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In anthropology and geography, a cultural region or cultural sphere refers to the aspects of culture associated with an ethnolinguistic group and the territory it inhabits. Specific cultures often do not limit their geographic coverage to the borders of a nation state, or to smaller subdivisions of a state. Cultural "spheres of influence" may also overlap or form concentric structures of macrocultures encompassing smaller local cultures. Different boundaries may also be drawn depending on the particular aspect of interest, such as religion and folklore vs. dress and architecture vs. language.
Formal Culture Regions — an area inhabited by people who have one or more cultural traits in common, such as language, religion, or system of livelihood. It is an area that is relatively homogeneous with regard to one or more cultural traits. The geographer who identifies a formal culture region must locate cultural borders. Because cultures overlap and mix, such boundaries are rarely sharp, even if only a single cultural trait is mapped. For this reason, we find cultural border zones rather than lines. These zones broaden with each additional cultural trait that is considered, because no two traits have the same spatial distribution. As a result, instead of having clear borders, formal culture regions reveal a center or core where the defining traits are all present. Away from the central core, the characteristics weaken and disappear. Thus, many formal culture regions display a core-periphery.
Functional Culture Regions — the hallmark of a formal culture region is cultural homogeneity. It is abstract rather than concrete. By contrast, a functional culture region need not be culturally homogeneous; instead, it is an area that has been organized to function politically, socially, or economically as one unit. A city, an independent state, a precinct, a church diocese or parish, a trade area or a farm. Functional culture regions have nodes or central points where the functions are coordinated and directed. Ex: city halls, national capitols, precinct voting places, parish churches, factories, and banks. In this sense, functional regions also possess a core-periphery configuration, in common with formal culture regions. Many functional regions have clearly defined borders that include all land under the jurisdiction of a particular urban government; clearly delineated on a regional map by a line distinguishing between one jurisdiction and another.
Vernacular Culture Regions (Also called "Popular" or "Perceptual" Regions) — are those perceived to exist by their inhabitants, as evidenced by the widespread acceptance and use of a special regional name. Some vernacular regions are based on physical environmental features; others find their basis in economic, political or historical characteristics. Vernacular regions, like most culture regions, generally lack sharp borders, and the inhabitants of any given area may claim residence in more than one such region. It grows out of people’s sense of belonging and identification with a particular region. Ex: one popular region in the US "Dixie". They often lack the organization necessary for functional regions, although they may be centered around a single urban node, and they frequently do not display the cultural homogeneity that characterizes formal regions.
Allen Noble gave a summary of the concept development of cultural regions using the terms "cultural hearth" (no origin of this term given), "cultural core" by Donald Meining for Mormon culture published in 1970 and "source area" by Fred Kniffen (1965) and later Henry Glassie (1968) for house and barn types. Outside of a core area he quoted Meinings' use of the terms "domain" (a dominant area) and "sphere" (area influenced but not dominant).
A cultural boundary (also cultural border) in ethnology is a geographical boundary between two identifiable ethnic or ethno-linguistic cultures. A language border is necessarily also a cultural border (language being a significant part of a society's culture), but it can also divide sub-groups of the same ethno-linguistic group along more subtle criteria, such as the Brünig-Napf-Reuss line in German-speaking Switzerland, the Weißwurstäquator in Germany or the Grote rivieren boundary between Dutch and Flemish culture.
In the history of Europe, the major cultural boundaries are found
- in Western Europe between Latin Europe, where the legacy of the Roman Empire remained dominant, and Germanic Europe, where it was significantly syncretized with Germanic culture
- in the Balkans, the Jireček Line, dividing the area of dominant Latin (Western Roman Empire) from that of dominant Greek (Eastern Roman Empire) influence.
Macro-cultures on a continental scale are also referred to as "worlds", "spheres" or "civilizations", such as the Muslim world.
Examples of regions and spheres
- East–West dichotomy: the notion of a Western civilization contrasting with both the Near East and the Far East
- Individual languages
Notes and references
- Meining, D. W., "The Mormon Culture Region: Strategies and Patterns in the Geography of the American West, 1847-1964" Annals of the Association of American Geographers 60 no. 3 1970 428-46.
- Noble, Allen George, and M. Margaret Geib. Wood, brick, and stone: the North American settlement landscape. Volume 1: Houses, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 7.