The Social Effects of Culture: A Literature Review

This literature review, which examines English-language publications since 2000 related to the non-economic effects of culture, found that there is “a deluge of recent literature citing the (usually positive) impacts of engagement with the arts and, to a lesser extent, heritage”.

The review found four “general frameworks for understanding and analyzing the social effects of culture”: 1) “Holistic frameworks examining the relationship between culture, sustainability and community development”; 2) “Frameworks that link culture to the concepts of wellbeing and social cohesion”; 3) “Frameworks that examine culture’s role in promoting connectedness and participation”; and 4) “Frameworks that examine culture’s role in building citizenship capacity”. The bulk of the report is an annotated bibliography of research on these topics.

The report defines culture as “professional and amateur creative arts (visual, literary and performing), the industries and organizations that support them (broadcasting, film, publishing, sound recording, and digital media), and the curation and preservation activities that are often grouped under the label of ‘heritage’ (museums, historic sites, archives, and libraries)”.

Does more cultural exposure lead to greater social effects? Do cultural activities have a greater or lesser effect over time? The review found evidence gaps related to “both scale and time vis-à-vis the social effects of culture”. Regarding other research limitations, the report indicates that:

  • Few studies “have been able to prove causation between participation in the arts and specific effects”.
  • “Little empirical research has been done to link cultural engagement to democratic values, although a few studies have examined cultural participation and voting behaviour”.
  • “Evidence linking individual wellbeing to community and national wellbeing is still relatively sparse, although a few studies have examined possible associations between cultural engagement, social cohesion and community sustainability”.
  • “Although frequently advocated as the ‘gold standard’ of research, experimental designs of studies, with random selection of subjects and control groups, are seldom used in studies of the social effects of culture, except in the health care field”.
  • Many critiques argue that culture’s social effects are “incidental to the central purposes of the arts and heritage preservation”.

In these areas of weakness, “several meta-evidence reviews, as well as a few of the studies on participation, have attempted to separate short-term, immediate benefits from longer-term ones, and to understand the paths and mechanisms through which cultural acts to produce social effects.”

The report notes that “an emerging methodological approach is attempting to assign monetary values to participation in various types of cultural activity based on subjective assessments of wellbeing by research subjects.”

The report concludes that “the research community is making serious efforts to address the methodological shortcomings pointed out by the critics, but it seems to be no nearer to a consensus on the broader philosophical debates that surround efforts to measure the value of culture”.

Summary: 

This literature review, which examines English-language publications since 2000 related to the non-economic effects of culture, found that there is “a deluge of recent literature citing the (usually positive) impacts of engagement with the arts and, to a lesser extent, heritage”.