In the twenty-first century, many factors contribute to the increasing likelihood of cultural conflicts. These factors include the advances in technology and changing economic structures that are bringing more people from different backgrounds into contact as well as the postmodern understanding of identity, which views identity development as the outcome of complex personal choices. In addition, individual and group receptivity and tolerance for change plays a role in many cultural conflicts. However, while these factors can lead to increased conflict, they do not necessarily need to. A postmodern perspective also acknowledges that increased contact among people who are willing to explore and tolerate cultural differences can lead to greater cross-cultural understanding and thus, fewer conflicts. This article examines cultural conflict from a postmodern perspective.
Keywords Civilizations; Cultural Competence; Culture; Cultural Conflict; Globalization; Hegemony; Identity; Intercultural Communication; Multicultural Societies; Nation-State; Postmodernism; Secular Society; Transnationalism; UNESCO
Social Change: Cultural Conflict in Postmodern Society
Cultural Conflict in Postmodern Society
Cultural conflicts are not new. History is replete with examples of members of one cultural group contacting and then conquering or adapting to another cultural group. But in the last few decades, what may be new is the accelerated pace at which cultures are coming into contact and intermingling. This is due in part to advances in technology and in part to economic forces that are creating an increasingly interdependent world. Also new is a postmodern realization that what we define as culture and how we define ourselves is often the product of a complex series of choices, many of which have political and social impacts that can increase or decrease the likelihood of cultural conflict. The result of these combined forces is that social changes are occurring at a rapid pace. Some of these changes are spurred by cultural conflicts and some produce new conflicts.
Two central concepts underlying many cultural conflicts in the world are change and identity. How much change is acceptable to an individual, group of individuals, or even a nation of individuals? And what choices will individuals, groups, and nations make in the process of defining and redefining their identities to respond to social realities? To get a better sense of how these factors influence cultural conflicts, examples are useful.
Consider the case of Tepoztlán, a small village in central Mexico. In the mid-1990s, local people were appalled to find that the government had plans to approve the development of communal, private, and state-owned lands with a $500 million luxury golf course and country club. The people resisted. In this case, the Tepoztlán citizens felt that the development would threaten traditional ways of life in the community. In a months-long dispute, the villagers created a campaign that highlighted the communal and land-based customs of their people. Their campaign pitted the culture of a global economic system that favors profit-making against a local culture that values communal living, mutual obligation, and a sense of shared identity. The campaign led to a political standoff that was broken only when state police shot and killed one activist and injured several others. These acts eventually led to a backlash that forced the government to give up plans for the development (Stolle-McAllister, 2007).
The cultural conflict in this example entails both core concepts of change and identity. For the people of Tepoztlán, the possibility of change brought on by world economic forces that might have seemed out of their control spurred action that involved closely defining identity. In this case, the people became involved in a deep discussion about what their cultural values and community identity should be within a modern world. This discussion led them to take action to reject the development and that action led them to strengthen their community identity.
For some, this example might not seem like an example of cultural conflict because the conflict occurs technically, within one culture — Mexican. However, culture is defined broadly as a way of life of a group of people and the political boundaries that create a national identity are not the only source of cultural identity. In fact, political scientists argue that globalization has weakened the nation-state as a source of cultural identity. Their line of thought is that globalization has made the world smaller because individuals cross national boundaries in search of economic opportunities. This in turn has the effect of weakening people's ties to their home countries and national identities and leaves open the door for other sources of identity, such as a religious identity, to be strengthened (Huntington, 1993; Kivisto, 2002).
In 1993, political scientist Samuel Huntington responded to the myriad of political changes that had occurred in the previous decade, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, by arguing that the conflicts of the future would not be between nation-states but would instead be between civilizations. He argued that civilizations, which are considered to be the highest level of social grouping of a people, share basic ideas about the relationship between individuals in, and to, society and about how to organize the world. Because civilizations view the world so differently, do not change these views readily, and have been in conflict in the past, Huntington said that in light of modern economic, political, and social processes, they were likely to provide the basis for future conflicts.
Whether Huntington's predictions have or will come true is still up for debate. However, one element of civilization which has been a basis for recent world conflicts (conflicts that some have equated to a clash between civilizations) is religion. Religious conflicts come in many forms. For instance, a significant form of dispute occurs between groups of people who have different religions. In the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a long-standing example of this kind of dispute that has had serious political impacts around the world. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, two peoples, divided by two distinct religions, vie for the same parcels of land because their respective religious histories tell them that the land is theirs. This cultural conflict has impacts well beyond the borders of any one country, since other countries have tended to favor one side or the other in the conflict based on religious affiliation; thus, a clash of civilizations (Waxman, 2008).
Another form of religious conflict occurs when religion becomes pitted against modern or secular society. This can be seen in the rise of fundamentalist religious movements, which have occurred in most major religions and which tend to reject modern views on issues such as the structure of authority in society. Fundamentalist movements tend to view modern society as degrading religion and urge followers to read religious texts literally in order to reject modern interpretations that they believe are distorted (Khondker, 2006).
Conflicts between religious and secular society can also be seen when members of religious or ethnic groups advocate for their right to display their religious affiliation in secular environments. This has occurred more frequently in Europe and the United States as a result of increasing immigration by non-Christian individuals. In France, when three North...
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