"Exploring Critical and Instrumental Approaches in Cultural Policy Research"
prepared by Jane Woddis, PhD, and conference organizer
This conference, organised jointly by the Humanities Research Centre and the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, was held on 19th February 2005. The initiative for the event came from CCPS’s PhD group (made up of students and staff from the Centre).
The conference came out of a desire to examine a tension, noted by many commentators, between instrumental and critical research in cultural policy. An increasing amount of investigation and study in this field is being undertaken for purposes other than disinterested academic research: to evaluate cultural projects, provide evidence for policy development, justify public expenditure or particular aspects of cultural practice. Such studies are being undertaken not only by academic researchers, but also, increasingly, by cultural funders, independent and commercial agencies, and to some extent by arts and media organisations or networks themselves.
The tensions in this rising tide of cultural policy research concern the purposes and ethics of instrumental and critical research, as well as fragmented relationships and problems of communication amongst academic researchers, funders, commercial researchers, and cultural practitioners. The conference set out to ask whether these gaps and tensions can be lived with; whether we need to find ways of drawing them together or if it is possible that some separation between the differing approaches is healthy and mutually beneficial. Are there things that each can learn from the other? Does the progress of one affect the other?
The existence of these differing approaches has been accompanied by a theoretical debate over whether either one of them represents most closely what the field of cultural policy research is or should be.
These matters were examined in different ways by the two invited speakers for the conference: Professor Henrik Kaare Nielsen, from the Department of Aesthetics and Culture, University of Aarhus, Denmark, and Sara Selwood, Principal Lecturer at the School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster, and editor of Cultural Trends.
Henrik Kaare Nielsen set his discussion in the context of the technocratisation of society, which has led to increasing instrumentalism in cultural policy research; and he argued for a critical approach which lays bare the factors leading to these developments, and challenges the idea that they are ‘neutral’ and beyond politics. Sara Selwood continued the debate by focusing on Britain’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). She noted that the DCMS has found shortcomings in its instrumentalist policies, but is finding both theoretical and practical policy difficulties in its attempt to move to one that recognises the value of art ‘for its own sake’.
These two interesting contributions led to a very lively discussion that continued throughout the day, and looked set to extend well beyond the close of the event – with some of those attending seeming rather reluctant to leave!
In what is quickly becoming a hallmark of CCPS conferences, those attending included not only staff and postgraduate students from a variety of disciplines at several universities, but also representatives of research consultancies, local authorities, and cultural organisations. It was also a highly international event, with participants coming from as far afield as Athens to attend, as well as many overseas visitors already studying or teaching in the UK.
Feedback, both during the conference itself and in correspondence since, has been extremely positive: “lively, thoughtful and provocative”; “it was refreshing to have time to talk to so many different people”; “stimulating and useful. I found much to ponder on the train back”. CCPS will definitely be aiming to organise another conference in the next twelve months.