Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: a theory of Cultural Encounters

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Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: A Theory of Cultural Encounters

Gerard Delanty

Sussex University, UK


The most appropriate way of theorising cultural diversity is to situate it in the context of a broader relational theory of culture in which the key dynamic is cultural encounters. The relational conception of culture places the emphasis on the relations between social actors and the processes by which some of these relations generate enduring cultural regularities and forms. This has important implications for political community and in particular for cosmopolitanism. It is in relationships that cultural phenomena are generated and are the basis of different kinds of political community. The paper outlines a typology of six kinds of cultural encounters and discusses four major cultural trends that variously emerge from these encounters. This approach with its emphasis on cultural encounters is the broad sociological context in which questions about cultural change and the prospects of cosmopolitanism should be discussed.

Key Words

Cultural diversity, the concept of culture, cultural encounters, cosmopolitanism, democracy

The link between culture and democracy has been a topic that has gained increased prominence in social and political science in recent years.i Studies on the cultural presuppositions of democracy have moved considerably beyond the older notions of culture that were largely taken for granted in studies on political culture and nationalism. The relation between culture and political community changed when the focus shifted from mainstream politics and processes of state formation to a new interest in minorities, identity, multiculturalism and post-national citizenship. With this turn, culture took on a different character. Of the many questions that have arisen around the place of culture in democracy and more generally in political community a particular challenge is the problem of diversity for political community in complex societies. What are the political implications of cultural difference? When does cultural difference enhance democracy and when does it undermine it? Indeed, there is a more fundamental question as to the nature of cultural difference and how it should be understood. It is nowadays taken for granted that our societies are diverse in their cultural composition while at the same time there is also a certain normative assumption that there is at some level a shared public domain. This question has been at the forefront of much recent social and political theory and research in political sociology (Gutmann 2003, Benhabib 2002, 2004, Peters 2010). The present paper is addressed to a problem that has become more acute in light of the extension of the link between culture and political community to contexts and issues that have become generally associated with globalization and more specifically with the rise of cosmopolitanism. On the one side, cultural diversity appears to be both a desirable normative aspiration and an inevitable outcome of world-wide democratization; on the other, cultural diversity can entail a conception of difference that may be a challenge to democracy if the latter is restricted in its assumptions about membership of political community or if the demands for the recognition of difference may be excessive or incompatible with other goals. For instance, the pursuit of difference may be at the cost of the pursuit of equality or may result in some kind of cultural segregation of social groups or atavistic nationalism (Blok 1998, Hutchinson 2005, Schlesinger 1992). This all raises the question as to how cultural diversity should be understood in the first instance and how it relates to democracy, especially in a cosmopolitan perspective. The argument will be advanced in this paper that greater attention needs to be given to the logic of cultural encounters, which is a neglected aspect of cultural pluralisation, but one that is now very much implied by the cosmopolitan turn in contemporary thought.

Cosmopolitan theory has extended the limits of political community beyond the traditional reference points of liberal and republican political theory and the assumptions of much of classical sociological theory where the political community in question was largely that of the modern national state. Over the past two decades or so there has been a renewed interest in the cosmopolitan currents in modernity in particular in light of the impact of globalization and major cultural change around post-national membership. Questions of justice, rights, identity have been considerably redefined in light of cosmopolitanism whether in the areas of law, economy, state, civil society, technology or the arts (Beck 2006, Benhabib 2008, Delanty 2006, 2009, Tan 2004, Sassen 2007). The key underlying characteristic of cosmopolitanism is a reflexive condition in which the perspective of others is incorporated into one’s own identity, interests or orientation in the world. This is what distinguishes it from global culture, internationalism, transnationalism, which may be preconditions of cosmopolitanism: it is less a condition expressed in mobility, diversity, globalizing forces than in the logic of exchange, dialogue, encounters. Cosmopolitanism requires that some degree of self or societal transformation to take place as a result of the interaction of different groups and of the guiding role of normative counter-factuals (such as notions of social justice, solidarity, planetary survival). Thus pluralisation is not the only feature of cosmopolitanism, which is essentially a way of imagining the world and extending the limits of political community. Like the notion of democracy, cosmopolitanism suggests a certain openness and, too, potential fragility since it rests on the bonds of mutuality and dialogue. The exploration of difference is central to both democracy and cosmopolitanism and leads to the insight that with the increasing concern with cultural difference today, democracy can be brought in a cosmopolitan direction. But democratic negotiation is always more than the recognition of diversity.

Democracy entails contestation and the inclusion of different voices within the polity; it is about claim-making both through the representation of social interests as well as through direct action and the incorporation of new groups. Political community thus conceived requires an active civil society in which public debate is a normal part of life. This means that consensus and conflict are part of the same process and that more democracy inevitably brings about more contestation. In that sense, then, democracy is fragile since consensus is never a final condition, but can be contested as the boundaries of the political community are extended with the inclusion of new groups or the raising of new voices and the introduction of different perspectives. This fragility is underpinned by cultural pluralisation and more generally by societal complexity and risk (Stehr 2001). With the growing diversity of contemporary societies as a result of transnationalism, be it tourism or migration, and more generally multiculturalism, democracy has been both enhanced and at the same time challenged. This is for several reasons. The presuppositions that a more homogeneous society can make about values and norms are more likely to be challenged. This is especially the case with assumptions about such basic values as those that a society can take for granted. Democratization has every where led both to more rights and to greater consciousness of rights. This has been enhanced by opportunities for networking and when combined with social interests leads to an increase in contestation and to conflict. The more groups and perspectives that are mobilized, the greater the dissensus and contestation. If the groups themselves are internally diverse and divided, the outcome may be less significant than in the case of homogeneous groups. Cultural diversity can thus result in increased social conflict with different groups competing or it can be contained with the wider polity or society. It has often been noted that plural societies are often organized as hierarchy, with one group dominating the others (Horowitz 2000: 135-9). The nature of the relation between the groups is the key problem for democracy. It is in this balance that the notion of the encounter is of paramount importance.

The problem of pluralism concerns the relationships between social groups and thus it concerns encounters. Democracy is a condition defined by the nature of transactions and as such it concerns mechanisms of negotiation and deliberation by which social actors, whether collective or individual, achieve their interests according to norms that are mutually acceptable, but it also involves contestation over normative principles. For this reason democracy presupposes at minimum a common or shared public domain. In other words, the problem of democracy is the problem of reconciling common ground with the reality of diversity and different interests (Smelser and Alexander 1999, Touarine 2000). Modern democracies have mostly solved one of the major divisions around class through the welfare state and the solution found has in general been compatible with the pursuit of common ground and even of shared national identities. But, as is attested by the resurgence of nationalism, the challenge of other differences that have arisen as a result of culturally based interests has increased and has often undermined both democracy itself and the possibility of a shared public domain. The more cosmopolitan democracy becomes, the more fragile it will be; yet, democracy tends by the very logic of democratization towards cosmopolitanism, which itself emerges out of pluralisation.

These questions have come increasingly to the fore of social and political science in recent years. The question of diversity, difference and pluralism is not only a question of social conflict or of the sources of political instability. Much of the approach adopted in political science towards cultural diversity has been in response to the rise of ethnic conflict (Horowitz 2000). In other approaches that are less concerned with issues around major social conflict or the break-up of states, the concern has been rather more about the future of multiculturalism and the challenge of reconciling a politics of equality with one of the pursuit of difference (Hollinger 1995, Touraine 2000) and with questions of cultural citizenship (Stevenson 2002).

In this paper I focus on one dimension of the problem of diversity and democracy, namely the implications of cultural diversity, recast in terms of a notion of cultural encounters, for cosmopolitan political community. Cosmopolitanism is increasingly seen as having a cultural dimension and while much of this has to do with issues relating to pluralisation, it is evident that the cultural question goes beyond the problem of diversity as such. So my question is what exactly is the significance of cultural diversity for cosmopolitanism and whether there are ways of conceiving of culture that do not reduce it to the condition of diversity. My argument is that underlying the notion of cultural diversity is a deeper notion of a cultural encounter. I argue that an exploration of the notion of cultural encounters is particularly fruitful as the notion of the encounter is also at stake in the concepts of democracy and cosmopolitanism. My aim, then, is to develop an analysis of cultural encounters in order to identify the dominant cultural trends and prospects for cosmopolitanism. A focus on the logic of the encounter rather than on diversity as such will offer useful insights for an understanding of the cultural dimensions of democracy and of cosmopolitanism.

The first section examines the concepts of culture and diversity around a critical account of recent sociological theories of culture. My aim here is to develop a theory of culture that captures its relational, not only its plural, character. Drawing on recent contributions, I argue for a relational theory of culture. This relational conception of culture provides the foundation for a theory of cultural encounters, which I argue is better equipped to account for cultural challenges than is the notion of cultural diversity. The second section moves the discussion on to an account of cultural encounters. Here the aim is to answer the question what happens when one culture meets another. Six generic kinds of cultural encounter will be discussed. The third section addresses some of the main outcomes of cultural encounters with four main trends being identified. By way of conclusion, the final section offers an assessment of the prospects of cosmopolitanism.

Culture and Diversity

The concept of culture is amongst the most contested notions in the social and human sciences. The notion of cultural diversity or cultural difference is even more muddled. Since Ruth Benedict (1934) it is common place to see culture as by definition having particular forms. However this relativistic view of culture was never intended to reject universalism. The cultural value spheres of modernity, since Kant and Weber, have been generally seen as differentiated with each being based on different criteria and universalization possible only within each of these spheres.ii The concept of culture thus presupposes a diversity of forms as well as wider spheres. Given the emphasis in recent times on cultural diversity in relation to political community, greater clarity needs to be established on what constitutes culture and cultural diversity beyond the recognition of its differentiated nature. The notion of cultural diversity can mean many things (Bennett 2001, Isar 2006). It frequently is a synonym for identity: one’s identity is constituted by the ability to distinguish oneself from another; it can signal a strong sense of otherness through ‘othering’ mechanisms by which the Other is marginalized, exotized, or persecuted. Cultural diversity is also intermeshed with other forms of difference making, as in processes of stratification such as caste and class. Cultural diversity is at work in normative discourses around cultural protection of heritage, as in the cultural policies of UNESCO (1996, 2001). Diversity may be a goal to be pursued or an obstacle to egalitarianism. Stronger cosmopolitan conceptions of diversity are invoked in notions such as ‘unity in diversity’ where the concept of diversity is broadened to include the search for common ground, as the policies of the EU and Council of Europe (Sassatelli, 2009). Some of these positive notions of diversity were reflected in initiatives such as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008. However, on the other side, the notion of diversity in Europe appears to be replacing the notion of multiculturalism, which is increasingly under duress. It is not apparent that the discursive shift to diversity amounts to a substantial change in inclusive policies. It is difficult not to conclude that notions of cultural difference and diversity are often political slogans that lack conceptual clarity. It would be tempting to conclude that this, too, is the case with the notion of culture, which is often a black-box category. However, some clarity can be established on the sociological meaning of culture. The following discussion offers a brief review of some of the main trends in order to arrive at a concept of culture that has sociological significance.

Since the so-called cultural turn in the human and social sciences and the related impact of postmodernist thought, a conception of culture has gained currency that stresses its fragmented, plural, and contested nature. This general perspective offers an important corrective to the traditional author based conceptions of culture or notions of culture that posit an unitary and underlying subjectivity of which it is the symbolic expression. However, such accounts, once common, have not altogether disappeared and frequently appear explicitly or implicitly in accounts of collective identities, nationalism and the politics of multiculturalism which see cultural groups are cohesive and based on coherent identities. Comparative studies of national culture, too, make certain assumptions about the unified nature of national culture (Hofstede 1980). Theories of national identity, for instance, have been for long divided between the proponents of ethno-symbolism and those advocating some version of constructivism (Hutchinson 2005). Another arena of controversy concerns the debate on ‘thin’ versus ‘thick’ forms of identity, where normative assumptions are particularly strong (Walzer 1983). Despite the postmodern critique of culture, the view has prevailed that culture is a coherent symbolic and normative whole that is expressed in different contexts.

Theoretical approaches in recent sociological and cultural theory present a number of ways to conceive of culture that go some way to offering a framework for the analysis of culture that captures the postmodern logic of pluralisation, mobility and contestation, but also goes beyond this level of analysis.iii The trend has been towards an emphasis on the cognitive dimensions of culture as opposed to the traditional emphasis on the symbolic and normative dimensions (Di Maggio 1997, Strydom 2011). A brief overview will offer a basis on which to develop a robust model of culture pertinent to current cosmopolitan currents and the rise of claim-making that go beyond those that can be situated exclusively within national contexts or more generally to approaches that reduce culture to the symbolic.

Hermeneutical approaches suggest a notion of culture as a text that requires interpretation. This view of culture, which is also present in Foucauldian theory and more generally in discourse theory, stresses culture as a system of meaning that is always more than individual intentionality. However, the problem that such approaches present is the neglect of the social actor and the possibility of meaningful action. Bourdieu’s partly solves this problem. Against the model of text or discourse, culture is instead theorized as a mode of capital that is accumulated and exchanged in a context underpinned by the habitus and by fields. In this analysis, culture is a resource in a field of power in which social actors engage in struggle. But where Bourdieu over-stresses agency and struggle the notion of culture as performance has attracted considerable interest to those working in cultural analysis (Llyod 2011).

Performativity is of course already present in Bourdieu who developed what had been a purely linguistic concept into a sociological one whereby individuals are endowed with symbolic authority to perform public acts. The concept has been invoked by Habermas in the universal pragmatics theory of language and famously by Judith Butler (1999) with her theory of gender as a repetition of acts. Dramaturgical accounts of social performance have become influential in sociology, since Erving Goffman first introduced the concept of social drama, and it is also a feature of the recent cultural pragmatic sociology of Jeffrey Alexander, who stresses the objective domain of the cultural order of society, on the one side, and on the other, individual actors who position themselves with respect to symbolic structures of meaning (Alexander et al 2006, Alexander 2004). However the problem with Alexander’s approach is that it places too much emphasis on what he calls cultural fusion between the diverse elements of a performance - authenticity, a script based on recognisable codes, capacity for collective identification etc - and which enable it to be successful. Culture cannot in all its facets be understood in the terms of performativity conceived of as cultural fusion. Indeed, much of it entails exchange and innovation and which is not always foreclosed as a performance. The dimension of public culture that escapes the aforementioned approaches is its critical function and its role in the shaping of new political subjectivities. Culture entails the raising of questions and the probing of new issues; it is often controversial about boundaries, identity and taste. It is both discursive and an arena of claim-making and as a consequence it critical with respect to the status quo.

Three theoretical approaches that highlight the critical dimension of culture can be mentioned. Habermasian approaches to culture stress its normative content and the resources it offers for criticism, self-problematization as well as consensus building. These are generally seen as residing in the differentiated value spheres of modernity, as mentioned earlier, and more specifically in public culture (Peters 2010, see also Benhabib 2002). In repertoire theory, as advocated by Boltanski and Thevenot (1999, 2006), culture is theorized in terms of evaluative criteria by which people justify their claims. They emphasize arguments and conflicts in which common norms are appealed to. Unlike Habermas’s notion of justification, which appeals to the possibility for discursive consensus based on common presuppositions, Boltanski and Thevenot see a plurality of orders or repertoires of justification each invoking different notions of justification, though they possibly over-estimate the role of argumentation and justification. The notion of an imaginary signification as highlighted variously in the work Castoriadis (1987) and Touraine (1977) can also be related to the critical idea of culture. The imaginary component of culture concerns the notion of a cultural model by which a society defines its self-identity on the level of a mode of self-interpretation that allows it to creatively renew itself.

In this brief characterization of recent theorizing on culture, it can be finally commented that one of the more promising contributions to cultural analysis is what Ann Swidler (1986) has called in a much discussed paper the ‘tool kit’ model. In this view, culture is less a whole way of life or an objective framework that determines social action than a set of ‘tool’, frames, schemata, modes of categorization, and repertoires by which social actors make sense of the world. This approach stresses the cognitive dimension of culture, as opposed to its purely symbolic forms (Di Maggio 1997). Strydom (2011) has also drawn attention to the cognitive dimension of society which includes learning structures and schemata by which individual, social groups construct the social order. Such conceptions of culture have become increasingly influential in a range of areas. Many of these are often related to narrative analysis (Eder 2009, Somers 1994, 1995). Narrative approaches to culture stress the ways in which culture is constructed in sense-making activities such as biographies, memories, identities. Narratives are ways of experiencing and interpreting time and situate the present in relation to the past and future. In many ways narratives reflect the cognitive conception of culture as a form of mapping, claim-making and sense-making.

In sum, the contemporary concept of culture that is most appropriate to the sociological analysis of the present day is one that can be characterized, firstly, as fragmented, mobile and plural and, secondly, as relational. The general trend is towards a conception of culture that is post-representational in the sense that culture does not depict something external, but is itself a process of self-constitution. Culture does not merely transmit, but interprets and transforms that which it communicates. This view of culture stresses the importance of separating the normative, symbolic and cognitive dimensions of culture and giving an increased importance to the latter. Where the traditional accounts of culture stressed closure, the approach advocated here emphasizes the open-ended nature of culture, be it in identities, memories, artistic creations. Without such a perspective it would not be possible to understand cultural acts of claim-making such as those related to collective identity and citizenship. On this basis, then, cultural phenomena can be theorized as more than simply differentiated but as fluid, fragmented, contested, diverse and open to new forms.

In addition to these characteristics of culture a sociological approach, which is primarily aimed at explanation, can be improved with a firmer grasp of the dynamics by which cultural phenomena undergo change and how major socio-cultural change occurs. The key point in this regard is what can be called the relational conception of culture. By this is meant a conception of culture that is formed from the interactions of social groups, as opposed to being predefined and static. This is implicit in many of the above approaches, in particular those that are constructivist, as well as in much of classical sociology with its characteristic concern with the analysis of social relations whether large scale processes such as capitalism, as in Marx, or small groups as in the sociology of Simmel or Mead (see Tilly 2008, Emirbayer 1997, Gross 2009). However, a more explicit emphasis on culture as relational is important in terms of explanation, as in the focus of the present paper, namely explaining the significance of cultural diversity for political community. The relational conception of culture places the emphasis neither on the social actors as such nor the cultural phenomenon, but rather on the relations between the social actors and the processes by which some of these relations generate enduring cultural regularities. It is in relationships that cultural phenomena such as identities, memories, values, beliefs, trust etc is generated. The nature of social relationships is that they are not static, but fluid, mobile and contested. It therefore follows from this that culture, relationally defined, also has these characteristics. This point is often lost in subject centred sociological approaches that take collective identities as given. This is not to deny the importance of social actors and the need to identify the carriers of cultural values, beliefs etc, but rather is an endeavour that seeks to explain the mechanisms and processes by which such cultural phenomena are generated and have particular impacts on the shaping of political community.

On the basis of this notion of culture we can see more clearly the implications for democracy and especially for cosmopolitan political community. The relational concept of culture advocated here not only offers a pluralized conception of culture, but one that stresses interaction between social groups, be they large-scale entities, such as national societies or ethnic groups or life-style groups. The additional emphasis on culture as mobile, allies it very closely with cosmopolitanism, conceived of as a condition of openness and exchange.

The cosmopolitan perspective draws attention to a dimension of political and cultural change that is often neglected in favour of diversity oriented approaches. Cosmopolitanism concerns not the fact of diversity itself, but the emergence out of the diverse cultures of the world of norms of dialogue and the overcoming of divisions. The cosmopolitan imagination does not seek a global culture and nor does it seek diversity for its own sake, but rather cultivates an attitude of critical deliberation and ways of imagining new ways of living. Cosmopolitanism does not then just mean internationalism, or globalization, or transnationalism. As argued earlier, these may be presuppositions of cosmopolitanism, which is a condition that emerges when one culture encounters another and undergoes normative transformation in light of that encounter and the guiding role of normative principles. Cosmopolitanism is a term that is increasingly used to refer to internal pluralisation and interaction of different cultures; it highlights moments of openness, exchange, creativity and dialogue (Delanty and He 2008, Kendal et al 2009, Hannerz 1996, Roudemetof 2006). Cosmopolitanism thus conceived concerns self-transformation in light of the encounter with the other. It therefore presupposes the possibility of learning for groups or societies. The significance of this for the analysis of post-national political community is that it provides a framework in which culture and identity can be examined in ways that do not reduce it to an underlying collective identity or simply to dispositions. From the perspective of critical cosmopolitanism the task is to assess processes of self-transformation in which new cultural models take shape and where spaces of discourse open up, leading to a socio-cognitive change. A critical cosmopolitan approach thus proceeds on the assumption that the cultural models of society contain learning potential in terms of moral and political normative criteria. It suggests a view of culture as a sphere of contestation and interpretation. This essentially communicative concept of culture also opens up the cosmopolitan possibility for a reflexive relation between cultures.

To pursue this further some consideration needs to be given to the notion of cultural encounters, as this is the kernel of the problem posed by the notion of cultural diversity and more generally by the very concept of democracy conceived of as a mode of inclusion within the polity.

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Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: a theory of Cultural Encounters iconSeminars and cultural events

Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: a theory of Cultural Encounters iconIn the Context of Cultural Criticism

Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: a theory of Cultural Encounters iconCross (cultural) dressing

Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: a theory of Cultural Encounters iconCultural Identity and Ideology

Cultural Diversity, Democracy and the Prospects of Cosmopolitanism: a theory of Cultural Encounters iconMajestic Cultural Heritage

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