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An outline of “How Does Culture Matter?”

4 March, 2007

While the title of this blog states that Culture Matters, in the book project which I described in the last post, Pál and I want to take a much closer look at exactly HOW culture matters. For many, today’s world is a world shaped by clashing cultures. This story is compelling – so compelling that not a day passes without me cutting out a newspaper article or jotting down some quote from a radio program, in which culture clashes are not mentioned. Yet, as we want to show in the book, often the assumptions about “culture” are simplistic to the extreme, frequently wrong and even dangerous. So we find ourselves in the strange situation that the same anthropologists, who have for a long time tried to convince institutions that “culture matters”, are now trying to get away from a culturalist perspective. Our challenge is to present a framework and a set of conceptual tools with which we can lay bare when culture matters and when not.

Here is an overview of our chapters – adapted from our introduction:

In the first chapter we describe a world trying to contain the international “threats” to its “security” by a conceptual apparatus in which universalist paradigms increasingly serve as a mere fig leaf for deeply held assumptions of cultural difference between the “West”, “East” or “South”. While the “clash of civilizations” has never been as close to being a self-fulfilling prophesy as in the “war on terror”, we also discuss a range of instances where the logic of cultural relativism has reshaped post-Cold War relations between the great powers, America, Russia and China and let to a reworking of international dialogue and public discourse on subjects like human rights and democracy. In each of these cases, we trace the mechanisms whereby essentialist assumptions and the “container view” of culture have risen to dominance through both misunderstandings and strategic instrumentalisation of culture by particular interests, from politicians wishing to preserve their power to business consultants and media. In the second chapter we map the rise of culture in development institutions and discourse. After some forty years of development strategies based on universal, economic and technological indicators, institutions like the World Bank have adopted an approach that focuses on local participation and cultural specificity. In this chapter we document cases in which an infusion of local knowledge has led to positive results, but also those in which misrepresented or conflicting cultural claims – by local elites or global intermediaries – have resulted in waste, inaction or even disaster. In addition to the problems of an essentialized view of cultures highlighted in the first chapter, these cases reveal the necessity to interrogate who has the right to speak for a group or community.

The third chapter moves from the international to the national level and looks at a range of conflicts, which have been interpreted as ethnocultural – such as the wars in Yugoslavia and especially Bosnia. In other cases international discourse naturalized local conflicts into inevitable conflicts of historic ethnocultural difference such as between the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda or Shi’a and Sunni Arabs in Iraq. By exploring how these interpretations came to dominate over equally plausible ones, we shed light on the limited explanatory power of culturalist explanations, the global conditions that make a conflict in many regions of the world immediately perceived in ethnic terms, and the potentially disastrous consequences of interventions based on unexamined cultural assumptions. In Chapter Four we turn to the management of ethnic diversity in the nation-state and review the range of policy realms in which states are engaged, from urban planning to public health and education. We summarize some of the hallmark debates that continue to rage across Western (formerly?) liberal democracies, such as those on the Islamic headscarf, female circumcision and citizenship tests. These cases, while foregrounding tensions between the cultural rights of groups and individual freedoms and pushing discussions of culture into both legislation and courts of law, have at the same time reignited public debates about national culture and its limits. Can a true Dutchwoman refuse to swim? Is street violence by Algerian youth in Paris culturally conditioned? These debates are bringing a new guard of cultural (and religious) spokesmen to prominence, but, as we show, the difficulty is in establishing where cultural explanations are useful and where they are misplaced and self-serving.

Chapter Five is an excursion into the world of cultural – and culturally justified – property. In a growing number of cases, “indigenous” groups have contested modern-era land titles granted by colonial powers or nation-states, asserted their right to control, or benefit from, cultural or intellectual property (such as the medical uses of particular plants) being commercially exploited by individuals or businesses, and challenged international environmental conventions. By analyzing existing conflicts and developing hypothetical scenarios for regulating the protection of cultural property, we point both to the usual problems with group representation – the problematic nature of the authority to identify group boundaries and to determine the content of cultural tradition – and to the importance of a case-by-case approach in attributing rights and revenues to develop a natural or cultural resource. Chapter Six describes the “intercultural communication” (IC) industry that has developed on the fringes of business and government over the last two decades, originating in the United States but by now spread globally. Corporate employees and government officials are trained in “intercultural competence” before they are posted abroad as well as to sensitise them to working with a culturally diverse population. Unlike in the realms discussed in previous chapters, (inter-)cultural expertise here constitutes a fully formalized, practice-oriented field with its own conferences and journals, which claims to be indispensable to the effective operation of any institution. In this chapter, we first offer a critical look at the evolution of IC and, its origins – mainly in social psychology and 1950s anthropology – and its dominant paradigms as exemplified in the highly influential but deeply flawed works of management gurus Geert Hofstede, Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars. We then describe the way IC has been applied in various corporate and public fields, showing its effects on management training, health care and education.

For businesses, however, the “culture fever” has meant more than diversity management and IC trainings. As a number of previous posts on Culture Matters have pointed out, anthropology and ethnography are currently “hot” in the corporate world, especially in product design and marketing. A number of companies have become increasingly attentive to local consumer needs and preferences. While the basis of “ethnic marketing” has had the usual effect of accentuating differences across pre-defined groups, this time with the purpose of selling kosher food and black hair care products, the shift from traditional surveys to qualitative studies has had a rather different result. In the 2000s, anthropologists have began working in consumer research positions at companies ranging from Intel to Procter & Gamble, as well as founding hip design and architecture consultancies. Their job is to identify consumer needs by spending weeks in a Brazilian slum, an Osaka bakery or in an online chat group. On a number of examples, Chapter Seven demonstrates that, while the words “culture,” “values” and “community” are remarkably rare in corporate ethnographers’ reports, they provide snapshots of constantly shifting practices and meanings – what do a pair of faded jeans mean to an inner-city Black youth in Detroit or a particular ringtone to a Jamaican schoolchild – that go a long way in understanding cultural influences on individual behavour.

The Conclusion returns to the picture of a world not so much Riding the Waves of Culture – the title of a bestselling intercultural management manual – as adrift on the waves on culturalism. The dilemma this book raises is how to retain sensitivity to the cultural impacts on and of policies and corporate decisions without falling into the trap of determinism, essentialisation and misrepresentation – a trap that, as we are currently witnessing, can have the dangerous consequences of a self-fulfilling prophesy. We suggest that, to do so, it is more important to understand the motives of processes in which cultural claims arise than to study the supposed essence of a finite number of “cultures”. We conclude by offering readers a series of questions designed to help anyone who needs to evaluate the impact of decisions potentially involving cultural difference decide whether, in a particular case, culture matters.

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