the reach of spoken or written words. To use an example from tourism geography, places remain tourism destinations only because workers and tourists repeatedly perform certain actions in that space. Such practices include gazing at and photographing a landmark such as the Eiffel Tower, driving a tour bus to designated historic sites, and the seemingly mundane act of donning a bathing suit and lounging on a beach. Thus, play and work, just as much as the representational arts of filming and writing, are pop-cultural performances/practices that constantly reproduce the worlds that people know and experience.

Human geographers studying popular culture adopt a political view, seeing culture as an ongoing product of power struggles. This approach delves into how dominant values persist through media representations and spatial practices. Analysing mass media like photography and film, geographers explore misrepresented places and the influence of media on spaces. They also study popular music, examining its diffusion and its role in creating a sense of place. Additionally, there's growing research into bodily practices in popular culture, observing how actions, from sightseeing to leisure activities, shape and perpetuate the world's people inhabit.
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