Two popular television programs on the air in Fall 2007 - the Travel Channel's "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain and National Geographic Channel's "Taboo" - play to the public's fascination with exotic peoples. National Geographic's website (www9.nationalgeographic.com/ channel/taboo/) specifically uses exoticism as an enticement, urging the audience: "Test your boundaries. Push beyond your comfort zone. Understand seemingly bizarre and shocking practices from around the world." The audience is comprised of comfortably insular U.S. Americans, and the source of their enjoyment is the intangible cultural heritage of others - what used to be known among earlier generations of anthropologists as "primitive customs and traditions." Whereas National Geographic's intent is simply to startle an increasingly unflappable public, Anthony Bourdain attempts to more respectfully involve the viewer in the larger cultural world of the distant peoples he visits. In both cases the audience observes practices that recently have come under the protective lens of UNESCO through its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (hereafter, Intangible Heritage Convention; see Appendix). What is intangible cultural heritage? William Logan (2007) defines it succinctly as "heritage that is embodied in people rather than in inanimate objects," and hence the title of this volume as Intangible Heritage Embodied. But beyond this characterization, the question of the meanings and values of intangible heritage becomes vastly complex. Indeed, whether because the convention is still very new, or because of its inherent complexity, most publications on the topic address themselves primarily to questions of definition. UNESCOdevotes many pages of its website to explanation and discussion of the convention, defining intangibility as "the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage" (Intangible Heritage Convention). But intangible cultural heritage may best be understood by examples. UNESCO specifically identifies the following categories of intangible culture: - Oral traditions and expressions including language - Performing arts (such as traditional music, dance, and theater) - Social practices, rituals, and festive events - Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe - Traditional craftsmanship Furthermore, the Intangible Heritage Convention describes intangible culture as a living force that is "transmitted from generation to generation" and "constantly recreated by communities and groups" in response to their social and physical environment. Intangible heritage is an essential aspect of community identity and "promotes respect for cultural diversity and human creativity." Finally, the Intangible Heritage Convention states that intangible heritage is "compatible with international human rights instruments." This last statement is a particularly important and potentially contentious assertion that will surely be tested in practice. Indeed, Logan (2007) predicts problems in this area and sees "the notion of human rights as a way of limiting the proposed Intangible List." For instance, there is the question of the human body itself, a site for the assertion of personal autonomy, yet also a site in which social identity and political attitudes are expressed. With respect to human rights, permanent body mutilation (e.g., female genital circumcision, foot binding) and permanent body-deforming adornment (e.g., tattoos, the neck rings of the Karen hill tribes of Thailand) are subjected to scrutiny. There are also social practices such as the Muslim chador or burqa that, to foreign eyes, may seem burdensome and oppressive, but may be embraced by the wearer variously as signs of faith and a rejection of western modes. Conversely, there is the abandonment of social practices, as when the children of a tradition-bearing group prefer to move to the city, rather than remain in the countryside as objects of intangible heritage. In the latter, the community may lose not only its traditional ways, but also its tourism revenues. Could a government take measures to perpetuate their culture by restricting their assimilation, keeping them ethnographically "pure"? Finally, there are some practices that, although traditional, are now widely accepted as abhorrent and have been officially outlawed, such as ritual sati (widow burning) in South Asia. In this introductory chapter we consider the history and relevance of the concept of "intangible cultural heritage," asking why the concept emerged when it did, and examining the important role that such cultural behaviors and values play in the well-being of societies. The charters and documents discussed are listed chronologically at the end of this chapter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIntangible Heritage Embodied
EditorsHelaine Silverman, D Fairchild Ruggles
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9781441900715
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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