'Cultural Spheres'

What are 'cultural spheres'?

The term 'cultural sphere' can be used in different contexts and on the basis of different criteria. At the core of the concept is the notion that a culture can be shared between a people living in a clearly demarcated territory; the three factors here, culture, ethnolinguistic group and region are vital to identifying a cultural sphere. These spheres can cut across nation states and continents and have little or no respect for international borders. Conversely, the cultural sphere can be so small that it can be restricted in its geographic coverage to a nation state or to sub-divisions within the nation state.

In a wider sense, cultural spheres can also be defined through “geographical, political, economic, legal and religious, cultural, linguistic and artistic characteristics”. This is a much wider sense of the term than the one we’re using for the purpose of our discussion. It is nonetheless an important way of categorising populations or systems around the world that have a core-identity or set of principles peculiar to divergent peoples. For some people these core identities are more important than other aspects of their identity, whilst for others they are merely peripheral if not incidental. 

Whatever the criteria, cultural spheres are important to help us understand and analyse the intensive exchanges between the people of each respective sphere giving shape to perceptions of a common identity and a shared past, sometimes mythic.

Various Criteria

To illustrate some of these spheres let us turn to religion where we can broadly enumerate the Muslim-sphere (the 'Ummah'), the Christian-sphere (Christendom), the Jewish-sphere (Jewish Diaspora/World Jewry), the Buddhist-sphere, the Hindu-sphere (Hindutva), so on and so forth. These spheres can be subsumed within other spheres. Internally we can also speak of sectarian differences on a macro-scale as in the Catholic-sphere; the Protestant-sphere; Sunni-sphere; Shia-sphere, you should get the point. We can even speak of past configurations that are no longer that relevant especially in the case of the Latin Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and through which we can also discover how notions of a European identity first emerged.

Likewise we can speak of geographical-spheres; North America, Middle America, South America, Europe, Russia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, South East Asia, Australia and the Pacific. Related to geographical-spheres are political-spheres although the two should not be confused as one and the same; the Free World, the Communist World, the Muslim World, the Arab World etc., etc. Spheres can also become redundant or vastly reduced or enlarged.

We can also have linguistic spheres as in the case of the Arab world (which can also be categorised as a political-sphere), the Anglosphere (English-speaking countries with ancestries linked to England), ‘Turan’ or Pan-Turkism (the Turkic speaking world), North India (Indo-European or ‘Indic’ India), South India (Dravidian India) etc., etc. We can also speak of economic-spheres, the First World, the Developing world, with further internal distinctions as in the case of the European Economic Area, the ASEAN Free Trade Area etc., etc. These new economic spheres can emerge because of older solidarities based on perceptions of some shared history. 

In terms of ethnic-cum-linguistic spheres (not to be confused with ethnic and linguistic groups), we can delineate the spheres on broad criteria to give some historical continuity especially in the case of the Germanic-sphere, the Celtic-sphere, the Indo-Aryan sphere, the Indo-Iranian sphere, the Sino-Tibetan sphere, the Semitic-sphere, the Turkic sphere etc., etc. We are not speaking of ethnicity in the modern sense of applying it to one or another group, but rather going back in time to see how and from where modern ethnic groups emerged. In this sense, many divergent but related ethnic groups share the same origin. 

In all these cases the criteria vary and it shouldn’t be difficult to understand why given the complex nature of identity formation and the corresponding perceptions. Often times we speak of these identities through false paradigms given an inadequate understanding of the cultural spheres in question. For example we can speak of the Middle East as a political construct, whether as a geographical or political region whatever the problems associated with the exact nuances but it is actually wrong to speak of Middle Eastern people as one ethnic or ‘racial’ people. To describe someone as ‘Middle Eastern looking’ is simply vacuous and meaningless for the obvious reason that Yemenis and Syrians, Afghanis and Egyptians, European Turks and Saudis have physiognomies so radically different that it would be absurd to attempt to lump all these people into one racial category. And yet how often do we hear the claim that someone looks Middle Eastern? This is analogous to claims that someone is Arab looking or South Asian looking, claims that are so absurd given the internal heterogeneity of the people in question that it would be a mark of ignorance had such claims lacked popular appeal. 

Ethnic-spheres also include ethnic and linguistic groups as in Albanian, Arab, Berber, Bosniak, Catalan, Dari, Dogra, English, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Han-Chinese, Hutu, Italian, Irish, Kashmiri, Kurd, Malay, Persian, Punjabi ('Majhi'), Pashtun, Serb, Slovak, Swede, Tajik, Tamil, Thai, Tutsi, Uyghur, Welsh, Yoruba, Zulu etc., etc. These terms are not exact as there is considerable internal contestation and debate about what constitutes an ethnic group and sometimes these discourses are mired in the politics of separatism.  

In terms of cultural spheres and legal systems, we have the common law system, the civil law system and legal systems based on religion, most notably Islamic law or ‘Sharia’. These are value-based systems. Wherever these systems originated and however vast their jurisdictions, they impact how societies are governed and how individual members perceive themselves especially in relation to others. Although they do not correspond with ascribed identities per se, they do however impact how those identities are perceived, shaped and expressed.

And so in enumerating the different criteria that can be used to understand cultural spheres, we hope to have shown that identity-formation is not a simple and straightforward affair; it almost always hinges on variables so complex and varied that the inevitable product is mired in controversy. Thus nothing should be taken for granted whenever we hear the labels of corresponding identities being thrown about. Where you have a people disputing claims of an ‘ascribed’ identity, we should always look to the background and context of the contestation to understand and appreciate what is really happening. In this respect, the individual labels are loaded with values, insights and experiences that on first encounter may simply be ignored or not register with someone unfamiliar with the wider issues at hand.  

© Copyright 2014 Portmir Foundation

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