The Parameters of Cultural Appropriation

Dr David Wadley1, Dr Lester  Thompson2

1The University Of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

2Southern Cross University, Coolangatta, Australia


Why should cultural appropriation occur, and who gains and loses in the process? Appropriation has been variously regarded as a reaction to prior cultural colonialism, a consequence of the rise of social media, and a component of free-wheeling global markets. Our aim is to calibrate the concept, starting with definitions from academic and popular sources, expanded with recent examples of the contestation of culture. Ontological analysis commences by identifying the nomothetic and idiographic extremes, the universal and the micro-specific, which effectively bookend the practice. Next, we investigate appropriation involving goods, services, customs, accoutrement and intellectual property. We go on to explore dimensions which pertain to it, including voluntariness and involuntariness, information (a)symmetry, scale of application, and advantage and disadvantage among transactional agents. We widen this critical approach by enquiring whether appropriation is actually a form of relativism, which acts to challenge the precepts of procedural (scientific) rationality. Finally, drawing on the models of rational choice and Pareto improvement from economics, we adduce ethical criteria to determine situations in which cultural appropriation might be justified.


David Wadley PhD MBA MEcon lecturers in economic geography and town planning at The University of Queensland. His research interests include urban modelling, labour dynamics and philosophical approaches to geography.

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