Can Europe Make It?

Chronicles of culturological quackery

The concept of culture as a 'driver of societies' that has become the lucky charm of nationalists, has its origins in the oeuvre of some prominent academics.

Martin Paleček
10 August 2020, 3.00pm
Bronislaw Malinowski with Trobriand islanders, 1917 – 1918.
Wikicommons/LSE Library Collection. Some rights reserved.

Resistance against Islam’s influence on public life in Europe has been on display for decades. When Frits Bolkesteijn, a Dutch liberal conservative, raised his eyebrows at the impact of Islam in 1991, he triggered a major debate. Mr Bolkensteijn was advocating liberal principles that may contrast with some Islamic traditions to this day: the separation of church and state, gender equality, the preservation of a neutral and “rational” public space.

After the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2011, however, the European debate converged onto viewpoints regarding identity and culture. The then Chairwoman of the Danish People’s Party, who later became a Speaker of the Parliament, called the 9/11 terrorist attacks a crime against “our civilization”. In the meantime, an academically criticized but influential prophecy of a “Clash of civilizations” penned by a Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, permeated into political communication.

By the time Geert Wilders gained 6 per cent for his nativist Party for Freedom in the 2006 Dutch parliamentary elections, opponents of Islam rarely differentiated between political Islam and Islam as such any more. In his party manifesto, Wilders called Islam “a totalitarian ideology” which “prescribes to its supporters a perpetual war until the moment that the whole world is Islamic”.

Mainstream politicians, meanwhile, began to use rhetoric about “cultural” wholes which mirrored in their own way the grandiose confrontational spirit of “crusader” stories long narrated by the extremists in the Middle East. The Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, for instance, called a 2016 Christmas market terrorist attack in Berlin “an attack against the cultural identity of Europe”.[1]

Cultural counter-revolution

In the same year, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Chair of the Polish ruling party, announced a “cultural counter-revolution” based on the defence of Christianity, the nation and the family.[2] The Czech ‘left-wing’ President Miloš Zeman stated that “Islamic” migration “means” misogynistic “culture”,[3] belatedly adopting the language of Petr Fiala, Chair of the traditional mainstream ‘right-wing’ party, who called the Muslim headscarf “a sign of culture that threatens us”. And Viktor Orbán, always the most lucid of speakers, declared the Hungarian government’s wish “to avoid changing the cultural or ethnic composition” of his “homeland”[4].

In the Czech media, meanwhile, the number of daily uses of the term “culture” more than doubled (see graph).


In political communication across Europe, Islam has thus become what Susi Meret, a professor at the University of Aalborg, called “a floating signifier”. As for the Danish example, Ms Meret pointed out how Islam was now represented as a major threat to the nation’s values, principles and cultural identity.

In political communication, Islam became a “floating signifier” representing a threat to the nation’s values, principles and cultural identity.

Original understandings of ‘culture’

The term “culture” itself began to be used to describe convictions, behaviors and norms of whole societies only in the nineteenth century. Until then, it denoted the level of self-development that a person can attain if she improves her soul. When anthropologists described religious rituals and various other anomalies that they noticed in faraway countries, they borrowed the term.

Bronislaw Malinowski was one of the most ambitious. He refused to theorize in the armchairs on the porches of colonial estates. Instead, he chose participant observation among the natives. He rejected the view that "no common measure of cultural phenomena can be found" or that "the laws of cultural processes are vague, insipid, and useless."

Instead of distinct tools (cutlery versus chopsticks), Mr Malinowski focused on habits and norms. He started to think about culture as a “vast apparatus” by which people can “cope with” the problems that they “face”.[5] In the minds of his many readers in then colonial Britain, he effectively civilized cultures then referred to as “primitive” while primitivizing cultures labelled “civilized”.

Seeing culture as a function, broadly speaking, captivated Mr Malinowski to the point that he began to believe that manifestations of culture drive the life of a community. Hence his classification as a so-called functionalist. In the 1990s, the concept of culture as an engine of societies was elevated by another influential academic. Mr Huntington predicted that cultural and religious identity will be the prevailing source of future conflicts. Islam and Orthodox Christianity was, he believed, bound to clash with Western Christianity. This is the academic milieu on which most politicians and commentators draw, wittingly or not, when they sermonise about “cultural spheres”.

Flaws of megalomania

There are several reasons why giving pompous roles to culture is usually just a romantic fantasy. Firstly, individuals think something about the world. Personal views based on which they act, are undoubtedly affected by the legal and social norms in the country in which they live. Such norms, however, evolve in time. If the individuals move, their attitudes change also in space. Muslims are no exception (see article).

Secondly, cultural boundaries are not clear-cut. If pundits want to capture the political development of the Czech Republic, they can speak of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia as of one “culture”. If, however, they speak of piety, they must acknowledge Moravians as a whole as more religious and more prudish than Bohemians.[6] If the subject is folk music, they can assign Bohemia to Bavaria but Moravia to Hungary.

Thirdly, “cultures” are internally diverse. Christians much like Muslims, for instance, celebrate holiday serving as the culmination of fasting. According to scripture, the holiday is meant for repentance. The local variations of Easter, celebrated in traditionally Christian countries, and of Eid al-Fitr, celebrated in traditionally Muslim countries, however, differ. In most regions of Central Europe, instead of repentance, women are whipped with willow sticks on Easter Monday. Muslims, as well as Christians from neighbouring countries, wonder at it. Elsewhere, the aforementioned tradition is taken up by women. The Irish do none of that: on Easter Monday, they commemorate the suppression of a national uprising of 1916.

In other words, cultures are neither firmly demarcated, nor internally homogenous, nor unchanging, nor determining like the functionalists maintained. In addition, “cultural spheres” or “civilizations” are not actors bent on clashing with others. “Civilizations” do not have agency and cannot act. Stephen Walt, a political scientist at Harvard, puts it succinctly:

“For good or ill, [representatives of] states still drive most of the world’s politics. Clashes within Huntington’s various “civilizations” are still more frequent and intense than clashes between them. Moreover, seeing the future as a vast contest between abstract cultural groupings is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume the adherents of different religions or cultural groups are our sworn enemies, we are likely to act in ways that will make that a reality.”

Shapes of identity

That is not to say that the determinants of differences in the development of nations are difficult to find. Rather, it is to say there are explanations of development related to “culture” which are far more telling than quasi-racist innuendos. In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford, pointed to interpersonal trust. In the long term, the increase of ethnic diversity promises a long life to successful immigrant societies but in the short term, “it can pose a challenge for the prevalence of trust.”[7]

To accept immigrants as one of them, most natives in many countries consider it essential for the immigrants to learn the most common language. According to a Pew survey of ten European countries conducted in 2016, however, a common language is not enough for everyone. Over 65% of Hungarians and Greeks told the pollsters that it is “very important“ for the others to share not just language but also “customs and traditions” (see graph).

pew language and culture - en.png

To consider cultural similarity a fundamental social bond, as the prominent Czech-British anthropologist Ernest Gellner noted, is the essence of nationalism. Such a view of culture thus inadvertently becomes a political argument.

To consider cultural similarity a fundamental social bond... is the essence of nationalism.

For many politicians, infusing communication with romantic cultural abstractions is a way to distract people from their accountability for governance. Journalists must not make the same mistake that Mr Malinowski did when he believed that it was possible to extricate culture from politics. Instead, the journalists can take inspiration from some of Malinowski‘s writings. Although the anthropologist thought of culture as a driver, he presented most of his work in the form of detailed accounts of its particular aspects.[8] To push politicians to concreteness would be a first step in leaving the chimaera of “culture” behind us, and returning to the real world.

[1] ČTK (2016) Fico: Útok v Berlíně je útokem proti kulturní identitě Evropy., 20. prosince.

[2] See e.g. Mr Kaczynsky and Mr Orban debating the so-called counter-cultural revolution in September 2016.

[3] ZEMAN, M. (2016) Speech at the conference “Social democracy in 21st century – without austerity and closer to people“. Bratislava, February 12th.

[4] Viktor Orbán at a news conference following the EU summit on March 10, 2017

[5] MALINOWSKI, B. (1944) A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

[6] Viz zde; NOVOTNÝ, J. (2012) Vývoj religiozity v České republice. Diplomová práce na Masarykově univezritě. Brno, 2012.

[7] Robert D. Putnam, ‘E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century the 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 30.2 (2007), 137–74 <>.

[8] RICHARDS, A. (1957) The Concept of Culture in Malinowski’s Work. In Man and Culture [FIRTH, R. (ed.)]. London: Routledge

This article was originally co-published with Datalyrics, a Prague-based investigative boutique dedicated to divisive topics like migration.

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