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Encyclopedia of Conceptual Insights from the World's Cultures

Proposal to UNESCO in relation to the Decade on Cultural Development

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A. Background

1. The UNESCO Decade on Cultural Development was launched in 1987. With the new direction being articulated within UNESCO, this offers a number of possibilities for new kinds of approach to the question of "culture". UNESCO will not necessarily have any funds to support such initiatives however, but other forms of support and encouragement might well be possible.

2. The 1986 Lomé Convention contains special provisions for cultural development, currently administered by Directorate General VIII (Development) of the Commission of the European Communities. Some funds for this are being used to facilitate the operations of the Foundation for Cultural Coopertion ACP-EEC and of the South-North Network on Cultures and International Cooperation (with which the UIA has developed some links). Whilst it is unlikely that funds would be forthcoming in support of any new initiative, such bodies might be very interested in cooperating in a concrete project requiring relatively limited effort.

3. There exist many organizations (such as the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research), groups and individuals interested in the insights characteristic of different cultures. Further examples are given below (see also Annex III.B).

4. In 1986 the UIA produced an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential [updated 1994-5] which contains several sections on different aspects of the question of communication, some of which emphasize the inter-cultural aspect and its special problems. These problems have been further explored in separate UIA studies for projects of the United Nations University which also has active programmes on culture and cultural development.

B. Need

There is a need for a summary, culture by culture, of the special insights which are perceived as characteristic of the mental framework or attitude of each such culture, namely the way people are empowered to think and organize their environment. What are the uniquely valuable insights or modes of thought that that culture has to contribute to humanity - and especially as a resource with which to respond in new ways to the world problematique ? What characterizes the special wisdom or "genius" of the culture?

Solutions, or at least more fruitful approaches, to many of humanity's problems may well emerge from modes of thinking already practiced by inadequately appreciated cultures.

Many books exist on different cultures and languages, and databases such as the Human Relations Area Files exist covering many aspects of individual cultures, these tend to focus on folklore, traditions, history, dress, kinship patterns, art, music, etc. (5,6,7) or the technical characteristics of the language in question (8,9,10,11). Despite this range of material, it is extremely difficult to obtain information on the unique conceptual insights associated with individual cultures or languages, although a number of authors are exploring frameworks through which to facilitate this.

The few attempts at highlighting such contrasting insights are either very specific (and difficult to locate and compare), indicative (with a few striking examples), or schematic (with few examples). A number of recent studies do however indicate the scope and need for reference and educational tool in this area (12,13,14,15). Perhaps most striking is that under the aegis of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation on the challenge of understanding in relation to development in cross-cultural situations (16).

C. Proposal

The UIA proposes to initiate a project to collect such conceptual insights and form them into suitable entries, culture by culture and/or language by language.

Such a project would be initiated in collaboration with any other interested bodies, whether willing to seek out, edit or review suitable texts, or to provide funding or other forms of sponsorship.

The entries could be published in the form of a volume, possibly with the collaboration of K G Saur Verlag, and as a complement to the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. An alternative might be to include them as a special section of a future edition of the latter publication.

D. Varieties of "conceptual insight"

Any attempt to isolate "conceptual insights" in the manner proposed faces the question of what is to be so defined and how are those of significance to the project to be determined. This kind of methodological problem is typical of that faced in the preparation of the UIA's Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

Without endeavouring to resolve these difficulties at this point, it is nevertheless appropriate to distinguish the following four varieties of conceptual insight, each calling for a somewhat different approach. A major criteria in selecting such insights would be their relevance to social change and to sustainable socio-cultural development.

(a) General insights from the culture or language. Examples, some well-known and frequently cited, are:

  • those explicitly valued in the collaboration of English or French-speaking (for example) experts at an international conference (according to the special needs of the conference in clarifying or presenting complex questions).
  • the facility of certain languages (e.g. Navajo, Hopi) for understanding subtle concepts in fundamental physics.
  • the value of the Aymara language (spoken by some Andean peasants) as an ideal bridging language for simultaneous machine translation between major modern languages, because it is so logical, pure in syntax and compact, in addition to offering special facilities for reasoning about uncertainty (in a way that European languages cannot).
  • the special insights into cycles emerging from Chinese culture that make it possible to relate to ecological cycles and as a result to be more sensitive to agricultural innovation and management involving recycling

(b) Insights from scientific and artistic disciplines. The notion of "culture" and "language" can be usefully extended to include the "language" (langage in French) or mind-set characteristic of well-defined disciplines in the sciences (e.g. economics, biology, physics, mathematics, etc) or the arts (e.g. poetry, music, painting, etc.). Such an approach was attempted by the UIA in the 1976 version of the Encyclopedia (1) with the encouragement of the Secretary of the Commonwealth Science Council. The focus in this case is on the unique perspective offered in terms of any specific relevance to social change and development.

(c) Insights from spiritual disciplines. Given the important place allocated to spiritual disciplines in many non-Western cultures, the scope of the project might also be extended to include those spiritual disciplines deliberately used to reorganize perception of the social or natural environment and the relationship of the practitioner to it (e.g. zazen meditation, practice of sakina, raja yoga, aikido, zikr, via negativa).

(d) Insights implicit in collective behaviour in different cultures. Those with experience of development at the interface between Western and non-Western cultures, report many remarkable situations in which, because of their particular belief system, communities have developed unique patterns of behaviour which ensure the sustainability of their development in ways not normally foreseen by foreign experts.

Examples include:

  • some coastal village cultures in Papua New Guinea ritualize their relationship to fish which are revered as ancestors. A balanced ecological relationship to fish is thus achieved through ritual, because of ritual limitations on over-fishing.
  • a nomadic group in India, the Nandi Wallahs, has assumed responsibility for raising and training bullocks for the village communities through which they pass. They speak to the animals using an unusually specialized language of commands through which the bullocks are controlled.
  • the Indo-Tibetan culture gives rise to sacred groves ("deorai") usually associated with a spring or water source. Even though the surrounding countryside may be totally denuded of vegetation (e.g. around Cherrapundy in the Meghalayan wet desert), the grove remains intact as a place of refuge in case of disaster.

More controversially, there is also a need, in each of the above cases, for insights into any special disadvantages of particular modes of thought. An example is the effort to identify the special obstacles to social or conceptual change associated with a "linear thinking" style.

E. Recent insight identifying exercise: a concrete example

The spirit of this proposal is appropriately reflected in a book, published in 1988, by Howard Rheingold under the title They Have a Word for It (subtitled: A lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words and phrases). He comments on 170 concepts in 40 familiar and obscure languages "to discover genuinely useful (rather than simply odd) words that can open up new ways of understanding and experiencing life". His bibliography of sources includes 100 items. Some examples included are:

  • wabi (Japanese): a flawed detail that creartes an elegant whole
  • sabi (Japanese): beautiful patina
  • aware (Japanese): the feelingsd engendered by ephemeral beauty
  • shibui (Japanese): beauty of aging
  • shih (Chinese): an insightful, elegant kind of knowledge
  • rasa (Sanskrit): the mood or sentiment that is evoked by a work of art
  • hózh'q (Navajo): the beauty of life, as seen and created by a person
  • ostranenie (Russian): art as defamiliarization; making familiar perceptions seem strange
  • ygen (Japanese): an awareness of the universe that trigers feelings too deep and mysterious for words
  • kolleh (Yiddish): a beautiful bride
  • potlach (Haida): the ceremonial act of gaining social respect by giving away wealth
  • kula (Trobriand Islands): sacred, endless process of gift giving
  • Korinthenkacker (German): a person overly concerned with trivi!al details
  • Radfahrer (German): one who flatters superiors and browbeats subordinates
  • nemawashi (Japanese): informal feeling-out and consensus gathering
  • plunderbund (Dutch): group of alliance of financial or poltical interests that exploits the public
  • fucha (Polish): using company time and resources for your own ends
  • sabsung (Thai): to slake an emotional or spiritual thirst to be revitalized
  • yoin (Japanese): experiential reverberations that continue to move you long after the intiail external stimulas has ceased
  • ta (Chinese): to understand things and thus take them lightly
  • Weltschmerz (German): a gloomy, romanticized, world-weary sadness, experienced most often by privileged youth
  • conmoción (Spanish): emotion held in common by a group or gathering
  • maya (Sanskrit): the mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the reality that it represents
  • nadi (Balinese): to temporarily inhabit another dimension
  • hart ducha (Polish): self-mastery in the face of internal and external forces
  • Scaddenfreude (German): joy that one feels as a result of some one ele's misfortune
  • istiqâra (Arabic): a request for spiritual or practical assistance in the form of a dream
  • waq'f (Arabic): property given to God
  • bonga (Santali): spirit of a place that must be dealt with
  • land nám (Icelandic): the sdanctification of new land by mythologizing it
  • won (Korean): unwillingness to let go of an illusion
  • baraka (Arabic): a git of spiritual energy hat can be used for mundane purposes

The book invites readers to send further suggestions to: Untranslatable Worlds, Jeremy P Tarcher Inc, 9110 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90069, USA.

[No new edition has been produced since 1988. Further and related initiatives include:

F. Method

In determining the appropriate method to be used in order to make available a collection of such insights within a period of years rather than decades, careful attention should be given to the question as to why such insights have not already been made more widely available. Regretably those best informed on these matters have communicated their understanding in research papers and books from which they are effectively inaccessible. Often this is because communicating these insights was a low priority compared to more theoretical or descriptive linguistic or anthroplogical concerns.

A possible approach is suggested by the Culturgram series (17) produced for 97 countries, one 4-page document per country, by the David M Kennedy Center for International Studies (Brigham Young University, USA) under the direction of V Lynn Tyler. These go beyond the cultural aspect of the information appearing in the US Government Background notes on countries of the world (18). It would, however, be necessary to focus on the conceptual or insight level, the mind-set (langage in French), rather than on the visitor-oriented guidelines emphasized therein.

Although there are many traditional UNESCO programmes on culture (e.g. folk music, art, etc), it would appear that the focus proposed could only draw on materials generated by such UNESCO projects as that titled At the Crossroads of Cultures. This gave rise to a series of books on the perception of "time", not only in different cultures (19), but also in the different sciences (20), and in different philosophies (21). In contrast to such scholarly endeavours, this project should not be treated as an academic exercise but rather as a data collection exercise on which academic comment would be welcome (but on which it would not depend).

To avoid becoming entrapped in any exercise to determine "objectively" those insights to be considered unique from each culture, the emphasis would be placed on collecting insights:

  • from neighbouring cultures about the culture in question (e.g. what they admire or consider especially significant about insights emerging from that culture; or what they consider the special limitations of the perspective of that culture)
  • from the culture itself (e.g. its own attempts to identify the unique insights that it has to offer; as well as its own doubts about the special limitations of its perspective)

To avoid difficulties associated with insights characteristic of groups of cultures (e.g. Latin cultures), languages (e.g. Indo-European), or disciplines (e.g. science), rather than with specific cultures (e.g. Italian), entries for groups would be used with cross-references to the more specific entries as appropriate. The method to be employed, as for the "world problems" and other sections of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, would be:

  • to scan appropriate reference materials and scholarly works, including those produced by UNESCO (including the periodical Cultures)
  • to request assistance from organizations and individuals in a position to indicate appropriate source materials, or prepared to extract appropriate insights from such materials
  • to request comment and feedback from appropriate organizations or individuals

To the extent possible, use would be made of survey data (such as that arising from EEC sponsored surveys on mutual perceptions of the peoples of Europe), or relevant surveys of national stereotypes and studies of national identity. But the emphasis in using any such material would be on conceptual insights and not on the more frequently cited behavioural characteristics.

It is to be hoped that, as with the existing Encyclopedia, that this interaction with a network of interested bodies and individuals can be turned into a continuing process which will permit subsequent editions of yet higher quality to be produced.

G. Examples of possible collaborating/supporting bodies

Many such bodies are listed in the UIA's Yearbook of International Organizations (22, under heading W5400) included here as Annex 1. They include:

  • Certain intergovernmental agencies (e.g. UNESCO, UNU, EEC-ACP, ALECSO; see: Annex 2)
  • Certain cultural foundations (e.g. Foundation for Cultural Cooperation ACP-EEC; European Cultural Foundation)
  • Cross-cultural research organizations (e.g. Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research; International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology)
  • Interpreter/Translator organizations (e.g. International Association of Conference Interpreters)
  • Linguistics organizations (e.g. African Linguistics and Cross-Cultural Studies Association)
  • Inter-cultural contact organizations (e.g. Experiment in International Living)
  • Cultural research organizations (e.g. African Culture Institute)
  • International understanding promotion (e.g. Standing Conference on Education for International Understanding)
  • Certain religious groups (e.g. Bahá'í International Community)

Opportunities may also exist for collaboration with ongoing projects or initiatives such as that of David M Kennedy Center for International Studies to establish a consolidatezd data center on peoples and cultures.


1. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. K G Saur Verlag, 1986, 2nd ed., 4th ed . 1994-5 (under further development 1998-9 with support from the European Commission, Info2000 Program) [commentary]

2. Anthony Judge. Reviews of frameworks for the presentation of alternative conceptual orderings as determined by cultural and linguistic contexts (Paper for Area 6: Coding and the socio-cultural context of information. Project on Information overload and Information Underuse - IOIU) [text]

3. Anthony Judge. Comprehension of appropriateness (Project on Economic Aspects of Human Development - EAHD) [text]

4. Anthony Judge. Governance through metaphor (Project on Economic Aspects of Human Development - EAHD) [text]

5. Peoples of the World. Lausanne, Editions Grammont, 1975 (French edition: Encyclopédie Alpha des Peuples du Monde Entier; Races, rites et coutumes des hommes. Editions Alpha, 1978)

6. Le Million; l'encyclopédie de tous les pays du monde. Bruxelles, Agence Belge des Grandes Editions, 1969-74, 15 vols.

7. UNESCO. Cultural History of Mankind. Paris, UNESCO,

8. Michel Malherbe. Les Langages de l'Humanité; une encyclopédie des 3000 langues parlées dans le monde. Paris, Seghers, 1983

9. C F and F M Voegelin. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. Elsevier, 1977

10. K Katzmer. The Languages of the World. Routledge, 1977

11. Mildred L Larson. Meaning-based Translation; a guide to cross-language equivalence. University Press of America, 1984

12. Magoroh Maruyama. Mindscapes, social patterns and future development of scientific threory types. Cybernetica, 1980, 23, 1, pp. 5-25

13. W T Jones. The Romantic Syndrome; toward a new methodology in cultural anthropology and the history of ideas. Martinus Nijhof, 1961

14. Geert Hofstede. Cultures Consequences; international differences in work-related values. Sage, 1980

15. E T Hall. Beyond Culture. Anchor/Doubleday, 1976

16. Andreas Fuglesang. About Understanding; ideas and observations on cross-cultral communication. Uppsala, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, 1982

17. V Lynn Tyler (Ed.). Culturgrams.  Brigham Young University, 1986 [text]

18. Countries of the World and their Leaders Yearbook. Detroit, Gale, 1988 (includes information from the US State Departments "Background notes on countries of the world")

19. UNESCO. Cultures and Time. Paris, UNESCO, 1976

20. UNESCO. Time and the Sciences. Paris, UNESCO, 1979

21. UNESCO. Time and the Philosophies. Paris, UNESCO, 1977

22. Union of International Associations. Yearbook of International Organizations. K G Saur Verlag, 1987/88, 24th ed., 3 vols. (4 vols annually from 1997)

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