Dr Daniel Allington, Dr Anna Jordanous, and Dr Byron Dueck: Online networks and the production of value in electronic music

This project began with Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that cultural value is a form of belief. Drawing on Marcel Mauss’s work in the anthropology of religions, Bourdieu (1993 [1980]) argued that a painting or a poem is a sort of fetish: that is, a ‘magical’ artefact whose special status derives from the fact that believers hold it to be magical. So, for Bourdieu, cultural production involves not only the production of artefacts, but also the production of belief in the value of those artefacts. It’s easy to see how this would apply to what Bourdieu called the ‘field of large scale production’, i.e. the commercial culture industries: big businesses such as major record labels and Hollywood film studios invest both in the production of what is now called ‘content’ and in advertising and other forms of publicity through which to generate demand for that content. But what most interested Bourdieu was what he called the ‘field of restricted production’ or the ‘field of art and literature’, which puts little emphasis on the audience, is embarrassed by excessive commercial success, and appears to operate on the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’.

According to Bourdieu, those who participate in the field of restricted production – whether as producers, critics, publishers, or whatever – share a belief in the special value of what the field produces, and compete to convince their peers that certain particular works possess more of this value than others. The victors in this competition come to define the ‘legitimate culture’ of the future, thanks to an institutional apparatus of value transmission that encompasses private businesses such as publishers, public institutions such as museums, and of course the educational system, and through this means, what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic capital’, or the ‘specific capital’ of the cultural field – which is to say, peer esteem – becomes convertible into economic capital – although only for a minority, and even then, after a delay of many years.

Such ideas are likely to seem familiar to many cultural producers and consumers who would think of themselves as having little stake in ‘legitimate culture’. For example, as David Hesmondhalgh (2006, 217) points out, ‘ “alternative” seem[s]… to be a vernacular term, within the field of popular musical production and consumption, for what Bourdieu calls… restricted production…. constantly defined… against a pop “mainstream”, a vernacular term for… large-scale production.’ This is one way in which Bourdieu’s opposition between the field of restricted production and the field of large scale production has recently been complicated through recognition that nonelite culture can also function on the basis of ‘art for art’s sake’. Where it does, we again discover situations in which a producer’s intended audience is composed, in the first instance, of his or her competitors. And this appears to be as true of jazz or grime as it is of opera, regardless of the fact that the former two are largely disconnected from the institutional structures that support the latter, both financially and symbolically (see e.g. Perchard 2014, paragraphs 10–11).

So if one takes the position that the specific capital of cultural fields is the same thing as cultural value, one is necessarily led to an understanding of cultural value as inherently and inextricably a matter of inequality and exclusion. And inequalities and exclusions – not only within, but also between social groups – are among the things that social network analysis and ethnography are best equipped to unveil. We are using both in our study of electronic music.

On the one hand, then, we are engaged in social network analysis of interactions between producers on the SoundCloud website. SoundCloud is both a social networking site and a music publishing site. It’s like YouTube without the visuals and without the piracy. We’re looking at who follows who – where a follow is a one-directional arc (i.e. arrow) from one individual to another, and represents an implied act of valuing – and at who comments on whose tracks – where a positive comment is also an arc, and the great majority of comments are positive. Having scraped data from the website, we can visualise networks of many thousands of nodes. We can then study these networks in various ways in order to get at the question of who is valuing whom, and whom that valued person is valuing in turn (for explanation of the principles involved, see Allington 2013; for preliminary findings, see Allington, Dueck, and Jordanous 2015, in press).

On the other hand, we are simultaneously carrying out interviews and observational research in offline contexts. This is important because relationships between producers are only partially lived out in public online spaces. Much valuing takes place through private online interactions, for example email. And face-to-face interactions are probably the most important of all. This helps us to understand the continued importance of physical location in producing cultural value, even in an age of instant global digital distribution – and in turn helps us to make sense of our quantitative data. Many music makers on SoundCloud appear to have a tendency to follow others who are based in the same city. Why, when they can follow people anywhere in the world – and when the SoundCloud website doesn’t organise producers’ accounts geographically, or provide helpful lists of ‘DJs near you’? While following an electronic music producer on SoundCloud is a way of publicly valuing his or her work, it may also reflect a pre-existing belief in the value of that work: a belief that may well have been formed through offline interactions – for example, attending a club night where a DJ (perhaps also a respected producer) plays one of that person’s tracks in his or her set.

So the problem we are dealing with now is not that, when we look at the interactions on SoundCloud, we are not seeing the production of cultural value. Rather, the problem is that a whole spectrum of different interactions is involved, and that these public online interactions are at the lower intensity end of it. And the solution to that problem is, we would suggest, more offline data collection – including for social network analysis – bringing the qualitative and quantitative sides of the research closer together.

See the valuing electronic music website for more details.

Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’. The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5 December. http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

Allington, Daniel, Dueck, Byron, and Jordanous, Anna (2015, in press). ‘Networks of value in electronic music: SoundCloud, London, and the importance of place’. Cultural Trends 24 (3).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1993 [1980]). ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’. Trans. Richard Nice. In: Bourdieu, Pierre. The field of cultural production: essays on art and literature. Cambridge: Polity Press. 74-111.

Hesmondhalgh, David (2006). ‘Bourdieu, the media, and cultural production’. Media, Culture, and Society 28 (2): 211-231.

Perchard, Tom (2014). ‘Insipid International Jazz Day whitewashes a fractious past’. The Conversation, 30 April. https://theconversation.com/insipid-international-jazz-day-whitewashes-a-fractious-past-26022

Anouk Lang: Developing methods for analysing and evaluating literary engagement in digital contexts

This project, Developing methods for analysing and evaluating literary engagement in digital contexts, begins from the starting point that the rapid rise in the amount of user-generated content produced on the internet, especially on social media sites, offers an extraordinary opportunity to study human interaction in a format that lends itself easily to multiple kinds of computational analysis. From the perspective of scholars of reading and reception, this growing body of data is particularly exciting, given that it is not just time-consuming to interview individual readers, carry out surveys and conduct focus groups, but also problematic to draw conclusions from artificial contexts where it is difficult to know the extent to which the answers being given have been influenced by the unequal relationship between reader and researcher. Although data derived from the internet has plenty of limitations of its own—the fact that users of a particular site or service may not be a very representative sample of the general population, for instance—it is still the case that born-digital responses to texts, other readers, and literary events offer researchers the tantalising possibility of grasping aspects of reading that have been previously inaccessible. Not only are there much larger amounts of material available than in the past, but also digital reception data often involves readers voluntarily recording their thoughts in the context of a community to which they feel a sense of belonging, rather than reporting them to a stranger.

The challenge for researchers who work on reading and who do not have large amounts of technical background knowledge is twofold. First, how can they access these rich bodies of data, and second, how can they carry out analysis of digital materials alongside their established methods of working with non-digital reception data? A scholar with experience in interpreting marginalia – comments written in the margins of books – is well placed to bring her skills to bear on digital forms of annotations, for instance, but might not know how to get hold of this data nor how to process it when the sheer amount of material available exceeds the capacity of a single human reader. Other disciplines have addressed these issues—corpus linguists have established methods of constructing and analysing large textual corpora, for instance, and computer scientists have developed techniques such as sentiment analysis which can process large numbers of statements to determine whether they are broadly positive or negative, while various other approaches are being taken by scholars across the digital humanities—but for scholars of reading without the technical background to scrape data from websites, or set up a Twitter archive, there are significant barriers to engaging with this data.

The aim of this project is to lower these barriers, by reporting on three different kinds of approaches that can be taken with digital reception data that are within the grasp of reception researchers without specialist digital humanities training. First, it examines the thematic content of the textual data that individuals generate when they engage in online discussions about the value of books or literary activities. Second, it investigates what can be learnt from the chronological information attached to these discussions, for example the timestamps on social network posts or tweets. Third, it considers the role played by place in online conversations about reading, using digital mapping tools to visualize the geographic information attached to social media posts. The project will produce a report setting out what kinds of information can be learnt about the cultural value of reading in the digital age from these three angles, and will supply guides for a number of digital tools which can be used to work with these three kinds of data.

The two types of social media on which the project centres are the micro-blogging service Twitter and the literary social network LibraryThing. Because the focus of the project is the value that reading and book-related activities brings to individuals, I have chosen books and authors that have won or been shortlisted for high-profile prizes such as the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize, and that have featured in literary competitions with considerable cultural cachet. Using timestamped data from the Twitter API, for instance, will allow me to examine such things as how the content of discussions about a shortlisted book change in light of prize announcements, or how the progress of a literary competition might influence the way LibraryThing users position themselves in relation to a particular book as they go about their interactions with other readers on the site. Geography, too, can be considered: as people across a country or around the world take to Twitter to express their opinion about an author who has just won a prize or a competition, what kinds of patterns is it possible to discern from the spatial distribution of tweets? Previously, it was difficult for scholars of reading to access the when and where of reception data with such precision, and so—especially in light of the large amount of material that is now available online about readers’ preferences and responses to books—it seems an opportune moment to reflect on the methodological opportunities and limitations of this kind of digital work on the cultural value of reading.

Eric Jensen: The Role of Technology in Evaluating Cultural Value

The breadth of artistic and cultural practices that may connect to the development of cultural value has so far extended well beyond the reach of existing methodological frameworks and research methods for systematically capturing, analysing and accurately representing the different components of these impacts.

This critical review project will employ a rigorous cross-disciplinary, analytical literature and methodological review to identify and evaluate the different ways in which technology can be used to evaluate different components of cultural value. A wide variety of settings will be addressed such as arts and culture museums, arts and culture festivals, cultural events, local and national arts programmes, etc. In this project, my expertise in technology-enhanced impact evaluation is supplemented by a leading scholar in the role of technology in arts and culture, Professor Mike Phillips at i-DAT (Plymouth University). This desk-based research project addresses the uses, quality and possibilities of technology-linked evaluation methodologies and strategies, which could be used to help evaluate the development of cultural value in different settings.

This project will address the following research objectives:

1. Develop a catalogue of current uses of technology-enhanced evaluation methods and approaches to measure cultural value and related impacts.
2. Critically review the strengths and weaknesses of different technologies for evaluating different components and dimensions of cultural value in a range of contexts.
3. Develop a report describing different technology-enhanced methods of evaluating cultural value, including a master table of methods, technologies and approaches; along with a critical assessment of their strengths/weaknesses.

This research contributes to the Cultural Value project by informing the evaluation of cultural impact to support robust, long-term, empirical research on cultural value. Meanwhile, technological innovations have raised new possibilities for evaluating cultural value that promise to increase efficiency, reach and validity beyond that which is possible with conventional methods. This proposed project considers several technology-enhanced methods for evaluating cultural value, providing descriptions and critical assessments to elucidate their strengths and weaknesses. This project focuses on evaluation methodology per se, with the aim of supporting future empirical evaluation and research on cultural value. This project will review current literature on the use of technologies to evaluate the development of cultural value through events, institutions and digital platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, individual webpages, etc.

The project team will identify the strengths and weaknesses of different technologies and technology-enhanced evaluation approaches to suggest an appropriate framework for making best use of digital technologies in cultural value evaluation. The results of this critical literature review can be broadly applied to a framework that can advance how the value of cultural engagement is evaluated and employed.

This project will integrate a range of research approaches, embracing the partners’ knowledge of arts/culture engagement impact evaluation; software design; production and implementation; mixed methods data analysis; visualisation of digital programmes; and the requirements for integrating these new modes with more traditional cultural impact analysis. At its core, the project is focused on how we can capitalise on digital technologies to build a robust, evidence-based evaluation framework; while at the same time maintaining a critical perspective regarding the limits of the technologies’ contribution to evaluating cultural value.