Port City Culture - Culture(s) and Cultural Practices

Sabine Luning

Port City Futures is an interdisciplinary group concerned with different aspects of the social and cultural dimensions of port cities and their technological and economic development. It brings together scholars from the humanities and a variety of technical and social sciences. However, what unites us is interest in culture, e.g. by questioning whether we can identify  ‘maritime mindsets’ in port cities. But what is culture?

Our interdisciplinary conversations are fueled by many ‘turns’ characterizing the different disciplines. Urban geography and planning are in the process of a ‘cultural’ turn (Dai, Hein, & Zhang, 2019; Hall & Barrett, 2018; Sandercock, 2000). Meanwhile anthropologists, traditionally concerned with culture, are involved in a ‘spatial’ turn (Wonneberger, 2011). In making it, some have wondered whether to replace the notion of culture with concepts such as discourse or habitus, which emphasize that knowledge is ‘situated’ in practices. You might wonder why a discipline would consider abandoning one of its core concepts. In dominant, mainly American, traditions in anthropology, culture was associated with the ideational aspects of social life (world views, mindsets, shared values and meaning), and its use in the singular suggested bounded units. In this so-called ‘mosaic’ view, cultures were seen as socially and spatially discrete, living ‘side by side’ (Benedict, 1934; Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961). Importantly, by the mid-nineties, this way of ‘talking culture’ had become part of public discourse, often applied to ‘minorities’ within larger social units, such as nation states and cities. Deployed in this way, ‘culture’ was often ‘weaponized’, serving to identify certain groups or communities ‘still’ locked-up in tradition and culture and not yet modern or cosmopolitan (Stolke, 1995). Opposition to this is one reason why, in recent decades, many anthropologists started to ‘write against culture’ (Abu-Lughod, 2008; Clifford & Marcus, 1986).

The historical emphasis in anthropology on tradition, the circumscribed and small-scales may explain why, in the past, so few anthropologists engaged in research on port cities – social spaces where passage, transience, openness and flux are among their most striking and, paradoxically, consistent structural qualities (Driessen, 2005: 131). All the more reason for critical anthropologists to team up with colleagues from other disciplines in a collaboration on Port City Futures. First of all, some of the autocritique of anthropologists regarding ‘culture’ in general may help us scrutinize ideas about port city cultures in particular. This is the contribution of the anthropologist Henk Driessen, who challenges perspectives in which port cities in Asia Minor (e.g. Izmir) are compared to the Greek towns in terms of openness, vitality, connectivity, centrality and diversity vis-à-vis closedness, stagnation, isolation, marginality and uniformity. Not all groups in Izmir were affected by the port and cultural flows across the Mediterranean Sea in the same way, he cautions. Moreover, cosmopolitan orientations in port cities did not exclude other, more parochial identifications. Identifications are always multilayered, meaning we should be careful with notions such as ‘cosmopolitan lifestyle’ and ‘maritime mindset’ (Sheikh, 2019), always asking who does and does not have these attitudes, under which circumstance, and how they fit with wider port city dynamics regarding identity building.

Anthropologists, too, can benefit from concepts used by our colleagues in other disciplines studying port cities. For example, the notion of superdiversity elaborated upon by Van de Laar and Van der Schoor (2019) can help us to move forward our understanding of processes of (cultural) identification in the complex historical, social and spatial contexts of such cities. Van de Laar and van der Schoor show how superdiversity is a powerful alternative to the term ‘multicultural,’ with its assumption of dominant versus minority groups and its bias towards assimilation and integration. The concept of superdiversity also provides an antidote to any singular view on culture and tunnel vision regarding ‘ethnic’ identities. As the authors point out, identification takes place at intersections of class, culture, gender, education, generation and religion. The dynamics of (social) mobility and exclusion gain shape through these (unbounded) interconnections.

Such relational approaches also allow us to identify cultural practices where they were not sufficiently noticed before. We can study cultural dimensions which are associated with ‘the’ modern and cosmopolitan; governing authorities, corporate elites and professional practitioners involved in shaping port cities. Han Meyer (Meyer, 1999), for example, describes the changes in socio-spatial arrangements between port and city in Rotterdam. The processes of moving and rebuilding port infrastructures outside of the city centre and its traditional waterfront, he writes, created complex challenges for different categories of professionals and governors. The way planners worked on these issues was informed by an ‘urban planning culture’ characterized by unrelenting efforts to tie the city to the Maas river. These lines of research allow anthropologists to not abandon, but to reposition their interest in culture. It becomes, here, something both produced by and informing (professional) practices, sharpening our interest in those professionals whose job it is to outline promises for futures (Abram & Weszkalnys, 2013).

Other scholars, including those associated with Port City Futures (Hein, 2016)  have shown how spatial ordering is culturally engrained. A perfect example is the choice to revitalize the old waterfront in Rotterdam by turning it into a site for cultural proliferation: a stage for cultural events and creative industries. This ‘culturalisation’ of space aims at transforming the image of Rotterdam: from a city of work to a city of culture (Van Ulzen, 2007). These examples show that culture is best studied as part of practices rather than (pure) thought, and that culture in the singular comes about in acts of ‘profiling’, serving either to celebrate inclusive social wholes (The City), or to devalue and exclude ‘others’ (‘their’ culture). Efforts of making culture and cultures are situated in specific (historical) processes of identification, relational contexts and socio-spatial projects. Redefined as such, our interdisciplinary group provides the perfect site for understanding culture(s) as ‘taking place’ in professional, political, social and infrastructural practices.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Vincent Baptist and Andrew Littlejohn.

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