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A book in the making about “How Does Culture Matter?”

26 February, 2007

As a new contributor to Culture Matters, it was supposed to be Pál’s job to introduce me. Yet being as busy as he usually is, he asked me to perform the task myself and write about our joint work, which fits very neatly with the theme of this blog.

A few years ago Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz wrote a book (Foreign News, 2004), in which he talked about the inability of anthropologists to respond adequately to “one-big-thing-books” such as Fukuyama’s The End of History or Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. An anthropological response typically consists of taking the big theories by these bestselling authors apart, trying to convince the audience with myriads of little facts, that things are a bit more complicated that just “one big thing”. Yet Hannerz wrote (paraphrasing Geertz, who had righty claimed, that small facts can speak to big issues), contemporary anthropologists were running the risk “that the small facts sometimes speak only to small issues or even appear to suggest that those big issues just are not there”. He challenged anthropologists to present alternative visions which were clear and accessible, concluding that “leaving an intellectual vaccum behind is not much of a public service”.

I was reading this on a plane midair between Moscow and Barnaul in southern Siberia. Around me, passengers were smoking cigarettes and cigars, talking on their mobiles and generally behaving in a fashion which for someone being used to the over-regulatedness of European- let alone American airlines, wasn’t exactly reassuring. In order to calm down I showed Pál – who was sitting next to me and with whom I have been working on and off for the past seven years – Hannerz’s quote. We started brainstorming. What did we feel were the pressing issues currently shaping the world, which anthropologists had something substantial to contribute to, but didn’t get their point across?

At the time Pál was planning a new introductory course to be taught at the department of Applied Anthropology at Macquarie. Here, postgraduate students from a wide range of disciplines and professional backgrounds were being initiated into the anthropological perspective. What were some of the essentials they should learn? Which anthropological ideas were needed in the public sphere now? I remembered that a few days before my husband had come back from a meeting of the founding committee of a new school of governance in Berlin. After outlining the curriculum, a professor of law stood up and asked: “But where is culture in all of this?” This man, who until recently had thought of “culture” to be confined to the opera house and the museum, suddenly felt the need to include an “intercultural perspective” to conventional subjects such as political science, law or negotiation. Yes, culture was hot. Everybody was talking about it. Companies sent their employees to intercultural weekend workshops, nurses were being sensitized to the needs of migrant patients, and President Bush assured the public that democracy in Russia had to be judged differently, “because they have a different culture”.

Culture had become a big buzzword in think tanks, development projects, corporations, law courts, government offices and international forums. Decision makers now were told that “culture matters”, but they were not trained to assess how it did, or to evaluate various parties claims to that effect. And the way people talked about “culture” – for over a century the main subject and largely exclusive concern of anthropologists – seemed to most anthropologists a very strange beast indeed, often offering little overlap between the anthropological conceptions and ideas and the general publics appropriation and use.

By the time the plane landed in Barnaul, we had drawn some mind maps, ending up with a matrix which looked at the public uses of culture on three different levels: – the macro level (war, security policy and strategic planning of states, international conventions),- the meso level (urban planning, cultural and educational policy, courts, corporate strategies),- the micro level (negotiations, diversity policies, conflict resolution),And we felt here was the subject we had been looking for. And we set us the challenge to write about How Does Culture Matter? in a way which didn’t only deconstruct what we saw as the problems with the inflationary use of the term, but also to offer a general readership an alternative with which they can think and work in their daily life and workplace.

This was a little over three years ago. In the meantime we have devised the course “How Does Culture Matter” for Pál’s University, as well as for the new School of Governance in Berlin. During the past few months (while Pál was on a Humboldt scholarship in Berlin, the city in which I live as a freelance anthropologist) we have been starting to write the first chapters of a book on the subject. When Pál left for Sydney in mid February, we decided to share our work in process as well as the myriads of vignettes which we encounter along the way on Culture Matters.

Such as this one:
A few days ago German newspapers were filled with the fall of Peter Hartz, former Human Resources executive of the Volkswagen AG, who was found guilty by a court of corruption charges. His lawyer, explaining to the court, why the Brasilian lover of a colleague of Hartz’s had received 398.806,38 Euro, obviously for “private services”, stated, that the money had been spent on “intercultural relations”!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jovan permalink
    26 February, 2007 9:38 am

    Hi Joana,

    Welcome to the blog.


  2. 26 February, 2007 8:56 pm

    Thanks! I’ll try to fix my profile this evening. Joana

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