CEPS - Cultural Encounters in Pre-modern Societies


‘Cultural Encounters' is a concept which is often used in current public and academic discussions on the conditions of modern societies. The concept is often employed when trying to describe modern phenomena SUCH AS globalization, mass migration or the apparently increased importance and fascination of religious groups in secularized and/or traditional societies. From 2006 the concept of Cultural Encounters is central in the teaching of general history in Danish grammar schools, and it features prominently in learning plans and history courses. The concept is thus claimed to be of importance when explaining dynamic changes in history.

It is a key premise for the work in this research programme that a concept of Cultural Encounters - in all its diversity and manifold use - holds explanatory cogency towards understanding the history of also pre-modern societies despite its apparent lack of precision. The question is: How?

The usage of this concept immediately leads to a number of important questions: How are we to define cultural encounters themselves? What does ‘cultural' actually signify? What does it mean to have cultures ‘encounter' each other? What does it mean when we claim cultural encounters to be ‘dynamic'? What are the consequences of viewing historical development as a result of some sort of cultural encounters? How does this influence our thinking of past and present? And if our own preoccupation with history (as teachers and researchers) may be termed a cultural encounter, how do we actually carry it out?

These are among the questions which are analysed in this research programme. The programme includes researchers working on the Antiquity, The Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.

Earlier research often described cultural encounters as the diffusion of a central dominant civilisation (or culture) to peripheral civilisations. It is now generally regarded as untenable to argue that cultural encounters merely result in cultural ‘leaps' or the ‘seeping down' of dominant cultural traits. The critique raised by post-colonial studies and studies on globalisation has argued that such positions are both static and ethno-centric.

Cultural encounters have often taken the form of war or conquest, submission and/or exploitation. The Crusades are an obvious example. However, also more apparently peaceful Christianisation processes such as mission and the diffusion of religious houses may be viewed as examples of cultural encounters. This also goes for diplomacy and trade, i.e. the more or less organised exchange of ideas, politics, know-how, goods and commodities, both on regional and international level.

Cultural encounters can also be said to have taken place internally, that is inside civilisations. Here, cultural encounters can take the shape of clashes (or at least opposition) between groups in society, bringing problems like the relationship between individual and collective, or the marking of specific groups as ‘other' to the fore. Categories such as language, behaviour, ethnicity, gender, social classes and power are central to this perspective.

A continuous development of the methodological and theoretical implications of the use of a concept like cultural encounters is important for the research in the history of pre-modern societies. New approaches do focus on dynamic interaction between ‘the senders' and ‘the receiver' of cultural input. Modern research in these areas often takes notice of the processes of change that influenced the dominant cultures as well. Much new research is also keenly aware of the historical and culturally determined positions that govern the whole enterprise of research itself. It is of paramount importance to this research programme to explore how these new insights from other research areas may benefit to research into the history of pre-modern societies.


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