Cultural relations graphic design depicting icons of the world, buildings, speech bubbles and map points
The Cultural Relations Collection brings together thematic essays reflecting on the theory and practice of international cultural relations. Image ©

British Council

The Cultural Relations Collection explores the work of the British Council and reflects on our approach to cultural relations around the globe. 

The authors of the essays – early-career and established researchers from a range of academic backgrounds and disciplines – draw on the work of the British Council to examine the theory and practice of cultural relations. 

The essays touch on different thematic areas connected to the work of the British Council: from how the concept of cultural relations has evolved, though to the contribution that cultural relations approaches can make to address global issues – peacebuilding and climate change in particular. 

Another topic that the essays explore is the link between cultural relations, cultural diplomacy and foreign policy.

The authors further examine the role that arts, education, exams and assessment and the English language play in building trust and understanding between the UK and other countries.

The Collection

The 2023 edition explores how cultural relations can contribute to peacebuilding in different settings and contexts.

The recognition of divergent voices: The role of artistic expressions in shaping the conditions for a long-term positive peace

Daniela Fazio Vargas and Carlos Pineda-Ramos consider the role of the arts to make visible what may previously have been hidden, as well as to imagine new futures. They make a powerful case for artistic expression as a means by which different voices can be elevated and building a space in which difference is recognised and valued, and that only in this way, can true peace be achieved.

Science for peace?: A history of the British Council’s cultural relations 

Alice Naisbitt examines the role of science as a peacebuilding tool in two ways: that the connections built reinforce the trust vital to harmonious relations; and that the outcomes of scientific co-operation address drivers of conflict, such as resource scarcity.

Deep listening as an approach to tackle polarisation

Emily Kasriel examines a concept at the heart of peacebuilding – listening. Her essay on deep listening illustrates an approach that prepares individuals for encounters across any divides they find within their communities, however they are experiencing conflict. Drawing on both theory and practice, she draws out the transformational nature of this method, and the impact it has had on individuals and communities around the world, enabling them to truly see, hear and understand the person opposite them.

Cultural Relations and Cultural Diplomacy in a Pariah State: The British Council in South Africa, 1958–1994 

Daniel Feather explores the fascinating history of educational co-operation between the UK and South Africa, including through the apartheid era when South Africa was globally isolated. He draws the distinction between cultural diplomacy and cultural relations, although highlights where those lines can become blurred. While not uncritical of the role of the UK and the British Council over this period, his essay makes a powerful argument for the place of education in supporting a country’s transition from structural violence to a more equitable and peaceful state.

Sport, cultural relations and peacebuilding

Grant Jarvie explores the link between sports and diplomacy and suggests a more prominent role for sport in development, particularly in peacebuilding, given its emphasis on team spirit, co-operation, and solidarity.

Local peacebuilding and cultural relations work

George R. Wilkes, Sohaib Ashraf, Muhammed Yassin Hammami and Abdulstaar Kriwi consider the role of the cultural relations organisation in bridging the local and the global; the need not to overlook the smallest detail of any given conflict, while still recognising the power of building links across borders and amplifying the voice of those affected by conflict.

Enabling [dis]abled artists across culture and arts fosters positive peace in Nepal

Nar Bahadur Saud reminds us that before the arts can support peace and justice, they too must recognise difference. His contribution centres on the need to empower and enable disabled people to express themselves through the arts, and that in doing so not only addresses the inequalities they face as individuals but will contribute to more equitable and peaceful societies.

The 2021 edition – part of the British Council’s Climate Connection – looks at how cultural relations can contribute to the goal of more equitable, intercultural climate action.

Not (just) a protest: the Youth Strike for Climate as cultural exchange and collaborative text

Chloé Germaine Buckley and Benjamin Bowman discuss the School Strike for Climate, the global movement initiated by Greta Thunberg in August 2018. They consider the strikes as a form of global cultural exchange and a process that envisions the world as it could be. The authors draw on a range of materials produced by young people, from informal protest signs to songs. 

Rethinking the unthinkable: what can educational engagements with culture offer the climate crisis?

Charlotte Nussey considers the ways in which education and cultural relations offers lessons, new ideas and ways of talking and listening about the climate emergency. Nussey argues that the climate emergency cannot be addressed by technical responses and innovations alone, but requires a socio-cultural response, inclusive of culture and education. The essay spotlights the Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate project, and how higher education institutions in the Global South contribute to tackling climate change.

Empowering a world without fossil fuels: a crisis of culture

Sam McNeilly addresses the relative failure of communicating climate change. Rooted in the ‘energy humanities’, Mcneilly argues that effectively communicating the climate emergency requires increased attention to what drives it: the culture of fossil fuels. Cultural relations can serve to ensure justice is central to shifts away from fossil fuels and transforming existing cultural practices. 

Emergencies, emergences, engagement: cultural relations and climate action

Carla Figueira and Aimee Fullman argue for the need to avoid distant, apocalyptic visions of climate change. Instead, they suggest telling ‘better stories’ about where we want to go and the sort of world we want to live in. They argue that cultural relations, and cultural relations organisations, can play a key role in shaping this new framing of climate change. Cultural relations is an underutilised resource in addressing the climate emergency, and cultural relations organisations have an important part to play. 

Making sense of climate change in the digital age

Nina Schuller argues that new communication technologies may be a double-edged sword. They stretch outwards and bringing people closer together, or being used as a vehicle for promoting certain interpretations of the world over others. Using Wikipedia as a case study, Schuller notes how our knowledge of climate change is subjected to the politics of translation. In this context, Schuller discusses how non-Western knowledges often give way to Eurocentric epistemologies. 

An obtuse triangle: the nexus between digital skills, soft power and climate change mitigation in Georgia

Jessica Gosling discusses the ‘obtuse triangle’ of unusual suspects: climate change mitigation, soft power and digital skills, using the nation of Georgia as a case study. Gosling argues that digital skills, ‘vital instruments of soft power’, are crucially important for building a low-carbon economy and prosperity in the south Caucasian country. Given that climate change is a global emergency, the exchange of information between different cultures and regions of the world becomes crucial for climate mitigation. 

The 2021 edition also includes essays which explore the power of coming together, of interacting and collaborating, written in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has reshaped the meaning of encounter.

Cities and everyday ‘endotic’ cultural relations

Will Haynes explores the particular type of cultural relations generated by people going about their daily lives in urban environments, bringing together analysis of ordinary encounters in three global cities – Cape Town, Guangzhou and Rome. The essay argues that, while hyper-localised, these ‘endotic’ interactions reflect and influence intercultural encounters at a global level. It highlights how cultural relations is not a static experience, but a fluid one.

Contemporary festivals in Sub-Saharan Africa

Poppy Spowage shows how arts festivals across the African continent are innovating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – not only out of economic necessity, but also to find new ways to meet their creative goals and wider ambitions. The essay considers both the personal and the socioeconomic impacts of culture, arguing that both have significant value and warning that too much focus on the latter risks damaging the former. 

Astronomy as a catalyst for cultural relations

Hannah Dalgleish looks at astronomy as a global scientific endeavour, exploring the culture of astronomers and their collaborations, and how these relationships have developed over time. The essay shows how astronomy has generated intercultural encounters throughout its history. It goes on to explore how the discipline has emerged today as a site for international development co-operation. It considers what this tells us about cultural relations, with a particular focus on South Africa and the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy programme. 

Science communication and digital cultural relations during a pandemic

Gary Kerr draws on the example of the British Council partnership programme FameLab to explore the notion and nature of science communication as a form of cultural relations. The essay considers how the programme builds cultural connections and understanding by the global sharing of knowledge and ideas. It goes on to address how these cultural relations goals and results were affected by the rapid shift to digital delivery of the programme in 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 2020 edition explores the role of cultural relations in building shared values – using case studies from the British Council’s work in Jordan, Nigeria and Myanmar.

Debating and intercultural relations in Jordan 

Floresca Karanàsou and Elie Gemayel explore the value of debate for young Jordanians in connecting locally and globally with different ideas and youth in neighbouring countries and the UK. They call for further examination of the resonance of debating, its role in Jordanian society and the approaches of foreign organisations working with young people in the region. 

How local contexts adapt Shakespeare

Chidi Ezegwu provides a conceptual and empirical overview of how local contexts translate and creolise Shakespeare. With an analysis of Shakespeare’s 'Two Noble Kinsmen' in Nigerian Pidgin English, the essay brings together ideas concerning public meaning, art and syncretism. It contributes to current debates about the role and status of language in post-colonial cultural relations. 

The comparative and historical impact of the UK’s cultural relations in Myanmar

Su Lin Lewis presents a historical and comparative perspective on the impact of the UK’s soft power and cultural relations efforts in Myanmar, examining five phases of British engagement with civil society in the country. The essay demonstrates the subtle ways in which cultural influence and attraction operate over time within a specific regional and geopolitical context. 

The 2019 collection highlights the role that arts, education, exams and assessment and the English language play in building trust and understanding. It also explores the relationship between cultural relations, soft power, development and foreign policy.

The English language in cultural relations

Martin Rose provides a detailed analysis of the factors that enable intercultural relations through the English language. While acknowledging the potentially dominating power of English as a global language, the essay shows how trust and reciprocal cultural relations can nevertheless arise. It also argues that, with the rise of digital communication and artificial intelligence, modes and manners of communication in English are increasingly moving beyond anyone’s control.

English language assessment as cultural relations 

Barry O’Sullivan and Mina Patel draw on the academic literature and recent evaluations to reflect on English language assessment as a cultural relations activity. They argue that a cultural relations approach can be traced in both the British Council’s commercial and charitable work in assessment since 1941. They show how, by engaging with individual examination candidates, as well as with education ministries, our activities have built trust and respect.

The role of the UK in strengthening global school systems

Psyche Kennett and Jill Knight highlight how national cultural institutes such as the British Council connect not just with global educational goals but intensively with national priorities. The essay provides empirical evidence at a cross-national level from 28 countries where we operate and analyses specific cases from three countries in greater depth. 

The impact of Going Global conferences on international higher education

Murray Saunders and John McGovern offer an external evaluation of the British Council’s annual Going Global Conference, which has brought together leaders in international higher education since 2004. The essay uses the Going Global conference case study to argue that higher education is a soft power asset. It also shows how Going Global has evolved over time to create a space for mutual learning and exchange. This has involved exhibiting central qualities of cultural relations: reciprocity and exchange among a diversity of players leading to mutual benefit. 

The cultural turn in international development

JP Singh examines the place of culture in international development activity. He argues that culture as a final product is at the root of cultural diplomacy, while international development interventions focus on the process. The essay posits that both process and product are part of cultural relations. It gives analytical centre stage to initiatives and responses from countries and societies that are targets of soft power or recipients of development aid. It shifts the emphasis from external actors and institutions to the cultural mores and expressions that overlay international development discourse and practice.

Introductory essay: cultural relations and our relationship to foreign policy goals

JP Singh reviews the ways the concept of cultural relations has evolved, and its relationship to the foreign policy goals of the UK government. It reviews our contributions from two perspectives covered in the essays in this collection. These are the ability of the British Council to work with societies and organisations culturally, and the diverse methodologies that can be employed to reflect on and assess the impact of such efforts. 

See also