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May 18, 2020

ICR: The role of emotion and barriers to collaboration between peoples at a time of crisis


Image by Brooklyn Museum

By: Elena Ruikyte, MA student in International Cultural Policy & Management

Whilst the United Nations (UN) is marking its 75th anniversary – which has at its heart the idea of promoting conversation and creating a global dialogue – multilateralism and international collaboration are facing a substantial challenge, yet for many countries, collaboration is a necessity. The current crisis of COVID-19, that turned into a global pandemic, has highlighted the state’s own capacity for action but also the interconnected and global nature of our existence and therefore the need for a Global response (Bhatia).

That is why now more than ever, it is important to see other nations as partners. It is important that countries are in a process of mutual learning, understanding and respect. As stated in a joint report Culture in an Age of Uncertainty (2018) by the British Council and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, when global challenges become increasingly transnational, International Cultural Relations (ICR) can make an increasingly important contribution. The report suggests that, while ICR cannot directly solve the global crisis, cultural engagement especially when it is mutual, can contribute by offering spaces for dialogue; strengthening civil society and independent actors, and managing tensions between them and the state. However, even though collaboration is often seen as a key to overcoming the toughest global issues, the fact remains that there are many real obstacles to collaboration that all actors involved are facing and must attempt to address.

COVID-19 is a crisis of uncertainty, physical separation and digitalisation. It has highlighted the barriers to international and interpersonal collaboration and the central role played by emotions in both communication about and responses to the pandemic. Even though geopolitical shifts and technological revolutions enable states to reach out to an ever-growing audience beyond borders, lockdowns have suspended peoples’ personal freedoms to travel and gather. The loss of control over our freedoms and global uncertainty resulted an overwhelming sense of anxiety, loneliness and danger. All these emotions lead to fear, a pivotal emotional state at this time of crisis.

Levoy (2020) observes that the current crisis has triggered a second pandemic, that of fear. We fear strangers who might breath too close and we are each a stranger to the other. With this sense of ‘stranger-danger’ fear is directed towards, not only a stranger at the checkout line but any foreigner, immigrant or refugee. As George E. Marcus notes, many scholars have argued that it is fear that drives the public towards nationalism and often xenophobia. What he adds, is a perspective of the theory of affective intelligence, that recognises anger as a fundamental motivation for nationalism. Anger – is a result of any excessive feeling of fear, or distress. So, with the terrifying spread of COVID-19, nationalism, rather than internationalism, is shaping the response.

The way governments choose to respond to and manage the pandemic – working on their own or together – is shaping future perceptions of the national and international public’s perceptions of a country’s competence, honesty, and dependability. Over the past couple of months, the world has seen examples of national leaders blaming migrants for bringing the virus to their shores and there have been discussions over the ideologies that will emerge and gain strength in the future, who will emerge as leaders of the post-coronavirus world?

Despite the global competition, decisions made by world leaders, that are affecting the livelihood of nations, are governed by the same emotions of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. From an analysis of how world leaders have responded to the crisis New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden emerged as the front runner in her management of the pandemic. Her communication, as Suze Wilson notes, is a balanced combination of: ‘direction-giving’, ‘meaning-making’ and importantly ‘empathy’. The latter comes more naturally when people have direct access to each other’s emotional cues, and people tend to empathise with others who are close or similar. In the current crisis, when the fear, of both the disease and the other is spreading fast, the fragility of empathy and the importance of an empathetic rhetoric from world leaders is paramount.

Covid-19 has emerged in the age of fake news, misinformation and disinformation spread through the powerful conduit of social media. Charlie Warzel points out that there is an ongoing flow of true and false information about safety equipment, treatment, rules, decisions etc. that is especially challenging for social media platforms and can be harmful and misleading for the users. This has been orchestrated not only by individuals but also some world leaders. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly a recent report by Reuters Institute points out that politicians and celebrities are the sources of 69% of all social media engagement with misinformation. In this time of instant and global communication government rhetoric takes on a new power but also a renewed responsibility.

Culture however can also provide an antidote to fear and stranger-danger, it has throughout the crisis provided opportunities for people to come together with a sense of community and unity despite physical distance. Various forms of culture can now be accessed online, as cultural institutions opened their doors in a digital space providing engaging initiatives and live streaming. During the UNESCO ResiliArt online debate, it was noted that people tend to turn to arts and culture as a form of escape from a difficult reality, helping to keep people’s inner lives and emotional sanity together, it is a space of empathy. The important role of culture in helping the public to deal with the challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis is also recognised in a Consumer Tracking Study published by the Policy Evidence Centre (PEC, UK).

In Europe, Germany is seen as a leading country in recognising the value of culture, education and International Cultural Relations (ICR). They announced a federal aid package featuring a whopping €50 billion to be distributed to freelancers and small businesses, including those in the creative sector. Also, additional funds were provided to Germany’s Goethe-Institut to continue their work, focusing on language courses online, highlighting the importance of cultural exchange and collaboration in the future. The Baltic countries, Lithuania and Estonia announced their economic support packages that are quite similar: €2.5 billion in Lithuania and €2.6 billion in Estonia. However, neither of these support packages offer additional funds for ICR practitioners and the institutions that develop global understanding and engagement at a time when working together is demonstrably crucial.

The practice of ICR is far from easy even in normal circumstances. Now, when people’s freedom of movement is restricted and emotions of fear, anger and anxiety are playing a central role in nearly all actions – international collaboration and ICR has become even harder to achieve. Whilst a majority of the population is connected in a digital world, there are still people who lack access to technology or a good internet connection and for them it is an obstacle to continued learning, collaboration and connection. Intergovernmental and international organisations have taken action and are already acting as platforms for dialogue, for sharing knowledge and experiences, and for guidance in the current crisis. Nevertheless, what the crisis brings now is the need to rethink and reset the status quo, to establish a different language, a new way of talking that can re-centralise culture’s role in our public life and articulate a collective, global concept of collaboration and sustainability for the future.

As debates on the current crisis and its impact continue, it would be useful for governments to look ahead and start by asking what can be done, by whom and what resources are needed? After the crisis – what will unite us? What will connect us to each other again? Most likely there is still no one who can predict or plan how countries should act after the crisis however, the COVID-19 pandemic gives an unexpected opportunity for countries to reflect on peoples’ orientations towards or against collaboration and to rethink old models of International Cultural Relations by including and foregrounding the role of emotion.

This blog post is part of the development of an event proposition research done during the Placement at the International Cultural Relations Ltd. I am grateful to my placement’s supervisor Stuart MacDonald, FRSA for supporting me, and to Dr Jonathan Vickery and Dr Heidi Ashton for their insights on my research.

February 01, 2016

The Mediated Self Project Symposium

Our IATL supported Mediated Self Project module, that we’ve blogged about before here and here has begun in earnest this term, and SaturdayStudents & Speakers in our afternoon Round Table discussionsaw the first of our symposia. One rationale for the module is to provide a place to explore and reflect on the place of self-mediation in professional life, either in transforming how we work, especially in the cultural, creative and media industries, or producing new forms of work entirely. With this in mind we invited four people whose working lives we thought might exemplify these changes to reflect on their experiences with our students.

Our speakers were Callum Goodwilliam, a facilitator at Squared Onlineand Warwick graduate, Marie Haycocks of Certanovo, life-coach and image consultant, Jon Bounds a writer and Pete Ashton an artist. We asked students to prepare for the day by researching our speakers through their online presences, and asked speakers to respond to our themes in explaining their own career trajectories. We followed this with a roundtable discussion at which students were able to ask questions, both practical and general, in relation to their own work on producing a Mediated Self portfolio.

A number of interesting themes emerged from the day for me – but I thought I’d highlight three. Firstly the discussion confirmed, gladly given our premise, that working on or managing the self is an important component of contemporary working life. The very existence of a market for Marie’s services, and indeed the accompanying forms of accreditation and qualification which underpin her practice are a strong indication of this. Online and offline forms of self-management and representation, though, also reveal some interesting tensions, especially in relation to the development of the technologies of mediation. More than one of our speakers referred to their own changing perspectives on and experiences of self-mediation as their appreciation of the implications of the online context grew. Callum bravely shared early Facebook photos, and early attempts at blogging, both of which he suggested he might prefer to be no longer accessible. Jon by contrast, and in opposition to the story of an internet that never forgets, had some early published work – pioneering work in relation to the short history of blogging - that was no longer visible. Both stories were perhaps a timely reminder that these forms of self-mediation are often achieved on terms over which we have little control. It was a theme re-iterated by Pete’s rules of self-mediation, which included knowing what the platforms we use are getting from us as we use them. Awareness of this perhaps helps rebalance the power dynamics between our abilities to mediate ourselves through technology and the possibility of being mediated by that technology. We might assume that these skills are tacit, especially amongst young people, and as the infrastructure of the internet and social media become more embedded into everyday life we might think less about them, but they can and perhaps should be learned.

A second theme related to the notion of being ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ to oneself. While ‘being oneself’ is the assumed path to various forms of success in contemporary life, it seemed easier to say than do. Marie, whose progression to her current role was strongly informed by her family and personal history wrestled with having different selves in personal and professional contexts, at least inasmuch as these were represented in talking about her business. Her ‘brand values’ and her ‘personal values’ became blurred, in a context in which reflections on her own experiences fed directly into the service she provided. Jon, by contrast, described using a variety of online selves in his various professional roles –some personal, some political and some reflecting the playful subversive potentials of digital cultures. He was careful and disciplined in policing the boundaries between them, but this also led to some difficult decisions about the appropriate forum for some outputs of his creative work. The possibility of a diffuse and diverse identity emcompassing the complexity of human experience was one of the utopian ideals of the early internet cultures. The political ambiguities of the more contemporary drive towards a single, coherent self, exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg’s assertions about integrity and identity, perhaps puts even more importance on the decisions we make about how we represent ourselves online and through what platforms we choose to do that work.

Finally, Pete described the importance of being driven by our own interests and enthusiasms in making a distinctive mediated self, and also described his own trajectory towards a situation of ‘not caring’ what people thought of his work, beyond an aspiration that they thought it interesting and worthwhile in the chaotic world of the web and its reputation economy . His imperative for us to 'create our own metrics' for success, rather than be driven by ‘likes’ or ‘views’ or ‘shares’ might well become a motto for our module. All the speakers seem to espouse the need to 'be the/your message' in a way that moves us from McLuhan's the 'media is the message' to 'self mediation is the message'. We will be exploring these ideas with our students for the rest of the module and we hope to have challenged them into thinking about the mediated self as NOT simply self-branding or personal PR or self-marketing. It is far more than that and touches on a variety of value systems. Like the rest of day, it should, provide some food for thought and inspiration for our students as they explore their own forms of mediation.

Many thanks to the speakers and students for their contributions – and to the staff at the Teaching Grid for allowing us to use their space on a Saturday.

February 04, 2015

Beginning 'The Mediated Self Project'

Balloons and stones in The Mediated Self Project

Yesterday Jo Garde-Hansen and I made the first steps on our IATL funded development of a new MA option module, The Mediated Self Project. The module – initially to be piloted to CCPS students in 2015-16 with the option of a wider audience in subsequent years – aims to combine critical and theoretical perspectives on the forms of knowledge produced and required by the digital economy with some practical reflection on the skills needed to manage the various selves which can inhabit that economy successfully. The module also aims to develop ways of teaching and assessment which take better account of these digital forms of literacy.

We began this process by taking over a session of The Global Audience module. In a sense it was a perfect place to start. That module had contained a session on the ‘creative audience’ which focussed on the narratives emerging from what used to be called Web 2.0 – about the interactive audience, participatory culture and the pro-sumer - and the relations between these stories and older stories about the apparently mass and inert media audience of the past. Both these sets of stories have taken on legendary, mythical aspects but there are some interesting affinities between them and emerging stories about the ways in which we are assumed to live in the digital age. One of the things we talk a lot about in the Centre is the relationship between theory and practice. This module is going to push the boundaries of this distinction, recognising that there is a level at which the theoretical and the practical question is the same. It is ‘how do we live’? What kinds of skills do we need to make sense of the symbolic and technological world around us? And what does it mean to be able to navigate its complexities successfully? The Mediated Self Project aims to provide some space to answer these questions.

The centre piece of our discussion was a presentation from Amber Thomas from the Academic Technology team in ITS. Amber sketched out a frame through which we might situate ourselves in the digital world, drawing on the distinction identified by David White between digital visitors and digital residents. Understanding what is at stake in moving between these states in our personal and professional lives seems likely to be important in shaping the module’s content and mode of delivery. We’re hoping to call more on the expertise of colleagues like Amber, from Warwick and beyond, within the field of academic technology, where these debates are well established and on-going.

After outlining our plans relating to the module content (including issues relating to The Quantified Self, the Reputational Economy, the Campaigning Self and the distinctions between Print and Digital forms of Literacy) we asked students to reflect on what they might want to learn from such a module in this area and indeed what they consider to be the pitfalls of teaching and learning in this field. Amongst the topics that emerged as of interest included privacy (relating to a general anxiety about managing past versions of the self online as students move into professional life.) and, happily for me, taste and how it is produced and performed algorithmically. Pitfalls included concerns about the balance between theoretical abstraction and practical instruction and one – admittedly from me – about how new forms of literacy can be assessed. So many of the established forms of assessment (the exam and certainly the written assignment) are based on a vision of print literacy based around a single authorial voice in a formal static text. Digital literacy involves multiple voices, sharing and collaboration and even the creative manipulation of images and sound. How can these forms be assessed in ways which preserve the standards of critique, rigour, evidence and argument required for serious academic study?

Our next step is to recruit student participants to help us think all these things through, and to invite experts from within and beyond the University to get together in the Spring and Summer to contribute to our discussions. We’ll keep the blog updated with our progress.

November 21, 2014

(You) Governing Tastes

yougovblog.jpgI’ve wasted a bit too much time this week playing with the newly released You Gov profiler app. This is a powerful market research tool which provides its subscribers with detailed demographic information about existing and potential audiences for products and brands, drawing upon data provided by its panellists. It has generated considerable attention and comment in press and social media, with stories emerging about the tastes and inclinations of fans of Cliff Richard and Dr. Who, reflections on what tastes for Japanese manga may say about your preferences for pets and some surprising revelations about the fans of certain football clubs. Some of this comment has been, perhaps in the interests of a good story, strategically blind to the detail (the second of YouGov’s FAQ’s on the tool specifically explains why its information does not give a picture of typical consumers of the various brands, products or artists it asks about). This volume of media commentary, though, also reveals an on-going fascination with tastes, and the persistent assumption that they provide a route to know people in deep – and in this instance commercially exploitable - ways. This resonated with some issues I’m reflecting on in my current writing project on ‘dimensions’ of cultural taste.

Part of the fascination with tastes, for me, comes from a broader tension in consumer-oriented societies. One of the abiding myths we live with in that kind of society is that consumerism entails liberation from the social constraints of an imagined pre-consumerist past. Consumers are ‘free’ - although the quality of that freedom is contested - from being placed into the ‘boxes’ of social identity, and are instead encouraged to craft themselves as individuals through their consuming practices. This creates an assumption that what we like can define or express the kind of person we are. Much of the social media reaction to the You Gov tool that I’ve seen has, in a similar tone to the response to last year’s Great British Class Survey, been concerned with critiquing the labels and categories in which people find themselves as part of a general disquiet with being placed in any kind of category (‘I read the Guardian but hate braised endive!’) and, by extension, to dismiss the value of trying to categorise at all. The energy of these kinds of response might reflect an awareness that tools like this reveal the uncomfortable truth that we are not, in reality, as liberated as we think and that our tastes are ‘map-able’ and patterned in ways which reveal that who we are (our social class, our gender, or age or ethnicity our educational experiences, our professional networks) still shapes what we like even though we might feel little emotional affinity with, or might even resent, the categories in which we are placed.

The tool also raises interesting questions about how we come to know about taste methodologically. Back in 2007 Mike Savage and Roger Burrows wrote a prescient article about ‘the coming crisis of empirical sociology’, arguing that the established technologies of social research (the survey, the interview) and the glacial mode of academic production were being usurped by commercial techniques and more nimble, creative forms of method, including those enabled by digital technology, which are increasingly influential in defining the social. This profiler perhaps exemplifies this shift. Its cost would trouble a funding council, but its scale and complexity (200,000 panellists providing responses to over 120,000 data points) has the potential to offer a rich resource for sociological analysis – as much as fodder for strategic brand development. It is certainly a mode of investigating and displaying the social which has echoes with the visualising of tastes evident in Bourdieu’s Distinction, but its findings are presented with a clarity and accessibility which might make it a perfect tool through which to teach that notoriously difficult book. The question of who gets to make this kind of tool and for what purpose, though, raises a slightly different question about what is gained and lost in our understanding of the relations between taste and social life in this kind of activity.

Knowing other people’s tastes and judging ourselves against them is part of a well-established social game and, in some areas – newspaper readership for example - tastes are a well-established synonym for types of people in social and political discourse. Talking about tastes, in this sense can be a relatively safe way of talking about difference in contexts in which explicit forms of prejudicial judgment have, for good reason, become frowned upon. Moreover talking about taste can be a basis for social interactions, and for the establishment of friendships or relationships. Placing people and things into categories is an act of power, but it also has its pleasures – as anyone who has spent time answering and sharing BuzzFeed quizzes about which Star Wars/Harry Potter/Breaking Bad character one is on Facebook will know. This kind of technology, which effectively categorizes on the basis of probabilistic statistical relationships between inputs is increasingly present in a number of aspects of daily life – and increasingly powerful too, given that the categories in which we are placed might have consequences – in relation to the self-assessment of our health or of our ‘personality type’ in the workplace. These everyday forms of categorising might be understood as a more general strategy of contemporary governance. The impulse and imperative to classify and the impulse to avoid classification are in clear tension in tools such as this and the debates they generate. Whilst debates about taste might be a benign expression of this tension, they also flag up the limits of these technologies in separating data from people, and tastes from the bodies doing the tasting.

Whilst there might well be an affinity between the kinds of patterns revealed by this tool and inclination to buy related products, goods or services one of the things I’m exploring in my book is whether this is the whole story of taste. I’d also argue that taste is a more complex phenomenon bound up with sensory and affective aspects of experiencing the world and of moral judgments of ourselves and others living together in it. These latter questions remain important to understanding the consequences of classification – but they remain difficult to capture through measures of ‘liking’, however sophisticated they may be.

You can follow my research at

June 26, 2014

The IPPEA Conference: A treat in Utrecht

Just home from an enjoyable couple of days in Utrecht at a conference, International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts, organized by the networkbrought together by Leila Jancovich and her team at Leeds Metropolitan University. The two day conference explored the issues of meaning, measurement, method and values which continue to animate debates about thwp_20140622_016.jpge arts and culture and their relationship with their broader publics. An impressive range of papers and presentations, began with reflections from the playwright America Vera-Zawala on her work in community-based theatre, one example of which concerned the impact of the closure of a mill on the Swedish town of Norrsundet. A play was written and produced with the local community at the precise time of this trauma and, amongst the many fascinating aspects of this process, what stuck with me was the relationship between the artist and the community and the vexed question of who had the responsibility for creative decision making. Participants expressed considerable anxiety about taking control over the direction of the project in deference to the accredited expertise of the theatre professionals. They in turn, for reasons relating to their commitment to the integrity of the process they had initiated, were equally reluctant to impose the right way to proceed. It was an impasse resolved by nothing more complicated than time and dialogue, through which participants took eventual ownership of the narratives of their own experiences.

This story had a perhaps surprising echo in a plenary from Andrea Bandelli about processes of participation in the management of science museums. Science, Andrea reminded us, is not a democracy, although this does not mean that scientific processes, and priorities should not reflect democratically established priorities, or that scientists are not required to communicate with the publics who fund them. There was a degree of fear, expressed by the boards of science museums in Andrea’s study, in managing this balance, especially as science is so regularly deliberately or accidentally, misrepresented in public discourse, as either saviour or villain. There was a telling piece of evidence, though that perhaps this fear was partially misplaced. When asked, attenders of science museums wanted there to be public representation of some form on museum boards. At the same time, when asked if these lay board members should have an executive role in decision making, attenders seemed happy to defer to the experts. Both these stories might be interpreted as evidence of an impulse to be involved with decision-making that gives a lie to one of the more abiding narratives in this field, that of the ‘deficit model’. So much of the official discourse relating to participation starts from a working assumption that people lack some capacity which prevents it. Too often that serves to cement the position of the institution or individual accredited with the means to fill the deficit, who are all too ready to pay lip service to the notion of participation but are also reluctant to embrace the accompanying challenge to their own authority that it brings. It was gratifying to hear some critical voices on this topic in many of the presentations.

CCPS was well represented by both me and Maria Barrett, who presented some initial findings from her research project into the theatre audience of Liverpool. I was presenting some further 'work-in-some-kind-of-progress’ thoughts about participatory arts work as work, which I first blogged about here. It was really useful to think and talk this through in this forum, which included artists who had lived through the processes I was examining. It was especially exciting to meet up with the Artworks team which has been engaged in an extensive sector analysis and important empirical inquiry into this topic. Hopefully these conversations can be productive and ongoing.

In keeping with the mission of the network, the event brought together academic researchers with policy makers and arts practitioners. This sounds blindingly obvious but is difficult to do, and especially difficult to do well and there are inevitably some grumbles in the process. These might be, depending on which camp you’re in, about ‘rigour’ of research, about the use of theoretical ‘jargon’or abstraction, about the fetishisation of anecdote or personal experience or the search for ‘practical’ applicability or the critical examination of assumptions. Such debates can be uncomfortable – exemplified by the intense looking at the floor of some academic colleagues when it came to actually participating in composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s Saturday lunchtime interactive music performance. More seriously, such discomfort might stem from public forums like this also being places where professional identities in all these areas are performed, and where stakes in the territory are marked out and defended. That might be inevitable - but the organizers are to be commended for creating a comfortably uncomfortable space for people in these different fields to talk to, rather than past, one another. It was certainly a thought-provoking couple of days in developing my own research. Utrecht was a lovely place to visit and my thanks go to our hosts and organizers for their hospitality.

October 16, 2013

Producing Tastes


This week I had that slightly bewildering/fearful experience for an academic of touching the zeitgeist/ having the rug stolen from under me. Preparing a talk which I had tentatively entitled ‘Producing tastes’ for a couple of presentations this month, I heard some of the issues I was thinking about being addressed in Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture – Democracy Has Bad Taste. My talk is part of a developing writing project on aspects or dimensions of cultural taste and it tries to outline some of the institutional, ‘industrial’ and social processes through which tastes get formed– processes which, like all the most fundamental parts of infrastructure, seem to be obvious and eternal but actually are the products of various histories and struggles. Grayson Perry had a couple of evocative phrases to describe this process – one of which, ‘the lovely consensus’ of people in various positions of power who validate art - I might well appropriate. He is a lively contributor to these debates in the UK - as demonstrated by his authoritative and thoughtful documentary on taste and class last year. Subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, playful and subversive he revels in what he describes as a teasing insider/outsider status which allows him to critique an academic elite, an artworld establishment, celebrities and political correctness as if, as a cross-dressing, Turner prize-winning, CBE-holding, Royal Academy-exhibiting, Reith lecture-giving, Visiting Professor he doesn’t have at least a trace of himself in all these categories.

The talk was always entertaining – but never, I think quite nailed its object. Grayson began by downplaying the prospect of easy answers – but the question of why democracy might inevitably or always produce bad taste wasn’t addressed as much as the less controversial notion that the value of art does not rest in either monetary exchange or bums on seats. Quality was important but it was located somewhere else. Precisely where, understandably for a question which has vexed thinkers for centuries, wasn’t really clear. In place of an answer, though, there was a familiar ambivalence to the notion of the popular. It was evoked as a kind of safety net against pretension on the one hand but also identified as a dubious source of authoritative aesthetic judgment on the other. Perhaps one might expect that kind of ambivalence from a room at the Tate, full of artworld insiders, enjoying being gently mocked by one of their own. Overall the talk, and the questions that followed had what the anthropologists might call a rather liminal, carnivalesque air – a space in which a (validated) clown or fool can poke fun at power for a bit before the rules kick in again, refreshed and renewed.

For me the best moment was when the writer and journalist Miranda Sawyer asked a question about the anger that people unfamiliar with contemporary art might experience in contemporary art galleries– even those who are comfortable with other forms of culture, such as pop music. Part of this anger stems, she suggests, from the feeling that they are being ‘tricked’. This reminded me of a passage from the influential sociological critique of the foundations of taste, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction in which he describes the ‘exclusion’ felt by what he identified as the working class audience, confronted by modern art. It is admitting they don’t understand it that betrays this exclusion, for Bourdieu. The bourgeois audience might not understand either – and indeed David Halle’s study of New York art collectors indicates that wealthy collectors of abstract art were as likely to buy things because they went with the curtains rather than because of any judgment about what pieces meant. What the art-insider-audience knows, though, through their accumulated family and educational experiences, is that the rules of the game require them to remain reverently silent and move on to the next piece.

Debates within these kinds of institutions and establishments are probably never going to be able to be genuinely radical about the assumptions upon which they rest. I’ll listen with interest to see if Grayson can pull it off over the coming weeks. It might be that an important first step in a move to ‘democratise’ questions of taste is for the ‘artworld’ to stop talking about art as something separate or special from everyday aesthetic practices, which are also infused with tacit judgments of what is good, beautiful or valuable. If the director of the Tate genuinely does, as Grayson intimates, collect Cliff Richard memorabilia, I for one would applaud him. Admitting it might also make the many other people who do that, or its equivalent, feel more welcome in the gallery.

You can follow my research at, or through my author page in Warwick’s WRAP repository.

May 30, 2013

Comparing tastes in the UK and Finland

Sibelius monument, HelsinkiTwo papers published this month, written with colleagues from the University of Helsinki, Semi Purhonen and Riie Heikkilä, and supported by the British Academy, represent the culmination of a project on comparing cultural tastes in UK and Finland.

Why compare tastes? Principally because one criticism of the most influential account of the social patterns of taste, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, is that its analysis is tied to a specific time and place and therefore its insights are not transferable to other times and places. Comparison between nations is one way to explore that further.

Why the UK and Finland? Here the answer is partly practical. Many of the comparative studies I’ve read on other topics are prefaced with accounts of their difficulty. Whilst, of course, we had our struggles, our path was eased by the fact that two studies with similar questions, methodologies and a similar relation to Bourdieu had been recently conducted in the UK and in Finland. This made comparison something of a natural next step.

The first of the two papers, written with Semi Purhonen, appears in a special issue of the journal Cultural Sociology on ‘field analysis’, edited by Mike Savage and Elizabeth Silva. Field, along with habitus and the more familiar capital is one of Bourdieu’s conceptual triad, with fields representing the overlapping spheres of human activity in which capitals are struggled over. Field, capital and habitus are always inter-related for Bourdieu – an element of his approach which is often forgotten, at least by some of his critics. In order to be analyzed fields need to be constructed or demarcated somehow – and the special issue shows some great examples of how this can be achieved, in relation to such diverse topics as comedy, fell-running and the digital worlds of musical tastes. For comparison, though – and especially for comparing something as complex and hard to pin down as ‘national taste’ - the fields that are being compared need to be constructed in similar ways. Our studies allowed that to happen, but not without some problems. These problems included how to interpret the different items which are asked about in national surveys of taste and participation, and the different positions of those items in local or national cultural hierarchies – assuming such surveys can’t just be identical (asking about schlagers in the UK would be as meaningless as asking about cricket in Finland). In the paper we explore how Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA), the statistical method which underpins Distinction -which produces those infamous diagrams and which Bourdieu describes as ‘thinking’ in terms of relation – allows a partial resolution of these issues by revealing the underlying structure of tastes. Regardless of which items or activities are liked in the two countries, the MCA produced by both projects showdivisions which can be similarly interpreted in both nations, and which relate to class, education and age. The activities themselves are less important, then, than their relation to other activities. We back this up by analyzing the in-depth interviews of people located, through their survey answers, in different bits of our national ‘fields’, so that we can explore how people feel about their likes and dislikes, illustrating how a position in a field is experienced – and importantly reminding us that people are more than an accumulation of their variables. It was an interesting process – and might provide a model for comparative work of this kind in the future.

The second paper, written with Semi and Riie, appears in the journal Comparative Sociology. Here our concern was to use taste to critically explore the notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’, which has emerged as a somewhat hopeful and optimistic form of post-national identity, characterized by tolerance and openness to difference. It is a concept which has been more theorized than empirically explored, though, and taste might be where it is visible. The value of comparison here is that, for all their similarities, the UK and Finland have distinct collective histories shaping their national cultures and are differently positioned in global flows of people and things. We used the interviews and focus groups produced by the two projects to explore how the tensions between the national and the global are played out. We find lots of examples of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck refers to as ‘banal cosmopolitanism’ – i.e. the presence in everyday life of items and people from beyond ‘the nation’, simply by virtue of the globalization of the cultural industries and migration of various forms. Interestingly we find little evidence of rejection or suspicion of ‘global culture’, or at least its US version – which might have been present in studies of this kind in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Age seems to be an important indicator of cosmopolitan attitudes – especially in Finland where learning languages, including English, appears to give ready access to work and travel abroad. In both countries, for younger more educated, professional groups (those with, roughly, more cultural capital), identifiably ‘national’ forms of culture were less attractive than more exotic forms. Older people and those with lower levels of education seemed more attached to the nation (although in Finland, older people who might be identified as elite also seemed to exhibit particular pride in national cuisine). These kinds of findings might indicate some of the ambiguities of cosmopolitanism – it might spread with the cohort effect of younger generations and the inter-connections of global culture, but it is equally likely to be marked by inequalities in cultural capital, although on a global scale.

Producing both papers was a very rewarding process – and hopefully these conversations, about the UK, Finland and elsewhere, will continue.

Warwick staff and students can access the papers via WRAP

You can find links to the articles and follow my research on


July 18, 2012

Culture, politics and cultural policies at the ICCPR 2012.

The Cultural Policy Studies research community descended on Barcelona for its bi-annual conference last week. I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I saw at the event.

Firstly it was a perfect setting. This was not only because of the ample opportunities for dining, socializing and flânerie that such a city provides, but of course these were welcome. The view from the top of the Museum of the History of Catalonia at the conference dinner was spectacular, and the venue for the conference itself, around the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, made for a dynamic, vibrant space. Delegates mixing with dog walkers, skate boarders, basketball courts and the general bustle of the city meant this felt some way from a detached ivory tower. The setting was also ideal because Barcelona inhabits or reflects the over-arching theme of the conference, Culture, Politics and Cultural Policies. It is a city that has been shaped, re-generated and re-invented by culture and creativity in its various forms - and not just ‘high culture’ (this, is after all, the home of Cruyff and Guardiola as well as Gaudi or Miro.) It is global in its orientation and make-up– with all the ambiguities that come with that- but still with a distinctive identity, bound up with local, national and regional political struggles. And, as the centre of a nation within a nation, culture matters here, as the eloquent opening speech from Ferran Mascarell i Canalda, Minister of Culture in the Catalan government attested. Cultural policy is wedded to politics in Catalonia in a more pressing way than it might be, in some other Western and Northern European countries as the city, nation and region negotiates with its own past, present and future.

This relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘policy’ was also brought home to me in the papers I saw, specifically in sessions on cultural development, and in conversations with colleagues from the Latin American diaspora. George Yudice’s account of the various grass-roots forms of cultural and creative activity, often facilitated by the use of new technologies, and their relationship to local forms of political activism and engagement across Latin America reflects a particular politics of culture. Cultural ‘development’ is not, here, being imposed by the World Bank or IMF but is being struggled over through, for example, competing visions of intellectual property and alternative models of cultural organization and distribution. These seem to me to be more fundamental ideas than those which accompany the somewhat co-opted narratives of culture’s benefit to the economy, to health, or community in the UK context. Somehow, in comparison, these latter stories seem to assume that the big political controversies in our democracy are settled – so cultural policy becomes a means of tinkering around the edges of institutions which, broadly, work.

There was thoughtful reflection on the British context too of course. Philip Schlesinger’s account of the game-playing , strategizing and career trajectories of policy-oriented intellectuals in the British research context was revealing. Dave O’Brien’s re-appraisal of civil servants as ethically oriented servants of the people’s representatives rather than, as they are often imagined, audit obsessed bean-counters, is also important in reminding academics that they aren’t the only people who can and do engage in useful thinking about these issues. Discussion with colleagues from Chile, however, also revealed some frustration and surprise that politics was not more front-and-centre in debates about what is at stake in cultural policy. In Chile, as Maite de Cea Pé’s paper revealed, a coherent, structured cultural policy is being created in a way which perhaps more readily reflects the underlying tensions and divisions in a society so recently emerging from a period of dictatorship. In this light the administrative and managerial questions which animate British cultural policy might be, in that dread phrase, ‘first world problems’. The politics of culture again matter in Chile and the competing visions of how cultural production and consumption might be organized and framed from a policy point of view feel closely linked to emerging visions of the kind of society Chile wants to be. These debates are far from settled, giving these discussions an urgency which their Northern equivalents might sometimes lack.

Of course recent events, including the coalition response to the financial crisis and the various scandals affecting powerful institutions in British society reveal that political controversies are not entirely settled in the UK either – or are at least in a period of flux. It might be too ambitious to suggest that cultural policy scholars place themselves at the forefront of responses to these kinds of controversies. It seems to me desirable, though, for both scholars and policy-makers in this field to keep in mind the relationship between the kinds of policies we want for culture and the kind of place we want to live in – and to be more vocal in articulating and debating that relationship.

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