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Low Culture Rules

3 March 2010
Published in Society
by Katy Fentress

Culture is increasingly present in debates regarding the nature of development and patterns of social change.

Many argue that participants in a development project that contains a concern for culture at its core, find will benefit through strengthened identities, mind reinforced social bonds and an increase in the quality of life. This position has so far found little opposition: in fact, everyone seems to agree that there are many positive social impacts to be gained from a more culturally oriented approach.

Yet we live in a society that on the one hand eagerly promotes the fruits of progress and modernisation, while on the other advocates for alternative approaches to development that favour local, culturally bound conceptions of change. Whether the two realities can possibly coexist remains to be seen.

The degree to which people have the means to direct the course of their own lives, is still subject to intense debate.

The twentieth century was witness to a transition in which, for the first time in history, the greater percentage of the world’s population increasingly began to concentrate in and around its urban centres.

Cities are increasingly multifaceted as new ethnic and cultural realities coexist side-by-side and on top of one another.

Multiethnic cities can produce the best and the worst of worlds: they contain a rich array of people, languages, cuisines and values; their citizens have unprecedented amounts of personal freedom and upward-mobility and the chance to ‘succeed’ can be achieved by everyone, regardless of their class, colour or background. Yet for every bonus there is the inevitable flip-side: diversity becomes a source of conflict as differences are exacerbated and politicised; freedom seems pointless without any money in your pocket; upward-mobility becomes fantastical, as increasing amounts of people find it impossible to break-free from the constraints imposed by the physical marginalisation of deprived neighbourhoods. Communication breaks down, as increasing alienation isolates many who find themselves unable destroy the barriers imposed on them by others, and that they have come to see as normal.

The above problems are not necessarily the exclusive realm of the city but it is often here that they become evident.

We are left wondering what strategies can accommodate all these different realities in such a way that strengthens identities and allows for diversity, yet enables us to live side-by-side, sharing our values, challenging our preconceptions, and engaging in determining the course of our lives.

This article was written to support a belief that culture is a means by which the social fabric of communities can be kick-started in such a way that take the voices of marginalised people into account. Such an approach is difficult to implement as its results are often difficult to quantify but this does not mean that it should be set aside.

The economist Amartya Sen has argued that the best way to measure how poor people are, is to take into account what they can do, what they should be able to do; what they are prevented from doing; and what they have reason to value doing. The idea behind this, is that every person’s individual circumstances influence their ability to use whatever they have at their disposition to different degrees. Income may be a useful starting point by which to assess the needs of a community or an individual but it is a hopelessly insufficient indicator when taken alone. It is important instead to concentrate on the actual ‘living’ that people manage to achieve. As a result, if we are able to see what people are managing to achieve, we can infer what they are capable of doing, and what they are prevented from doing. If we add to this approach the recognition that culture and identity are some of the most important aspects for communities when it comes to defining themselves, we understand how culture might play a key role in helping people envisage possibilities for change.

So, if culture is so central to development how is it to be included?

Ideally the best kind of cultural development project is the one that is set up by members of a specific community without too much external interference.

Across the world, examples of people spontaneously using cultural initiatives flourish.

In India, an organisation named Sadak Chaap – literally ‘Stamp of the Street’ – has been created and is run by groups of street children in Bombay. With the help of several ‘grown-up’ groups, the children have succeeded in developing a series of forums in which they can build conceptual bridges with previously unreachable sections of the city.

For twenty years, children have spontaneously gathered every evening to engage in improvisatory performance, ‘jam sessions’, in which, amongst other things, they address issues pertaining to the question of their own development. These sessions have influenced the creation of another forum: a triennial Mela (festival) that has been running since 1989 and that over the space of five days aims at getting 5000-6000 boys together. During the festival, the children spend time together engaging in many activities like cooking, watching films and during the evenings they host different cultural events. Often these events consist in inviting municipal authorities to come and interact with the participants, thus opening up spaces for negotiation for the children to put forth their respective concerns.

Organic culture forms the basis of identity in society – it is here that ideas are born, expressions coined and creativity allowed to flourish. Organic culture is necessarily informed by the social and economic structures in which it is placed; yet this position is not at all static.

Enabling change to take place from below is, unsurprisingly, not a priority at the top, especially if this involves some form of reversal or reshuffling of power. Furthermore, it does not work well with current conceptions of ‘proper’ development programmes.

There is reluctance to release funding for such projects, the outcomes of which are uncertain and cannot be measured with clearly defined indicators of success. But the energy, time and money put into projects aimed at achieving open-ended processes of social transformation are all well spent.

Enabling people to empower themselves, through all the trials and tribulations that this might involve, ultimately makes for a more fair and socially just society.

It might be that here lies the very essence of culture in development: there are no clear-cut practice models to be had, only varied examples from which to draw inspiration. Two main approaches seem to be reinforcing cultural networks and encouraging the emergence of new ideas by striving to create structures that enable people to imagine socially transforming artistic processes. However both approaches might be at odds with the global structures of inequality that are already in place. Because of this, we can only speculate as to how this conflict will dictate the terms of play.

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