Culture in question

Protecting diversity in a globalized world requires balance

Jacqui Griffiths
26 October 2013

6 min read

Around the world, communities are working to preserve their local culture against the threat of homogenization. However, globalization and digital communication – the same forces that are driving standardization – could also help to create an evolving, multicultural experience.  

Stories, place names, art, television, literature and music are just a few of the important elements that contribute to a community’s history and to its present and future cultural identity. But those elements are not set in stone. Threats to local culture – from the vanishing Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland to the global chain stores that have made the Champs Élysées in Paris, in the words of New York Times journalist Steve Erlanger, “far less French,” have prompted outcry among local communities.

For many, it is increasingly important to protect local culture from the homogenizing effects of fast-moving, digitally enabled globalization. But it also is important, experts say, to acknowledge the evolutionary nature of culture within this increasingly globalized world.

“There is always room to do something to protect culture,” said Cecile Duvelle, chief of the Intangible Heritage Section at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “What is impossible is freezing a culture to keep it intact from any evolution or change. Cultures are living bodies that have changed drastically over the years, so we shouldn’t be afraid of globalization. While it is having an impact on all cultures, it is also giving all sorts of opportunities for all cultures to evolve and produce new expressions.”

Those new cultural expressions can come from a wealth of sources, not least the digital media that allow global communication, interaction with other cultures and, in the case of films, television programs or music, global distribution. Still, resistance to such evolution is a long-standing, often generational phenomenon.

“We have a tendency, especially as we get older, to regret that some cultural expressions are disappearing and that the new cultures are more homogenized, but this is often because we are not ready to recognize the new forms of culture,” Duvelle said. “While it can’t be denied that there is a disappearance of culture and cultural diversity, there is also a wealth of new cultural expressions created by this.”

Speaking the language

Language and dialect are key focal points in many attempts to preserve cultural heritage. “When we talk about preserving dialects, we are really talking about galvanizing communities themselves,” said Dr. William Lamb, lecturer in Scottish Ethnology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “Local languages and dialects are a crucial part of our collective linguistic and cultural history.”

Efforts such as subsidized bilingual business signs, local-language TV channels and education can help to raise the perceived status of a language. Indeed, these measures are meeting with some success for the Gaelic language in Scotland. But can languages and dialects realistically remain unchanged as the world of communication evolves? “Indirectly, through increasing awareness and education about the language, people may use it more and ensure its continuation in an inter-generational sense,” Lamb said. “But ultimately, the way that we speak and write changes incrementally over time, and we know that it is very difficult to engineer control over linguistic behavior.”

“Local languages and dialects are a crucial part of our collective linguistic and cultural history.”

Dr. William Lamb
Lecturer in Scottish Ethnology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland

Lamb believes that a new dialect of blended pronunciations is likely to emerge in Scotland as children hear a variety of Gaelic dialects from their teachers, and that while the loss of local dialects is to be lamented, this evolution of language is better than losing it entirely. “As in many things, there is both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when it comes to linguistic homogenization,” Lamb said. “If children are proud of the language and speak it to one another and, subsequently, to their own children, then there is a future for the language. That is the yardstick by which we need to evaluate any inter­ventions and observed phenomena to do with Gaelic, or any other minority language.”

Some countries, however, fiercely defend the purity of their native tongue. Consider France, where the French government recently rejected the social media term “hashtag” in favor of “mot-dièse.”

Still, linguist Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, suggests that the Internet may actually help to slow the adoption of English as the global lingua franca, the default language used to communicate between people who don’t share a native tongue. Why? Because online translation tools are becoming faster, more powerful, more accurate and, increasingly, they’re free. “The main story of growth in the Internet is of linguistic diversity, not concentration,” Ostler wrote in his book The Last Lingua Franca: English until the return of Babel. Perfect instantaneous translation is some way off. Still, Ostler’s view of the linguistic future points to the Internet as an enabler of diversity rather than a homogenizing influence.


Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that efforts to preserve local culture are designed to work within a global context. Many governments, from Australia to Venezuela, have put quotas in place to ensure that a percentage of the material broadcast on radio and television is in the native language, or represents the local culture.

In Canada, for example, a percentage of radio and television broadcasts, including cable and satellite channels, must include content that is at least in part written, produced or presented by Canadians. According to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, both French-language and English-language radio stations also must ensure that at least 35% of the popular music broadcast each week is Canadian content.

Such measures are not aimed at denying globalization, but are a way of ensuring a place for local cultures in a globalized world, said Charles Vallerand, executive director of Canada’s Coalition for Cultural Diversity. “It’s not so much a way to close borders or reject foreign content,” Vallerand said. “It’s more a question of protecting your own cultural assets. That’s what Canada and France have been doing with quota systems or with subsidy measures with public broadcasting. We have a lot of foreign content on our broadcast media, so the issue becomes one of creating shelf space for your own content.”

In 2005, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which supports efforts to protect local cultural expressions and disseminate them on a global scale. A glance at the reports submitted in 2012 in support of the convention shows that a global perspective has become key to many cultural policies.

“Protecting local culture and ensuring diversity is a way of accommodating globalization, not resisting it.”

Cecile Duvelle
Chief of the Intangible Heritage Section at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

A policy in Brazil, for example, helps the country’s film producers learn to work with international industry standards so they can build partnerships and access financing on an international level. In France, meanwhile, a policy to encourage the promotion and maintenance of cultural diversity in the book sector – including both digital and physical formats – has become a model for similar policies across Europe and in Latin America.

“There is a trend towards keeping very rooted, local traditions alive with a sense of being part of the global village,” Duvelle said. “Even in the developed countries, there is a sense of keeping in touch with traditional music, artifacts and customs. And it’s clear that this is not just for older people; it’s for the young people because they’re very proud of their culture. They want it to be recognized and they’re proud to be part of this practice as citizens of the world. The United States is a great example of a nation which has a lot of diversity, and it recognizes the diversity within its territory while having a sense of national identity. It keeps a very strong sense of cultural identity even with all the different languages spoken.”


Notably, the UNESCO convention focuses not only on the protection of cultural diversity, but also on its promotion in any medium. In the endeavors of various communities, the notion of diversity is built on the acknowledgement of difference and exchange. Both of these elements are fostered on a global scale by digital technologies, and this is changing the trade environment of cultural output.

In trade negotiations, the focus has now shifted to electronic commerce, especially the electronic transfer of broadcast services. “Different parties might agree to cultural exemption, quotas, subsidies and so on, but when they negotiate on electronic commerce they will insist that everything needs to be liberalized,” Vallerand said. “Recognizing this new form of trade, which is the future of anything to do with broadcasting, as a product and not as a service will lead to further trade liberalization.”

The full effects of this increasingly globalized, digital world on cultural exchange are yet to be seen, but there is a clear emphasis on the need to embrace diversity, with little room
for an isolationist approach to cultural identity.

“Globalization has given us access – through new communication channels or through travel – to cultures that we couldn’t get close to some 20 or 30 years ago,” Duvelle said. “Cultural diversity will not take care of itself, and if we don’t take care of it we may be surprised to find one day that some things have disappeared. But culture and globalization are not mutually exclusive, though there is sometimes a tendency to think they are. Protecting local culture and ensuring diversity is a way of accommodating globalization, not resisting it.” ◆

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