Cultural Heritage

What do we mean by the term ‘cultural heritage’?

The dictionary definitions for the terms culture and heritage are varied. Fundamentally both terms are positive in that they capture something of the human spirit to develop, excel and be at home in its environment with a deep desire for continuity and order. It is with this in mind that we should approach the topic of cultural heritage, for cultures wherever they may be are cherished and celebrated alike.

So what do these terms exactly mean? 

The term culture refers to 'the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society'. Heritage on the other hand refers to the 'inheritance of something', which in the case of culture would imply a collective inheritance of ideas, customs and social behaviour. 

In trying to understand culture in material terms, we would have to turn to the artefacts (man-made things) produced by its corresponding people. These artefacts can be dubbed cultural property and include buildings, monuments, paintings and art. In terms of the individuals that produced these wonderful artefacts they embody collective norms that include folklore, traditions, language, dress, music and ‘knowledge’. These norms can be dubbed cultural norms. And so both cultural property and cultural norms are passed down from one generation to the next becoming the bedrock of the associated cultural heritage especially within the context of a shared environment, natural, spoilt or otherwise.

To summarise this in one simple sentence, cultural heritage is the legacy of any number of people thus defined as a cultural people passed down throughout the ages

We mustn’t think that it is a simple and straightforward process to define any number of people as cultural peoples. Different avenues are open to us which would muddy the description already given, and this is not to even mention the heated debates, mutually-felt animosities and controversies that surround such attempts.

We can however define cultural people either on the basis of nationalistic or ethnic frameworks. Both these terms refer to two very different realities although they can and sometimes do overlap especially where a 'state' broadly corresponds with a 'nation', thus the related term nation-state.

So what do we mean by the constructs nationalism and ethnicity?

These concepts are recent in origin and we should be mindful our ancestors did not view the world through such notions. 

Let's begin with nationalism. It is an idea based on sentiments that bind certain people or population(s) together usually as a policy of separatism. This aspiration is usually linked with movements for independence. Ethnicity on the other hand is based on the idea that human beings can be classified into distinguishable groups. Such characteristics, real, perceived or imagined are usually linked with racial traits, religious beliefs and practises and languages spoken, mutually or non-mutually intelligible.

To put this in the context of our discussion, nationalistic and ethnic representations of cultural heritage can only make sense by way of an ascribed 'identity'. That identity is usually presented through nation states or ethnic groups, the one can be subsumed in the other and vice versa.

In the case of nation states, literally sovereign geo-political territories with clearly defined borders (how these territories came into existence is a separate discussion altogether), we are basically saying that peoples ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ that live in the ‘nation state’s’ territory are all one people by virtue of living together and thus having a shared sense of their present and future. They thus self-ascribe (freely identify themselves) on the basis of their nation state’s ‘nationalistic’ labels and often times can be very patriotic about their identity. Unlike the positive values associated with culture and its celebration, nationalism can sometimes assume a dark underbelly where the patriotism in question morphs into fanaticism and exaggerated praise of one’s ‘nation’.

In the case of ethnicity or ethnic groups, we are saying that people ‘x’ as opposed to peoples ‘y’ and ‘z’ has its own shared heritage by virtue of a culture that distinguishes it from peoples ‘y’ and ‘z’. This is usually epitomised by obvious differences in language but there are of course other factors. Ethnic people may live together with other ethnic people within a geo-political 'polity' (an organised society) but it doesn’t follow that they see themselves as belonging to their ‘country’ (nation-state) by virtue of its territorial composition.

To elaborate, you can have different ethnic groups living together in the same nation state harmoniously, indifferently or in conflict. Alternatively you can have the same ethnic group living in two seperate nation states (usually neighbouring ones) peacefully, indifferently or in conflict either with their own nation state or the nation state of their neighbour. Obviously, why a nation would be in conflict with another nation (note, an ethnic group is a nation in its own right) internally, and externally (through the apparatus of the state) is the story of our modern world. Conflicts and disputes in nation states, some more violent than others are usually about the inequitable distribution of resources and political and social alienation and are more often the result of a colonial or imperial past. (Whenever we speak of nation states and their emergence as a form of social organisation we are in fact speaking about the history of European colonialism post-1800 CE).

And so were we define a people either on nationalistic or ethnic terms and howsoever we attempt to represent them, 'oppressed', 'oppressive' or 'indifferent', we must understand our impulses have been affected by the ‘age’ and 'societies' we live in, vogues of understandings, attitudes and even prejudices. Furthermore, these realities are influenced by all sorts of 'push' and 'pull' factors, some more complex to understand than others, but in a nutshell we mustn’t ignore the political landscape that a cultural people are forced to traverse often beyond their control. As an area of study, these impulses are usually conceptualised through discourses on identity-politics.

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