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Cultural diversity as a battleground

Posted on May 1, 2015 by in issue #04 |


By Goran Tomka

Researcher and lecturer at the Faculty of Sport and Tourism in Novi Sad, and UNESCO Chair in cultural policy and management from Belgrade, Serbia.



Cultural diversity as a battleground.


As Anderson reminds us (1991), nation is “the imagined community”, and this “imagination” has to be enabled, taught, promoted, supported or, if all else fails, forced. However, many groups and individuals for numerous reasons (want to) stay out of this exercise of unity. For one reason or another, claims for diversity have intensified after the Second World War, when rethinking the homogeneous national state has become a common place throughout the world (Helly, 2002; Paquet, 2008; Meer, 2012). Among the new approaches to the management of cultural diversity, multiculturalism became a widely popular solution early on (Modood, 1997; Kymlicka, 2007). As any other solution, it had to be pushed forward. “The concrete benefits of multicultural citizenship include higher levels of naturalization, greater incorporation into the political system, and less violent debates about the accommodation of diversity” (Bloemrad, 2007, p. 170-171).

As we see, applying certain policy solution comes with a whole package of promises. After the ‘fall of multiculturalism’, intercultural dialogue became the new policy mantra, and just like before, it has been attributed almost magical powers. It is said that it “can produce social cohesion, economic boost and fulfilment of human rights as well as conflicts, segregation and wars” (Paquet, 2008, p. 84). Other approaches are also in the arena, fighting for their share of attention and influence: transculturalism (Welsch, 1999), cosmopolitanism (Cuccioletta, 2001/2002), transnationalism (Meinhof, Triandafyllidou, 2008) and so on. All of these strategies – together with several types of nationalism – gain and lose their popularity, but they rarely disappear.

However, despite the fact that all these discourses are dealing with dissent and plurality of identities in different ways, they all seem to share a singular “nodal point” – the notion of cultural diversity. From multiculturalist to cosmopolitan camps, authors would probably agree with the following dictionary entry for cultural diversity: “the existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups within a society” or the “presence of a variety of cultures and cultural perspectives within a society” as Parekh would define it (2002, p. 165). Over the years this definition has been naturalized and this process is probably best visible in the main international reference point to cultural diversity – UNESCO’s own Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity from 2001. In now omnipresent statement, authors claim that “cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature” (UNESCO, 2001). Since there could be no arguments or subjective positions in relation to biodiversity, cultural diversity should also have the same status (as Barthes has posited, the highest form of myth is to become natural, thus unquestionable).

As an ideal or anti-ideal (in the case of ultra-nationalism and fascism), cultural diversity is most often referred to as a socio-cultural condition of one society. The main determinant is the existence of various cultural expressions. However, inside the rich multiculturalism debate, it has become somewhat obvious that cultural diversity is not all that neutral (and natural). The moment national states have launched policies aimed at promoting or protecting cultural diversity, as early as in the Sixties (Kymlicka, 2007), cultural diversity has also stood for a political agenda or a goal. In such a context, cultural diversity is not an objective condition, it is a political process. As Homi Bhabha argues ‘‘creation of cultural diversity’’ implies ‘‘a containment of cultural difference’’ (in Bennett et al, p.86). In a way, these two fields become somewhat autonomous. Another case is Tony Bennett’s edited study of differing diversities in which he makes a difference between “in situ minorities” and minorities that are the result of international migrations of people over the national borders, thus signaling that there are in fact many cultural diversities out there with various “destinies”. In his influential text, Bennett (2001) makes a distinction between cultural diversity policy and “claims to difference” by individuals and groups. However this is not only the usual top-down, bottom-up dichotomy, it signals that cultural diversity is a highly contestable, negotiable and dynamic notion.

In fact, the dynamic notion of cultural diversity calls for a definition that will recognize the dynamics and plurality of meanings. Following the cosmopolitan theorising by Vertovec and Cohen (2002), I would like to argue that cultural diversity could be understood as: (1) a socio-cultural condition; (2) a political project aiming to accommodate multiple cultural identities; (3) personal /or group worldview that argues for the greater diversity of cultural expressions in a certain social context; (4) and a battleground – a distinct social and political sphere in which many actors fight for the resources to express their cultural identity.

The first one, a condition, is the one a national report would call for when they conclude that a society is culturally diverse for it has 20 officially recognized minorities. As a political project, cultural diversity would entail the support for arts (institutions, events, artists) that celebrate diversity; establishment special funds and awards for supporting minority cultures, or financing of educational programmes aimed at increasing intercultural learning, mediation (Dragićević-Šešić, 2004), competence (Deardorff, 2010) or sensitivity (Bennett, 1993). As a personal stance, cultural diversity is present whenever some free agents in the society (journalists, artists, producers, teachers, curators, historians, etc.) promote, advocate for, recommend and implement various activities that contain the expression of various cultural positions.

However, the last part of the definition, the one that claims that cultural diversity is a battleground, means that many interest groups are competing not only for the way cultural diversity ought to be promoted, protected or managed, but also for the very definition(s) of cultural diversity(ies). Let me explain this by analysing the case of European Union’s cultural diplomacy agenda in the region of South-East Europe after the fall of Berlin wall and the dissolution of Socialist Yugoslavia.

Cultural diversity and EU’s cultural diplomacy

Cultural diversity, or the “unity in diversity” has early become an emblem of European Union political discourse (Lähdesmäki, 2012). In the preamble of Union’s founding document (EC, 1992, p.3), unity in diversity has been formulated as a desire “to deepen the solidarity between [member states’] peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions”. Cultural diversity has been promoted both inside the Union and in external relations as a crucial part of the imaginary set of “European values”. These values have also become a guideline for further integration of European countries into the EU after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (EC, 1992). Ever since, EU’s cultural diplomacy has always orbited around the idea of tolerance, intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity.

Parallel to the development of EU, countries that have once been a part of Socialist Yugoslavia – Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia – have at the same time, during the Nineties, ended up in the series of civil wars that lasted in some extent more than a decade. This has happened despite the Yugoslavia’s strong focus on “brotherhood and unity” in all cultural, media and education policies and the fact that the country had a highly progressive multicultural policy agenda. In relation to war and post-war situation in the region, EU has been highly engaged in promoting cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue in the region (both as a common foreign policy as well as individual nations’ foreign policies). Thus, from the point of view of West Balkan countries striving for EU after the 2000, adopting cultural diversity as a policy agenda has become a high priority, especially in cultural policy debates (Dragićević-Šešić, Tomka 2014).

However, as I have noted earlier, we need to see what kind of diversity is promoted or protected. One way to do this would be to follow EU’s instruments of cultural policy and projects and activities of local institutions and organizations supported through these instruments. Participating in the two-year research project that had such idea in mind, while analysing over a hundred projects and all granting schemes of EU in the previous period, we have seen several waves of cultural diversity themes and topics both inside individual project’s aims and EU’s programmes. Watching from the Serbian context, during the Nineties and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as in 10 years that succeeded (until 2004), main focus was the reestablishment of international cooperation and interethnic dialogue between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. Second wave started with the war in Kosovo (1999) and lasts until now, in which cooperation with Albanians from Albania and Kosovo is the highest priority. Since neighbouring countries of East Europe have become a part of the Union (Hungary and Slovakia in 2004 and in 2007 Romania and Bulgaria), free expression of minority ethnic cultures of Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks, and intercultural dialogue inside borders and cross-borders have been an important goal. Finally, after 2010, a fourth wave of cultural diversity has come to include non-ethnic internal minorities, mostly LGBT community.

The case of European Union cultural diplomacy actions in the West Balkans, which revolve around cultural diversity, is particularly interesting because it offers us a chance to rethink definition of cultural diversity. In that sense, we could ask what is the nature of “cultural diversity” that the EU is promoting through its cultural diplomacy? Following the four definitions that I have offered in the first part, it is definitely not promoting the “the existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups within a society”, since that would require some forms of movement of people to the region. Is it then promoting the accommodation of multiple cultural identities as a political agenda? Definitely yes, and together with the Council of Europe, these actions have seen some results in the changing of the cultural policy landscape. Finally, EU policies in the region have also supported expression of various marginalized “cultures” through the institutional support of numerous activist organizations and it has provided a discourse in which it is easier to defend cultural rights based on the “European values” of cultural diversity.

However, is the inclusion of various ethnic and sexual communities all there is to cultural diversity? In my opinion, it is certainly not. There are many kinds of cultural diversities that are missing from the picture. This is why I would like to invoke a fourth definition of cultural diversity in which claiming diversity is the active process of defining it, and by defining diversity also defining identities. In the process, ideologies, interests and identities are shaped, legitimized, included and excluded. It is particularly important to ask what kinds of diversities are excluded and why. While many spring to my mind, the two I find particularly interesting to discuss are the diversity in economic wealth and diversity of supra-national identities. Let me delve deeper into these two cases.

The Haves and Have Nots

If we align with the “anthropological definition” of culture as a whole way of life, than without much debate we could agree that there is something that we could call the culture of rich and the culture of the poor. Many sociological research, most notably Bourdieu, has found that the economic wealth correlates with specific taste and forms and types of cultural practices. These findings have become a cornerstone for democratic cultural policies with their aim to make cultural participation financially accessible, amongst other things. Although financial accessibility is still promoted in many national contexts across the Union, when it comes to EU foreign policy (as well as the national foreign policy of individual states), financial accessibility, promotion of the cultures of poor people or intercultural dialogue between poor and rich has, strange enough, never been a part of any cultural policy programme. Even writing now about intercultural dialogue between poor and rich sounds awkward. In the batch of analysed projects supported by EU, there is not a single project that even mentions poverty or richness or any related notions.

Is it that poverty or economic disparities are not relevant for the Serbian context? Hardly. If statistics are right, the economic inequality in Serbia over the last decade has seen a dramatic increase. In 2003, 43.912 families had been entitled to social benefits, while in 2013 this number has more than doubled to 103.874 families. Currently, 24,6% of Serbia’s population is under the risk of poverty according to the National Institute for Statistics. So why is it then that EU’s cultural programmes and supported local projects are not sensitive to economic wealth of beneficiaries or that culture of the poor is not articulated and expressed in these projects? One could only speculate, but it is clear that not all diversities are equal. There are some that are more desired and pushed forward and some that are less. Ethnic diversity has been a part of Europeanization discourse from the beginning (as we have seen). Thus, promoting interethnic and international dialogue abroad fits well with a desired image of EU. On the other hand, capitalist logic behind the process of European integration is not welcoming to the idea of showcasing economic inequalities. Images of poor people could undermine the main capitalist ideal in which the market will take care of everyone. In any sense, it becomes clear that cultural diversity is not a request for the free expression of cultural identities of all kinds, but only some. Let us look at another example.

Non-European Europeans

Ever since the first modern travellers from the West roamed through the Balkan Peninsula, they have noted in their travel diaries that there is something quite Non-European despite it is deep inside the European continent. This specific “symbolic geography” of the Balkans has been written about extensively, maybe most notably by Maria Todorova’s Said-inspired book Imagining the Balkans (Todorova, 1997). She writes that the Balkans has through modern history been a European “internal other”, occupying a peculiar liminal space of “in-betweenness”, an Oriental Europe, or East for the West and West for the East. Internally, looking from the Balkans outside, this position has produced what Živković calls a symbolic “gradient of vilification” (Živković, 2012), which stretches from the North-West of the Balkan Peninsula towards the South-East, between the never-to-be-reached ideal of Viennese high culture and always present threat of falling into Ottoman cultural backwardness. Constant reaching for ideals that are out of reach has been explained by other authors by the Semi-peripheral position of the region that is always looking up at Europe, without much success of becoming one (Spasić, 2014):

    [Semi-periphery] always falls behind, yet it is not distanced enough from the Centre to develop its own evaluation scale. So, it always measures itself by the scale of the Centre. (p. 17). Centre can be the enemy, the role model, an object of worship or a thing to hate, but in any case it is the single most important reference point in cultural and identity struggles taking place in these societies during the whole era of modernisation, from the beginning of 19th century onwards (p. 186) … [As a result] deficiency of the true subjectivity and agency is felt on all levels of social organization (p. 188)

Despite the fact that this Semi-peripheral position (explained in one way or another) has been an important symbolic marker for the whole culture of the region, it hasn’t been explored by projects, organizations and events that were part of the EU’s cultural diplomacy of the region (with some very solitary exceptions). At the same time, process of Europeanization of the Balkans has been promoted by the majority of supported projects, however not in a critical way. Intercultural dialogue between West and South-East of the continent is usually articulated as the EU vs. Non-EU dialogue (but with the unmistakably southern flavour – not to be confused with Iceland, Norway or Switzerland). In a weird way, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia (and Greece several decades before) have in political communication seized to be part of the symbolic Balkans once they have become a part of the Union (hence the invention of the new political term West Balkans to denote a true “other” Balkans). However, they have hardly lost their marginal position in a wider symbolic geography. Artistic exploration of this shared position of Balkan countries can be a legitimate and much needed practice, just like dialogue between Semi-periphery and Centre (and not EU vs. Non-EU which hides the inequalities). Although these positions are still felt intimately, they are not publicly explored since they are not part of the desirable topics of EU’s cultural diversity policies and programmes.


As I have tried to demonstrate in the case of EU’s cultural diplomacy in the Balkans, there are numerous ways of looking at cultural diversity, just as there are many cultural diversities. Some are pushed forward (views and diversities), while others are hidden. Thus, cultural diversity is not a neutral “measure of societal richness”, but in fact a continually negotiated social construct and a space in which other social construct are being shaped. As Chaney notices for culture, it is at the same time the aim and the terrain for symbolic social struggles (Chaney 1996 according to Spasić, 2014).

This way of understanding cultural diversity opens many questions for all those that deal with promoting, advocating or supporting cultural diversity. What are these questions about? Above all – about power. Denaturalisation of cultural diversity as a solid fact, and treating it as a dynamic process of construction, means that positions of power become more visible. All constructs, including cultural diversity, require resources to be shaped. This is where financing of cultural diversity projects by cultural policy-makers brings together two types of actors with highly disproportionate power. Cultural agendas have the power to define which cultural diversities are to be promoted and which are not. However, if we start from the democratic principle, cultural operators at the field are the ones who have a higher awareness of what kind of cultural expressions need support and empowerment in the project. At the same time, instruments of cultural policy should be more sensitive to multiple and “other” concepts of cultural diversity. At the end of the day, concept of cultural diversity largely influences the distribution of power in one society.

Questions for further discussion

1. What does de-naturalized view on cultural diversity bring to your professional practice?

2. Which cultural diversities are promoted and supported in your context and which are not?

3. Which cultural diversity do you find important as a topic of cultural/artistic exploration in your context?

4. Which resources are needed for uncommon cultural diversities to be explored and promoted?



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Goran Tomka

Goran Tomka

Author: Goran Tomka is a researcher and lecturer at the Faculty of Sport and Tourism in Novi Sad, and UNESCO Chair in cultural policy and management from Belgrade, Serbia. He holds his master degree in Cultural policy and management from the University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia and University Lyon 2 from Lyon, France. His research interests include audience studies, new media, cultural diversity and cultural policy and management. He has also been active as a trainer, activist and cultural manager working for several cultural organizations in Novi Sad, Belgrade and Berlin and giving workshops and leading seminars to numerous activists, entrepreneurs and professionals in Armenia, Bosnia, Germany, Greece, Lebanon, Serbia and Slovenia.

Header image: Dasic Fernández Seguir on Flickr. Diversity in Harmony_ NY