Research Unit 2

Global Cultural Conflicts and Transcultural Cooperation

More information on Unit 2

Culture and Cooperation: Exploring a Complex Relationship

Research Unit 2—‘Global Cultural Conflicts and Transcultural Cooperation’—takes as its focus the question of how cultural and religious beliefs and world-views affect global cooperation. The general language and specific terminology of global cooperation are not neutral but culturally embedded, and one of the goals of our Unit is to examine the cultural meanings at the heart of different narratives and practices of cooperation. More specifically, we analyse: 1. situations in which global and transnational conflicts prove difficult to resolve because they are interpreted and experienced as ‘cultural’; and 2. the preconditions for successful transcultural cooperation. Our basic, empirically grounded, tenet is that culture can be both an intensifier of conflicts and a resource for conflict-resolution and cooperation.

Culture occupies an apparently ambiguous position in relation to the phenomenon of cooperation. It is often seen as a source of ‘sameness’, giving rise to an unquestioned set of shared values, beliefs, and so on. It helps us to identify, and cooperate with, like-minded people. At the same time, there is evidence that cultural difference can be a basis for, or an incentive to, cooperation. To help map out the field addressed by our particular research unit, we suggest framing cooperative endeavours in politics and society in terms of two opposing pairs: successful and unsuccessful; normatively desirable and normatively undesirable. The position occupied by culture in these antithetical pairs is not immediately obvious.

Cooperation, like any other kind of sustained social interaction, does indeed require a degree of moral and affective underpinning—which we may term ‘thin’ culture. But to engage in it, actors (be they individuals, firms, states, or other entities) do not need have a shared morality or a shared cultural world-view or way of life: enlightened self-interest is enough. History is replete with examples of this.

That said, a common culture, although not a prerequisite, can clearly also be an aid to successful cooperation. One only has to think of international terrorist organizations or other criminal groupings based on strong ideologies or ‘amoral familism’. The ‘thickness’ of a common culture suits cooperative efforts among the like-minded, but perhaps not among others. Thus strong notions of culture may negatively affect the normative quality of the outcomes of cooperation. In order for cooperation to be both successful and normatively desirable, it may be necessary for those seeking to engage in it to transcend or ‘bracket off’ any notion of a ‘thick’ common culture.

The question is: what brings about this kind of self-reflective ‘bracketing-off’ of culture? It may be that the desire to seek cooperative solutions to pressing global problems is the product of societal learning-processes. Or it may be that situational constraints force actors to cooperate. In certain circumstances successful and long-lasting cooperation among actors without a common culture may actually result in the creation of one.

The overarching research topics which the various projects conducted in this Unit contribute include:

  • Cooperation as a Cultural Practice
  • Global Aid Cultures and the Paradigm of the Gift
  • Transitional Justice
  • Minorities, Diasporas and Migration
  • Regional Integration