Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Cultures in Tension and Dialogue

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Cultures in Tension and Dialogue

Article excerpt

Observers of intercultural relations note a surprising discrepancy between socio-economic processes and the stability of cultural traditions. Whereas the former are fast-moving and constantly changing, introducing new customs and creating new habits in traditionally different societies, the latter have shown themselves to be firmly rooted in the life of the peoples who live by the symbols and values that characterize a given culture. In some situations, of course, we find at times an amalgam of socio-economic (and in some cases also political) development and cultural evolution. During some of the festivals celebrated by the original peoples of what is now called Latin America, for instance, the people dance, sing, drink and eat according to traditional rites; then a few hours later the same people are to be found dancing rock, singing western pop songs and eating hot-dogs and hamburgers, as though they had suddenly abandoned the traditional cultural world of their ancestors. This cultural shift shows that these societies have undergone a certain social, economic and even political evolution. Nonetheless, the cultural roots remain as firm as ever. To claim that one of these elements is bound to dominate the other (no matter which: in modern western tradition the ingredients of cultural life are primarily determined by socio-economic changes) is to assume that human communities follow a unilineal development, guided by a single way of thinking. The facts prove that this is not the case.

In a book that has become a classic in the field of anthropology, (1) Clifford Geertz points out that logic in the field of culture differs from the logic of the social-economic system. Added to this is the difference inherent in the specific character of each culture, which has a distinctive dynamic of its own. It is important, therefore, that we be aware of this difference in the logic by which we understand events taking place in economic and social life and those in the cultural field.

However, this is an analytical distinction (made a posteriori, post factum), which cannot be applied at the level of existence in the course of human lives. In some cases, therefore, we find extremely interesting situations created by the combination of social evolution and cultural tradition. Nestor Garcia Canclini, following the line taken by Claude Levi-Strauss, points to the existence of processes of cultural hybridization. (2) In other words, the relation between structures and values is not always one-directional; indeed, the infinite creativity displayed by human communities in amalgamating the rationality of the social system with the logic of their different cultures never ceases to surprise. Geertz noted, however, that when socio-economic and political imperatives intrude excessively into the hallowed field of cultural traditions, these will resist stubbornly, testifying to their vitality. (3)

It seems important to underline this fact, especially at a moment in history when, with the global integration of some (though not all!) markets, the idea of "globalization" is being hammered home by the information media, which propagate the dominant ideology. The culture of the dominant groups has not succeeded in suppressing other cultures. Not only do these survive but they are also showing remarkable vitality, witness the fact that their symbols have had an impact on human communities far beyond the bounds of the peoples who usually live by that particular tradition. One may think, for example, of the widespread interest generated in the west by the concepts and practices of pre-Columbian cultures in what we now call "America," especially as regards the respect due to the natural environment. In the light of all this, we should not speak of the supremacy of one culture, but rather the co-existence of cultures.

This cultural co-existence may be observed very clearly in our vast modern metropolises, the urban centres inhabited today by many millions of men and women. …

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