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Jul 8, 2009

Not tacking against the wind…


I came across an interesting post on the blog Boing Boing today titled Socialstructing: Bringing Social Back into Our Economy and Organizations written by Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley thinktank. Its one of those thought provoking pieces that offers triangulation and inspiration. The post reflects on social capital, and how the dynamics of technology are transforming the terrain of connectedness and trust that social capital rests upon. She suggests that in interesting ways we may be returning to a world where the informal networks and ties that characterize folk economies and folk cultures take on greater relevance in people’s lives. Such connections are facilitated by social media technologies that extend and deepen the intimacies of knowledge and relationship that trust depends on.

What does this have to do with Cultural Sustainability? At Goucher, we are exploring Cultural Sustainability from the perspective that real and lasting sustainability can be found in the thickly woven patterns of human conduct, exchange, and relationship that characterize the cultural life of communities. Discerning and connecting to these webs of meaning, value, and substance is a particular art; so too is working with people appropriately in drawing attention to these matters in ways that help them thrive and grow. What seems like good news to me is that the winds of technological change and organizational structure support a resurgence of such webs. As Gorbis writes:

We are bringing a whole new level of sociality, familiarity, and connectedness to our economic interactions. In a word, we are socialstructing our organizations, i.e. reorganizing them around social connections rather than against them.

Can we do the same thing for our communities?

Jul 7, 2009

Cultural Sustainability and Sustainable Development


The term “sustainability” has become a trope for a set of concerns and initiatives that are centered on survivability and “quality of life” issues in the modern age. The concerns of “cultural sustainability,” at least on the surface, are more focused on these latter and are sometimes associated with “soft” disciplines (and qualitative research), while (ostensibly) more pressing issues of survivability are seen as properly addressed by a more “scientific” (i.e., quantifiable) approach that is associated with “hard” science. This mode of thought is fallacious and ultimately any effective strategies to promote human survivability will intimately entwine with qualitative issues.

John McArthur of Millenium Promise and Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University recently published a “Point of View” promoting an interdisciplinary approach to “long-term challenges” facing humanity (Chronicle of Higher Education, June 26, 2009). These challenges include climate change, emerging diseases, extreme poverty, management of food and water systems, and development of sustainable energy sources. Their efforts are aimed at producing a “new generation of problem solvers” by developing a standard for education in “Sustainable Development Practice.” According to the authors, this standard is based on the Flexner Report of 1910, which was instrumental in standardizing systematic training for medical doctors. Through an international effort (convened at the Earth Institute at Columbia University), they have developed a Masters of Development Practice (M.D.P.) graduate degree program that maintains a balance between what they describe as “four pillars” of sustainable development: natural sciences, health sciences, social sciences, and management.

While I certainly agree that the MDP program is a lovely and important initiative, by itself this mode of thought may well fall short because it makes a very basic assumption — that people are “rational” according to a set of precepts that flow from a positivistic (and some would say “elitist”) worldview. But not everyone is invested in, or subscribes to such a scientific-elitist system. Neither will they be coerced. This is not the world in which we live.

The MDP emphasis is on “science” and management, and the fundamental assumption is that change and development are dependent on clearly elucidating a set of true and objective “facts,” that policies based upon these facts will be implemented by enlightened authorities, and that populations will be swayed by the (rhetorical) force of their arguments. I would posit that such faith in “top-down” implementation of enlightened policy is a culture-bound view of the world that is largely problematic unless it is accompanied and complemented by programs that engender understanding of “culture,” heritage, and respect for the power of “bottom-up” movements. These programs must actively promote the evolution of narratives that engender affective investment by cultural groups in pursuit of a (so-constructed) common weal.

So, simply put, from whence the political will? The bottom line is that survivability and sustainability should be seen as mutually reinforcing goals in a shared value system. This is a narrative must be constructed as an interactive and democratic process — a process that starts from where we are variously, and proceeds toward some point of convergence. This convergence is not toward sameness, but is based instead on a combination of cultural equity, reflexive affective engagement by people across cultural boundaries, and the construction of shared symbol sets. Studies in development practice must be complemented by studies in cultural sustainability in order to be effective in the real world. A human life without “quality” isn’t much of a life.

Harold Anderson

Jul 1, 2009

ICH in Labrador and Newfoundland


I really have been impressed by what Dale Gilbert Jarvis has been up to in Labrador and Newfoundland. Link

A recent newsletter about their work highlights the kaviguak drumdancers, good to see them on facebook. It is hard to overstate how valuable such groups are.

Jul 1, 2009

Cultural Sustainability at Goucher on Facebook


We have started a group on facebook to share information and dialogue on cultural sustainability and the activities of our program. Here is the link. If you are on facebook come and join us!

Jun 29, 2009

Sixth International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability


This looks like a very interesting conference that explores sustainability from a “four pillars” approach. The conference will be held at the University of Cuenca, Cuenca, Ecuador 5 to 7 January. Those interested in presenting at this conference, note that the deadline for submission is July 9, 2009. I would love to go to this, but we start our first week long residency in the Cultural Sustainability program at Goucher the next week. I’m guessing I will be busy!

I was especially interested in learning about conference plenary speaker Douglas Worts and his work. Worts writes on his blog:

“How can humanity create a ‘culture of sustainability’ within our increasingly pluralist, urban communities? Psychologist Edgar Shein defines culture as the mechanisms by which individuals and collectives adapt to a changing external environment, and integrate those adaptations internally. Humanity is not doing so well at coping with changes to its external environment – hence, we struggle with such phenomena as climate change, pollution and systemic inequity within our pluralist societies.

Currently, cultural organizations, like museums and art galleries, do little to reflect or engage the living cultures of our societies and the environments they inhabit. They have the ability to do so – although it will require a complete reassessment of what these organizations assume are the cultural needs of our communities. New insights into how best to address these needs will also be required – leaving behind the presumption that culture is essentially a specialized commodity for the leisure-time market. (Italics added) New professional competencies and novel approaches to public engagement strategies will have to replace old institutionalized structures and traditional programs if these organizations hope to engage the cultural pulse of our cities.”

Worts seems to understand that thinking deeply about cultural sustainability requires us to go beyond a narrow definition of culture, and to develop tools to more fully understand communities. I’m hopeful that Goucher’s new curriculum will respond to this call for engagement in innovative and powerful ways…


Jun 18, 2009

On Collaborative Anthropology


I came across this interesting post today. Anthropologist Max Forte reflects on Collaborative Anthropology:

Thus far, whenever I have spoken of “collaborative” work between researchers and their non-academic partners (because one can also speak of collaboration between researchers themselves) I have tended to present an argument that was only “positive,” and by that I mean this was presented as the way to go in decolonizing the discipline, heightening its public engagement, and opening the process of knowledge production to less elitist/”professional” modes. There are a number of limitations, however, that need to be addressed…

Read the post for his full reflection on these issues. Collaborative Anthropology or ethnography is an approach to ethnography most associated with the good work and leadership of Luke Eric Lassiter. Lassiter writes on his home page:

Collaboration is inherent to all fieldwork practice.  Collaborative ethnography both highlights and focuses this collaboration — specifically that between ethnographers and their interlocutors — and moves it to center stage.  It seeks to make collaboration an explicit and deliberate part of not only fieldwork but also part of the writing process itself.  Community collaborators thus become a central part of the construction of ethnographic texts — which shifts their role from “informants” (who merely inform the knowledge on which ethnographies are based) to “consultants” (who co-interpret culture and its representation along with the ethnographer).

Clearly, this effort aligns with the interests of Cultural Sustainability. What may be a useful distinction is a Cultural Sustainability practitioner may more centrally consider a range of projects to collaborate with communities beyond writing, and see the production of action to serve the communty’s interests as determined through collaboration as the goal of ethnographic engagement.  Either way, the ethical and political issues that Forte raises in his post deserve to be considered carefully.

Jun 1, 2009

Ecotourism and cultural sustainability in Cambodia


This post features a newspaper article on issues of ecotourism and sustainability in Cambodia. It introduces the concept of CBET, Commmunity Based Ecotourism. Following up, I discovered this organization, Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network:

“The Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network (CCBEN) is the only network of organizations which are involved in community-based ecotourism. CCBEN aims to promote and support this unique style of tourism for the conservation of natural and cultural resources, and for raising the living standards of local communities.”

May 25, 2009

Sustainability exhibit, AFTA conference


I came across this interesting post. 

A visual and literary exhibition in response to the
Americans for the Arts 2009 Conference theme
“Arts in Sustainable Communities”

Here is the link to the conference

Sustainability is clearly a topic of a great deal of current interest and there is an ongoing conversation about what it means, and how it intersects with other key human terms/issues — culture, community, economy, environment. I am interested in how the conversation will unfold at AFTA. Will the processual, holistic and emergent nature of culture sustainability be explored? More on these topics later.

May 18, 2009

Communitas and social value


Community is one of the great mysteries of human experience. In what ways are we or are we not connected with other people, and other being, animate and inanimate? The notion  of communitas proposes that a sense of fellowship is primary to human beings, that through the gifts of presence, resonance, and sharing, we can and do find deeper relationship with one another.  A key element of cultural sustainability is to foster that urge to come together in culturally meaningful ways to share through play and other forms of cultural performance, a place to discover and feel communitas. What are some of the ways that you have  been able to witness or participate in communitas? What moved you about the experience? What impact did these experiences have for your life?

I believe that such experiences are defining of human life, culture and community. I believe that by helping encourage the human capacities and condition that make communitas possible, we significantly improve the quality and value of life.


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Goucher's MA in Cultural Sustainability provides students with the training to identify, protect, enhance and work effectively with communities around what makes them unique: their traditions, ways of life, cherished spaces, and vital relationships to each other and the world. Read More

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