Roger L. Janelli
Professor Emeritus, Folklore and Ethnomusicology, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Indiana University

Anthropological perspectives on intangible cultural heritage have shifted significantly over the past few decades. Whereas traditions were formerly regarded as objective facts, the postmodern movement in general, and challenges to the very notion of traditions (e.g., Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Handler and Linnekin 1984) led many anthropologists to suspect that traditions were no more than subjective notions. Allied with this new way of thinking, greater recognition of human agency in social life prompted many to forgo the view that individuals were culturally determined, or so passive as to repeat unthinkingly what had been done in the past (Giddens 1976). These intellectual developments energized many anthropologists to examine how, by whom, where, why, and under what circumstances traditions were claimed.

Many of the earlier challenges to tradition were directed toward state governments that sought to legitimize several their practices by claiming the mantle of tradition, but attention soon turned to all claims of tradition, whether made by powerful elites or disadvantaged constituencies. Many anthropologists became averse to using the very word ‘tradition’, either eliminating it entirely from their writings or placing it in quotation marks to indicate that it was believed or claimed by others, but not by themselves.

The deconstruction of traditions soon generated a powerful reaction from disadvantaged groups whose cultural identities were often based on claims to unique histories and cultures, while increasing movements of people, information, and finances across national borders prompted less powerful nation states to assert their own disadvantages in the global political-economy. This was the context in which UNESCO began its program to recognize the intangible culture heritage of the nations of the world, with awareness of the imbalances that had been generated by its already-existing system for recognizing tangible heritage. Despite its ongoing reformulations of the program, UNESCO’s recognition of a nation’s intangible culture, which bolsters not only national prestige (soft power) but also the influx of funds from international tourism, became one of the most powerful motivations for identifying and claiming intangible cultural practices. UNESCO followed the thinking of many contemporary anthropologists in recognizing contemporary cultural practices that were living and being modified rather than restricting its designations to intangible cultural activities of the past that had remained (or have been maintained) unchanged.

One of the most influential anthropologists to urge this understanding was Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998). Like many other anthropologists, she eschews the word ‘tradition’, substituting ‘heritage’ in its place. She also sought to reformulate understandings about the relationship between past and present culture. In her felicitous words, “Despite a discourse of conservation, preservation, restoration, reclamation, recovery, recreation, recuperation, revitalization, and regeneration, heritage produces something new in the present that has no recourse to the past…. By production, I do not mean that the result is not ‘authentic’ or that it is wholly invented. Rather, I wish to underscore that heritage is not lost and found, stolen, and reclaimed. It is a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past.”

Another fundamental issue pondered by anthropologists concerns ownership rights to intangible cultural heritage. While competing claims to tangible cultural heritage are by no means unknown, the greater mobility of intangible cultural heritage renders its ownership more liable to such disagreements. Many of these disagreements involve different ethnic groups of the same nation, but often they involve an ethnic group and the state that claims sovereignty over the group. To deal with this issue, UNESCO formulated the 2003 Convention, which became effective in 2006, granting primary rights to identify or modify an intangible heritage to a local community that continues its practice, though the convention also states that responsibility for ensuring the safeguarding of ICH rests with the nation states that have ratified the Convention.

Thus, nation states, researchers, local community leaders and performers, researchers, and state officials should consult with one another when identifying and proposing an element of heritage for UNESCO designation. Anthropologist Richard Kurin, who was involved in formulating the 2003 Convention, anticipates that a combination of organizational types will be needed to implement the Convention successfully (2007: 14-15).


Giddens, Anthony. New Rules of Sociological Method: A Positive Critique of Interpretive Sociologies. London: Hutchinson, 1976.

Handler, Richard. and Jocelyn Linnekin. “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious.” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 385 (Jul. – Sep., 1984), pp. 273-290.

Hobsbawm, Eric. and Terrence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, eds. 1983.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Kurin, Richard. “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage: Key Factors in Implementing the 2003 Convention.” International Journal of Intangible Heritage. Vol. 2, 2007, pp. 10-20.