Theoretical Groundings

The content of the works written by myself throughout this blog will primarily focus on gathering and interpreting of facts and stories about the sites and issues studied here.  In my academic work, I tend to prefer to work up from objective levels of information through to more subjective, existential and decisional levels of analysis, focusing on how the collected data reveals larger scale patterns for interpretation, rather than just starting with “Theory” and applying it down to make the data fit.  This process is one I learned through exposure to the analytical methods of the Institute for Cultural Affairs, but have also encountered repeatedly in similar forms in the scholarship of several professors with whom I have worked over the years both at Middlebury College and at Cornell University.

This does not, however, mean that I do not take into account any theoretical works or concepts, merely that I am cautious about only using theory to describe social and historical processes when the theory can address questions that the data clearly brings up.  A number of examples of how I have attempted in my past work to use theoretical frameworks to complement my interpretations of concrete examples can be found in the four long essays I have posted in the relevant sections of this website.  These essays are on the relationships between international heritage policies and identity narratives, particularly as seen in the work of UNESCO; the imperialist vs. nationalist critiques that commonly arise in discussions of international heritage policies and whether UNESCO’s World Heritage projects can constitute a middle ground between the two sides; how different narratives of authenticity are created and marketed to add value to historical and pseudo-historical objects and sites; and, finally, how UNESCO’s theoretical ideals for World Heritage Sites and therefore for the World Heritage Site of Angkor Archaeological Park could promote local sustainability, but fail to do so sufficiently in the face of the complicated politics and economics that have arisen around Angkor since its designation as World Heritage and subsequent promotion as a prominent cultural-tourism destination.  In each of these and in my other, less-extended work, I have primarily used others’ theoretical work to inform how I analyze the methods and biases of relevant stakeholders, rather than to directly answer the questions raised by my studies.

Many of those works that have influenced my interpretations of these case studies can be found in my site bibliography, which is under the same “About” drop-down menu as this particular page.

A number of them are anthropologists, who have analyzed what “cultural heritage” means and how it relates to the formation of cultural identity narratives.  High among these are David Gillman, with his book The Idea of Cultural Heritage, Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta, with their commentaries and chosen essays in their edited collection Heritage and Identity: Engagement and Demission in the Contemporary World, Georg Simmel’s “The Stranger,” and, most importantly, Michael A. di Giovine, with his book The Heritage-Scape: UNESCO, World Heritage and Tourism.  A number of archaeologists dealing with the protection and marketing of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East, South-East Asia, southern Europe, Britain, Australia and the United States of America have also been quite useful for elaborating for me on theories of how heritage is formed, why people care about it, why they react the way they do to when it is threatened or controlled by foreign parties, and what the major arguments are for retention by particularist groups and universal museums. This has required an understanding of theories of cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and the critiques of each.  Complementing this, I have found the works of Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Eric Hobsbawm on the subjectivity of history, and the invention of tradition to be particularly useful, as their commentaries on the processes by which are made narratives of truth and significance are relevant to critiquing those on either side of debates over the ownership and presentation of heritage in all its forms.

Adding to this mix have been the lawyers and cultural-policy advisers, Francesco Francioni, Federico Lenzerini, Riccardo Pavoni, James Gordley, and, to a lesser extent, Herbert Larson and Matthew Bogdanos, all of whom had been my professors at the Tulane-Siena Institute for International Law, Cultural Heritage and the Arts.  In counterpoint to them and to several of the anthropologists and archaeologists I mentioned above are John Henry Merryman and James Cuno, with whom I am somewhat less inclined to agree but still provide much valuable food for thought.

The fields of studying sustainable development and the art world’s place in urban revitalization are the newest for me, personally, and therefore I have much yet to learn before I have a fully rounded perspective on the various methods and theories for analysis that experts in those fields debate and use.  However, thus far I have found David Throsby’s work, both in articles and books, to be exceptionally applicable to my studies. Throsby is an expert in cultural policy in various forms, and particularly seems concerned with how the arts – both in museums and in curated fora for heritage, among others – can boost both the economy and community cohesion of an area if those arts are managed in a productive and sustainable fashion.  He analyzes relevant types of artistic/heritage environments and then provides suggestions for how cultural resource management can be improved based on the patterns that arise from either flawed or successful cultural policy systems.  Most useful to me so far have been Throsby’s book The Economics of Cultural Policy, and articles by him and others in the edited collection Cultural Tourism and Sustainable Local Development.

The most significant single book that I have encountered thus far in my research has been Michael A. di Giovine’s The Heritage-Scape, as I referenced briefly before.  This extensive study of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, their meta-narrative of “unity-in-diversity” and the international “heritage-scape” they create through cross-cultural touristic interactions and movements successfully integrates both a wide range of detailed, concrete examples and theoretical insights based on Appadurai, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Mazzarella, Bourdieu, Anderson, and others.  The Heritage-Scape presents well-developed and quite convincing theories on the rhetoric behind UNESCO’s World Heritage List, how the monumentality of its sites and their cultural significance mediates the narratives communicated through touristic visits and politically-biased curation, how the touristic emphasis for many World Heritage Sites contributes to UNESCO’s goals of peace-making through the production of a cross-cultural identity celebrating both commonalities and diversities, and how all these processes become complicated through the practical logistics of inscribing World Heritage Sites, making these sites into suitable touristic destinations, preserving the physical and cultural elements of these sites that give them their importance, and navigating the discrepancies in value between UNESCO and national political agendas.  (Yes, I know that’s a lot – it’s a long book…) As a result, it unites a range of issues concerning the production and reception of cultural destinations, with many relevant examples, original insights and commentaries on previous scholarship from several different fields.  The concepts promoted in this book, both those di Giovine developed and those he elaborated on from others, influence all of the research papers I have yet done in this field, as well as the course I taught this fall, and I expect will continue to be useful for my future work.

On another note, Professor Magnus Fiskesjo, through the readings, lectures and discussion in his course “Global Movements of Cultural Heritage,” has been quite helpful in building my interest in discussions of value and how value is determined.  This adds to work I did last year on the valuation of authenticity for Professor Cheryl Finley’s course “The Art Market” and some of the above topics of reading about the creation of narratives of significance, which are themselves a form of valuation.  Through reflection on discussions in his class on value, I have realized that this is a common thread throughout many of my interests in the cultural heritage field, including this most recent path to studying how cultural tourism can affect sustainability, as sustainable measures include consideration of disparate stakeholders’ value systems.  Similarly, the reading group in which I participated this fall with Professor Finley, and my fellow graduate students Natasha Bissonauth and Hannah Ryan, was useful for addressing theories of what distinguishes various types of travelers and tourists, as well for thinking about what makes somewhere a destination for cultural or heritage tourism.  In particular, concepts of the rhizome, diasporic returns, destination-making, cosmopolitanism and the semiotics of tourism provided intriguing food for thought within this reading group.  I would like to thank both of these professors and my insightful classmates for their reading suggestions and for their own commentaries on theories that stretched the way I think.

Additionally, I would like to thank Professors Sherene Baugher and Jeff Chusid for greatly expanding my understanding of the importance of and opportunities for community involvement in cultural sites, museums and object-curation, Professor Viranjini Munasinghe for teaching me about the major scholarly ideas out there on how cultural identities form and change, Professor Lori Khatchadourian for teaching me about how archaeology and culture are used politically, and both of those latter two for giving me opportunities to apply those topics to my studies of cultural policy.

One Response to Theoretical Groundings

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