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14. Before the Welcoming: The Origins of Difference, the Beginnings of Convergence

Professor Robin Cohen


In this keynote address given at the conference Welcoming Strangers, Robin Cohen assesses how hosts relate to strangers, proposing that we are often confronted by a simple irreconcilable dichotomy. The first proposition is that humans have always been driven by a primordial or culturally/historically acquired sense of difference, nowadays signified by a ‘clash of civilisations'. Alternatively, it is suggested that human cultures are forever melding and mixing in a churn of bland and timeless hybridization. By contrast, he tries to periodise and characterise the construction of difference in early modernity, when the variety and complexity of contacts, and their representation by (largely) European thinkers, create the main lines of demarcation. Cultural differences were also significantly eroded though cultural interactions of all sorts. Using the notion of creolization we can observe how this process occurs. In their contemporary interactions with peoples from different parts of the world, long-established communities deploy sometimes overt, sometimes more covert language and social practices derived from the splits described in the early modern period – between hard and soft primitivism, between Enlightenment universalism and the Herderian ‘many cultures’ tradition.

Professor Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor and Principal Investigator of the Leverhulme Oxford Diasporas Programme, University of Oxford

Welcoming Strangers, an international interdisciplinary postgraduate conference, was held at Royal Holloway, University of London on 27 April 2012. Organised by Daniela Berghahn as part of a Fellowship awarded by the Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at Royal Holloway, together with an interdisciplinary team of postgraduate students, the event attracted PhD students from all over the UK, Spain, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. 

Since the lifespan of the Welcoming Strangers conference website, where videos of conference presentations and other documents were hosted, was limited and the site  was shut down at the end of 2012, at least the two keynote lectures have been preserved on the Far-flung Families website. 

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Filed Under: Welcoming Strangers - an international interdisciplinary postgraduate conference - 27 April 2012

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