Knowledge in context

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
Carved wooden heads In Newtown, Johannesburg

Achieving the SDGs calls for a deep understanding of the cultural, social, and historical contexts that shape human experience.

By Avril Joffe, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

In our first meeting with students at the start of their two-year master’s in Cultural Policy and Management, we invite them to reflect on the meaning and biographies of words such as ‘culture’, ‘policy’ and ‘public’. As the students begin to consider what these words mean to them, we are always amazed at how quickly we are drawn into discussions about our different everyday practices, customs and traditions, the use of language and complexities of meaning, and the sheer range and diversity of our individual experiences and knowledge of these keywords. Any assumption that these terms have a universal meaning quickly gives way to considerations of differential histories of colonialism, material conditions, access to power and privilege, and the practices of different communities.

By studying the meaning and biographies of these words, our students reflect on the cultural, social, and economic factors that have shaped the world today, the principles and values that underpin our institutions and systems, and how all these interact and influence each other. At the same time, by asking our students to explain the meanings of culture in their vernacular, how it has changed over time, and its contemporary meanings when translated back into English, we create awareness, promote empathy and facilitate cross-cultural understanding. These are the key qualities that teaching and learning in the humanities can offer.

The humanities help us understand the human condition through their emphasis on the importance of culture, ethics, and social values, and how these relate to a more sustainable future. We come back to these early discussions throughout the course as we attempt to answer, among others, questions about the role and value of culture in helping us understand and negotiate the human condition, especially in contexts of deep inequality, unemployment, and environmental crises. How to develop sustainable livelihoods in the cultural and creative ecosystem and live more sustainably with the planet become part of the key questions that frame our reflections.

Located in context

But equally important to these reflections is to locate ourselves firmly in our context. Moving outside the classroom into the city of Johannesburg offers us a unique vantage point to navigate the deep political and economic inequalities between the global north and south.

The lived experience of artists and their arts and cultural organisations – all working with global circuits of cultural production, international funding bodies and intercultural relations – brings our students face to face with critical questions about how past injustices and imbalances have contributed to present day disparities, the importance of decolonising the curriculum especially ensuring access to literature, arts and philosophy from the global south, the importance of questioning assumptions of fairness in cultural cooperation, examining power structures, and developing a sense of a shared humanity through cultural exchange both within the global south and with colleagues from the global north.

Indeed, the creative arts sector in greater Johannesburg insists that what they expect from our students are those attributes most firmly rooted in the humanities: critical thinking and nuanced analysis, curiosity, passion, imagination and a strong framework of values and ethics.

What these conversations and experiential practices allude to is the role of the humanities in realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The complexity of the SDGs pose what we may call ‘wicked problems’ with deep histories that call on multiple disciplines to talk to one another. As part of our teaching, we draw on history, for example, to explore how social, cultural and economic factors have shaped our country, our continent and our world, mindful that culture is constantly evolving and is shaped by the historical events, processes and practices of the everyday. Similarly, by drawing on subjects such as anthropology and sociology, we are able to consider which institutions, forms of organising, and social and cultural systems are appropriate for our context.

Foregrounding the role of the humanities in considerations about the SDGs – considerations firmly based in cultural values, cultural diversity and cultural expressions – helps ensure that global efforts are premised on a rights-based approach, emphasising civil liberties and political rights as well as social justice, with an emphasis on socioeconomic rights at its core.

Reimagining the future

As part of the work of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the Australian cultural economist David Throsby refers to ‘ ‘culturally sustainable development’   a concept that brings together the cultural and economic dimensions of development in a framework that emphasises growth, equity and cultural integrity in the development process. To achieve this, he identifies several key principles.

The first is intergenerational equity: ‘Development’, he writes, ‘must take a long-term view and not be such as to compromise the capacities of future generations to access cultural resources and meet their cultural needs; this requires particular concern for protecting and enhancing a nation’s tangible and intangible cultural capital.’

The second is intragenerational equity, emphasising that development must provide equity in access to cultural production, participation and enjoyment to all members of the community in a fair and non-discriminatory way. And third, Throsby highlights the importance of diversity: ‘Just as sustainable development requires the protection of biodiversity, so also should account be taken of the value of cultural diversity to the processes of economic, social and cultural development.’

The arts, humanities, and social sciences are all critical to our ability to imagine such a future, as well as the use of methodologies drawn from these disciplines (including creative methodologies such as cultural mapping, photovoice, empatheatre) to uncover much needed data and inclusive experiences. These methodologies are designed to ensure active engagement with multi-stakeholder partners – a key requirement to achieve buy-in and collective understanding of the goals.

Rather than seeing the arts and humanities as an addendum to the ‘hard’ sciences, we need to consider the co-production of different types of knowledge involving critical historical and sociocultural reflection on our respective contexts. Each of the SDGs address a set of problems which are not new, making it necessary to take a long-term perspective of the human experience that is, at the same time, deeply rooted in culture and local knowledge.

Beyond absolutes

The humanities also remind us to guard against a reliance on quantitative indicators or managerially derived targets that leave no room for the myriad of contested factors or ambiguity involved in what is to be achieved.  As the University of South Australia’s Professor of Cultural Economy, Justin O’Connor, argues, we need to balance cultural and economic benefit, not as an accountancy task, but as a cultural political project.

Governments are rarely keen to hear that there is no single number that can be measured or that outcomes cannot be predicted. The humanities can shed light on those global composite indicators and qualitative narratives that are both deeply localised and culturally adaptive, as the Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues. Perhaps the most productive use of indicators is to stimulate debate and engage citizens about what is deemed of value and to hold governments accountable to a shared vision of development. Stakeholder engagement is the key to solving problems, rather than a reliance on systems, regulations and procedures. This is particularly important given the erosion of trust and solidarity within communities and towards governments.

So, in a world of multilayered yet interconnected global crises, we need to guard against allowing universities to shrink budgets of humanities faculties or allow the progressive marginalisation of these disciplines. In fact, I believe we should go further and insist that our universities require students across all other faculties to take general courses in fields such as literature, history, sociology and the arts, building on those important graduate attributes of critical thinking, nuanced analysis, imagination, reflection, ethics and a shared view on humanity.

We must also be mindful that many academics in the arts and humanities must juggle both an acceleration in the pace of working practices and expected timescales (ever increasing workloads and competing demands on time for administration, pastoral care, teaching and research) with the need for more reflective and deliberative research practices and pedagogies that facilitate deep literacy in our students as they navigate misinformation, fake news and the use of AI technologies such as ChatGPT in their writing and research.

Culture as a global public good

That the SDGs seek to promote a more just and equitable world is clear but a question students and experts in the field of culture are increasingly asking is whether this can be achieved without a goal on culture. This view was echoed at the World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development last year, at which UNESCO member states acknowledged culture as a global public good, recognising culture’s role in driving and enabling sustainable development.

This opens the way for a standalone goal for culture in future development goals and adds weight to the idea of culture’s contribution to, and linkages with, other crucial policy areas such as education, employment, science and innovation, trade and investment, as well as social and environmental development.

This recognition asks us to take seriously not only the co-production of knowledge and a collaborative system of governance, but the unique ability of artists to engage our emotions, our cognition, and our values as we continue to engage with the SDGs. We owe it to our students – as future leaders, knowledge brokers, and policymakers – to ensure that their foundations of knowledge are deeply embedded in the values and ethics that are enabled by the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Avril Joffe is a development economist and postgraduate coordinator in Cultural Policy and Management at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and UNESCO expert in Cultural Policy and Governance.

Image: The Newtown Heads are a series of  wooden heads, carved from disused railway sleepers by artists Simon Guambe, Petrus Matsolo, Dan Guambe and Joe Matola. They are found throughout Johannesburg’s Newtown Cultural Precinct. Image by Rodney Jackson / Alamy Stock Photo.

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