IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE: The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice.

Culture and Rural Development

| back to contents' page |


The Social Dimensions of Culture

by Thierry Verhelst

Culture has four social dimensions
which can lead to development.


Culture is a living thing, consisting of elements inherited from the past, outside influences which have been embraced and new elements invented locally. Culture has an important role to play in society.


First of all it provides self-esteem. Self-esteem, whether it be personal or collective, is an essential precondition if culture is to flourish. Without a minimum consciousness of his values or his abilities, without a quiet confidence in his own resources and means, the individual remains static and muted, both in the metaphorical, and, occasionally in the literal sense. Paolo Freire has analyzed this "culture of silence" which is a characteristic of societies which have grown dependent and inarticulate. This silence, this apathy, is a specific result of the loss of a sense of a society's self-esteem. If it is told incessantly that it is backward, ignorant, incapable, uncompetitive, lazy, marginal, underdeveloped and outdated, the population finally internalises this message and behaves in conformity with this negative image. Affirming its value and potential opens a society to creativity and action.


Culture is thus a selective mechanism for all kinds of external influences. The ability to select outside influences, to make a choice, is extremely important. Every community must be able to make a free choice between what it considers to be useful and beneficial and what it considers to be superfluous and harmful. This is equally true of the cultural elements inherited from the past. The past heritage is ambiguous; it may be harmful. It is for this reason that the inhabitants of isolated villages in Spain have only one concern to jettison a culture which they associate with a past filled with isolation, discomfort, deprivation and humiliation. They aspire to greater material welfare. Who can blame them for this?
The ability to stand up to cultural imperialism or the harmful elements of the past, the ability to select, is determined by culture. It is culture which contains these values and determines the priorities; it is also culture which directs the choices in accordance with these priorities.


Culture inspires strategies for resistance by creating a counterweight. Resistance to everything which is imposed from outside and which is considered to be damaging and unacceptable, is an essential element for the harmonious development of every community. After selecting everything which can be usefully adopted and earmarking the harmful elements for rejection, a strategy of resistance has to be organized. If this is not done, power politics mean that a society will rapidly be overrun by unwanted elements, and finally will passively or unconsciously accept them.
So resistance is to be advised. It should not condemn a region to remaining a fruitlessly isolated community or a outdated backwater a dream for the city-dweller, but unacceptable to the rural population. Once more, only a strong, confident culture can assess the advantages and the disadvantages, can weigh up the benefits of an immediate financial profit against long-term consistency and a lifestyle open to the outside world. This is a difficult choice; in the final analysis, no magic formula or expert opinion can act as substitute for the judgement of those involved; but if they want to be capable of judging and acting according to this value judgement, they must have a living cultural identity. Culture is primarily a force which provides direction. Making sense of what one does is of primary importance. Development must have a direction. In every process of social change, economic shift and general development, we must be able to keep to the same course if we do not want to be swept away by different events and pressures. In several European languages, the word "sense", means both deep significance and direction.
This is exactly what this means; on the one hand attaching appropriate importance to the values which make us do what is "sensible" that is, full of good sense, and on the other hand, orientation towards the future, progress in a given direction. The faculty of providing direction for what one undertakes is unique to man. This faculty presupposes some kind of self-esteem and the capacity for selection and resistance mentioned above, but it is far more than this. It is closely allied to life and the joy of living. Culture is, after all, the vitality which provides sense. In this regard its symbolic dimension (values, spirituality, etc.) plays a crucial role. This search for sense is not only an individual activity. It is also collective and encroaches on the political: co-existing, social relationships, which in this time of fragmentation and change are often of a new kind, or need to be reestablished.
When Ricardo Petrella, the Director of the European Commission's FAST programme stressed (in the magazine "Economie et Humanisme", October 1993) the necessity of providing direction for our societies, he wrote that it fundamentally concerns cultural development. "To a certain extent it means passing from an object culture (building more houses, infrastructure, roads, machinery, ferrying and transporting more passengers, goods, capital, etc.), which has been given priority over these past 30 or 40 years to a subject culture (developing links for co-existing, the search for quality of life...)"
This subject/object culture distinction has to be looked at individually for each project. This is why the methodology behind the project is at least as important as the project itself; it is this on which the real "cultural" nature of the project depends, i.e. the capacity to make it catch fire under the ashes of passiveness and resignation, the glowing embers.

        An expert for UNESCO, and a member of the staff at the ICHEC in Brussels, Thierry Verhelst is one of the founding members of the "South/North Network, Cultures and Development". He was one of the speakers at the LEADER "Culture and Local Development" seminar, which took place in Molinos (Maestrazgo-Teruel, Aragon, Spain) in June 1994, which largely inspired this article.

source: LEADER Magazine nr.8 - Winter, 1994

European Flag