3 Cultural Geography –
Concepts and Terminology

“The study of geography is about more than just memorizing places on a map. It’s about understanding the complexity of our world, appreciating the diversity of cultures that exists across continents. And in the end, it’s about using all that knowledge to help bridge divides and bring people together. “

– President Barack Obama


Street level entrance to the Louvre Art Museum in Paris.
The Louvre Art Museum in Paris — Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

The term culture refers to collective, learned human behavior. It is “collective” in that is shared among a group of people. Individuals have a personality. A group shares a culture. It is also “learned,” as opposed to being instinctive. All humans, for example, must eat. That is instinctive. What we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and who we eat with, however, is learned.

Some cultural behavior is learned formally, in schools, from books, or in temples, churches, or mosques. Much of it is learned informally, such as the rules of behavior instilled in us by family and community. Much culture, however, is learned subconsciously. From a very young age, humans absorb the behavior of those around them and imitate it. Put simply, culture is what a person considers to be “normal” behavior. This is why travelers to foreign lands often experience “culture shock” when they discover that their normal behavior is perhaps not so normal after all.

Cultural geography is an examination of the spatial variation in cultural traits, and the effect of culture on particular places. All of the world’s cultural variations would take more than a lifetime to discover. In this book, we will focus on three fundamental elements of culture – religion, language, and ethnicity.




religion is a set of spiritual beliefs and practices shared by a group of people. Many religions seek to understand the origin of existence, to comprehend the meaning of life, to decide what actions are moral or immoral, to explain what happens when we die, and to answer many more moral and existential questions.

The world’s four largest religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – collectively account for more than three-quarters of the world’s population. These and other religions will be discussed in subsequent chapters.

A religious sect or denomination is a subset of a particular religion. While various sects or denominations may agree on fundamental issues of their faith, they may interpret it in very different ways. In Europe, for example, Christianity is divided into three primary sects: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Some sects or denominations are further subdivided into yet more subsets, such as the Protestant fragmentation into Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist traditions, to name just a few.

universalizing religion is one that actively seeks or accepts new members through conversion. An ethnic religion is one that does not actively seek out new converts. Such distinctions have an important impact on the geography of a religion. An example can be found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three related faiths known as the “Abrahamic” religions. The first to evolve was Judaism. Judaism is an ethnic faith. Although it is possible for non-Jews to convert and join most sects of Judaism, this is not something that Jews actively seek out. Put simply, one is usually either born Jewish, or one is not. By contrast, Judaism’s two Abrahamic relatives, Christianity and Islam, are universalizing religions. Christians and Muslims believe that their faiths are universal, and apply to all of humanity. Both have a long history of actively seeking out new converts. As a result, Judaism today accounts for less than one-half of one percent of the world’s population, while Christianity and Islam collectively account for more than half the world’s population.

Secularism refers to belief systems that do not fit into the conventional definition of religion. Among the world’s secular population, some identify with atheism, which is the disbelief in the existence of a god or gods, or similar supernatural phenomena. Others identify with agnosticism, the belief that the existence of a god or gods can be neither proven nor disproven. Some simply identify as nonreligious, meaning that they do not adhere to any particular religion.




language is a mutually agreed-upon system of communication. A dialect is a variation within a language. Speakers of different dialects may pronounce certain words differently, and may use entirely different words to describe the same object, idea, or action. Still, speakers of different dialects of the same language would still be able to read the same words, and carry on at least a basic conversation. In other words, despite their differences, mutual comprehension is still possible. Speakers of two different languages, however, cannot carry on a conversation. This lack of mutual comprehension is what distinguishes separate languages from one another.

Most languages are members of a language family. A language family consists of a number of languages that have a common ancestral language, and thus share some common traits. An example is the Indo-European language family, which originated about 10,000 years ago in what is now Turkey. As this Indo-European language diffused from its place of origin, it evolved into many separate dialects, and eventually into many separate languages. Today, nearly half the world’s population speak a descendant of the original Indo-European language. Many language families include sub-families, sets of closely related languages within the larger family. Examples of sub-families within the Indo-European family include Germanic languages (German, Dutch, English, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic), Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainians, Belarusian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene), and Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian).

Other prominent language families include the Sino-Tibetan family (which includes languages of China and Burma), the Niger-Congo family (which includes languages of Sub-Saharan Africa), the Afro-Asiatic family (which includes languages of North Africa and Southwest Asia, notably Arabic), and the Turkic family (which includes Turkish and languages of Central Asia).


A political, economic, or social environment that features speakers of many different languages often necessitates the use of a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language adopted as a common means of communication among speakers of other, different languages. India, for example, is home to ten different major languages, and many more minor ones. Although English is spoken as a first language by relatively few Indians, it is a common second language for many, and often serves as the lingua franca of economics, academics, politics, and the media. English serves a similar function in Nigeria, as does French in much of West Africa.


Race and Ethnicity

The terms “race” and “ethnicity” are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous with one another. Race is a term that has historically been used to describe physical variations among human populations. The concept of race is problematic in many ways, not the least of which are the racial biases and discriminations that have afflicted human history, and that persist today. It is also scientifically problematic. The term “race” implies that humans can be easily separated into tidy biological categories, which is not actually possible. Race is a cultural construct, not a biological fact. While a person’s ancestral background may influence their height, skin color, hair color, eye color, and other physical features, the idea that “race” affects human thinking and behavior is scientifically inaccurate. That said, as long as humans continue to assign meaning to race, it will remain an important element of human cultural identity, whether it should or not.

Ethnicity is a cultural term. It refers to a person’s fundamental cultural identity (and is closely related to the term nationality). While a person’s ethnicity certainly does not determine their behavior, it may have a significant influence, since a person’s ethnic background often influences what they consider to be culturally “normal.” A person’s ethnicity may influence where they live, their social circle, their profession, who they marry, what they eat, their religious and political beliefs, and much more.

One’s ethnic identity can be formed by many different traits. Shared physical characteristics, shared ancestry, shared customs and experiences, shared language, and shared religion are examples of common bonds within ethnic groups.


Did You Know?

The term “lingua franca” means “language of the Franks.” It originated in the Ottoman Empire during the late medieval period, when the Ottomans referred to western Europeans as “Franks.” The original “lingua franca” was a trade language between by Italian and Ottoman merchants. It was basic Italian, with a number of words borrowed from French, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and Spanish.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book