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Richard H. Schein. “A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting an American Scene,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 87 No. 4, 1997, pp. 660-680.
Schein presents a conceptual framework for interpreting cultural landscapes in the United States, as a tangible, visible entity that is both reflective and constitutive of society, culture, and identity. Cultural landscapes must be understood in their geographical contexts and interrogated to define the role the landscape plays in social and cultural reproduction. Schein first reviews the development of the major theories in the field of cultural landscape studies, beginning with Carl Sauer. The author notes that scholarship to date has not “thoroughly theorized temporal relations, the notion of landscape change, or the underlying power relationships implicit in change (p. 661).” The landscape should be viewed as a palimpsest to account for erasure, overwriting, and coexisting meanings. It is not only a material manifestation, but is a theoretical construct embedded with messages and assumptions. Landscapes have to be understood not only in their local contexts, but as elements of a wider system or networks. Schein sees that landscape as a series of discourses or shared meanings. Each landscape is composed of many discourses that overlap and sometimes compete with each other. The construction of American landscapes is seen as unique because our cultural system is based on the idea of the establishment and protection of property rights and freehold land tenure. The landscape is the result of numerous individual decisions, that are ultimately part of a larger discourse. These discourses combine to constrict or limit human action within a landscape and interpretation of it. Schein understands landscape as discourse materialized that can serve as a disciplinary device or a liberating medium for social change. The author uses the example of Ashland Park, a suburb of Lexington, Kentucky, to illustrate his framework. Schein looks as several unique discourses, including landscape architecture, insurance mapping, zoning, historic preservation, the neighborhood association, and consumption to clarify the framework. Each discourse serves as a layer of discipline of the residents, but residents have the means to challenge each discourse, that is reflected in the choices they make for changes to their landscape. [J. Stabler]