The roots of the South African Cape vineyards date back to the 1600s. A main stop along the international spice shipping route, the region’s climate and varying soil types proved to be excellent growing conditions for what was then a widely used remedy for scurvy: wine. Despite its rich heritage, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the country’s vintage came to be recognized internationally alongside more established favorites. The now highly regarded and sought after South African brands have industry-wide production advancements to thank, in part, for their entry into the global market place, but also – and perhaps more importantly, says UCI sociologist Nina Bandelj – the symbolic value behind the labels.

“Creating and controlling symbolic value that resides in reputations is key to reaping economic benefits,” she says. “As generational producers, South African wineries have symbolic value and more recently, they have seen success in marketing that reputation through effective branding.”

In her new book, The Cultural Wealth of Nations, Bandelj and co-editor Frederick Wherry, University of Michigan, analyze how country-specific symbolism and reputation – or cultural wealth – are often exploited for economic development purposes. Below, Bandelj explains how the national branding of unique geographical characteristics and cultural customs – from the blossoming wine industry of South Africa to the rolling, tourist-filled hills of Tuscany – have helped economies around the world prosper, and what this can teach us about culture’s role in the contemporary economy.

Q: What main case studies did you collect in your analysis of cultural wealth and economic prosperity?

A: The book is a collection of case studies about how cultural wealth is constructed or deployed – more or less effectively - for development in regions and countries on the European, American, Asian and African continents. Included are chapters on the construction and reconstruction of the iconic landscape of Tuscany; the micro-lending projects promoting cultural preservation and local economic development in Mali; overcoming stigma of war and re-branding Croatia as a tourist destination; constructing the Mundo Maya project across Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador; upgrading the wine industry of the South African Cape; differential growth of cultural tourism on two French territories in the South-West Indian Ocean, Mayotte and Reunion Island; and the liabilities of using e-commerce to bypass cultural intermediaries in the silk industry in Thailand. We also have a chapter on the construction of the UNESCO’s World Heritage 1972 Convention which sets international standards that help countries identify and market their cultural wealth, specifically through practices of heritage preservation.

Q: What examples did you find most intriguing?  

A: One such example would certainly be the so-called “Culture Bank” in Mali. This bank operates similarly to the Grameen Bank, which many people know because it - and its founder, Muhammad Yunus - received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Grameen Bank gives out small loans to mostly rural women, without requiring collateral. Instead, the bank relies on social capital, or ties that those who take out loans have to each other as a way of peer-pressuring to ensure that loans are repaid. The Culture Bank in Mali serves similar purposes, but it is cultural capital that sustains the bank’s operation, not social capital. Locals are encouraged to bring to the Culture Bank statuettes, objects used in religious rituals, and other cultural objects in exchange for a loan. These cultural objects are put on display in the bank’s museum where tourists are charged an entrance fee. Importantly, the size of the loan given to those who deposit cultural objects does not depend on the assessment of what price the object might have in an open market but on the amount of verifiable information the loan applicant has about how the object is traditionally used, and where and how it was made. So, it is a narrative about a cultural object that functions as symbolic capital, which villagers can convert into economic resources. The bank’s requirements help keep local cultural narratives alive, but also, obviously, help villagers economically.

The Culture Bank is probably unknown to people but everyone has heard of Tuscany in Italy. So the intriguing part of this example, which is described in one chapter of the book, is not so much that it functions as Italian cultural wealth that attracts hoards of tourists. It is more the irony that the landscape’s iconic status renders it unfit for intensive agricultural production, which is the primary economic function of landscapes. Instead, Tuscany is designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and the iconic status of this landscape generates profits. A number of individuals and institutions, related and unrelated to the tourism industry, are involved in constructing the symbolic value of the landscape, and the process does not happen without battles over how the landscape’s iconic status should be maintained, and what kind of economic activities should be curtailed.
Q: In terms of importance, where do symbolic and cultural value fall in the overall determination of a nation's economic prosperity?  

A: Ranking cultural wealth as more or less important than industry or trade is a misplaced effort for two reasons. First, the question of development is not a question of “the one right way” of achieving economic prosperity, either via material or via cultural wealth. The cases described in the book show that contemporary globalization involves flows of people, capital and goods across borders that require individual nations to explore multiple paths to economic growth, including getting a piece of that trillion dollar world tourism receipt. In fact, in several developing countries, international tourism has become the largest or second largest generator of foreign exchange. Second, symbolic dimensions of goods and cultural artifacts are integral to global trade today. Commodity exports have diversified to include cultural artifacts, like arts and crafts, that most countries failed to record in their official statistics before 2001. Moreover, countries around the world have boosted their investment-attractor services, establishing governmental agencies of trade and investment promotion as well as private sector companies charged with nation-branding and marketing the country for the purpose of attracting foreign investment and promoting export demand for the country’s products. All in all, this means that symbolic resources are integral to contemporary trade, investment and tourism.

Q: What can your book teach us about economic development and/or policy in the future?

A: The cultural perspective that the book proposes goes against the prevailing belief that there is only one best way for regions or nations to prosper. Indeed, low and middle-income countries have defied the prediction that they would all engage in a race to the bottom offering cheaper prices, larger volumes, and canceling out potentially large economic gains for their national economies. Instead, countries have increasingly diversified their exports, and added value to that diversification by emphasizing the symbolic qualities of those products. They also engage in branding their nations to shape up the reputations that influence global tourism and investment. This is not to say that it is easy for countries to move up in the world hierarchy, which remains quite rigid. But paying attention to the cultural, and not only material wealth expands the options and opportunities for countries. It also requires scholars and practitioners to re-envision the relationship between culture and economy. As argued in the book, culture is not something that is simply secondary to the material reality. Nor should we fear that “commodifying” culture somehow corrupts a certain truly authentic heritage of nations. Rather, the cultural and economic processes are deeply intertwined; central to the process of cultural wealth creation and deployment is careful attention to the meaning making of actors involved in production, consumption and exchange, which help construct the economic reality.    

-Heather Wuebker, Social Sciences Communications
-photo courtesy of Gruener

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