Image of cultural relations word cloud
'Conceptual confusion can lead to differences in practice’. Image  ©

Open University, adapted from the original.

February 2018

A new review of the literature on Soft Power, Cultural Relations, and Cultural and Public Diplomacy teases out the real meanings of terms which are often confused and confusing - by looking at their history, theory, and practice.  It suggests that, given these complexities, any attempt to evaluate the activities they describe must itself also be complex, and must take account of the different contexts and different actors involved.  

The Cultural Value Project

As the world’s challenges become increasingly trans-national and other forms of international relations struggle to meet them, global cultural and educational connections can play an important role.  

The Cultural Value Project is a joint research project commissioned by the British Council and the Goethe-Institut, working in partnership with the Open University and the Hertie School of Governance. It aims to explore the different features of the UK and Germany’s approaches to cultural relations.  It will build a better understanding of the nature and value of such activities in terms of their ability to make a difference - in particular to supporting stability and prosperity in societies going through substantial change. 

As part of the research, the partners have undertaken a detailed literature review. This draws on a detailed investigation of the existing academic literature in German and English on cultural relations, soft power, and related concepts.  The main findings are summarised below:

Findings of the Literature Review

  • The term ‘cultural relations’ refers to interventions in foreign cultural arenas with the aim of enhancing intercultural dialogue and bringing about mutual benefits connected to security, stability and prosperity. There is no universally agreed definition of cultural relations. The conceptual confusion can lead to differences in practice, though it can also enable flexibility.

Just as there is no common definition of cultural relations, there is no one correct approach to good cultural relations, or simple method of evaluating them

  • Just as there is no common definition of cultural relations, there is no one correct approach to good cultural relations, or simple method of evaluating cultural relations.  Practitioners face very different cultural and geopolitical contexts. Effective cultural relations necessarily involve flexibly adapting programmes in ways that resonate with these contexts. 
  • ‘Cultural relations’ is primarily a practitioners’ term and often regarded as synonymous with ‘cultural diplomacy’, ‘public diplomacy’ and - for some - as contributing to their country’s ‘soft power’. These terms belong within the same broad semantic field and share many common features, but it is important to distinguish them.  Cultural relations practitioners aspire to genuine reciprocity and mutual understanding, while cultural and public diplomacy, and soft power, sometimes bear connotations of instrumentalism and self-interest.
  • The emphasis on the intrinsic versus instrumental value of culture varies between different institutions and countries. Some tend to eschew overt instrumentalist ambitions and instead stress intrinsic value, while others are more comfortable with a balancing act between intrinsic and instrumental goals.  The intrinsic value of cultural projects should remain paramount. But instrumental goals, when defined in ways that express mutual benefit, can and should be included for pragmatic purposes, and in response to changing funding regimes and requirements.

German cultural relations are founded on a ‘strong’ conception of culture (where culture is closely tied to national history, language and identity). In contrast, British cultural relations are based on a ‘weak’ conception of culture, emerging from a tradition of liberal individualism and British empiricism

  • Assessing the value of cultural relations in different countries and for different actors requires a range of methodologies that take diverse perspectives into account. It is important to situate the strategies and practices of cultural relations organisations like the Goethe-Institut and British Council within the wider histories of their countries to understand their distinctive approaches. German cultural relations are founded on a ‘strong’ conception of culture (where culture is closely tied to national history, language and identity). In contrast, British cultural relations are based on a ‘weak’ conception of culture, emerging from a tradition of liberal individualism and British empiricism. Germany and the UK have very similar goals in deploying culture relations to assist societies in transition.  But they have different modi operandi. 
  • The complex and nuanced nature of cultural relations suggests that attempts to evaluate them will themselves have to be sophisticated, nuanced, and sensitive to the different contexts in which they are taking place and different actors involved. 

The Cultural Value Project, the final report from which will be published later in 2018, aims to build and use a new and sophisticated method of evaluation for cultural relations.  It also seeks to create mutual awareness of convergences between German and British cultural relations as a foundation for closer dialogue, pragmatism, and cooperation in the future.

Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, British Council

See also