Skip main navigation

What is European culture?

Diversity is a core characteristic of the European identity, and represents both an asset and a challenge.
As Umberto Eco, a famous Italian philosopher of our times, wrote, “It is culture and not war that cements European identity.” But what do we mean when we connect the words “Europe” and “culture?” And is there one or many European cultures? When we speak of culture in our everyday life, we tend to think of the arts of painting, of sculpting. But we also think of literature, theatre, music, and other products of intellectual activity, as well as architecture, design, and even fashion. A more complex definition of culture includes not only cultural products and industries but also values and ideas. It involves ways of doing things, ways of behaving.
Culture is a codified set of meanings through which we orient ourselves in the world, but it is also a way of giving meaning, explaining, and even predicting individual and collective behaviours, and, of course, a lever to change behaviours. There are four dimensions in the concept of culture. An identity dimension– according to which culture gives a sense of a past of a collectivity of the ways things are done in a certain place, the values held, and the way of life of certain people. It offers a lens through which one can interpret the world. Then there is an economic dimension because culture includes cultural products– cultural goods that can be branded and traded.
An institutional dimension– culture, in fact, comes to life also through institutions. And a dimension of power– culture can be used as an element of distinction. There is a culture of the elites and a culture of the laypeople. Many of us still distinguish between the high arts and the low arts.
Europe has always presented itself as being about culture and about values. The notion of European culture raises associations connected with the Enlightenment, belief in progress, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. European culture is also interlinked with the concept of democracy and with human rights. But the most distinctive feature of European culture is its internal diversity, and particularly the acknowledgement of this diversity. European cultural narratives bring together different national and religious heritages– the Greeks, the Romans and Germanic tribes, the orthodox, the Catholics and the Protestants, but also the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, the Muslims of Europe, and others too.
Modern European culture marks, however, a departure from the linear cultural historical narratives of the past that traced a line from ancient Greece to today. It is perhaps the trauma of Nazism and Stalinism of the 20th century, as well as the end of Colonialism that pushes towards a critical investigation of the narrative of a European culture. European culture has historically been coloured and racialised. Whiteness and pallor, rather than Mediterranean olive skin, have been associated with the aesthetic ideal. High brow– common to Western European peoples– was considered to signal high intellect and aesthetic refinement. Its supposed superiority has been built on racist beliefs about non-European peoples and traditions. In the past, such views of superiority legitimised colonialism and slavery.
Today, blatant cultural and racial hierarchies have been discredited and overcome, yet cultural hierarchy and cultural racism still plague Europe. [PIANO PLAYING]

This video discusses a second key concept of the course: culture. It introduces four dimensions: identity, economic, institutional and power. It then moves on to discuss what is European culture.

We first look at values such as freedom of expression or democracy. Then we focus on an essential element, which we will emphasize throughout the course: diversity. European diversity comes from the different layers of the continent’s history.

The notion of diversity also raises challenges:

  • Facing the history of racialist thoughts and colonialism that is part of the European past.
  • Addressing logics of exclusion that affect minorities in Europe today.
This article is from the free online

Cultures and Identities in Europe

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now