This paper reflects on two decades’ scholarship in geography on cultural
economy, assessing strides made against some of the expectations of early proponents.
Cultural economy continues to be a polysemic term. In some quarters, it
refers to a type of economic geography into which matters of ‘culture’ are
absorbed. This work frequently focuses on the empirics of the so-called ‘cultural
and creative industries’. Others see cultural economic research as an opportunity
to move beyond the epistemological constraints of ‘culture’ and ‘economy’,
questioning their status as foundational categories. This latter approach has been
used in a broader set of empirical projects encompassing technology, knowledge,
and society. Contrasting threads of cultural economic research have helpfully
moved geographical scholarship beyond paradigmatic limitations, but jostle
somewhat uncomfortably within existing (and increasingly specialised) disciplinary
and subdisciplinary fields. The risk is that by questioning the categorical
underpinnings of much specialised research, cultural economy struggles to
‘belong’ in the increasingly coded and compartmentalised university setting. I
conclude with a discussion of future prospects. Some measure of vitality could be
achieved through incorporation of a cultural economy perspective into the pressing
issues of climate change, human sustenance, and urban infrastructure planning.
These are issues for which the polysemy of cultural economy could prove
constructive, transcending technocentric market ‘fixes’ and bland assumptions
about how best to ‘green’ our cities – promoting instead ethnographic interrogations
of how humans access, use, exchange, and value financial and material
resources as moral and social beings.