Negotiating Tradition: The Pragmatics of International Deliberations on Cultural Property (Göttingen Studies in Cultural Property)

By Stefan Groth. 2012. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen. 190 pages. ISBN: 978-3-86395-100-9 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Pekka Hakamies, University of Turku

[Review length: 1332 words • Review posted on February 10, 2016]


[Cover ofNegotiating Tradition: The Pragmatics of International Deliberations on Cultural Property]

This work is a thesis and is based on the author’s own fieldwork in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) meetings, 2008–9, and on interviews and documents. WIPO, whose headquarters are located in Geneva, is an organization run by the United Nations. The subject of the work is international administrative collaboration in the area of protection of culture and traditional knowledge. It begins with a list, a couple of pages long, of abbreviations. Some of these appear continually in the text, and become familiar to the reader. In addition to WIPO itself, these include GR (genetic resources), IGC (Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources), TK (traditional knowledge), TCE (traditional cultural expressions), IP (intellectual property). The work bubbles over with abbreviations, which point to various organizations and concepts. The book may have an abbreviation list, but the reader really needs a copy of the list beside the book to make the reading flow.

Having given a picture in the introduction to the work of WIPO and the debate on cultural property, Stefan Groth presents his own set of tasks to be undertaken. He aims to analyze communicative patterns and strategies in international negotiations, using the methodological and theoretical frameworks of linguistic anthropology, particularly ethnography of communication and linguistic pragmatics. Works by Dell Hymes, Charles Briggs, and Richard Bauman are often mentioned, but also those of Bakhtin. The theoretical framework does not, however, form a strict method but, mainly, a container within which materials are read and interpreted.

The central question, based on the author’s observations, is as follows: how far can divergent views on core issues co-exist over a long period of time without direct confrontations from oppositional parties or a failure of the committee? The main argument formulated by the author is that communicative strategies play a key role when different interests meet in the work of WIPO and the representatives of the member states attempt to speed or stall discussion on various issues, which unavoidably leads to very slow progress in the work of the organization. Various diplomatic registers and communicative practices are used in this negotiation.

The author describes in detail the practices used in the meetings. “Folklore” is an important concept, closely related to TCE and TK in the work of WIPO. However, a folklorist will not find a relevant definition of the concept in this book, because the participants in the meetings are not interested in this in itself but in various meanings the concept can have in the negotiations. The IGC has attempted to define TK and TCE but in vain, because so many confronting interests and implications are linked to any formulations, including legal issues related to protection and property rights. Unfortunately, there is no subject or name index in the book, just the list of abbreviations.

The author presents in an interesting way how the work of the committee is proceeding extremely slowly and how the delegations are seemingly frustrated at the lack of progress. He also explains how different coalitions are formed among the member states. The national level is of major importance, but sometimes national minorities or other special groups may gain significance. An interesting sub-theme is the occasional contradiction between various cultural minority groups and non-governmental organizations against the state powers that are represented in WIPO. Groth has delved into all the forms of activity and various support mechanisms resorted to in an attempt to facilitate better participation by NGOs in the discussions. He examines the IGC as one speech community, with different sub-communities. The book includes detailed analysis of speech behavior and uses of various phrases and utterances in different situations.

Many of the discussions and activities discussed in the book are related to international politics, with connections to economics, and thus go beyond the scope of the book. In fact, the theme of this book could be investigated from a number of aspects. It offers a well-reasoned and multifaceted discussion of the motivations and the way in which different actors attempt verbally to defend their interests and promote or retard the process of defining the main concepts: traditional cultural expression, traditional knowledge, and intellectual property. The main dividing line seems to fall between the developed Western countries and countries of the Third World.

A lot of the work is devoted to verbal means by which the participants can slow down, obfuscate, and burden the work of the committee. One example is the use of the term “text-based negotiations” with different meanings. Another means of weakening the text and breaking the whole process up is so-called micro-editing, in which minimal, detailed changes are proposed for a text when it has been worked through, thus retarding the work and producing changes in the indexical meaning of utterances in their context. The author presents illustrative examples of both “text-based negotiations” and “micro-editing.”

Groth also focuses attention on the conceptual meanings and stigmatizations the term “indigenous,” closely associated with traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expression, can be seen to have. In the background lies the heritage of colonialism and the production of otherness. On the one hand, traditional knowledge lives on above all in indigenous and local communities, while on the other hand, communities freed from colonialism are developing towards the modern world, which in turn is part of the heritage of colonialism. “Indigenous” includes connotations of backwardness and non-modernity. It is a belittling term, but it has potential, which must be translated into modern rational knowledge.

Groth examines speech in detail and investigates the pragmatics of individual sentences in relation to how far the speaker and audience are familiar with pragmatic characteristics and implications. The IGC consists of multiple audiences and has various rhetorical competences, which justifies the introduction of the notion of “mutual partial intelligibility.” The IGC’s participants are obliged the whole time to equivocate between stability and instability: the process has to be kept going, and excessive disappointment at its workings has to be avoided in the presentations, despite the entirely contrary feeling existing the whole time, while no clear progress is ever visible. Nevertheless, the discussions and argumentation produce useful material for all delegates for their own national political debate.

As a speech community, the IGC is quite flexible, so the conventions of communication vary continuously, and all pragmatic strategies are above all reactions to this imprecision. The speech community is a central concept for understanding how ethnographic description and micro-linguistic analyses of communicative practices make the outcomes of negotiations comprehensible. Communicative competence becomes a focal concept as work progresses. It means both the ability to use appropriate speeches in different circumstances, but also the ability to present what one has to say in such a way that it serves the objectives of the side the speaker represents.

The IGC as a whole has been an interesting and many-faceted object of research, if a frustrating one, assuming the researcher has at all absorbed the organization’s aims: as of August 2015 the work of the committee was still unfinished. The use of multiple languages to further the interests of each participating delegation, along with all the processes of translation and the shifting perspectives, has created a sort of linguistic jungle, in which the person fares best who can read the details and hidden intentions of other participants’ speeches, and can react to them with consideration in his or her own speeches pragmatically, courting what is really cultural property. Although the advancement of the work of definition has been frustratingly slow and many delegates have at times threatened to break off the whole task, for some delegates entering into discussion on this committee has been important, because it has thus been possible to hinder discussion of these matters on other fora. Groth clarifies all this with good argument. He has a demonstrably good grasp of the research topic and a suitable methodology for carrying out the research. For the folklorist and broader categories of cultural researchers Groth’s work is a healthy reminder that even scientific definitions are not ideologically immaculate.

This site is best viewed in Google Chrome, Firefox 3, and Safari 4. If you are having difficulty viewing the site, please upgrade your browser by clicking the appropriate link.
© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.