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International Applied Humanities Networks and Global Cultural Engagement

July 4, 2012 in Applied cultural research, Cultural diplomacy, Cultural Policy

While taking part in an energetic three-day convening at Georgetown University dedicated to “Global Performance, Civic Imagination, and Cultural Diplomacy,” it became clear that the meeting was itself evidence for the continued emergence of a global network linking artists, performers, cultural policy makers, human rights activists, social justice advocates, academics, diplomacy practitioners, and others in international affairs, all variously  pursuing new intersections of the arts with cultural diplomacy. The conversation sought to further encourage the development of this incipient global network of the “applied arts,” in the process asking what it means when the arts are incorporated into the work of other sectors and put to other ends, like diplomacy.

In addition to the opportunity to witness this effort of network-building, the meeting served as further evidence of increased attention to partnering, collaboration, and reciprocity as the basis for global outreach by often U.S.-based non-profit and other agencies of non-governmental and citizen diplomacy. In a sense, through a variety of diverse endeavors across the applied humanities and arts, we are seeing the spirit of “mutualism” enacted – less emphasis on the pursuit of national self-interest and more pursuit of closer inter-relationships – a concept taken up here and there in the policy discussion about public diplomacy but, at least so far, not robustly pursued in practice. This appears to be changing.

Organizers Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider set the tone for this meeting by comparing the efforts currently underway with past U.S. programs like the Jazz Ambassadors during the Cold War. Although that program was highly successful then, times have changed and now it is neither appropriate nor effective simply to take your show on the road, as it were, to demonstrate one’s “culture in a monolithic way.” Nowadays it is necessary to “work more collaboratively” and to ask, “What story do we want to tell together?” Theater is one richly expressive avenue for collaboration. Goldman summarized this trend during the meeting as a “movement away from models of display to imparting agency to others.”

Throughout the meeting “performance” was discussed as a methodology to the ends of: amplifying local voices, enabling people to find ways to tell their stories, creating contexts for public dialogue, enabling social critique, transforming conflicts, or pursuing reconciliation. Art was discussed not as a medium of message delivery so much as “a part of the agenda of others,” where, along with the transfer of skills such as choreography, a collaborative goal is to better appreciate how other people express themselves and what this might mean for how they are currently thinking about themselves, their circumstances, and their worlds.

The Georgetown meeting provided multiple examples of this sort of collaboration, such as Theatre Without Borders, which facilitates global theater exchange among people and institutions. Theatre Without Borders is currently collaborating with the Peacebuilding and the Arts program at Brandeis University to use performance creatively to transform understandings of conflict in chronic conflict zones around the world.  Utilizing the tools of community-based performance, this project seeks to nourish and to restore peoples’ expressive capacities as a way to help them better address publicly questions of justice, memory, identity and resistance, but also complicity. This is a collaboration, in other words, that enables dialogue among the participants in, and victims of, chronic violence. But it does not impose an agenda on that conversation.

And this emerging network around socially—engaged  applied artists who work globally is just one corner of a larger international environment in which a mixture of cultural producers, workers, and agencies – including non-profits, museums, archives, and libraries – are pursuing parallel applied and humanitarian work with partners. What I will call “applied humanities networks” now comprise a growing diversity of creative collaborations leveraging the knowledge, expertise, and creativity of U.S. cultural professionals, in the service of a variety of international partnerships well beyond the traditional work of arts management.

By and large these activities are not on the radar of decision-makers in international affairs, but they include such efforts as: participatory curation, applications of new social media, archival training, oral history and public memory projects, cultural heritage conservation, digital game design, documentary film, culture mapping, the negotiation of cultural copyright and building of cultural commons, and the management and exhibition of antiquities and other national cultural collections, among other activities. One feature of this work is cultural diplomacy, though not as we conventionally understand it.

A collaboration between U.S.-based folklorists and like professionals concerned with intangible cultural heritage and their Chinese counterparts, the China-US Forum on Cultural Sustainability, is another case of an incipient transnational applied humanities network that has direct implications for cultural diplomacy. On the one hand, the Forum contributes to the internationalization of folklore studies. On the other, it directs comparative attention to the often differing theoretical, policy, and practical frames that inform what is, nevertheless, shared attention to the sustainability of intangible cultural heritage (hereafter, ICH) in both countries. And, the Forum sets out from a shared commitment among scholars and practitioners in both countries to identify, document, present and safeguard ICH, as critical to their “national interest and well-being.”

The Forum facilitates collaborative U.S.-China efforts to chart, compare, analyze, communicate widely, and to generate shared products focused on “tradition-based cultural expressions” through a variety of related initiatives. In the course of their collaboration, ICH practitioners from the U.S. and China have to work through different underlying assumptions and theories that shape and define the scope, meaning and location of ICH in both countries, including different challenges posed for national culture industries, community development, cultural tourism, and for the status of cultural minorities.

One difference is distinct time horizons bounding attention given to ICH among scholars: recent popular culture is given regular attention by U.S. practitioners while Chinese counterparts direct their attention to much older forms of traditional cultural expression. Part of the purpose of the Forum, therefore, is to engage such differences through the encompassing goal of professional development among ICH specialists in both countries.

Notably, the Forum is a model for how to take up what can be potentially explosive bilateral questions (e. g. the status of religious or cultural minorities in China) without also imposing any particular agenda. In fact, collaborators on the U.S. end, like the American Folklore Society and Vanderbilt’s Curb Center, are actively engaging with the Chinese Folklore Society and other counterparts, with the stated goal of establishing a “field of folklore studies with Chinese characteristics.”

A final example is a recently constituted applied humanities network, now working in the humanitarian context of disaster relief, organized around the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. An effort coordinating many partners and led by the Smithsonian, the project has mobilized applied cultural practitioners from the U.S. and elsewhere to support the efforts of Haitian cultural professionals to rescue, safeguard, and restore the country’s national cultural heritage in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The rescue of key expressions of Haiti’s heritage has provided continuity to Haitian cultural identity by saving artifacts of collective cultural memory, helping to maintain a cultural basis for Haiti to address its post-disaster national identity going forward.

Incorporated into the overall disaster relief effort, the Cultural Recovery Project is primarily composed of museum professionals – conservators and curators – engaged in the work of stabilizing, documenting and restoring artwork, including: paintings, murals, artifacts, documents, media, architectural features, and historical and archival items. Smithsonian conservators also train their Haitian counterparts in the skills of conservation and restoration, to help build and promote a sustainable Haitian-led center.

The work of rescuing Haiti’s threatened art evolved into an opportunity to relationship-build, to share “common values” around heritage conservation, and also an opportunity for new shared creative cultural expressions. Understood by Haitian counterparts as “arts for survival” that activate the relationship between culture and resilience through the interconnections between art, healing and community, so far these include a documentary film, considerable media coverage, a website, as well as new museum exhibitions focused on the recovery effort.

Notable is the kind of U.S.-Haitian relationship this project represents. A cultural recovery base was set up in Haiti, rather than bringing the artworks to the U.S. for treatment. Capacity-building of Haitian counterparts is one major feature of the project going forward. Cultural conservators from the Smithsonian and other U.S. institutions have taken a supporting role in helping Haiti consolidate its own efforts. All decisions about relative cultural value in the work of identifying, inventorying, and prioritizing individual items of cultural heritage are made by Haitians. The guiding question of the collaboration is “What do Haitians want to do?” A basic goal of the project is to preserve the ability of the Haitian people “to tell their own story to future generations.”

This collaborative work is making the case that effective cultural diplomacy need not aspire to control the message. It is not best deployed when closely linked to the priorities of policy makers or defined national interests. Nor is it always desirable for acts of cultural diplomacy to be framed in terms of the goal of the representation of a people. The development of new applied humanities networks, which feature the efforts of U.S.-based cultural producers and workers, suggests another approach, which we might take note of as a means to rethink conventional wisdom about cultural diplomacy.

The new approach includes:  working through collaboration rather than exchange, ceding authority while bringing skills, promoting the agency of others, and pursuing shared creative outcomes, while seeking to address the needs of others in humanitarian terms. This approach avoids trying to convert people into receptive audiences for our own story—however much we happen to like it.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site:

A New Conversation about Military Approaches to Culture

November 21, 2011 in Culture and the Securityscape

A recent article in the New York Times Book Review surveys new anthropological writing on Afghanistan, with an eye to contrasting this with ongoing U. S. military efforts to carry out effective culturally-informed counterinsurgency in that country. The reviewer wants to underscore the considerable challenges the U. S. — or any military — faces when it aspires effectively to apply cultural knowledge to its missions. Highlighting these difficulties, the review contrasts ethnographically-grounded insights about the workings of local politics, power, and culture from anthropologist Noah Coburn’s book Bazaar Politics with the often very different top-down efforts of “centralizers, modernizers, and humanitarians” in Afghanistan to apply cultural knowledge to encourage particular outcomes.

The review also makes passing reference to a report written by a commission I chaired for the American Anthropological Association, which described in some depth many of the concerns anthropologists have had about a U. S. Army program to collect and apply cultural knowledge to its decision-making in theater. Even as the U. S. mission in Afghanistan follows its long and winding path toward an end-game, the question of how the military chooses to make sense out of, and to apply, local cultural knowledge, promises to be a significant feature of its mission for years to come. The U. S. military is likely to continue to have an interest in developing its cultural assets, as it is deployed in the context of varieties of “operations other than war,” including humanitarian, stability, development, and diplomacy operations. And, just as the Times review reflects on the U. S. military’s “applied anthropology” in Afghanistan, now is a timely moment to sort though what the military’s cultural turn might mean for the U. S.’s foreign policy and global footprint for the foreseeable future.

This is exactly the spirit behind a conference I’ve organized together with Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center, to be hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington D. C. this December 9th. The conference offers a snapshot — along with discussion of associated implications — of ongoing developments across the U. S. military dedicated to cultural capacity-building. Giving particular attention to clusters of activity around: cultural training and education, cultural data collection and analysis, and cultural heritage conservation and management, this conference also locates this conversation on the frontier between the U. S. military’s cultural policy-making, program-building, and operations, on the one hand, and diverse humanitarian efforts into which it is often drawn, on the other. Further details about the organization of the conference, including speakers, can be found here. What follows is the conference precis:


Invited Conference:

Accounting for Culture in the Military: 

Implications for Future Humanitarian Cooperation


This one-day conference, organized by Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and hosted by the program in United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C., builds directly upon the success of the Curb Center’s Arts Industries Policy Forum. Since 2003, this forum has convened cultural policy experts and government decision-makers to discuss the policy implications of key cultural issues through a participant-driven, nonpartisan program of information exchange. This has included attention to the implications of culture for national security, as represented by 2008’s Cultural Diplomacy and the National Interest, and which the present conference actively extends. As host, the Wilson Center’s program in United States Studies has a track record of attention to complementary concerns, including: the relationship between U.S. culture and Muslims in the U.S., the domestic impacts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the work of citizen diplomacy. As partners, the Curb and Wilson centers are well-prepared to take the next step to examine the varied connections between culture and security in greater depth.

This conference takes that step focusing specifically upon the U.S. military’s efforts to develop cultural expertise and the forms that this expertise is currently taking. While the military has made the question of culture a focus of particular attention starting in the mid-2000s, in the process elaborating doctrinal, strategic, and operational ways both of understanding and applying cultural knowledge, this conference seeks to build a broader inter-agency conversation among military and non-military stakeholders about implications of the U.S. military’s several approaches to cultural problem-solving. If these approaches are non-traditional for the military, they are nevertheless becoming increasingly relevant to the work of other government agencies and non-governmental actors, across a wide array of efforts in diplomacy, development, and humanitarian relief, among others.  This makes the present moment a good one for a fruitful exchange with stakeholders across government and outside of government regarding the ways that the military understands the relationship of culture to security.


That the purposes, methods, and organization of the U.S. military have changed dramatically since the Cold War is now taken largely for granted. Nowhere have these changes been more evident than in the pursuit by the military in recent years to increase its cultural understanding, and to incorporate cultural knowledge into its operations. And while the military’s cultural turn has been widely noted, most often as represented by the so-called “Petraeus doctrine” of culture-centric counterinsurgency, implications of the military’s turn to culture are still not widely recognized or well-understood beyond the military itself.

This turn is not illustrated by a single overarching approach, so much as by multiple parallel approaches across the services meeting a variety of different needs, among them: training and education, cultural intelligence and analysis, and culturally-informed decision-making in theater, including cultural heritage resource management. As the military has developed a variety of culture-based policies, programs, and operational goals to meet its current mission requirements, these developments have remained largely siloed within the DoD. But, as present and future military missions increasingly include traditionally non-military dimensions, forms of expertise, and priorities, civil-military collaborations are becoming more regular and routine. This makes the need for a more comprehensive inter-agency understanding of the military’s particular approaches to culture more urgent, both at present and during peacetime after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.

Since the military’s commitment to cultural capacity-building has been widely discussed, we will not rehearse the details of this story here. But, briefly, the more important drivers include the following: 1) In broad terms, post-Cold War and post-9/11 realities have been regularly referenced by the U.S. policy community using “clash of civilizations” frameworks, for which soft power becomes a crucial tool, and which are understood in essence as cultural conflicts; 2) for the military this has meant refocusing basic objectives toward waging asymmetric warfare, that is, unconventional conflicts among non-state actors and with culturally distinct populations; 3) for which counterinsurgency doctrine, requiring significant awareness of and sustained engagement with non-combatant cultural communities, has become the answer; 4) and where its ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the military to seek to rapidly raise its perceived “cultural knowledge gap” and to build up a sustainable cultural capacity.

5) Paralleling these developments, as the U.S. military’s global footprint has shifted significantly away from preparing for the next large conventional conflict, its logistical capabilities have been utilized as a first responder and global backstop for diverse humanitarian disasters, ranging from the 2004 Banda Aceh Tsunami to the 2010 Haiti earthquake; 6) As a humanitarian agency, the military must frequently coordinate with such diverse civilian and NGO actors as the United Nations Development Programme, USAID, the Department of State, other development, refugee, and human rights organizations, and including the Smithsonian; 7) If many of these activities are incorporated into counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan (often in the form of civil-military cooperation on provincial reconstruction or civil affairs teams), they are also recognized parts of military doctrine as “operations other than war” (MOOTW) or as “stability, security, transition and reconstruction operations” (SSTR), 8 ) which complexly combine work in development, diplomacy, peace-keeping, human rights, governance, and reconciliation, among other activities, requiring an in-depth concern for relevant “socio-cultural dynamics.”

The increase in civil-military collaborations in this changing environment of military cultural initiatives has also been characterized by regular reaching out to new interlocutors, in government, in academia, and in the private sector. This involves a broad range of “culture experts” historically not looked to by the military, and including: sociocultural anthropologists, archaeologists, cultural geographers, cultural psychologists,  people with backgrounds in communications, international relations, cultural studies, and other subject matter experts from the humanities (e. g. experts in Arabic literature). However, such military-academic relationships can present conceptual, practical, and even ethical, dilemmas, where differences in background and training, in conceptual framing, and in modes of analysis can mean that potential collaborators find it challenging to bridge these divides. They are often working with different definitions of culture and its relationship to policy in the first place, which makes constructive exchanges about cultural interpretation, analysis, assessment, or metrics, difficult to achieve.

Another collaborative challenge, in the context of inter-agency whole-of-government efforts, is that the different historical roles of stakeholders lead to distinct assumptions about best practices and tools, which can be perceived as competitive rather than complementary. Finally, discussions of new cultural initiatives that require coordination across agencies, such as standing up rapid cultural response teams dedicated to helping secure national heritage or patrimonies in the aftermath of humanitarian disasters, also create new working relationships between the military and counterparts, which would benefit from substantial ground clearing. For these reasons, this conference seeks to open up a space for dialogue about military-culture efforts along the frontier of potential collaborations between military and non-military counterparts.