Dave O’Brien – Cultural Value and Inequality: A Critical Literature Review

2015 has seen an extensive discussion of inequality in the media. This has been about the ‘traditional’ concerns of social inequality, such as who gets top jobs, but there have also been headlines about culture.

In the UK, the prominence of actors and singers from more affluent backgrounds caused something of a furore, particularly during the film and TV awards season, while the announcement of the Oscars shortlist again raised questions about inequalities based on gender and ethnicity.

Inequality has often been raised by an older generation of artists, such as the actor Julie Walters, opining that, ‘the way things are now there aren’t going to be any working class actors’, or Stuart Maconie mourning the ‘creeping blandness,’ of much indie music.

However, whilst the subject only seems to have hit the headlines recently, the relationship between inequality and culture is clear in the academic literature. It is clear whether we think about cultural consumption or about cultural production. In our recent review of the literature, we have tried to summarise what all of this academic work means for our understanding of cultural value. We can distil the discussion down to three points.

First, the literature suggests a clear relationship with what sort of culture is

seen as valuable and the broader social inequalities within British society. This is reflected by who attends which cultural forms; the patterns of employment in the jobs producing those cultural forms; and the specific content of those cultural forms.

The literature suggests that cultural production is dominated by white males from affluent backgrounds. In turn, there are a range of criticisms of what is on stage and screen (in all its forms) and how those who are not white, middle class, men are represented. Finally those forms of culture funded and supported by the state, for example by Arts Council England, tend to attract audiences that are whiter and well educated.

The idea that the questions raised in the previous paragraph might be related to a hierarchy of culture, with some cultural forms seen as more valuable than others, is an uncomfortable one in modern Britain. Indeed, it is commonplace to argue against this idea in favour of an attitude that rejects cultural snobbery and tries to insist on cultural production and consumption being meritocratic.

However, when placed in light of the inequalities of consumption and production of culture discussed in our literature review, this ‘omnivorous’ attitude seems to be part of the problem, obscuring the social structures of class, ethnicity and gender (as well as disability and geography) that exclude individuals’ and communities from cultural value.

Finally there are still lots of areas where researchers (and therefore policy, practice and popular discussion) just need more data. Whilst there have been recent projects drawing on surveys about wage levels in particular cultural industries, there hasn’t really been a definitive research project connecting consumption, production and cultural value. It is here that the Cultural Value Project has uncovered, and has set, the agenda.

The report written by Dave O’Brien and Professor Kate Oakley of Leeds University on Cultural Value and Inequality can be downloaded from the AHRC website here

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Sally Munt: Cultural Values from the Subaltern Perspective: A Phenomenology of Refugees’ Experience of British Cultural Values

This project seeks to understand the value located in a range of arts/cultural activities to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, a group new to British cultural life who are often marginalised from ‘mainstream’ cultural activities, but who are simultaneously expected to adopt a hegemonic national identity of Britishness and henceforward espouse British cultural values. Refugees are a group who typically have experienced forced migration, oftentimes related specifically to their own – often fiercely defended – cultural activities and values in their country of origin. This migratory biography makes for a complex, rich contribution to how we think about the value of arts and culture, and cultural expression, in the UK today.

We will investigate the standpoint of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on British cultural values, benefitting from their ‘outsider within’ perspective.

British cultural values are not unitary, nor are they precisely definable, they are shaped and refined by participation and engagement. We will seek to identify the components of cultural value embedded in a set of typically British arts and cultural pursuits, based in and around the city of Brighton.

We will break down the components to be identified using a range of methods that focus on the discrete senses, and on the particular forms of embodiment that such activities claim. We want to examine carefully what constitutes the experience of involvement in the arts and cultural sphere, so we will also be collecting information on the cognitions and emotions that are attached to such experiences.

Refugees constitute a unique case: migrants pay acute attention to the acculturation of British values. This attention can be a protective mechanism, a philosophical choice, an attempt to move away from a traumatized past or culture of origin, an imposed set of norms, or a way of making their enforced dislocation intelligible. Refugees are legally required to learn British cultural values in order to be ‘awarded’ citizenship, via the Home Office instrument, the ‘Life in the UK’ Test (which will be interrogated in group discussion). Whatever the reason, refugees have an acute sensitivity and prescient awareness of ‘what makes us British’. Yet, often their access to the cultural industries can be severely restricted, due to explicit factors such as economic barriers, and due to implicit factors such as the perceived ‘Whiteness’ of some art/cultural pursuits (eg. premier league football, and the opera – two performances that will form part of our programme).

This project will take the form of a 16 week course, called ‘What is British Culture’, offered to 14 women refugees. Through a range of arts and cultural activities, we will assess refugee’s embodied experience of participation and reflection, gathering sensory information through creative expression. In order to gather robust data, the course is quite long and demanding; however we have found in previous projects that refugee participants appreciate such commitments as they enable a strong group identity to form, which can continue informally after the planned meetings finish, providing a sustainable resource.

As researchers we have our own cultural values: our model is taken from feminist praxis. Feminist epistemologies focus on the way “in which gender does and ought to influence our conceptions of knowledge, the knowing subject, and practices of inquiry and justification” (Anderson 2004). At the core of feminist epistemology is the concept of the situated knower, who produces situated knowledge. Donna Haraway (1998) famously argued that most knowledge, in particular academic knowledge is always “produced by positioned actors working in/between all kinds of locations”. Collaborative learning, respect for social difference, creating an environment of mutual support, listening and consideration for others, these characteristics are all markers of the feminist classroom, cultural values which we hope to emulate in the process of the research.

We are now two thirds of the way through the project and have recruited 14 women from 9 different countries including Sudan, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Ghana. Attendance has been strong, and we have completed a range of activities including visits to Brighton Royal Pavilion, Brighton Jubilee Library, Brighton Museum, Preston Manor, a seaside walk on the seafront, yoga and meditation, and life history exercises, and are looking forward to watching England womens football team play Montenegro live at the Albion Stadium, and attending Onegin at Glyndebourne Opera House. We have completed individual interviews, focus groups, and ten class meetings. We look forward to exploring our findings.