Culture and International Relations: Narratives, Natives, and Tourists

Culture and International Relations: Narratives, Natives, and Tourists

Culture and International Relations: Narratives, Natives, and Tourists

Culture and International Relations: Narratives, Natives, and Tourists

Synopsis

Culture and International Relations contextually re-examines the history of international relations in order to explore how the discipline has imported and employed the concept of culture. The author challenges the notion that IR has only been interested in culture since the end of the Cold War by tracing different understandings of culture throughout its history.

Excerpt

In 1942, the American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead claimed - "[w]e are our culture" (Mead 1942/1943:21). She even put the word 'are' in italics seemingly to emphasize the point that culture defines us in some way. Whatever we may be, we could only be our own culture and not someone else's it appeared; which only served to underscore the uniqueness of individuals and their communities.

Yet, it might be said that Mead's claim was quite an audacious one because it is not at all obvious that 'we are our culture.' Although, most of us would recognize her idea of culture today, we did not always think this way about the word 'culture.' Prior to the suggestion that 'we are our culture,' the word 'culture' was used to refer to art, music and literature, or what the late nineteenth century educationalist and commentator Matthew Arnold described as "sweetness and light" (Arnold 1869/1994:29). Culture was, in Arnold's words, the "pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world …" (Arnold 1869/1994:5). Far from making us what we are, 'culture' was the thing that would, in Arnold's view, save us from the intellectual and spiritual anarchy that industrialization had unleashed.

The difference between the idea that culture represents the 'best of everything' that had been thought, said and, for that matter, produced, and the idea that 'we are our culture,' which suggests the admittance of everything including the worst of things, is considerable. Not only is the gulf between the two ideas enormous, but in view of the contemporary dominance of the notion that we are our culture, it is easily forgotten these days that we ever thought about culture in other terms. This is especially noticeable since, from the time Mead issued her statement, the anthropological idea of 'culture' has advanced around the world at a considerable pace and has colonized popular thinking and academic discourse from Birmingham to Beijing. The fact that we now, in all probability, understand what Mead meant by the phrase, tells us that a substantial change took place - a change not only in the use of terms and in the meanings we attach to the word 'culture,' but also in the way we think about the world.

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