Social Impacts and Benefits of Arts and Culture: A Literature Review

This report “aims to summarize research in the areas of theory, evidence, measurement frameworks and indicators” of the social benefits of culture. The review found “wide evidence of positive effects of arts and culture in society” but a lack of “consensus on how to measure the results”.

Important theories underpinning research into the social effects of culture include “concepts such as cultural capital, social cohesion and the creative class”. A number of frameworks have been developed to help categorize and measure the social effects of culture, and an annex to the report contains a useful comparison of the key elements of some Canadian and international frameworks.

The review argues that the measurement of social impacts “is important in communicating to decision-makers and evaluating results” but also found evidence regarding “the difficulties in the development and measurement of indicators”. Previous research has pointed to “weaknesses in measurement methodologies, impractical models of research such as comparisons between individuals or groups who have or have not participated in a program or activity, insufficient hard data on the regenerative impact of the arts, lack of baseline data, small sample sizes, reliance on self-reports with little corroborating evidence, [and] over-reliance on official statistics”.

Other key challenges include:

  • The diversity of the arts and cultural sector, which requires “a broad definition of how individuals and communities engage in it”.
  • The fact that “social impacts may not occur immediately but may develop and compound over time”.
  • The complex interactions involved in social impacts, which make “it difficult to isolate effects of specific initiatives in a cross-cutting framework”.

The report, which includes a 12-page bibliography of research studies related to the social benefits of culture, concludes that there are “a variety of competing approaches to theorizing and measuring social impacts of arts and culture” but also “an ever-growing mountain of case studies demonstrating positive social effects of arts and culture initiatives in a range a locations and milieus”.

Summary: 

This report “aims to summarize research in the areas of theory, evidence, measurement frameworks and indicators” of the social benefits of culture. The review found “wide evidence of positive effects of arts and culture in society” but a lack of “consensus on how to measure the results”.