Cultural dynamics

“Culture”, a term with many different meanings, can denote a body of knowledge or a social entity. It is the latter meaning that interests the Cultural Dynamics cluster of projects under the NEST European programme, which is devoted to exploring emerging scientific fields. The aim of the Cultural Dynamics projects is to understand how cultural factors are passed on whilst at the same time evolving, in particular by shedding light on the issue of Europe’s multiple identities. The application of certain analytical tools used in the “hard” sciences (mathematics or biology) to “human data” is opening up innovative new horizons.

Our cultural choices and traditions (language, religion, customs and practices, history and collective memory, the value we ascribe to our heritage, public spaces and specific landscapes) define who “we” are. This plural “we” can refer to a number of entities that intertwine or even conflict: people, nation, region, society… As time goes by, internal and external influences introduce contradictory forces into this complex identity, helping to preserve, change, or even eradicate a human group’s collective values. This group will evolve down the generations in accordance with the way in which cultural elements are appropriated and modified, or else rejected or seen as obsolete.

Alchemy of change

Cultural Dynamics researchers are endeavouring to define these processes, which up to now have been analysed very poorly or in a fragmentary manner. They are seeking to understand why, for example, some cultures are formed or transformed at a particular time and in a particular environment. Why is there progress and dynamism in some cases but stagnation in others? How are beliefs and practices modelled, and how do they persist and/or evolve? In what way is power controlled or exercised via culture? What roles do new technology and the media play in cultural dynamics (particularly the Internet, which has become one of the main protagonists)?

These questions need to be asked in order to gain an understanding of the development and governance of societies. They are perhaps all the more pressing in the current context of globalisation, where new forms of cooperation and regional or national “identities” are emerging (as in the case of the European Union) on the one hand, and seemingly intractable clashes and crises on the other (as in the Balkans, the Near and Middle East and some parts of Africa).

Hard sciences to the rescue

How can new keys be found for understanding these phenomena? As in all disciplinary fields, information and communication technology has fundamentally altered the cognitive and human sciences. The societal surveys and analyses undertaken by various specialists (anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, historians, etc.) are cumulative. They constitute huge pools of disorganised “human data” in what the hard sciences would describe as a state of chaos.

However, chaos is not a concept that frightens physicists or mathematicians. They have learned to plumb the depths of chaos, to identify its stable and unstable states, continuities and discontinuities, and to formalise the ways in which chaos evolves. Several Cultural Dynamics research projects are original because they draw inspiration from a number of approaches in the exact sciences to identify and model correlations in the growing body of data amassed by researchers.

For instance, the ATACD project (A Topo - logical Approach to Cultural Dynamics) bases its research methodology on the mathematical theories of topology, which literally means “the study of place” [from the Greek topos (place) and logos (study)] (see box entitled The coffee cup and the doughnut). “We felt it would be interesting to take a topological approach to the study of cultural change, by bringing together researchers from very different specialist fields”, explains ATACD coordinator, Celia Lury. The 19 partners come from fields as diverse as semiology, artificial intelligence, sociology, philosophy and mathematical economics. The first of four colloquiums was held in November 2007 and provided the opportunity for a very lively brainstorming session among researchers and doctoral students. “Thereafter, the participants decided to concentrate on the tools and metaphors of topological analysis. Working in our own specialist fields, we are starting to exchange ideas and explore the various possible uses of topology as a new human science tool for understanding social change”. The research and meetings will continue until 2010.

Food and evolution

Stability and change are also found in another complex concept: evolution. Whereas animals, such as monkeys, have cultures that are passed from one generation to the next unchanged, human cultures tend to evolve over time. According to the Cultaptation project researchers, who are focusing on the evolution of eating habits (which have changed drastically in modern times), it is not unlike genetic evolution. Biologists’ tools could therefore help to understand it.

“Compared to biological evolution, human culture has developed extremely fast. Although our capacity for cumulative culture gives us unique potential to improve our lives, cultural forces can also prove detrimental, for instance by reinforcing ancestral dietary habits that lead to obesity”, explains Project Coordinator, Magnus Enquist, from the University of Stockholm. Cultaptation is interested in the roots of this specific dietary problem (of which archaeology studies reveal the traces), by developing models that take into account genetic evolution.

For example, the researchers are analysing the relationship between food, the environment and cultural evolution. They are studying the dissemination of eating patterns and are exploring taboos on certain foods based on traditions and beliefs. Discovering the roots of our fondness for sugar and fat, which were vital in a subsistence economy, could help us to gain a better understanding of practices that are no longer compatible with modern lifestyles and damage our health.

Religion and receptivity

The 10 European multidisciplinary teams working on the EXREL project are interested in the origins of religion. “While some aspects of religious thinking and behaviour appear to be universal, others vary widely from one religion to another. Our project aims to use statistics to identify a universal religious directory and to use this directory to understand the rationale of cultural variations”, explains EXREL Coordinator, Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist from Oxford University (UK). “A number of leading psychologists and biologists have suggested that our sense of the religious stems from specifically human cognitive faculties. Our project aims to use a universal directory to test this hypothesis, by showing how cognitive factors such as acquired expertise or creative thinking can explain cultural variations. Ultimately we wish to develop a simulation of likely religious evolution that could be used to understand both the history of religious traditions and their current or future development.”

The ISBP project (Integrative Systems and the Boundary Problem), which includes British, Dutch, Italian and Spanish research teams, is analysing the phenomenon of “receptivity”. Noting that one of the greatest challenges facing the EU is to build a coherent entity, the project aims to analyse the relationship between culture, behaviour and environment. “As the EU expands, its success in treading a peaceful path to convergence will depend on the ability to integrate its constituent populations without suppressing the inherent diversity of each group”, says Project Coordinator, Nick Winder, from the UK’s Newcastle University. “Reaching acceptable compromise depends upon how the problems are defined and who are seen as legitimate stakeholders.” The researchers have explored ways in which communities negotiate and/or integrate divergent beliefs without paralysing political institutions or marginalising the stakeholders.

ISBP researchers have developed an original model of Innovation and Metastability that has been warmly received in economic circles. “Many bottom-up innovations frustrate the authorities, which see them as disruptive and as imposing constraints that ultimately stifle change. The project explores ways to strike a balance between top-down government and bottom-up governance. Case studies on urban planning, integrated water management or respect for asylum rights have shed light on this issue.”

Corporate cultures, regional cultures

At a time when some commentators are describing multinationals as homeless companies, CURE project (Corporate Culture and Regional Embeddedness) research teams are studying the relationship between regional and company cultures, as well as the way in which regional cultures interact and influence one another. Based on 210 case studies, a number of regions are being studied in very different countries: countries with strong entrepreneurial traditions and a high level of “social capital” (the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria); countries that have recently undergone rapid economic and cultural change (Hungary and the United Kingdom) and one country, reunified Germany, that lies somewhere in between, with strong regional traditions in the west and a rapidly changing culture in the formerly communist east. What is the researchers’ hypothesis? Companies that try to impose an unsympathetic or alien culture on their surroundings are not likely to do as well as those that understand and build on regional strengths.

Through their various projects, the Cultural Dynamics partners are therefore addressing culture in its broadest sense, according to the UNESCO definition. In its Universal declaration on cultural diversity, UNESCO describes culture as: “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group that encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

Christine Rugemer


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Future pathways

NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technology) was a new initiative under the 6th EU Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development and NEST projects are currently being implemented. In NEST, multidisciplinary research teams have joined forces to engage in unconventional and visionary new research, with no restrictions on the field of science utilised. The idea is for researchers to use their creativity to implement the tools of the constantly evolving knowledge society in order to harmonise them and open up new scientific fields. NEST has been divided into a number of thematic priority areas covering the disciplines of cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, mathematics, biology and physics.

Further transnational projects will be launched in early 2009 as part of the new HERA initiative (Humanities in the European Research Area). Two thematic areas are open to researchers: Cultural Dynamics: Inheritance and Identity (following on from NEST) and Humanities as a Source of Creativity and Innovation.


The coffee cup and the doughnut

What do a coffee cup and a ring doughnut have in common? The answer lies in the mathematical discipline of topology. Both the coffee cup and the doughnut have a single hole: in the case of the cup, it is the handle and in the case of the doughnut, it is the hole at its centre. A sculptor can take a cup made from soft clay and fashion it into a doughnut without closing up the hole or creating a second one.

Topologists say that the two shapes are equivalent, but in a much broader sense than in Euclidian geometry. By introducing new elasticity properties, topology makes it possible to twist, stretch, manipulate, transform, subject to certain rules (namely not to separate that which is joined and not to join that which is separate).

The discipline of topology, which emerged in the mid-19th century with geometric shapes like the Möbius strip, then the Bourbaki group’s set theory in 20th century, is now undergoing a resurgence, with some highly practical research and applications. For example, networks tend to have similar shapes whether they describe relationships between people, roads or computer systems.