Logo: The Term Progress in Different Cultures
Logos: GIZ, Goethe-Institut

The Term Progress in Different Cultures

Skip navigation
End of navigation

The Results

Progress is ...

... when the people can strive for happiness or something approaching prosperity in the state in which they live. This answer was common to the participants in all countries. In spite of their different social, political and cultural structures, they do apparently have a similar idea of progress. But what is behind this response? What is perceived as happiness or prosperity varies enormously. Thus progress is neither a universal concept, nor is it a value per se. Other values shape the concept of progress, leave their mark on it, and sometimes modify it.

'Progress is the realisation of Utopias.'
Oscar Wilde, Anglo-Irish poet and playwright, 1854–1900

Progress in change

Progress changes. It is not a concept that can ever be defined once and for all. The reasons for this can be seen in the fact that progress can only be perceived from a specific historical, political and cultural vantage point. Through the ages, the definition of progress has changed radically. Sometimes there has been a greater emphasis on materialistic factors, sometimes it has been defined more in political terms and sometimes in more idealistic or spiritual terms. Because cultures are constantly in flux, the concept of progress or the way a society deals with progress must keep pace and adapt constantly to changing conditions, which also means subjecting it to critical analysis.

'Fortschritt ist Ortschritt'.
(Progress can only be defined for one locality.)

Editorial team of 'politikorange'


Progress can only be defined for a specific political, historical and cultural context, and is confined to a specific geographical locality. During the research they conducted for their special issue of politikorange, the editorial team of the Jugendpresse Deutschland came to see that even inside Germany progress can mean many things to many people. The belief in the good life is linked to very diverse ideas about society, politics and technology. To express this, they coined the term 'Ortschritt' from the German 'Ort' meaning place or locality, and equally from the German 'Fortschritt' meaning progress.

Shaping globalisation

The concept of progress is closely linked to the 21st century: our experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the radical acceleration in human communication, the invention of new information technology and the exchange of goods and labour across all cultural and national borders. Globalisation has changed the parameters of individual, collective and national activities dramatically. This has consequences for international cooperation.

At all regional progress conferences globalisation was equated primarily with unfettered economic growth. The fear of being forced into conformity with the west was tangible at all conferences, as was the fear of economic and social inequality, expressed in access to markets and the distribution of power and capital within any one country.
To restore balance, the concept of progress must be redefined. Conference participants saw this as a global challenge with the response being the guiding vision of sustainable development. Geared to achieving a balance of economic, environmental, social and cultural factors, this guiding vision gives us the opportunity to shape globalisation for the better.

The sense of loss

Liberalisation trends were called into question at all conferences, and the question as to the ethics of industrial development was posed frequently. In this context, the conference participant Ashis Nandy in India spoke of a sense of loss. To balance any excessive enthusiasm for modern achievements, the price that we pay for this apparent progress must never be ignored. Throughout the modern age, all debates about progress have included an understanding of this sort for what has been lost, and we too should retain this critical consideration.

'The sense of loss has powered the thought of those who have made the best use of modernity'.
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist

Intercultural dialogue

The precondition for a genuine partnership is the willingness to be weighed up oneself. If we are to be taken seriously as partners, we must be aware of our own standpoint and be capable of recognising and articulating our own values, strengths and weaknesses. Only then can an intercultural dialogue really work and bear fruit. Naturally there will be disparities on both sides. The ability to accept these, discuss them constructively within one's own cultural group and the willingness to be frank about such disparities is part of the intercultural dialogue, and is of elementary importance in international cooperation.

'Progress is a joint undertaking. If we really want to achieve it we should all work towards it and discuss it. The essential is not what somebody actually says, but the way it is understood by the other.'
Svetlana Kolbaniova, journalist and producer, participant from Kaliningrad

Pluralism as an opportunity

When we speak about cultural diversity we often forget that these 'cultures' are not static, but that they are made up of individuals, who interact and communicate and as a result are constantly changing. External influences too, interdependences and power structures play a role in these changes. The way progress is understood around the world is linked to this constantly changing diversity. Rather than seeking to identify a uniform concept of progress, we should take this opportunity to strengthen pluralist thoughts and actions, and to integrate the wide spectrum of concepts in decisions that are crucial for our future.

Old and new

Progress also means finding a balance between preserving traditions and introducing change. Not everything that is new is automatically good. Not everything used to be better. It is up to each one of us to decide which elements of our own tradition can be cast off, and which ought to be retained. In so doing various cultures can come together and shape progress together.

'Be not afraid of change; be afraid only of standing still.'
Lao Tse, Chinese philosopher, 6th century B.C.

Change of perspective

If we encounter another culture, we immediately notice what is different and alien. We consider everything that does not correlate with our own values system and our own experiences to be alien. The familiar by contrast is logical, the result of in-depth analysis and thus must be 'right'.

It is by no means easy to break out of our own perspective and to genuinely accept different ways of thinking. In this context one Indian participant at the progress conference raised the issue of 'shifting the spotlight'. When collective light is focused, thus enabling us to see the other alien society, we can move beyond our own lines of argumentations and thinking and make new discoveries. A change of perspective of this sort could also help turn attention once more to forgotten western models of progress, thus playing down the western versus non-western dichotomy.