Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Can we move from indifference to engagement?

Here’s an interesting juxtaposition of two recently published reports which might shed some light on ‘participation’. The first is from that august body Arts Council England From indifference to enthusiasm: patterns of arts attendance in England. The research team have drafted in some top notch sociologists to help think through the barriers and blockages in a (at least slightly) new way. They divide people into four groups – voracious users (just 4%), the enthusiastic (12%) now and then attenders (27%) and ‘little if anything’ (57%). The biggest determinant is what they call social status: ‘arts attendance is driven by some concept of identity: who we think we are, the type of people we perceive as our social status equals and the kind of lifestyle we deem appropriate’.

Now that’s roughly what I mean when I talk about class, but I’m no sociologist. It is as much psychological as economic and changes in slower, more complicated ways than simply the job you do or how much you earn. It’s as much about your parents as your children, where you’re from as well as where you’re at…

So this report does open up new avenues for approaching building participation – but contains at least two big challenges as well as those disappointing numbers. Firstly: are ‘free weeks’ and so on going to make much difference on their own? And secondly: do we need to revisit our definitions of arts and cultural participation. The only night of the week my local is packed is karaoke night – people enjoying singing and listening. That doesn’t currently count: maybe it should.

The second report is about another kind of participation: in politics in the UK. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 5 feels like a shadow cast by the ACE report (though it’s probably the other way round). Only 13% of people are very interested in politics, whilst 55% know nothing or not very much about politics. Only 12% are at all politically active – mainly through signing petitions and not buying certain products, 48% of people have not done anything remotely political and an amazing 59% have not discussed politics or political events with family or friends in last 2 or 3 years. It’s an interesting though slightly depressing read.

The common factor appears to be ownership and a sense (or lack of it) of influence. The phrase ‘people like me’ crops up in both. The question is: what do people like us do about it?


Pete Hindle said...

Is it that the passive-consumer role that most people exist in doesn't really 'click' with art? And that the idea of consumerism isn't something that really gets studied from a political viewpoint, as that's mainly set up to look at outmoded class politics, so there seems to be a massive swath of people who just don't care about anything?

Mark Robinson said...

I think the key word there is 'seems'. What would happen if we really, openly, investigated what the people who don't appear - to 'the likes of us' - to care about either culture or politics DO care about? What if it's family, or not worrying, or fun or an active kind of consumerism? How deep are their shallows? There must be some sociologists who've looked at this.