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Cultural diversity

Related subjects: Culture and Diversity

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Cultural diversity is the variety of humansocieties or cultures in a specific region, or in the world as a whole. (The term is also sometimes used to refer to multiculturalism within an organization. This article does not currently cover that alternative meaning.) There is a general consensus among mainstream anthropologists that humans first emerged in Africa about two million years ago. Since then they have spread throughout the world, successfully adapting to widely differing conditions and to periodic cataclysmic changes in local and global climate. The many separate societies that emerged around the globe differed markedly from each other, and many of these differences persist to this day .

As well as the more obvious cultural differences that exist between people, such as language, dress and traditions, there are also significant variations in the way societies organize themselves, in their shared conception of morality, and in the ways they interact with their environment.

By analogy with biodiversity, which is thought to be essential to the long-term survival of life on earth, it can be argued that cultural diversity may be vital for the long-term survival of humanity; and that the conservation of indigenous cultures may be as important to humankind as the conservation of species and ecosystems is to life in general. The General Conference of UNESCO took this position in 2001, asserting in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity that "...cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature"

This position is rejected by some people, however, on several grounds. Firstly, like most evolutionary accounts of human nature, the importance of cultural diversity for survival may be an un-testable hypothesis, which can neither be proved nor disproved. Secondly, it can be argued that it is unethical deliberately to conserve "less developed" societies, because this will deny people within those societies the benefits of technological and medical advances enjoyed by those of us in the "developed" world.

In the same way it is unethical to promote poverty in underdeveloped nations as cultural diversity it is also unethical to promote all religious practices simply because they contribute to cultural diversity. Particularly, there are some practices that are recognized by the WHO and UN as unethical: Female Genital Mutilation, Sati (burning the widow on the husbands burial pyre), polygamy, child brides, human sacrifice, etc.

Some individuals, particularly those with strong religious beliefs, maintain that it is in the best interests of individuals and of humanity as a whole that all people adhere to a specific model for society or specific aspects of such a model. For example, evangelical missionary organisations such as the New Tribes Mission actively work to support social changes that some observers would consider detrimental to cultural diversity by seeking out remote tribal societies to convert them to Christianity; and Islamic groups strategically buy up land in Papua New Guinea.

Cultural diversity is tricky to quantify, but a good indication is thought to be a count of the number of languages spoken in a region or in the world as a whole. By this measure, there are signs that we may be going through a period of precipitous decline in the world's cultural diversity. Research carried out in the 1990s by David Crystal (Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor) suggested that at that time, on average, one language was falling into disuse every two weeks. He calculated that if that rate of language death were to continue, then by the year 2100 more than 90% of the languages currently spoken in the world will have gone extinct.

Overpopulation, immigration and imperialism (of both the militaristic and cultural kind) are reasons that have been suggested to explain any such decline.

Cultural heritage

The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity adopted by UNESCO in 2001 is regarded as a legal instrument recognizing for the first time, cultural diversity as "common heritage of humanity" and considers its safeguarding to be a concrete and ethical imperative inseparable from respect for human dignity.

There is also the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage ratified on June 20, 2007 by 78 States which said:

The intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and gives them a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

Cultural diversity was also promoted by the Montreal Declaration of 2007, and by the European Union. The idea of a global multicultural heritage covers several ideas, which are not exclusive (see multiculturalism). In addition to language, diversity can also include religious or traditional practice.


The defense of cultural diversity can take several meanings:

  • A balance to be achieved: thus, the idea of defense of cultural diversity through the promotion of actions in favour of "cultural minorities" said to be disadvantaged;
  • Preservation of "cultural minorities" thought to be endangered;
  • In other cases, one speaks of "cultural protection", which refers to the concept of " cultural exception", which is mainly used in France under the title "French exception". This makes the link between the social vision of culture and the vision inherent in its commercialisation. The cultural exception highlights the specificity of cultural products and services, including special recognition by the European Union in its Declaration on Cultural Diversity. In this context, the objective is to defend against what is seen as a " commodification" - considered harmful to a "disadvantaged" culture — supporting its development through grants, promotion operations, etc., also known as "cultural protectionism".
  • This defense may also refer to incorporating "cultural rights" provisions, conducted unsuccessfully in the early 1990s in Europe, into a layer of human rights.

Cultural uniformity

Cultural diversity is presented as the antithesis of cultural uniformity.

Some (including UNESCO) fear this hypothesis of a trend towards cultural uniformity. To support this argument they emphasize different aspects:

  • The disappearance of many languages and dialects, regarding for example the languages of France, without legal status or protection (Basque, Breton, Corsican, Occitan, Catalan, Alsatian, Flemish, Poitou, Saintonge, etc.).
  • Anxiety of people on the preservation of their traditions as in New Zealand, coastal regions in Australia, North America, Central America;
  • Increasing cultural preeminence of the United States through the distribution of its products in film, television, music, clothing and nutritional products promoted in audio-visual media, consumer products virtually standardized on the planet (pizza, restaurants, fast food, etc..).

There are several international organizations that work towards protecting threatened societies and cultures, including Survival International and UNESCO. The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted by 185 Member States in 2001, represents the first international standard-setting instrument aimed at preserving and promoting cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.

The European Commission-funded Network of Excellence on "Sustainable Development in a Diverse World" (known as "SUS.DIV") builds upon the UNESCO Declaration to investigate the relationship between cultural diversity and sustainable development.

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