Understanding Everyday Participation: Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?

Understanding Everyday Participation:

Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?

Andrew Miles

University of Manchester

What does it mean to participate in culture? Why are some activities seen as culturally valuable and others not? How does cultural participation inform issues of personal, social and community identity? In what ways are understandings of spaces, places and so-called ‘creative economies’ rendered through participation?

These are the core questions being addressed by the ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’ (UEP) project. UEP is a five-year research project that began in 2012 and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Connected Communities programme, with further investment provided by Creative Scotland. A collaboration between the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, Exeter and Warwick, it brings together an 11-strong team of experts from History, Sociology, Museum Studies, English, Drama and Cultural Policy Studies, supported by a group of 16 national and local partner organisations spanning the cultural and third sectors.

UEP starts from the proposition that the relationship between participation and value needs radically rethinking. Orthodox models of cultural engagement are based on a narrow definition of participation, one that focuses on the ‘high’ arts and traditional cultural institutions but which, in the process, neglects the significance of more informal hobbies, pastimes and other, ostensibly mundane, day-to-day activities. Our work sets out to explore the value of such everyday cultural practices through a five-part programme of interdisciplinary, mixed-methods research.

Reflecting a particular concern with the ‘situated’ nature of participation, the empirical core of the project focuses on a set of six case study areas, or ‘cultural ecosystems’. These are Manchester-Salford, Aberdeen, Gateshead, Dartmoor, Peterborough and Stornoway; locations chosen for their contrasting profiles in official statistics for levels of participation and investment in formal cultural activities. On one side, these local studies are being contextualised by new historical research on participation and value and by the reanalysis of existing survey data offering new perspectives on time use and the spatial dimensions of participation. On the other side, we are examining the policy applications of the case study findings in partner-led projects on local participation issues and by reviewing how the processes of partnership working across the project might inform dialogue across different communities of practice (research, policy, production) in the cultural sector.

Our work on the ground in the case study locations is predominantly inductive. We are not pre-determining what constitutes cultural participation but looking to identify key domains and emergent themes in each setting. To enable this approach, we are deploying a suite of, mostly, qualitative methods, which can offer different but complementary perspectives on how people and groups come into participation and what is at stake in this process. These methods include two waves of in-depth interviews with a representative sample of local residents, ethnography, social network analysis, community focus groups, local histories and cultural assets mapping. Currently, we are nearing completion of the Manchester-Salford case study, which has focused on the ethnically mixed and economically deprived wards of Cheetham Hill and Broughton, while work in a urban village community on the edge of Aberdeen and on a central corridor of Gateshead adjacent to the city’s formal cultural amenities is well advanced.

The data being produced in these locations are phenomenally rich and these are still early days in terms of moving towards worked up findings. In Cheetham and Broughton the ethnographic work has identified the particular importance of parks and open spaces as cultural resources, partly because they provide neutral, liminal ground for participation in areas defined by cohesive but in many respects mutually exclusive communities. In the Aberdeen case study the ways in which participation is mediated by changing working patterns and the importance of club life and volunteering in sustaining a sense local identity in the midst of economic, physical and cultural transformation have come to the fore. Initial readings of the in-depth interviews – the first wave of which focuses on people’s life histories and participation narratives, together with issues of identity and belonging – emphasise the sheer diversity of people’s participation practices, along with the cultural resonances of their social activities. Bearing out previous work carried out by UEP team members, they are also indicating the remoteness of the formal cultural sphere to the lives of the great majority, for whom ‘the arts’, at least in an institutional sense, hold little if any interest.

This last theme will be of particular interest to the Cultural Value project because it calls into question the privileging of traditional cultural forms and venues of the kind funded by government bodies.In an earlier post on the AHRC ‘Cultural Value’ project website http://culturalvalueproject.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/symposium-on-arts-participation-in-washington-dc/ Geoff Crossick suggested that by placing too much emphasis on participation in the everyday sphere we run the risk of neglecting the consequences of unequal access to the arts in divided societies. Given the association between the possession of established cultural capital and life chances in societies such as our own in the UK (Bennett et al 2009, Scherger and Savage 2010), this is a legitimate concern. Equally, however, this is a position that is unlikely to disturb the status quo, since it fails to challenge the role that existing hierarchies of cultural value play in shaping and reproducing the wider system of inequality in the first place (Bourdieu 1984).

A narrow focus on the importance of the conventional canon in cultural policy obscures the contested and divisive nature of the cultural field and the way in which ideas of cultural value are socially constructed. Policies that prioritise access to the arts in the name of social inclusion are at the same time part of a process of discrimination, marking out social boundaries according to establishment norms and understandings of what is to count as ‘legitimate’ culture (Miles 2013). By taking an empirically grounded, methodologically diverse approach to revealing those practices (and practitioners) marginalised in this process, the UEP project is attempting to develop a more democratic understanding of cultural participation and its values.

References:

Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M. and Wright, D. (2009), Culture, Class, Distinction, London: Routledge

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Miles, A. (2013), ‘Culture, participation and identity in contemporary Manchester’, in Savage, M., Wolff, J. and Savage, M. (eds), Culture in Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change since 1800, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Scherger, S. and Savage, M. (2010), ‘Cultural transmission, educational attainment and social mobility’, The Sociological Review, 53:3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: