Between Imagined Communities and Communities of Practice: Participation, Territory and the Making of Heritage (Göttingen Studies in Cultural Property)

Edited by Nicolas Adell, Regina F. Bendix, Chiara Bortolotto, and Markus Tauschek. 2015. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen. 321 pages. ISBN: 978-3-86395-205-1 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Michelle Stefano, Maryland Traditions

[Review length: 1257 words • Review posted on March 23, 2016]

Edited by the anthropologists and heritage scholars, Nicolas Adell, Regina Bendix, Chiara Bortolotto, and Markus Tauschek, Between Imagined Communities and Communities of Practice: Participation, Territory and the Making of Heritage is number eight in a series of volumes from Universitätsverlag Göttingen that focus on the intersections of culture, economics, and politics, especially with respect to the institutional structures that shape cultural heritage at international and national levels. The volume grew from three conferences organized by the editors between 2009 and 2012 under the theme of "Institutions, Territories, and Communities: Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage," as well as from the work of the German research unit, "The Constitution of Cultural Property."

The expansion of the heritage concept to include practices and expressions of a living nature has brought to light concerns about the roles of tradition bearers as experts in related designation, safeguarding, and promotional processes. More specifically, since the adoption and subsequent enforcement of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), scholars have questioned the extent to which "communities, groups, and individuals," the acknowledged tradition bearers in the convention's text, will be (and are) involved in its implementation. Indeed, the need to study the parameters, processes, and impacts of UNESCO-driven intangible cultural heritage (ICH) policy has grown due to its increasingly widespread popularity and, thus, potential standardizing approaches (as of early 2016, 165 States Parties have adopted and/or ratified the 2003 Convention).[1] Over the past decade, researchers have begun to study how the 2003 Convention unfolds at national levels and in relation to local levels—where ICH lives—and to identify key stakeholders in the process, and the roles they play.

As such, the volume is a significant addition to a recent crop of scholarship that provides deeper analysis of the UNESCO-ICH paradigm and the concepts it espouses, as well as much-needed behind-the-scenes insights into how it is actually working. From legal, cultural policy, and ethnographic perspectives, the collection mainly explores the challenges that the UNESCO-endorsed concepts of community and participation pose at varying geographical scales. Setting the collection's tone, the editors highlight a unique aspect of the 2003 Convention: its participatory framework for the identification, documentation, safeguarding, and promotion of ICH. In particular, and in contrast to UNESCO's 1972 World Heritage Convention, the 2003 Convention states that national governments should strive to include ICH bearers in the various recommended safeguarding and promotional activities. It is recognized that a shift in authority from traditional heritage expert to ICH bearer not only serves to potentially democratize the heritage regime, but also raises questions as to how communities and participation are defined and, thereby, who gets to participate and what are their roles. Here, the notions of imagined communities and communities of practice are brought into play as a means of examining the groups of stakeholders who are involved in implementing the 2003 Convention and promoting ICH through its related national and international lists. Are these "communities, groups and individuals" used as tools for constructing imagined narratives, such as with respect to shaping some sense of national, regional, and/or ethnic identity, or can they also be defined as groups consisting of ICH bearers and researchers, government representatives, and other associated actors in the heritage enterprise? As the editors note, "individuals devoted to maintaining, restoring or reviving a cultural tradition may form a community of practice, not necessarily sharing ethnic identities, but cooperating for the sake of shared political or economic interests."

One of the main strengths of the volume is its inclusion of first-hand accounts of anthropologists as active (or passive) members of certain communities of practice with respect to facilitating UNESCO-ICH policy. These reflections on their involvement in the UNESCO-ICH paradigm, whether as an observer of international UNESCO-sponsored meetings or in the development of nomination files for the international lists, contribute compelling behind-the-scenes insights to the ICH-related discourse. For instance, Ellen Hertz served as a participant in an "ad hoc expert group" for the implementation of the 2003 Convention in the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. While her chapter explores the dynamics of participatory, or bottom-up, approaches in other Swiss regions as well, she reveals the complexities of nominating living traditions from the Neuchâtel canton for the national inventory of ICH, and provides a deep examination of who constitutes "communities, groups and individuals" in this specific and nuanced context.

Bortolotto, an anthropologist who has observed several meetings of UNESCO's ICH Intergovernmental Committee, examines the ambiguous concept of participation—and by extension, expertise—in terms of the roles ICH researchers play in the nomination of "elements" to the international lists. Focusing on the sixth ICH Committee meeting, when traditions were selected for 2011 listing, she uncovers the tensions that arose between participants around definitions of community, consent, and participation. The most notable debates were sparked by the inclusion of a ceremonial arrow in support of the nomination file, "Eshuva, Harákmbut sung prayers of Peru's Huachipaire people," which was used to convey the "commitment of communities, groups or individuals concerned." Bortolotto uses this example, deemed by the evaluation body as not having enough evidence of participation, to show how strongly the UNESCO-ICH paradigm rests on the different interpretations of its key principles and how muddled its participatory approach can get—from the local to international levels.

Adell's chapter also provides deep insights into the process of developing nomination files at the local level. Taking the reader to France, he focuses on the preparation of the dossier for compagnonnage, the unique system of "conveying knowledge and know-how linked to the trades that work with stone, wood, metal, leather, textiles and food," as presented on the UNESCO website.[2] Successfully listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, Adell shares what he calls a "confession" of the process in which he was intimately involved as an anthropologist developing the dossier text along with government representatives. He draws attention to that fact that the "polyphony" of perspectives held by the compagnonnage communities, with the main associations comprising tens of thousands of members, was essentially whittled into a "monograph" –the nomination file—of which he was a main author. In this light, he questions what participation really means during the dossier preparation process that was shaped through top-down mechanisms. Furthermore, his contribution serves as a call for researchers and professionals involved in heritage interventions to become more reflexive about the roles they play, and to bring more confessions, such as his, to the literature.

The volume also steps outside of the UNESCO-ICH paradigm with a section of chapters brought together under the theme of "Cultural Values and Community Involvement beyond UNESCO." The examination of more organic and grass-roots heritage projects at the local, community level is just as important the research on the broader arts and culture enterprise within which the heritage regime operates. Cyril Isnart offers an ethnographic investigation of the work of Catholic communities on the island of Rhodes, Greece, in keeping alive their heritage outside of "official cultural heritage institutions." Bendix looks to the politics of cultural sponsorship and patronage as an often-overlooked source of heritage valorization and cultural value construction, astutely highlighting that UNESCO is part of sponsorship and patronage mechanisms, particularly at national levels. Along with other well-argued and insightful chapters, Between Imagined Communities and Communities of Practice provides an important and timely contribution to the growing, critical ICH discourse that is a must-read for all who are interested in the power dynamics of the heritage and culture sectors.




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