Embracing cultural hybridity in the world of global interdependence

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

It was in the eighteenth century that the word “culture”, which had been employed in connection with “cultivation” or “breeding”, started to take on a new meaning to refer to “way of life”. This transformation in the meaning of the word “culture” had a lot to do with the efforts of anthropologists who had gone about investigating the way of life of the so-called “primitive peoples” of the world. These anthropologists would soon realize that different groups of primitive peoples have developed different ways of life, reflecting the differences in the environment in which different groups lead their lives. Moreover, the way of life of a specific group is founded on a definite and recognizable set of logics that have evolved over a long period of time in a specific environment where the group’s life takes place.

The realization of the diversity of cultures in the world is behind the emergence of anthropology as an academic discipline. As a matter of fact, the title Edward B. Tyler (1832-1917), who became the first professor of anthropology at Oxford, had given to his book published in 1913 was Primitive Culture. However, by 1940, when Franz Boaz (1858-1942) published his Race, Language and Culture, it was widely recognized that there are diverse cultures in the world as there are wide variations in the people’s way of life. As the diversity of cultures came to be recognized, the concept of “cultural relativity”—the idea that no culture can claim to be superior to others as all cultures are relative—became the standpoint from which anthropologists went about studying cultures.

As contact and communication between diverse social groups with diverse cultures take place, transmission and propagation of cultures take place. Contact and communication among the world’s cultures mean that there exists what may be termed “intercultural” as a field in which one culture comes into contact and communication with another culture and through which transmission and propagation of cultures take place. Transmission and propagation may take the form of imitation and learning, which can be one-sided or mutual, but they can also take the form of imposition and forced adoption, involving friction and conflict between cultures. Whatever may be the form of transmission and propagation, what emerges is a “hybrid culture” that combines elements of the traditional culture and elements of the new, imported culture.

To recognize the hybridity of cultures means to recognize the importance of cultures not as isolated entities but as relational entities. But more than that, the use of the term “hybridity” is recommended because we need to go beyond cultural “diversity”. Cultural diversity tends to view each culture as something unique and already formed as all cultures are treated as relative to each other, not paying enough attention to the mutual learning that takes place between social groups about the other people’s way of life. Cultural hybridity, on the other hand, views each culture as an evolving entity that is constantly formed and transformed in the space of interaction with other cultures.

Cultural hybridity is a concept that explicitly recognizes that cultures are open systems. One definition incorporating such a systems view of cultures would be: “Culture is a set of ideas shared by the members of a social group with regard to their relationships to the natural, social and spiritual environment”. This definition incorporates a systems view of culture in that a social group is seen as an open system that interacts with its natural, social and spiritual environment. In the context of such systems view, culture is an evolving system that is defined by the interplay between tradition and invention, between preservation and dissipation, between order and chaos, between integration and diffusion. Indeed, we may recall how the so-called traditional Bali dance was “invented” by Walter Spies (1895-1942), when contact and communication between the traditional Bali culture and the outside culture took place.

Why is the concept of cultural hybridity important? While globalization in the economic and other areas of social life has brought about the hybridization of cultures, there are still those people in the world who cling to the old notion of cultural chauvinism, even imperialism. This is the reason why the world of global interdependence around us is full of violent conflicts and frictions between social groups with different cultural backgrounds. In recent weeks, we have been bombarded with the news about violent conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, between Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine, between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere. What tend to be forgotten by those who participate in these conflicts is the fact their societies are already hybrid societies in terms of ethnic compositions, religious affiliations, and linguistic variations, not to mention a variety of food and cuisine they enjoy. What is sorely needed for the individual living in the world of global interdependence is to embrace cultural hybridity as a fact of life and to develop a sense of hybrid identity that is needed for peaceful coexistence among social groups.