"And the beat goes on………………."
Reflections on Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables: A Reality Check
By Bryce Merrill
Senior Associate Director
I had the pleasure last week to attend a conference co-organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The convening was excellent with few exceptions. The list of participants included many of the major players in arts and culture research in the US and UK; representatives from Canada, Scandinavia, and Australia were also in attendance. The conference was structured to privilege conversations about research methodologies for understanding cultural participation, and much of the dialogue stayed at this level of analysis—it was a conference for the wonks. But the convening also questioned the “policy motivations” for cultural participation research, and topics of a more political, less methodological nature were also on the table. There were times when the usual (and tired) tensions between policy-based, applied, and academic research perspectivessurfaced, but these were minimal. Overall, Sunil Inyengarand his counterpart Geoffrey Crossick curated a rich event that I hope will be the first of many. The weather in DC wasn’t half bad either.
A few recurring themes at the conference are worth mentioning. The first theme, which was introduced by Bob Groves, current Provost at Georgetown University and former director of the US Census Bureau, was the imperative of traditional social scientific research to address challenges posed by 1) the emergence of “big” data and 2) the growing and unsustainable costs of research. Groves referred to “big” data as “organic” data to indicate that data produced by information technologies and collected and managed by computer scientists lack the type of methodological rigor—and thus validity—that is foundin traditionally collected data. (To clarify the metaphor, organic data is untamed and less useful as such.) Grove quipped that big data computer scientists are really just “playing social scientist,” but he seriously called into question the efficacy of long-term traditional research thatfails to use big data meaningfully. Conference participants returned to this issue regularly, and there was some indication that more work should be done on the costs and consequences of doing research in the age of big data.
A second notable theme was the conceptualization of culture either broadly or narrowly. (Think: high vs informal art, dominant culture vs folk culture, and so on). The topic, of course, remains relevant. If we are to measure cultural participation, then we should clearly know exactly what it is we are measuring. We should also be open to the many empirical forms of cultural participation that exist whether we say they do or not.Moreover, this concern is politically relevant: if the supply of opportunities for cultural participation does not meet the demand, then something is wrong with the chain. This is not to say, as some fretted over at the conference, that arts organizations couldn’t support cultural forms that lack popular demand; but the argument for matching public money with popular interests is not far fetched. For all its strengths, this conference shed little new light on this issue. Granted, there is only so much you can do in a day and half.
A few additional items were remarkable:
•There were no “quantitative versus qualitative” debates muddying up the presentations. Participants either advocated for mix-methods approaches or followed the methodological axiom “choose the best method to answer the question.” This might have been the influence of the UK on the convening.
•UNESCO economist Lydia Deloumeaux joked at the reception for the conference that depending on what part of the world one lives in, the word “data” is either singular or plural. Many of us laughed—as I said, it was a very wonky conference.
•Jon Clifton, managing director of the Gallup World Poll, presented early results from Gallup’s global survey of subjective well-being. To more than a few grumbles, he indicated that “well-being” might be a better predictor of political unrest and revolution than Gross Domestic Product. When asked how one can access Gallup’s data, he responded that Gallup had invested over $100 million in the data, and thus the data were available for a fee. That was one direct lesson on managing the rising costs of research.
•Hasan Bakshi, director of Nesta’s creative economy research program, delivered intriguing preliminary findings from a study of the impact of live theater broadcasts on theater attendance. The full report is one to look out for.
•Abigail Gilmore of the University of Manchester reported on her promising research on everyday arts participation in Manchester, demonstrating the value of longitudinal qualitative research.
•UK Deputy Ambassador Patrick Davies referenced pop sensations One Direction several times during his welcome, offering a truly expanded definition of culture!
I believe the organizers have plans for releasing recordings from the conference, and I highly recommend taking a look when they are available. This was an important event for the field, not just those of us who work at the intersections of research and policy.
Have a great week.