Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity

Springer (forthcoming)
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UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2 November 2001) defines culture with an emphasis on cultural features: “culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group”, encompassing, “in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”. Cultural traits are also the primitive of mathematical models of cultural transmission inspired by population genetics, imported and refined by economics. Any serious evaluation of the notion of “cultural trait”, however, requires the interrogation of many disciplines, from cultural anthropology to linguistics, from psychology to archaeology to musicology. The very possibility of assuming the existence of cultural traits is not granted. In order to start a wide interdisciplinary confrontation, we need a sufficiently loose definition of a cultural trait as any trait whose production in individuals depends, to some extent, on social learning; and we need a deflationary interpretive horizon where cultural traits are not expected to provide an exhaustive theory of culture and cultural change. But from there, we can go a long way if each of the involved disciplines enters the debate with a self-presenting attitude, emphasizing its own methodological practices, and explaining whether and how cultural traits have a role in its own research programs and epistemic goals. Are there differences in aspects of culture that are studied by different disciplines? What definitions of cultural traits are on the table? How do we delimit a trait? How is the problem declined at different observational scales, and which scales are most in focus? Do traits travel in geographical space, and how? Are there other relevant spaces? How are traits modified in their diffusion? Is it possible and useful to build models of this diffusion? Only a strong multidisciplinary perspective can help to clarify these problems about cultural traits, by means of which we understand our precious heritage, cultural diversity.
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