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