Regionalism And Cultural Expression Research Paper

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A region is a geographic concept that denotes a set of places understood as having something in common. While this common ground is typically geographic, political, and/or economic, it gives rise to shared forms of cultural expression as well; conversely, shared culture may encourage political or economic linkage, even perceived geographic unity. Regional culture refers to these shared cultural patterns most generally, while regionalism is reserved for a highly favorable evaluation of the culture of place. Research has addressed questions about regionalism’s political implications, its persistence under conditions of modernity, and its capacity to ground identities under conditions of postmodernity.

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1. Definitions

When people refer to a region, they are indicating a set of places that they view as having some common characteristic. Regions can be specific to a small group or organization; for example a regional sales manager might cover a specific territory that no one outside the firm would think of as a region. They can be individual, as in ‘the region where I grew up.’ And they may involve an exquisite local knowledge. This essay concerns regions having a wider application than these.

Usually the places included in a region are contiguous; if they are not, the plural form gets used, as in the ‘polar regions.’ The basis for defining a region may be purely geographic (the Mediterranean region) or historical (the Spanish empire), but the places within any single region usually come to share more than geography or history. Regions are or tend to become economic (the Ruhr (Ruhrgebiet)), ethnic (Yorubaland in West Africa), or cultural (the Bible Belt of the American South). Political boundaries may or may not contain a region, which can include all or parts of different nation states. Bound by their common characteristics, regions are often at odds with the political unit(s) that claims sovereignty over them (e.g., the Kurdish region of Turkey and Iraq).

Even in the case of regions defined strictly by geography or political necessity, some degree of common culture emerges. Climate, topography, and relationships to the sea will influence agricultural and commercial activities. Thus, in the most obvious illustration of this point, political antagonists like the Palestinians and Jews of the Middle East prepare similar food in similar ways. For this reason scholarship on such regional forms of cultural expression once took them as natural, the straightforward products of material circumstances and history. Such shared characteristics are weak versions of regional culture.

Cultural regions typically derive from a preexisting geographic, economic, or political region, but in some cases the cultural common ground can come first. Nations that share the same language become trading partners, for example, and elaborate other ties; even here, however, there is usually the prior political connection of colonialism. Religion would offer another example of this potential, for example in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Stretching from Indonesia to Nigeria, this is hardly a territorial region but is sometimes envisioned as such, and it constitutes the potential for economic and political links.

Regional culture comes in a strong version as well. Geographer D. W. Meinig (1986) defined regional culture as, ‘that which is characteristic of a group of people who are deep-rooted and dominant in a particular territory, who are conscious of their identity as deriving from a common heritage, and who share a common language and basic patterns of life’ (p. 80). He contrasts the seventeenth-century Welsh region, which shares geography, ethnicity, language, and a sense of self-identity, with the West Country, a much vaguer region with its own traditions, dialect, and ancestral families but no unmistakable ‘ethnic’ distinctions. The West Country was a ‘relatively subdued form of regional culture, one which its members are conscious of but not normally militant about, though strong feelings of identity may be aroused under special circumstances’ (p. 81).

In light of this distinction between strong and weak regional cultures, manifest versus latent, regionalism is a strong and self-aware form of regional culture, and sectionalism is an intolerant and divisive form of regionalism. The term regionalism generally has a positive connotation, referring to things that win local and often external approval; other strong but destructive manifestations of regional culture, such as the vendetta tradition in Corsica, are not usually designated as regionalism. Regionalism aggressively promotes its own symbolic expression, which can reinforce, or even generate, social and political bonds.

2. Real Regionalism, Debatable Impact

Considerations of regionalism used to begin from a bimodal model: urban culture versus folk culture; cosmopolitan versus provincial; center versus periphery. In this view regionalism was often conflated with localism, the residual cultural forms that hegemonic centralized culture had not yet obliterated. Regional culture, although it made meaningful the lives of people in the region and perhaps enriched the larger cultural pool, was one of those things that was likely to fade away under industrial capitalism and centralized political authority. Research mapped (and sometimes celebrated) regional differences, and it also addressed the impact of these cultural differences on the larger political units.

For example, in the 1930s, sociologist Howard W. Odum argued that the American South remained backward because it lacked social institutions that could facilitate social change while protecting traditional culture; the pro-business New South could not reconcile change with continuity. Odum concluded that the South must reinvent its debilitating local culture by blending it with national culture into regionalism, whereby (in his somewhat idiosyncratic definition) the local was part of the larger unity. In Odum’s view, sectionalism was a pathological form of localism, the result of cultural inbreeding (Odum and Moore 1938, p. 43), although many contended that this regional sectional distinction was hard to maintain. Odum saw literary and aesthetic regionalism as an undeniable fact—he catalogued over two thousand regionalist titles from two decades of Publishers’ Weekly—but rather than local color provincialism, which would smack of sectionalism, he maintained that ‘regional portraitures are only fundamental units in the great American literary fabric.’ True regionalism, in other words, contributes to the health of both region and nation.

As the New South has become both established and even normative on a national level, the regionalism sectionalism distinction has faded. Social scientists like John Shelton Reed (1986) have continued to assess the degree of Southern regional variation that persists. Analyzing the economic and political differences among a nation’s regions is a standard activity on the part of both social scientists and the popular press.

A contemporary political scientist who has made a strong case for the political impact of regional culture is Robert Putnam (1993). Using data from Italy’s twenty administrative regions, Putnam shows how ‘institutional performance’—effectiveness of and satisfaction with regional government—is high in Italy’s north and low in the south. He connects this with presence or absence of civic traditions, which he traces back to medieval period; ‘the astonishing tensile strength of civic traditions testifies to the power of the past’ (p. 162). Why is the past so powerful? Putnam draws on theories of social capital to show how norms, whether of ‘never cooperate’ or of trust and reciprocity, produce stable cultures, with only the latter— ‘civic equilibrium’—able to solve the collective action problem. Culture and structure reinforce each other. Sociology and urban studies have renewed attention to place as a variable, as in Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s study of the devastating impact that inner-city spatial isolation—‘American apartheid’— has on African–Americans (see also Gieryn 2000). Ethnographers study the symbolic and aesthetic worlds such conditions produce, as when Elijah Anderson analyses the intricate set of signs and behaviors that black youth must master to steer between trouble with the police and with their peers (E. Anderson 1999). While this type of research is often at the level of neighborhood, some employ a broader, regional canvas.

A good example of regional cultural analysis is Francis Violich’s ‘urban readings,’ in which he offers a phenomenological account of the intersection of ecology, urban functions, and cultural history on the Dalmatian coast, now in Croatia (1998). Ecologically, the region possesses rich sea resources along with a poor, mountainous land where the limestone foundation makes water collection a societal preoccupation. Isolation and the need to manage their water supply and harbors has produced strong urban cultures, independent of one another and of whichever regime—in the past thousand years these have been Hungarian, Venetian, French, Austrian, Marxist, and Croatian—was currently in power. A regional culture of autonomy, tradition, and resistance to change has been the result, making Dalmatian cities like Dubrovnik both elegant and backward. Violich is not just describing regional culture but is also making the case for regionalism, for he is concerned about the human cost of losing our ‘rootedness to place.’ Older towns that reflect regional aesthetics and local building materials become ‘treasures of the past,’ standing in sharp contrast with the anesthesia of today’s cities, ‘hodge-podges of synthetic eclecticism and tiresome look-alikes, grown too large to allow the common citizen to claim a sense of identity with them or pride of belonging’ (p. 51). This association of identity with territory, the spiritual nourishment that comes from being ‘at home’ somewhere, is characteristic of regionalism. It is surprisingly parallel to the inner-city gang members’ desire to be with their ‘homies’ in a secure and familiar territory.

3. Debatable Regionalism, Real Impact

Scholars of regionalism like Putnum or Violich assume that regions are both naturally based and historically configured. They are materialist in that they see the natural features of the land as encouraging certain economic formations, and these in turn give rise to political and cultural patterns distinctive to the region. Yet even these scholars recognize that human ties to any particular region have become far more optional than in the past. In his discussion of identity, Violich points out that people seek environments compatible with their desired self-images in a way that was not necessary in earlier, more homogeneous cultures that provided a secure sense of belonging. ‘Today, in contrast, with great individual opportunities for regional mobility, one can choose among diverse physical and cultural environments in various parts of a large city or metropolitan area as a way of individualizing one’s cultural expression’ (p. 59).

This is not something new, some scholars have asserted. Spatial boundaries and their cultural representations have always been subject to decisions made in the pursuit of interests. Beginning in the 1970s the view emerged that politics and the power of dominant groups, not geography, has always shaped humanity’s mental and physical maps. Much of this literature centered on the origins of nationalism, as in the theses of ‘the imagined community’ (B. Anderson 1991) or ‘the invention of tradition’ (Hobsbaum and Ranger 1983), although smaller communities were similarly fictitious (Laitin 1986, Griswold 1992). Once in place, the arbitrary or fanciful boundaries could have powerful and lasting consequences, and indeed some like ‘the nation’ became unavoidable, as the ‘world culture’ thesis pointed out. Cultural expression played a role in such inventions, both encouraging them, as in Benedict Anderson’s discussion of the role of newspapers, and in sustaining them, as in critiques of heritage movements.

Revisionist historical and sociological research, such as that of the New Western Historians, has focused on the manipulation of collective memory (Ayers et al. 1996). Regional representations, in this view, are highly suspect. For example, a universally recognized regional symbol is the New England village with its white steeples and town commons. Stephen Nissenbaum (1996) contends that New England towns were originally not different that other towns in British North America, for there was no reason for farmers to live in villages. The compact village arrangement was a consequence of the commercial revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when it made sense for merchants and professionals both to set up business in and live in villages. And the ‘pastoralization’ of town commons—previously they had been bare patches, rather like parking lots—didn’t take place until after the Civil War where local Village Improvement Societies, ‘usually dominated by businessmen or newcomers to the community,’ began to plant grass and elm trees. Litchfield, Connecticut actually hired Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park, to ‘restore’ their common.

Once region became seen as subject to human agency, the door was open to a lively debate on the relationship between regionalism and modernism, no longer assuming that the latter simply came along and eclipsed the former. Yatsuka (1998) describes how internationalist architects believed modernism to be ‘globally shared beyond a regional understanding.’ In architecture, unlike in politics, the international (modernist) preceded the regional: ‘contrary to the simple notion of ‘‘regional things,’’ the idea of ‘‘regionalism’’ arose due to the appearance of ‘‘internationalism’’’ (p. 167). Regional reaction—‘a romantic nationalism’—arose in response to modernism, as in the case of the Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto. Yatsuka cites ‘critical regionalism’—Kenneth Frampton’s term for resistance against corporate modernism on the one hand and the postmodern reaction (compensatory facade) on the other—critical regionalism couldn’t have been conceived of without modernism. He looks at Japanese architects such as Kenzo Tange, who both used and altered traditional (regional) forms such as the sukiya (sixteenth-century teahouse) and shindenzukuri (nobleman’s palace), grafting elements onto modernist layouts; by asserting ‘we inherit spirit, not individual idioms’ (p. 177), Tange avoided nostalgia just as he avoided placeless internationalism. Along similar lines James Dennis (1998) shows how the regionalist painters of the thirties, despite being given to bouts of antimodernist rhetoric, demonstrated strong modernist influences. The dichotomy between regionalist and modernist, like that between provincial and cosmopolitan, has been not just overdrawn but misconceived.

During the 1970s and 1980s some theorists of postmodernity argued that in the world of electronic communications and unrestricted cultural flows, place-based notions like ‘region’ and ‘regional culture’ were irrelevancies, at best productions for a tourist market intent on collecting scenic memorabilia (MacCannell 1976). The ‘no sense of place’ thesis maintained that electronic media has severed the link between social place and physical place. ‘[A]s place and information access become disconnected, placespecific behaviors and activities begin to fade’ (Meyrowitz 1985, p. 148). This was something of a return to the bi-model model, only instead of industrialization, capitalism and imperialism, now electronic media and globalization were bleaching regional cultures out of the postmodern fabric.

More recent research has drawn back from this position, in part due to the undeniable assertiveness of place-based social formations, traditional or new-mint (Logan and Molotch 1987). Indeed, globalization itself, to the degree that it makes state boundaries less significant, gives rise to place-specific formations like the much discussed ‘Europe of the regions.’ Proliferation of communications channels encourages formation of new possibilities for the assertion and communication of cultural identities, and in some cases regionalism seems to find new life through these media (Griswold and Engelstad 1998).

4. Future Research Directions

Research at the end of the twentieth century accepts the constructed nature of regional cultures but takes a W. I. Thomas view that such regional cultures are real in their consequences, regardless of their origins. Making space into place, ‘mapping the invisible landscape’ through words and symbols (Ryden 1993), is a cultural process that, while by no means innocent of politics and economics, seems to fulfill a human need for meaningful spatial orientation. Regionalism and the culture of place represent, following this line of thought, a psychologically fundamental dimension of cultural expression. Thus, the regionalist impulse is not likely to atrophy, regardless of changes in mobility or communications technology.

Scholars have been addressing the lines along which regionalism gets configured (Ayers et al. 1996), the circumstances under which regionalism expands (Griswold and Engelstad 1998), the ability of regional culture to offer a viable alternative to class and racial hierarchies (Stack 1996), and the degree to which regionalism influences social and political behavior (Putnam 1993). Particular attention is being paid to how a regional culture is apt to be less the result of shared local experience, as celebrators of regionalism have maintained, and more the consequence of elite conflicts brought about by external social changes. Anthony Cosgrove (1993) describes how the sixteenth century Venetian elite still had its fortune tied to maritime power, and felt increasingly insecure due to French pressure. One response was a rash of estate construction in the rural interior, ‘terra firma.’ While these were working estates, they were ideological as well, representations of the harmony of various spheres: macrocosm, microcosm, divine will, world, theatre, human body, buildings, and lands. In an era when professionals were rising in status, architects like Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) created this regional culture of harmony and control. Palladio’s use of classical forms and his emphasis on harmonizing buildings with landscape combined ‘Roman imperial grandeur [with] Venetian sensitivity to atmosphere, site, and situation’ (p. 20). Thus, the Palladian rural landscape both expressed the unease of the urban regional elite and reassured them of their centrality within an orderly cosmos.

This type of analysis, while recognizing the fundamental human desire to connect to place, looks for how political and economic struggles shape the way this connection gets articulated as regional cultural expression. This is one of the liveliest lines of research at the beginning of the twenty-first century and seems likely to continue. A second direction for the future is a renewed interest in the relationship between technology and regionalism. Studies of how elite conflicts and the pursuit of economic interests mold regional culture have tended to downplay the impact of new communications media, but the question of technological change is being revived by the Internet. The impact of the Internet on regionalism is unclear, with possibilities ranging from the theory that it will constitute the final blow to ‘place’ and other material forms of identity to the theory that it will encourage new ‘tribal’ groupings, including those of region. A new generation of researchers, unconstrained by former assumptions about how modernization would devastate regional culture but also largely free from a romanticist reverence for the traditional, will undoubtedly explore these possibilities.


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