What exactly are cultural relations?

WipikediaSince the Centre for Cultural Relations started its work in 2012-13, we have discussed on numerous occasions what the Centre should be called and what the term cultural relations might mean.

We started by talking about cultural diplomacy. Early on, however, we abandoned the term, as it was too narrowly focussed on the activities of states and therefore unable to capture the vast range of transnational communications, exchanges and networks, or the vast range of both state and non-state actors involved. Similar thought processes led us also to abandon the term public diplomacy with its overtones of propaganda and a view of influence based on governments’ ability to shape the preferences and behaviours of the populations of other states. In other words, both cultural and public diplomacy were too instrumental and uni-directional to provide an adequate model for how the world was communicating and acting in the 21st century. Nor did they offer the potential to develop insights that would be useful to people who aspired to think about global citizenship and new forms of governance and civil society.

We therefore spent some time thinking about global citizenship and whether that was a better approach. We abandoned that as well, however, as it rapidly became clear that understanding cross-border relationships exceeded the scope of often normative propositions about how we should govern ourselves and participate as citizens – a great deal of cross-border activity was simply not concerned with that.

So, to cut a very long story short, we settled on the term cultural relations as the least bad term for describing our area of interest. As time went on, however, the term did seem to take root. It was sufficiently inclusive to accommodate the range of actors involved from diplomats to individuals, including public policy, global civil society, education, business, cultural and sporting bodies… It had an emphasis on two-way communication, often but not exclusively, enabled by digital communications technology, reflecting the tectonic shift in thinking and behaviour they have brought about, particularly, the potential to work collaboratively across borders, to share ideas and understandings.

In this spirit, the Centre for Cultural Relations proposes a simple experiment, which is to draft a definition of cultural relations, create a wiki, and invite both theorists and practitioners to edit it collaboratively. That wiki went live yesterday and can be found here.

The wiki was itself written collaboratively. Erik Vlaeminck, a PhD student of Russian acted as the principal author of the text, in discussion and with the assistance of myself. The purpose of the wiki is to invite readers of this blog, from academia and practice to participate in improving and refining the definition with a view to evolving our shared understanding of what exactly it is we mean by cultural relations.

We shall be monitoring the wiki and hope to see it develop over time. If this process starts a conversation that takes us in unexpected directions, so much the better!

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