Thursday, March 7, 2013

Research and Data Blogathon - Day #5

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on........................”

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Final Day:

Barry:  Question #5:  Aren’t our biggest challenges to:
  • Confront the charge that we are using data and research that correlates art and desirable results as proof in causing those results?  How do we overcome that criticism?
  • Come up with ways to identify and measure the subtle impacts of the arts, so that we can more categorically state that the arts do, indeed, impact and actually improve overall quality of life?  How do we identify the quality of life outcomes that are measurable in the first place?  And how do we measure them?  
Bryce Merrill:  Arts research should not make causal claims when only correlations exist, but I am not sure that obfuscation of causality and correlation is the field’s biggest issue. Historically, the field has indeed struggled with advocating causal claims, such as arts in schools increases math and reading aptitude, without understanding that the majority of these studies have shown only positive correlations. Often times arts advocates summarize and synthesize research findings without fully understanding the results and limitations. A legitimate study correlating community art activity to higher participation in local governance might get publicized with the headline “More Arts Means More Democracy!” The issue for the field is often a translational one: even careful and reliable studies can be carelessly and spuriously used for advocacy. Overcoming a desperation for causality may be the most appropriate way to characterize the challenge that the field faces.

The arts should work diligently to produce work that meets standards of research excellence, whether these standards are from the social or natural sciences or humanities. However, important to note is that the standards for research excellence even in research-heavy fields are highly contentious and ever-evolving as new data, methodologies, and theories emerge. In fact, the limitations of certainty and transparent acknowledgement of uncertainty are hallmarks of good research, identifiable often within the first few paragraphs of peer-reviewed research publications. One of the biggest challenges to the legitimacy of arts research might be, on the other hand, that the field often produces research reports with obscured, oversimplified, or simply absent methodological details. Rewording a report to say that the arts, for example, are only correlated with decreased crime rates will do little to help our goal of credibility if the means of verifying correlation are unavailable.

I suspect many arts advocates who have used questionable research to advance support for the arts could respond to me here that in political arenas methodological rigor means less than having data with the right message at the right time.  Good research that says bad things or the wrong things can be a hindrance to political advocacy. However, I will respond to this potential criticism that the field could use a major rethinking when it comes to using data for advocacy. There are ways to advance our cause by showing a decrease in arts employment or drops in symphony attendance, but doing so might also mean having to rethink our cause.

I do not think our problem is that we cannot prove causality. Proving causality is tremendously difficult in all research sectors, but not impossible. Recall that the cautionary message from the Surgeon General’s Office on cigarette packs used to read “cigarettes may cause cancer,” indicating a strong correlation between smoking and cancer but not causation. It was not finding the direct causal link between cancer and smoking that encouraged a campaign (crusade?) against smoking; it was strong scientific evidence of harm, even if only correlative, and conviction in the public sector for action.

One of our biggest challenges is to rethink the questions that largely drive research in the arts. Most people in the arts understand the reality of why we produce research that answers questions about the economic value of the arts. Even if you do not agree with the merits of asking the questions--to say nothing of the answers--it is hard to ignore their demand, especially as they often originate from guardians of the coffers. However, one problem with this line of inquiry is how the questions are asked. Consider the subtle but critical difference in the following questions about the value of the arts:
  • How do the arts contribute to neighborhood X’s economic growth?
  • Do the arts contribute to neighborhood X’s economic growth?
In the first question, that the arts contribute to economic growth is implied, and now the researcher is only tasked with identifying the contributing mechanisms. In the latter question, the possibility that the arts does not contribute to growth--the null hypothesis being “the arts do not contribute to economic growth--is not ruled out. The arts field tends to ask questions that presume the answer and seek out only the newsworthy details. I am reminded of this problem of arts research when I read about the positive health effects of the arts: surely the arts can be correlated to positive health effects but only under certain circumstances. Spending much of my young life around rock musicians has given me enough anecdotal evidence to speak to the negative health effects of music!

For an excellent example of sophisticated arts research that asks interesting questions and produces intriguing results, I strongly recommend Frederick Wherry’s outstanding sociological study The Philadelphia Barrio. Wherry is able to problematize the common claim that the arts always acts as a gentrifying force, while also providing insights into the complex mechanisms through which a local community uses the arts for revitalization. One of the most important contributions of Wherry’s study is that the value of the arts at any level of analysis--local, regional, national, and so on--must be understood from the perspectives of those impacted by the arts. In other words, we often ask “what is the value of the arts?” but Wherry argues that the question needs reframing. “What is the value of the arts,” Wherry’s study asks, “according to the people who experience, create, and live with it?” Or, to put it differently, Wherry seeks to understand the meaning of value and not just its objective properties.

In the social sciences, qualitative research methods are often employed to study subtlety and complexity. Ethnographic research, in particular,  can provide “thick description” of the activities of groups and reveal deep insights into the nuanced effects of the arts in society. David Grazian’s Blue Chicago is an exemplary art ethnography in this vein. Using multiple methods and data sources, Grazian uses the concept of authenticity to explain socio-cultural transformations in Chicago’s blues music scene. His research reveals, for example, that tourist demand for an authentic blues music experience, one that cannot be accommodated by white blues musicians, impacts the racial composition of blues music performances in different areas of the city. In downtown Chicago, where busloads of tourists are dropped off to experience “authentic” blues, the majority of musicians are African-American; white blues musicians have a better chance of gigging in surrounding neighborhoods, even in those neighborhoods with predominantly African-American residents. Grazian demonstrates how the conflation of music and race in the individually subjective, but culturally-mediated concept of “authentic blues” comes to have significant urban, economic, and cultural consequences.

As Grazian has developed the concept, authenticity is not likely to be incorporated into a causal model to explain the general formation of music scenes in cities. However, Grazian’s theory of authenticity as folk knowledge is helpful to those seeking to understand and advance the place of the arts in society. Rural towns, for example, seeking revitalization through arts tourism often strive to provide an “authentic” rural arts experience. The lesson from Grazian, however, problematizes this attempt. What does it mean to have an authentic rural experience in the American West, for example?  Can people from Mobile, Alabama, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Los Angeles, California all have similarly authentic experiences in rural Idaho? How will a visitor to an art center in southern Utah know that they are experiencing authentic art, aside from having the assurances of local tour guides? On whose authority will authentic art be established and what art (or artists)might be left out or misrepresented in the process? Often times, good research, especially the type that probes the complexities of human action and challenges even basic truths, does a better job at creating more questions than answers.

I suspect that many in the arts field hold out great hope for advances in medical research technology to speed up our pursuit of the truth about the subtle nature of the arts in society. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology is already being used by researchers to unlock some of the mysteries of the relationship of art to the brain. As discussed previously, advances in computer science are likely to also produce ground-breaking results from research using “big data” on the arts. However, as Grazian and countless others have shown, arts researchers are already equipped with the methodological tools, concepts, and theories to advance our understanding of the role that art plays in society. It is my hope that our advancement relies as much on the field’s deep intellectual curiosity and commitment to the arts as it does on new data gadgets and techniques.

Margaret Wyszomirski:  The challenge of conceptualizing and assessing the intangible impacts and value of the arts has been long-standing.  However advances in numerous other fields have developed concepts that can help us in this effort. For example,understanding how certain arts activities generate social capital and how that social capital is then used or leveraged to promote social and community change is much more possible that it was even a decade ago.  And when I say “understand”, I mean laying out an explanation and a logic of how it happens not simply being able to identify it when it happens.  David Throsby has offered a diverse set of value propositions about the arts particularly how to characterize their cultural value but I don’t really see that reflected here.  Similarly, it seems as though the NEA report does everything possible to avoid the topic of the creative and cultural industries—a concept that has attracted worldwide attention—both in terms of research and in terms of policy activity.  Part of this attention focuses on the practice of arts-based entrepreneurship.  Yet there is no attention to this—there seems to be a presumption that artists do not and cannot make a living through the arts as if the NEA wants artist research to demonstrate that public support for individual artists through fellowships needs to be restored and that research that offers alternatives to that assumption are to be omitted out of hand.  Yet if one hypothesizes that the era of the “patron state” is waning, then perhaps other ways of fostering creativity and the economic conditions of artists might need to be explored – and we  can find that they are—altho not always under the name of arts based entrepreneurship.

Arts research in the UK also offers some tantalizing questions by looking at the interaction of multiple variables.  For example, their research that indicates that individuals tend to recognize and gravitate toward intrinsic value when surveyed about their own preferences and opportunities for their families, but these same people then tend to switch to an instrumental value standard when the issue of public funding for the arts in thrown into the equation.  In other words, are attitudes about the public value of the arts really about the arts or about how people feel about the role of government??

Randy Cohen:  Making the Arts Unavoidable in Our Communities
It is perfectly appropriate to try to answer questions about how the arts address social, educational, and economic development issues—as long as those investigations are done with scientific rigor and presented factually. At its best, arts research is as solid as that found in education, health, technology, and other sectors.  This is not quick, easy, or inexpensive work, but providing a better understanding of how the arts affect a community—and what the public reaps from its investment—is important work.

I believe the area to aggressively pursue next is less about ‘place’ and more about ‘person’.  If the last research epoch was about ramping-up product, let’s make the next one about building audience demand.

Past NEA studies have demonstrated the socialization aspect of the arts—that arts participation begets more arts participation. Whether this is caused by an amazing performance that leaves you seeing the world differently, or losing one’s sense of place and time while personally creating art, or an accumulation of many smaller meaningful experiences, is unclear.  There is little doubt, however, that somewhere on that continuum a “transformative” experience takes place that makes you hungry for more.

This is not a new concept (see Duke and Wallace Foundation efforts), but thanks to larger and more dynamic data sets, we can begin the conversation anew.
We know from the National Arts Index that the share of the population attending art museums and live performing arts events declined significantly between 2003 and 2010—even as we saw growth in the number of nonprofit arts organizations (and the percentage of them filing 990s with a deficit).
Yet, we also saw upswings in personal creation, electronic arts participation, and college arts degrees conferred.  We read reports of 275,000 choirs with 32 million singers, 21 million quilters, and growth in the number of dance schools.
Taken together, this tells me that the public is not walking away from the arts, but they are walking away from some traditional models of delivery.  And many of them are not coming back.

In the last half year I have had the privilege of visiting more than 50 cities.  What I saw is how people are choosing to experience the arts . . . the Public Library’s rotating art exhibits . . . bedside arts carts in the hospital . . . opera simulcasts in the movie theaters and on the big screen at the baseball stadium . . .  on the streets where the traffic signal boxes are artist-wrapped and manhole covers are artist designed . . . performances at faith-based organizations . . . at the workplace with employee art shows and Corporate Battle of the Bands competitions . . . live concerts in the airport . . . public art tours across town using my iPhone.

The art finds the people as much as the people find the art. What I love about these is that they are arts-centric, popular with the community, and most are low-budget.  Every city seemed to have something innovative—and all were thirsty to hear what my previous destinations are up to.  

Let’s make the arts unavoidable in our communities—in our schools, libraries, hospitals, public art in the built environment—and if the socialization theory holds, participants in these arts experiences will want more arts experiences, putting a virtuous cycle in motion.  We could be on our way to a more artful society.

Sunil Iyengar:  a. I wouldn't say it's our "biggest challenge," but yes, there are routine conflations of causal and correlational evidence in the arts. In recent years, though, I've been pleasantly surprised how often I've heard non-researchers ask about the distinction--when presented with a research finding--or to denigrate the failure of an article or report to make the distinction clearer. I've said it previously, but to gain currency and credibility with other fields of research, it seems desirable that arts funders consider pooling together to support the third-party design and implementation of a large, multi-site, randomized controlled trial (RCT) comparing the effects of an arts intervention alongside those of other programs or therapies. Concurrently, we need more theoretical groundwork to identify a "mechanism of action" whereby the arts produces any outcomes we might want to investigate. All of this takes time, money, patience, and even courage--the courage to encounter results we may not especially welcome.  I'll add that even if we can't achieve randomization in such studies, we can invest in more clearly defined control groups, and examine the potential of other study designs (e.g., natural or quasi-experiments) or research methods (e.g., daily diaries) to get us closer than we are today.

b. I'll just raise two areas ripe for further exploration. They are bound by a central question: what's the unique value proposition of engaging with the arts? One path is offered by the field of subjective well-being research (lately preferred over "happiness research" by such august bodies as the National Academy of Sciences, the UK's Office for National Statistics, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The research questions and methods used by the economists, sociologists, and psychologists who toil in this field are highly compatible, in my view, with inquiries about the arts. Princeton economist Alan Krueger, now Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, has done research using national data on Americans' daily time-use patterns, showing, incidentally, how people rated their time listening to music as among their best-spent time, in terms of interest and enjoyment. As researchers, we need comparison studies to understand how much value (in this case, self-reported) the arts can bring us relative to other kinds of activity. The same principle applies to another fertile area of arts research: cost-benefit analyses (CBA), particularly with respect to arts interventions or treatments in a clinical care setting. CBA is inescapable when making policy decisions about investing in quality of life.

Elizabeth Currid Halkett:  a.  There is the endless causation versus correlation debate but this tension is not simply within arts research but rather social science more generally. I think as we get closer to more precise data and specifically time series data we may be able to tease out the actual effect of art on other variables (e.g. neighborhood development, social capital, community). For example if we see concentrations of the arts (galleries, artists’ residences) in 1960 can we see the effect in 1990? Is cultural capital predictive of economic or social capital in future decades? In the meantime, while we haven’t teased this relationship out, I think one of the powerful aspects of art is that society and human civilization has always been drawn to art for art’s sake and that’s a compelling and important reason to care about the arts regardless of statistics and data.

b.  Come up with ways to identify and measure the subtle impacts of the arts, so that we can more categorically state that the arts do, indeed, impact and actually improve overall quality of life?  How do we identify the quality of life outcomes that are measurable in the first place?  And how do we measure them?   Along this line, there has been considerable discussion as of late as to what evaluative markers we ought to use in measuring the impact of various arts programs (e.g., the discussion of the NEA’s Vitality Indicators in assessing Placemaking projects).  What are your thoughts on this issue?

I agree – we do need to figure out the actual and precise impact of the arts. Where and how is art most effective? In drawing educated populations? In neighborhood regeneration? In attracting other amenities? Again, I think that the means of teasing out the link between quality of life (one of the NEA’s central charges in their new report) and the arts is to attain precise longitudinal data that allows us to see how the presence of art in year one impacts other development and quality of life indicators down the line.  If we can “prove” the linkage and delineate its impacts we will make great strides in making the arts a critical part of public policy and the national dialogue around economic prosperity.

Thank you to all the panel participants in this exercise.  I am deeply grateful for their taking time out of their schedules to help further the understanding and discussion of this critically important topic.  And thank you all for following along.

Of course, as I said at the outset, more questions remain.  For example:
  1. Expanding on today's question, there has been considerable discussion as of late as to what evaluative markers we ought to use in measuring the impact of various arts programs (e.g., the discussion of the NEA’s Vitality Indicators in assessing Placemaking projects);  which markers have flaws and which are favored.  
  2. To what end should research focus on the artist and artistic creation as opposed to arts presentation, organization, and management?  And what are the issues within that dynamic?
  3. When arts organizations conduct research into a specific area (audience development / participation for example) is there a danger in rushing to interpret the data to conform to a theory of how we can improve our lot?  Are we sometimes guilty of trying to make the facts fit the theory?  What are the legitimate criticisms regarding the limitations of this kind of approach?
  4. Where we have credible and substantive data and research which does make the case for the value and impact of the arts, has that research and data been persuasive in moving decision makers to our position(s)?  If not, why not?  If there is a failure of the data to be persuasive, does the fault lie in the data or in our ability to convincingly use it?
  5. Should we pursue research into the public’s attitudinal response to the arts and their self-perception as to the role the arts play in such intangible concepts as “well-being” and “happiness”?  Despite the highly subjective nature of such concepts themselves, is not the contribution of the arts to how people “feel” at the heart of our real value?  Can it be quantified and measured?  Even if it cannot, does that negate its importance?
  6. What kinds of research ought we undertake in terms of better understanding how to equitably distribute our resources across the diverse parts of our whole?  What research might yield valuable information as to how we handle the issue of diversity?
I am sure there are scores of other questions we need to consider as we move forward in the refinement of our research and data collection efforts.

Have a good day.

Don't Quit