Lourdes Arizpe
Professor, National University of Mexico

In1 this new century, barriers are falling, customs are changing, and yet, there is a core of meaning, of affect, of memory that people refuse to give up. In this flowing and foaming world, people rush towards the new at the same time that they want to cling to meanings and shared experiences with others. Why? Because sharing gives them a sense of self and of identity in an open world. When such bonds are lost, their need is keenly felt, psychologically and politically, as is very evident in the world today. It was the concern over this loss in the turmoil of globalization that led Member States to give UNESCO the mandate to generate actions for the protection of living culture.2 This was indeed a tall order, and one that led to fascinating intellectual and political meanders. At the beginning of the nineties, the “cultural turn” in world politics and the rise of representational claims had led to new ways of understanding cultural flows in terms of “worlding”—that is, creating a new cosmopolitical vision of the world based on cultural heritage, human rights, and democracy. People in nations, cultural enclaves, ethnic groups, diasporas, and recently emerged cultural groups began to mobilize to position themselves differently in the new world order. Through a deliberative process, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was successful in proposing a new concept for the recasting of relationships among nations, culture bearers, creators, and stakeholders.

Until two decades ago, the past had been enshrined mainly in built environments—pyramids, monuments, and perennial landscapes. Cultural heritage seemed to be fixed in stone while living heritage changed with the movement of the sun. In today’s world, the past is present in the performance of a dance in the morning while the future is another group’s performance of the same dance, this afternoon. Indeed, the present seems to occupy an ever-narrower slit of time as new technologies and globalization compress the timeline between creation and transformation.

As the present thins out, it becomes evident, as never before, that the notion of “cultural heritage” is a moment in time captured in heuristic trappings that are given legitimacy because they have been agreed on by a collectivity. The collectivities that create a given practice of intangible cultural heritage may be a small ethnic group in the Himalayas or the Rastafarian musical tradition of the West Indies or an international community of Mexican fandango practitioners in Los Angeles. Given that the key process in living cultural heritage is that it may shift from today to tomorrow, it follows that its definition and modes of safeguarding must go through intense intellectual, heuristic, and political negotiations within the plurality of collectivities that practice it and with the government and international agencies that frame their recognition.

In a recent publication, physical cultural heritage placed on the World Heritage List was defined as having the attributes of singularity, uniqueness, universality, interconnectedness, and international cooperation.3. In contrast, I would say that intangible cultural heritage has as its main attribute the dynamics of performance and of exchange. Consequently, the normative and operational procedures of the 2003 Convention have increasingly had to deal with the dynamics of singularity and plurality as different cultural groups lay claim to a given practice; uniqueness as cultural groups clash over the territorial, cultural, or ontological origins of a practice; and locality and universality as some local groups cry out that their practice is being expropriated by involving it in macro-territorial international operations. There is no “interconnectedness” in intangible cultural heritage, as if cultures were fixed-stone entities. Rather, there is an “interculturality” of deep, recurrent cultural exchanges.

Additionally, intangible cultural heritage has two other aspects that are distinctive. One is territorial, which has to do with the immigrant status of numerous cultural groups in the geopolitical grid of nation-states. The second is the mise-en-scene of a cultural practice—that is, whether it is performed in the place that has been sanctioned traditionally as the only legitimate context in which to perform such a practice. For example, if the storytelling and acrobatics we see at the D’Jemaa el Fna Plaza of Marrakesh are transferred to a theatre stage in Rabat or Paris, are they still the same practice? All these questions were present at the very beginning of recurrent debates about intangible cultural heritage in UNESCO from the seventies to the nineties as Noriko Aikawa has explained in her writings.4 The decision we had to deal with in UNESCO in the nineties was whether an international convention based on an extremely complex constellation of living practices, previously termed as “folklore,” “cultural traditions,” and “customs,” could be “captured” in a normative international convention. At the time, as Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO and as a social anthropologist, one of my concerns was the tension I could see rising between the increasing reification of the idea of culture as it had begun to be taken up in the policy debates on multiculturalism and the “clash of civilizations,” and the perception, shared by many of social scientists, which Georges Balandier summarizes incomparably:

Our hyper-modern contemporaries, inhabit less and less countries and physical spaces, and more and more universes that spring from new knowledge, creativity, and enterprises that are transformational: they generate new places and frameworks where human existence does is increasingly ‘technologized.’5

In other words, culture is not a thing that may be captured but a sharing of perceptions and exchange.

The 2003 Convention created a new, internationally legitimized concept for the recasting of cultural relationships between nation-states, culture bearers, creators, and cultural stakeholders.

One key issue strongly emphasized in setting up the 2013 Convention was human rights. Already in 1995, in Our Creative Diversity, the World Commission on Culture and Development had explicitly stated that intolerant cultures could not use the argument of respect for cultures to further their own intolerance. Many authors have touched on this issue since cultural imprisonment leads to blindness, as Marc Auge6 has pointed out, or to the threats of Les Identities Meurtrieres (Murderous Identities) as the title of the book by Amin Malouf has called them.7 This is not the place to analyse such risks, but many people are keenly aware of the problems of unspecified “representativeness.” Also, the rise of new kinds of intermediaries in the management and negotiation of candidatures may lead to the exclusion of local cultural agents and may generate an unregulated hierarchization of groups influencing these decisions both within countries and in the organizational bodies of the Convention.

Many challenges have been noted in the operationalization of the 2003 Convention as Cherif Khaznadar has carefully noted.8 The First Researchers’ Forum on intangible cultural heritage held at the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris discussed research and operational questions related to the ICH Convention. Recently, anthropologists have highlighted major theoretical issues in defining intangible cultural heritage.9 It is clear that greater emphasis on documentation, training, and research is needed.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted at the UNESCO General Conference in November 2003 by an unprecedented high number of countries—145. This great success was possible thanks to the support of Mr. Koichiro Matsuura and the relentless work of Mme. Noriko Aikawa. The Convention itself represents a very important and interesting shift in the geopolitical balance at UNESCO with East Asian and other emerging countries having greater agency in creating Conventions and a vital recognition that local peoples must now take an active role in building a more balanced world.

Whatever may be said of the concept of intangible cultural heritage and of the 2003 Convention, the richness of debates it has generated inside and between cultural groups, inside and outside academic circles, and inside and outside government ministries of culture already demonstrates that the world, indeed, was ready for such a debate.


1. This text is an extract of Arizpe, Lourdes. “The Genealogy of Intangible Cultural Heritage”. Heidelberg: Springer Verlag. In press
2. When I arrived in UNESCO in 1994, to work as Assistant Director-General for culture this was as pressing issue which I, as an anthropologist, welcome as a challenge for the international community.
3. Unesco. 2012. “Sustainable Development” in World Heritage Review no. 65, October. Whc.unesco.org/en/review/65/ accessed May 20, 2012.
4. Aikawa, Noriko. 2009. “From the Proclamation of Masterpieces to the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage” in Intangible Cultural Heritage by Laurajane Smith and Natsuko Adagawa. London: Routledge.
5. Balandier, Georges. Le Grand Systeme.
6. Auge, Marc. 1998. Les Formes de l`Oublie. Paris: Edition Payot et Rivages.
7. Malouf, Amin. 2006. Les Identites Meurtrieres. Paris : Que sais-je.
8. Khaznadar, Cherif. 2009. “Les Dangers qui guettent la Convention de 2003” dans Le Patrimoine Culturel Immatériel à la Lumière de lExtrême Orient. Paris : Maison des Cultures du Monde. 13-46.
9. Arizpe, Lourdes and Cristina Amescua. 2013. Anthropological Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage. (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2013); Commission on Intangible Cultural Heritage. 2012. “Report of the Planning Meeting on Research on Intangible Cultural Heritage”. Mexico: National University of Mexico. Available at ww.crim.unam.mx/drupal.