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March 2005
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Economics of culture; musing

Through recent readings on ethnomedical paradigms of treatment, the ethics of biomedical appropriation of traditional remedies, and the more general issue of cultural mimicry, my thinking on the exchange of knowledge has woken up momentarily.

The issues are complicated. How do you reimburse an indigenous people for their cultural knowledge? Is it even possible? If you, for example, are able to locate an herbal remedy for a disease through the guidance of a remote group, how to you go about remunerating them? What are the implications for their culture? Will the intrusion of a outside economic system have negative effects on their social structures and beliefs?

Other arguments have been made about Native American crafts and other products such as blue corn. Should their culture be protected so that only they derive economic benefits from it?

At first glance, this is problematic for logistical reason, if nothing else. But in the greater context of a world that brings cultures into constant contact and collision, cultural knowledge seems to be increasingly entering the public domain. From Westerners who exoticize the (mythological) East and claim allegiance to Buddhism to Middle Easterners who watch Western television via satellite to Easterners who fawn over Brittany Spears and look to Gap for their clothing needs, our modern world is one that is marked by cultural exchange. Economically, not all of this can be tracked and billed.

The danger that has been discussed increasingly since the 1960s is that of western cultural hegemony; in this view, Western culture spreads and takes over the world. While this is indeed a real danger, what is overlooked is the potential for cultures to seize and transform extra-cultural ideas and recreate them in ways that reaffirm their own values. This would be the most positive reading, of course, but nonetheless, readings of the state of the world must not overlook the possibility for agency among non-Western societies.

Without letting Westerners off the hook for their cultural colonialism, I still believe that the day in which cultural knowledge can be assigned a monetary value is passing, if indeed it ever existed. Information and practices move between increasingly porous boundaries, both international, intercultural, and intersocial. To seek to assign monetary values to cultural knowledge is to completely buy into the values of capitalism and market economy–the very values that are undermining native cultures.

I think this qualifies as a rock/hard place quandary.


Comment from Josh
Time: August 8, 2008, 4:21 am

“Western culture spreads and takes over the world.”
“Without letting Westerners off the hook for their cultural colonialism, I still believe that the day in which cultural knowledge can be assigned a monetary value is passing, if indeed it ever existed.”

Wow Christine, when I read your writing, it makes me wish I were a smarter person. I do hope you serve on an ethics committee of some influential group someday.

Concerning your two quotes above, I have a few comments:

I don’t know how often you think about scripture or Christendom, but I do feel that our move from tribal living to intercultural living breaks down the purpose of life. The purpose of life is not for every individual to have the opportunity to be rich and prosperous, but for every individual to be happy and satisfied.

The idea that capitalism could make everyone rich and prosperous sounds good enough. Unfortunately, the wealth is not spread equally. The rich and poor alike, take advantage of one another. Many of the poor take advantage of the welfare system, etc. Many of the rich don’t want to share what they earned with those who they feel didn’t work as hard, through increased taxes, etc.

I feel GOD is good. His intension when dispersing people at the tower of Babel was to decrease evil, and decrease the abilities of advantageous persons in the world. Every great civilization, in my understanding, built it’s wealth on the backs of slaves and the poor.

Our country is a perfect example. Even with the cessation of slavery, it still occurs with migrant workers and outsourcing. Even with the cessation of slavery, african americans are still not considered as equals.