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Cultural Transformation

Adreas Zimmer

  ...there is the proposition of a universal constant in human behaviour: what connects all human beings is the ability of bringing meaning and personal interest to concur in the quest for compromise. I would like to call this the pragmatics of cultural production. Whether it is in our cacophonous media marketplace or at a relaxed gossip under the village oak in West Africa; whether in the babble of voices at a an Indian community meeting in Mexico or in the lecture series of an academic conference, there is always at least one discernible motive: the attempt to establish one's own view of the world as a valid perspective and thus to form the world in accordance to one's own notions. As this can only be achieved if others come to accept and share one's world view, the negotiation of meaning is obviously of fundamental importance.


According to social anthropology's traditional creed, each culture represents a clearly defined unit, a historically lasting and integrated whole. Culture comprises all nonbiological aspects of the life of a group of people, ranging from their technology, social organisation and religion to their typical personality traits. These various cultural fields are integrated by a series of values and norms and so constitute a comprehensive, organic whole (cf. Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952). In their thoughts, feelings and plans of action, individuals more or less follow the rules prescribed by their respective culture. They are – figuratively speaking – the clay from which culture forms its creatures by enculturation and socialisation. From this point of view, the human world looks like a patchwork of clearly discernible cultures (cf. Malkki 1992). The relations between these cultural entities are comparable to the interaction of biological organisms. Cultural contacts that have been taking place in European immigration societies or in colonial situations are looked upon as a problem-prone interaction of such cultural organisms, and cultural conflicts are interpreted as a logical consequence of such meetings of incompatible units (cf. Hoffmann-Nowotny 1992; Tobler Müller 1993).


In the course of the last two decades, a new consensus has formed in the anthropological debate on what culture is, and it marks a turning point, a turning away from such a substantialisation or objectification of culture. The focus has now shifted to questions of individual and sub-cultural variability, to the process character and the strategic adaptability of cultural practice. (...) Culture is understood as an open and unstable process of the negotiating of meaning (...)


A cultural compromise is based on the acceptance by all actors relating to one another in a communicative arena, since moral categories and social classifications have to be validated and accepted. Collective representations cannot simply be defined and declared valid by some centre of power, as is postulated in current discourse theories,  for they have to make sense from the interest point of view of all those concerned in order to become widely accepted. Neither do cultural patterns of meaning have an existence of their own, moulding generation after generation, as is implied by various cultural theories in the tradition of Durkheim. They have to be reproduced in the symbolic practice of strategically competent individuals. Even in pre-industrial societies, people are not prisoners in the confines of their own cultural traditions or in a discursive strait-jacket. Recent studies on political rhetorics in traditional societies have shown this clearly (Paine 1981, Bloch 1975), as has a long series of studies in legal anthropology on dispute-settling procedures (latest example Caplan 1995; cf. also Strathern 1985). 


A large part of Zurich's Cubans – except most of the intellectuals – meet at (...) events, as do their wives and husbands and a handful of other cubanophile Swiss. The highlight if the event is a presentation of dances, which are carried out accompanied by percussion music and a capella singing. Music and dance are of the same type as are performed at the SanterÌa rituals in Cuba. SanterÌa is a syncretic religion in which Yoruba gods such as Ochun and Omaya are worshipped, and it has gained many new adherents in the past few years of economic crisis and ideological disorientation in Cuba.

However, the dance presentations in Switzerland differ from their Cuban counterparts in an interesting manner, as their role as cultural markers has been transformed according to the new cultural compromise. Even Cubans who were never interested in SanterÌa back home, or even rejected it as primitive or counter-revolutionary, take part here. Dance and music have been transformed from a symbol of Afro-Cuban counteridentity in Cuba to an expression of Cuban national pride abroad. This went hand in hand with a radical secularisation of the ritual. Whereas in Cuba and among the large exile community in Miami the dances and chants are orchestrated by SanterÌa priests, and both priests and spectators often fall into a trance in order to establish direct contact with their  gods, such  trance-inducing performances would be

completely out of question in the Calvinist atmosphere of Zurich. Instead of trance and religious experience in general, the music and dance here is meant to generate or enhance a feeling of identity among the diaspora community. The performances are also meant to demonstrate to a Swiss audience the vitality and attraction of Afro-Cuban music and dance, and finally to integrate Swiss partners and friends in a symbolic community which is evoked by these happenings. One element in this new construction of community is that the ubiquitous bottle of rum is passed around not only among dancers and singers, as would be the case in Cuba, but also among the first three or four rows of spectators. Swiss friends are drawn into the act by this, and also by the polonaise-like rows of dancers that weave their way around the premises in a simple two-beat rhythm and allow even the stiffest of Swiss to join in. Once the dancers have reached exhaustion point, the percussion instruments fall silent and the part of the event begins that, in its structure of social interaction, is easily comparable to other Cuban dance parties....


Such parties are the core events of a small, subcultural world and, as transformed practices of distinction, they mark the boundaries of a group that has grown around the Swiss-Cuban cultural compromise. They make visible the closely knit network of marriage, partnership and friendship relations that bind the group together. These musical events present also a sort of bazaar of meaning in which the various actors, with their different social positions and biographical experience, try to convey and to generalise their particular view of society, of life in Zurich and Cuba, and of the specific chances and difficulties of Cuban-Swiss relations. It is this form of communicative process, the negotiation of meaning among actors, on which cultural dynamics are based; not only in the Cuban-Swiss subculture, but all around the world.


With this rather speculative ethnographic outline, I have tried to give an example of a process of cultural transformation in an interethnic context. Such processes can be observed among other transnational communities or in different situations of interethnic contact. What the Cuban-Swiss subculture demonstrates particularly clearly is the fact that even with considerable differences in cultural habitus at a starting point, situational and even longer-lasting forms of cultural compromise can be achieved if this is in line with the individuals' personal interests. Around the converging points and the bridges between the various systems of collective representations, an inter-cultural consensus can be built up. It is, in my opinion, due to the dominance of the traditional understanding of culture that  such  processes have not

yet received very much attention in migration research, for instance, or in research onethnicity. The ethnography of diaspora communities can make an important contribution to the understanding of a late modern, globalising world by focusing on such cultural crossover zones, by examining the ongoing creolisation processes between different cultural traditions. In order to avoid the reinvention of closely bounded, historically stable and culturally homogenous communities – this time deterritorialized and transnational ones – the focus should lie on such transethnic processes of the negotiation of meaning.


 Andreas Wimmer, Zurich's Miami: Transethnic relations of a transnational community, Transnational Communities Programme, Working Papers Series



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The conference is a part of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in Poland


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