The development of social and cultural geographies in Taiwan: knowledge production and social relevance



Country report

The development of social and cultural geographies in

Taiwan: knowledge production and social relevance

Wu Hsin-Ling


, Jou Sue-Ching


& Lily Kong


1Department of Geography, National Taiwan University, No. 1, Sec. 4, Roosevelt Road, Taipei,

Taiwan 106,,;2Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, 1 Arts Link, Singapore 117570,


Social and cultural geographies have long occupied a marginal position in Taiwan’s scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. Despite the influence of the so-called ‘cultural turn’ that has characterized much of Anglo-American scholarship since the 1990s (Barnett 1998), Taiwan’s scholarship in the social sciences in general and human geo-graphy more specifically has remained rela-tively untouched by these intellectual currents till very recent years. This paper seeks to examine the social, intellectual and insti-tutional contexts that explain this margin-alization, and consider the possibilities for social and cultural geographies’ emergence from marginality in Taiwan in the future. This possibility is considered in light of the burgeoning social and cultural geographies in Anglo-American scholarship and the emerging influence of cultural studies in Taiwan.

The following analysis draws on an exam-ination of Chinese-language publications as well as graduate student theses in Taiwan that may be expansively construed as falling within the fold of social and cultural geographies. The publications are drawn from five major geography journals published in Taiwan1

while the theses include those of Masters and doctoral students from five major university departments.2In short, we confine our analysis to literatures emerging from the main geo-graphical institutions where geogeo-graphical knowledge is produced. In total, we found only sixty journal articles and ninety-nine theses in the past thirty years that have been produced in Taiwan that can be considered social and cultural geography. Additionally, we also examined English-language publications produced outside Taiwan which contained social and cultural content about Taiwan and Taiwanese people. These included those written by non-geographers in non-geography

ISSN 1464-9365 print/ISSN 1470-1197 online/06/050827-19 q 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14649360600974790


journals, but which could be considered as having geographical content. Finally, we interviewed two senior scholars to obtain a better understanding of the history and developmental contexts of Taiwan’s human geography.3

The development of Taiwan’s social and cultural geographies may be divided into three main periods from the 1980s onwards, based on three criteria: the volume of work, the type of issues explored and the depth of theoretical engagement (see Table 1). In what follows, we will elaborate on each period, keeping in view two questions throughout: first, the way in which social and cultural geographical works address issues relevant to Taiwan society of the day, and second, how closely they have been situated, or not, within larger intellectual currents in Taiwan and within the develop-ment of modern geographical thought internationally.

The late development of social and

cultural geographies in Taiwan

Conditions surrounding early absence

It is fair to say that social and cultural geographies have been and remain under-developed in Taiwan. This must be understood in terms of the development of geography as a whole on the island vis-a`-vis mainland China. Early geographical studies in Taiwan remained in the shadows of mainland Chinese traditions as the major geography departments in Taiwan were founded by faculty from main-land China when the National Government retreated. The first department was founded in 1946 in National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), a university whose mission is to train high-school teachers, under the name of Department of History and Geography. This was owing to the fact that geography had

Table 1 Key moments in the development of social and cultural geographies in Taiwan

Stage and key events Subfield Issue

Nascent stage (1980s)

† Marshal law was lifted in 1987 † The Graduate Institute of Building and

Planning in National Taiwan University was established in 1988

Social geography † Rural–urban migration

† Adaptation of aboriginal migrants to urban settings

† Changes in rural villages (including popu-lation structure and rural lifestyles/livelihood) Conservative expansion stage (1990s)

† The Cultural Studies Association was established in 1998

Cultural geography † Lifestyles/livelihood in rural villages † Traditional religious activities and landscapes † Human ecology

† Regional analysis/chorology/chorography † Phenomenology and textual analysis Social geography † Aboriginal social structure and their

econ-omic adaptation Takeoff stage (2000s) New cultural

geography and social geography

† Urban consumption culture † Gender relations and sexuality † Cultural economy

† Identity politics † Symbolic landscapes

† Migration (including transnational migrants like foreign labour and foreign brides, and aboriginal migrants)


never been a single discipline and was always studied together with history and literature in Chinese tradition (Shi 1983). It was not until 1962 that the Department of Geography in NTNU was separated from History and became an independent department.

The second department was founded in National Taiwan University (NTU) in 1955. Although the department carried the name of Geography, it was actually composed of two divisions—geography and meteorology, and belonged to the College of Science from the very beginning. This was true too of the third geography department, which was set up in 1963 in Chinese Culture University, a private university. To set up geography departments in Colleges of Science also had roots in Chinese history, particularly from the 1920s when modern geographical thought was introduced into China from the West. At that time, the influence mainly took the form of physical geographical knowledge, such as geology and meteorology, the subjects of ‘science’. It resonated with the currents in Chinese intellectual movements at that time, in which the Chinese embraced the pure sciences and the philosophical paradigms of empiricism and positivism. The outcome was a strong ‘scientific’, physical geography tradition in Taiwan (Shi 1984).

Apart from the influence of the Chinese, Taiwan’s geographical development must also acknowledge Japanese influence. Japanese colonization of Taiwan (1895 – 1945) impacted much of Taiwanese life, and it is unsurprising that geography as an academic discipline in Taiwan also bears the imprint of Japanese influence, mainly in the form of geomorpho-logical research and the study of settlements. The latter has relevance for our discussion about social and cultural geographies in contemporary Taiwan, for it established a tradition that emphasized fieldwork and the

systematic collection of detailed data. While the precise focus on settlement patterns during Japanese colonization may have evolved, it will become apparent later that the systematic focus on detailed fieldwork and data collec-tion, the outcome of Japanese influence, remains.

The Japanese colonial connection also had the effect of encouraging Taiwan scholars to pursue their graduate degrees in Japan. These scholars played a significant role in reinforcing Japanese research agendas and approaches in Taiwan, as well as in introducing some major English literatures that had been translated into Japanese back to Taiwan. All of these helped to shape Taiwan’s early phase of social and cultural geographies, though perhaps more so in educational than in research programmes. This is because Japanese influence occurred mainly in the Geography Department of NTNU, where the remit is mainly to train high-school teachers, rather than knowledge production.

Given this intellectual and institutional history, it is not surprising that the early development of geography in Taiwan empha-sized physical geography from its institutional base in science, and education rather than research in human geography from its insti-tutional base in a teacher training university. It is only in the last twenty-five to thirty years that human geography has grown both in remit and areas of interest, so that more research in different areas has emerged. Some of this may be loosely categorized as social and cultural geographies.

The nascent stage: emerging social


While the period before 1980 was character-ized by a focus on population, industrial and


retail geography, often dominated by the quantitative tradition, the 1980s saw the influence of new faculty who had graduated from the USA and Japan who turned their attention to social geographical issues of specific and immediate relevance to local society, namely rural – urban migration (Chiang and Yang 1983), rural change (Chang 1985; Wu 1988; Zhou 1989) and urban and environmental adaptation, particu-larly of aboriginal migrants (Chang 1989; Lian 1989; Lin 1986; Tsai 1987; Wu 1988). Perhaps they were influenced by the 1970s debates in the Anglo-American world on relevance, or more likely, they were simply responding to the conditions that they saw around them in Taiwan society.

Apart from engaging in socially relevant research, two other features characterized social geographical work of the 1980s in Taiwan. One was the influence of English-language geography and its theoretical approaches of the 1960s and 1970s, namely behavioural geography and human ecology. Although Anglo-American geography had by then moved on and embraced humanistic geography, in Taiwan, this had yet to emerge as influential. Instead, researchers continued to use the theoretical language of behavioural geography and human ecology from an earlier period in their work. However, there was a disjuncture between adoption of these theoretical postures and the continued and profound influence of the Japanese geo-graphical tradition of detailed ethnographic field investigations. Much of the scholarship at this time was therefore characterized by ‘accurate, orderly, and rational description[s] of the variables characteristic of the earth’s surface’ (Hartshorne 1959: 21), which did not always dovetail with the concepts and ideas within behavioural geography and human ecology.

The stage of conservative expansion:

emerging cultural geographies

The 1990s marked the emergence of cultural geographical works in Taiwan, influenced particularly by the humanistic geographies propounded a decade ago in the Anglo-American world. Meanwhile, the social geography of the 1980s continued, with the study of aboriginals, their social structure and their adaptation constituting a sustained research foci (Chang 1991; S. P. Chen 1998; Tsai 1998; Wang 1990).

Within cultural geography, a number of graduate theses gave attention to the lifestyles in rural villages, and the practice of traditional religious activities and the characteristics of religious landscapes (Cheng 1998; Chyr 1996; Huang 1997; Lu 1998; Pan 1993). These ‘traditional’ cultural geographical works (see Kong 1997) were coupled by the persistent influence of human ecology in the study of rural lifestyles where the interactions between human beings, environment and organizations were the subject of analyses in many rural studies (H. M. Chen 1998; Chung 1991; Lin 1995). The regional geography of earlier decades also exerted its influence on Taiwa-nese geography at this juncture. In fact, the goal of the first graduate programme in geography (in the Department of Geography at National Taiwan Normal University) was exactly to emphasize the regional study of small areas in Taiwan. It also aimed to build the chorology/chorography for every town-ship/city in Taiwan through intensive field investigations and interviews. This turn of attention to the urban was in itself new, for hitherto, interest in the study of rural areas was much higher than interest in the study of the city. This stemmed from the fact that many of the students majoring in geography came mostly from central and southern rural


Taiwan and had an interest in understanding the conditions of their origins.

It was perhaps only in the reference to phenomenology and textual analysis that Tai-wanese cultural geography engaged with more contemporary approaches in Anglo-American cultural geography. Examples of works in this regard include those who tried to link the form and connotation of the traditional Taiwanese courtyard houses with the body image (Chen 1992, 1993, 1994) and those who tried to interpret the ancient Chinese sense of space through textual analysis (Pan 1990, 1992).

By and large, few scholars adopted the more contemporary Anglo-American theories and methodologies of social and cultural geogra-phies during this period. For the most part, the focus remained on regional studies with intensive field work investigations and detailed documentation of ethnographic data. Not only was close intellectual engagement and dialogue lacking with Anglo-American geography, there was also a lack of engagement with Taiwan society, which at this time was undergoing highly volatile transformation after marshal law was lifted in 1987. This was unlike other disciplines such as architecture, urban planning, cultural studies and sociology which had scholars and graduate students aggressively involved in critiquing developments in Taiwan and indeed, engaged in the activities of civil society, and taking on the role of public intellectuals, frequently offering cultural critiques in the popular media. Many of these scholars had received a Western education and returned to Taiwan in the 1990s armed with the newest theories in their fields, familiar too with the developments within a cognate human geography. The Graduate Institute of Building and Planning in National Taiwan University has been quite visible in this respect. Their research agendas reflected not only their civic concern and public participation but also resonated with

the kinds of work that cultural geography elsewhere had come to embrace. These include issues such as the power of urban landscapes, urban governance, place identities, gender identities, and cultures and landscapes of consumerism. For instance, Deng (1991) exam-ined hegemonic relations that shaped Taipei’s cityscapes and spatial structure since the 1980s (Deng 1991), just as Shu (1995) studied the complicated power relations between state and capital in shaping the urban landscape. The theoretical underpinnings of these scholarly works were closely aligned with contemporary Anglo-American ideas, including theoretical directions in social and cultural geographies.

The takeoff stage: multiplicity,

diversification and the place of theory

in social and cultural geographies

The turn of the twenty-first century sets a new stage for Taiwan’s social and cultural geogra-phies. Since 2000, new developments have become apparent. The feverish participation of scholar-critics in the public media has abated, and scholars, for better or worse, have reserved their efforts more for scholarly works and academic pursuits than was previously the case. Another development, begun in the late 1990s under the influence of the ‘cultural turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, was the rapid and vigorous growth of cultural studies. Active research agendas have been coupled by the rapid establishment of cultural studies centres and programmes. For example, the Center for Asia-Pacific Cultural Studies in National Tsing Hua University, Center of Sexuality Research in National Central University, and Graduate Institute of Linguistics & Cultural Studies in National Chiao Tung University were estab-lished during this period. The first graduate school of cultural studies—Graduate Institute


for Social Research and Cultural Studies—was also founded in National Chiao Tung Univer-sity in 2000. At the same time, efforts to reach out and make connections with other Asian scholars are apparent, for example, in the establishment in 2000 of the journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies with a Taiwanese and a Singaporean editor.

Key research themes that have engaged cultural studies scholars in Taiwan in the last few years have influenced social and cultural geographies. They include: gender and alterna-tive identities, media representations of social groups, national identities in the colonial and post-colonial periods, popular culture, con-sumption culture, localization and local cul-tures, and space and politics. These are not much different from the research agendas of social and cultural geographers in Taiwan, which include urban consumption culture (Gao 2001; Hsu 2002; Lin 2003; Tsai 2001), gender relations and sexuality (T. Y. Chen 2002; Chien 2002), transnational migration (Chiang and Song 2001; Shao 2000; Shu 2001; Yang, Chiang and Liao 2005), cultural economy (Chen 2001; Liang 2004; Tseng 2002), identity politics (Y. F. Chen 2002; Ho 2001), symbolic landscapes (Liaw 2000; Lin 2003) and social justice (Jou 2000; Jou and Liu 2001). Often, studies have focused on phenom-ena that have recently emerged in contempor-ary Taiwanese society, such as the emergence of foreign brides and urban disadvantaged com-munities. Of particular note is the shift of focus from the rural to the urban, in tandem with the growing complexities of urban life.

Apart from the greater attention and sensitivity to the dynamics of Taiwan society, recent social and cultural geographical works have also begun to adopt the linguistic and theoretical expressions and ideas from con-temporary Western literatures. A quick search of the keywords used in graduate theses and

journal papers verifies this claim. For example, ‘locality’, ‘social justice’, ‘postmodernism’, ‘feminist geography’, ‘identity politics’, ‘cul-tural economy’, ‘spaces of resistance’, and so forth are the most frequently cited keywords, which were rarely used before 2000. The hegemony of Western ideas is further reflected in the emergence of review articles in Chinese by young scholars with local doctoral degrees which summarize key theoretical developments in Anglo-American research for Taiwanese audiences, such as Yang (2001) on ‘geography and social justice’, Liang and Chang (2004) on ‘cultural economy and cultural representation of place in geography’, Chang (2005) on ‘feminist geography and its sluggish develop-ment in Taiwan’ and Song (2006) on ‘migration studies in human geography’. These have helped to introduce the development of theoretical perspectives to those who remain highly devoted to field investigations, in part with the hope that theoretical innovations may come from local empirical studies.

This hegemony of Anglo-American con-cepts and lexicon is perhaps unsurprisingly marked in the English-language literature on Taiwan which may be deemed to be of a social/cultural geographical nature. Based on a broad search of English-language geography journals as well as those in cognate disciplines (anthropology, cultural studies and sociology) over the last three decades, three observations may be made. First, as with the Chinese-language scene, it is also in the last six to seven years that there has been a growth of literature of a social/cultural geographical bent in English. Second, much of this work is by non-geographers, principally sociologists and cultural studies scholars, but also anthropo-logists, historians, media and urban planning scholars. Third, the themes and approaches of principal concern resonate soundly with Anglo-American intellectual currents, but also


reflect developments of particular significance in Taiwanese society.

The English-language literature may be grouped into three: a literature on mobility, one on identity and one on popular culture, including but not limited to its nexus with economy. The literature on mobility is dominated by contributions from other dis-ciplines, including sociologists addressing issues confronting migrant domestic workers (Lan 2003a, 2003b, 2003c; Loveband 2004) and the mobility of the entrepreneurial class (Tseng 2000) in explicitly geographical terms, marketing scholars on cross-border marriages (Wang and Chang 2002), and tourism scholars focusing on tourism and its implications (Hsieh and Chang 2006). It was a relief therefore to find that geographers had not altogether abdicated their role in this patently geographical research area, even though their presence is slight (Chiang and Liao 2005).

A very similar pattern is evident in the English-language literature on identities. Reflecting the colonial history and post-colonial condition of Taiwan, research has focused on colonial identity (Hsia 2002), postcolonial identity (Chun 1994; Yee 2001), national identity (Chung 2000; Wang 2000), gender and queer identity (Brown 2003; Chao 2002; Erni 2005; Martin 2000), religious identity (Katz 2003) and community identity (Chiang 2002). The majority of scholars named here are non-geographers, as with the preceding summary of mobility research. Finally, a smaller emerging area of work on popular culture and cultural economy is apparent, all produced outside geography (Adrian 2006; Chang 2004; Mee 2005). In all of these, the theoretical frameworks and conceptual lexicon developed in Anglo-American literatures have tended to dominate. It would, however, be remiss if this section ended with the implication that social and

cultural geography in Taiwan has abandoned its tradition of detailed ethnographic field work in favour of more theoretical approaches. That has perhaps fortunately not happened. The greater tendency towards importation of Anglo-American concepts and theories has not overtaken the long-held scholarly tradition of detailed documentation of field investigations, which still account for the major part of research work in Taiwan. Whereas Western scholars calling for a rematerializing of the research subjects, and an ‘ethnographic’ and ‘empirical’ turn reflect a frustration with over-theorizing (Jackson 2000; Lorimer 2005; Philo 2000), scholars in Taiwan have stayed fast on the course of solid empirical research, and have remained grounded in the realities of everyday life.

Challenges for social and cultural

geographies in Taiwan

Despite some growth after three decades of development, the volume of research and the status of social and cultural geographies in Taiwan still fall behind other branches of geography as well as other social sciences such as sociology and cultural studies. The contri-butions of Taiwanese social and cultural geographies to international academic dis-course are also marginal. To move to the mainstream of Taiwanese societal debate and international academic debate, several chal-lenges must be overcome.

Develop a critical mass of researchers

Faculty members with expertise in social and cultural geographies at the main universities have a significant role to play in the develop-ment of these fields in Taiwan. However, the numbers are small. There are only twenty-two


teaching faculty who call themselves social and cultural geographers. For some whose work may be considered social and/or cultural, or whose perspectives show a rapprochement with social/cultural approaches (e.g. Hsu’s 2004 acknowledgement of embeddedness, social networks and professional connections in his study of the high-tech industrial system in Taiwan), their professed specializations are in other geographical subfields, such as political geography, urban geography, econo-mic geography or philosophy of geography. The small numbers impose particularly heavy teaching loads, with the result that Masters and doctoral theses have come to form the bulk of social and cultural geographical work in Taiwan. Between 2000 and 2005, fifty-four theses were produced, the vast majority at the Masters level and only six at doctoral level. Articles in the five major geography journals published in Taiwan by ‘social and cultural geographers’ are only seventeen in total during these five years. Thus, the earlier characteriz-ation of a ‘takeoff stage’ in Taiwan’s social and cultural geographies must be understood as a burgeoning of student interest in the area more so than any dedicated (social and cultural geography) growth in faculty positions, faculty research output or impact. All this accounts for why these two fields have not been able to accumulate substantial research work, nor to attract the attention of scholars in cognate disciplines such as cultural studies in Taiwan, let alone build international visibility.

Develop indigenous theoretical


Three conditions have dominated the develop-ment of geographical scholarship in Taiwan. The first is the heavy emphasis on teaching in many universities which has prevented the

development of a more robust research culture. The second is the emphasis on problem-solving and policy work. The third is that researchers have tended to apply familiar Western theories to their particular research problems, often inappropriately or inadequately. Even while Shi (1984) foresaw this problem in his earlier discussion of the development of geography in Taiwan, the problem still persists more than two decades later. Most doctoral theses have the potential to become better in terms of explicating their epistemological foundations and reflecting on their methodological choices in line with their epistemology. They could also benefit from more adequate situation of their research within contemporary geographical debates. Similarly, while the quality of Masters theses have improved through the years, most are still confined to the description of data collected from fieldwork without critical interpretation and explanation. This has greatly reduced their contribution to the development of a strong academic tradition in social and cultural geographies. To make the next leap, social and cultural geographies in Taiwan will need to seriously attempt to develop more indigenous theoretical foundations that speak to the conditions of that society.

Enhance interaction with other cognate


Despite the vibrant growth of cognate dis-ciplines, particularly cultural studies, in Taiwan in recent years, social and cultural geographers have failed to capitalize on the potential for dialogue and collaboration. According to the Taiwan Cultural Studies Association, none of the 170 active members is from Geography (Table 2). The limited participation of social and cultural geographers in interdisciplinary com-munities despite the growing pre-eminence of


the ‘spatial turn’ is disappointing, and a missed opportunity for geographical interventions where warranted. The conditions are ripe for a favourable reception of geographical perspec-tives, given that some non-geographers have already adopted the frameworks of analysis that geographers in the Anglo-American world have propounded (Huang 2004). The lack of interaction and dialogue between geographers and cultural studies scholars will only serve to marginalize the geographical discipline in Taiwan, and hamper its further development.

Looking ahead

Social and cultural geographies share many interfaces with cultural studies in Taiwan. Yet, they have sufficiently distinct qualities that greater interaction and mutual influence can strengthen both fields. On the one hand, social and cultural geographies in Taiwan have established a strong research tradition in emphasizing regional studies with solid ethno-graphic methods and field investigations. What is lacking is the rigour of theoretical formulation. On the other hand, cultural studies in Taiwan is all too often characterized by complete importation of Western theories,

chasing the academic fashions of the West.4In comparing the issues studied and approaches adopted by cultural studies scholars in Taiwan with those in the Anglo-American world, Liu and Liu (2000) found significant symmetry. For social and cultural geographies in Taiwan to gain importance and impact within Taiwanese society and to recover from its marginal status within international commu-nities of social and cultural geographers, we suggest that dialogues, interactions and col-laboration with other cognate disciplines in Taiwan (and particularly cultural studies) may prove valuable. By doing so, the sensitivity to international discourses may be enhanced. However, it is imperative that the solid fieldwork tradition is not eroded by abstract theorizing. Theoretical formulations are important only insofar as they help to comprehend and indeed, improve, empirical reality. To that extent, the importance of remaining socially relevant must not be forgotten even as the aspiration to greater theoretical sophistication is pursued.


1 The five major geography journals are: Journal of Geographical Science, Journal of Geographical Research, Reports of Geographical Studies, Environ-ment and Worlds and Bulletin of the Geographical Society of China.

2 The five major geography departments are: National Taiwan University, National Taiwan Normal Univer-sity, National Kaohsiung Normal UniverUniver-sity, National Changhua University of Education and Chinese Culture University.

3 We would like to thank Hsien-Ming Chen and Chao-Yang Pan for sharing their insights. All responsibility for the views expressed in this paper remain with the authors.

4 There are of course exceptions to this claim, but it is fair to say that it remains true from an aggregate perspective.

Table 2 Taiwan Cultural Studies Association—disci-plinary profile of members

Discipline/specialty group Number

Linguistics 39

Mass media and art 27

Sociology 26 Architecture 6 Ethnology 6 History 5 Geography 0 Other 61 Total 170



Table 1 Key moments in the development of social and cultural geographies in Taiwan

Table 1

Key moments in the development of social and cultural geographies in Taiwan p.2
Table 2 Taiwan Cultural Studies Association—disci- Association—disci-plinary profile of members

Table 2

Taiwan Cultural Studies Association—disci- Association—disci-plinary profile of members p.9