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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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4.3 Heritage and the production of culture

Another way of thinking about heritage is to view it not simply in terms of physical things but as a form of social and cultural action. Most anthropologists now agree that cultures are not simply an accumulation of things and people but are better understood in terms of a series of processes by which new and old practices are adapted and adopted within a cultural system. These processes can be thought of as forms of ‘work’ which help to produce a culture. In these terms, culture (and by extension, heritage) can never be thought of as being lost, because culture is always produced in the present to deal with the circumstances of everyday life. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996, [2001] 2008), archaeologist Denis Byrne (2008) discusses the ways in which communities use heritage as a part of the ‘work’ which maintains their connection to particular places and to each other. Appadurai calls this work the ‘production of locality’.

An example of a heritage practice that is concerned with the production of locality and community from a contemporary developed nation is the ‘traditional’ tug of war that is held between the Bull Hotel and the Feathers Hotel each year in Ludlow town centre (England) on Boxing Day (Figure 10). Here, hundreds of locals gather to eat and drink in the streets while cheering on the teams representing these two pubs located on opposite sides of the main street. The focus on this particular place and on communal eating and drinking demonstrates clearly the ways in which such discrete heritage practices can help individuals express a sense of connection between people and place. The fabric of the buildings and the street are irrelevant to this heritage practice, which demonstrates the active role that heritage can take in a community by bringing people together to emphasise shared values.

Described image
Figure 10 Locals gather to cheer on the two teams during the Boxing Day tug of war in Ludlow town centre. Unknown photographer. Photo: courtesy of the Shropshire Star.

Being able to connect one’s self to the past, and to the collective past of others via the recollection or recreation of specific memories and histories, is a form of cultural capital that relates to heritage. For example, if an individual can make a connection between their past and the heritage that is promoted as an aspect of their community’s past, it gives them a connection they can use to ‘purchase’ privilege in social interactions. In Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘cultural capital’ (see, for example, Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990) the skills and knowledge that people accumulate in the course of their lives can be employed culturally in a way that is similar to economic capital. Cultural capital might be understood to be similar to prestige or ‘know-how’: the ability to ‘get along’ and acquire more influence and status. Education is the key means of acquiring distinction through cultural capital. In this model, heritage is not something imposed from above, but something that people create and use actively to maintain the connections between themselves and other places and things. This model of heritage as social action is far better at accommodating the intangible aspects of heritage such as song, language and tradition – those forms of heritage described earlier in this course as heritage practices.

If heritage can be a form of cultural capital and a way of connecting people with each other and with the environment that surrounds them, the promotion of heritage or involvement in heritage can be considered to be a form of social action. By drawing on the past and creating a new significance for its traces and memories, people can transform and refigure the ways in which their societies operate. Such a model of heritage does not necessarily criticise heritage for creating alternative versions of history, but sees the role of this creation of collective memories as both the production and the transformation of society and culture.