For well over a decade now, advocates have fiercely contested whether the arts should be valued more for their ability to further non-arts goals, like public health or economic development, or for the unique qualities that set them apart from other aspects of social life. Just when we thought this great “intrinsic” vs. “instrumental” debate had gone stale, recent research from Mark Stern and Susan Seifert has given the topic a breath of fresh air. Stern and Seifert suggest that cultural participation is one component–valued in its own right–of the broader concept of human wellbeing. Though the sentiment might seem obvious, the implication is not: it allows us to elegantly sidestep (if not quite resolve) the whole question of intrinsic vs. instrumental benefits by framing the idea instead as direct vs. indirect contributions to wellbeing.

Stern and Seifert have long been measuring impacts of the arts at the neighborhood level as leaders of the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) at the University of Pennsylvania. In their latest major report, “Cultural Ecology, Neighborhood Vitality, and Social Wellbeing–A Philadelphia Project,” they introduce a conceptual framework that is rooted in the “capability approach,” most closely associated with the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Rather than focusing on material resources, the capability approach assumes that wellbeing derives from people’s ability to make choices that allow them to lead a life that they have reason to value. This theory also forms the basis of the Human Development Index, produced regularly by the UN to measure wellbeing at the national level.

In adapting the capability approach to their examination of wellbeing in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, Stern and Seifert draw on eight categories of wellbeing outlined in a 2009 report by Sen and fellow economist Joseph Stiglitz. These original categories, developed for comparisons between countries, were not always appropriate for a local context, and didn’t include an explicit category for arts and culture. Stern and Seifert’s modified version thus includes the following categories:

  • Economic wellbeing
  • Economic diversity
  • School effectiveness
  • Housing
  • Social connection (including measures of culture)
  • Insecurity
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Political voice

Applying this framework to Philadelphia, Stern and Seifert find some interesting patterns of cultural participation and wellbeing. The data tells what the authors characterize as a “tale of three cities.” Advantage and disadvantage cluster together in many neighborhoods that exhibit consistently positive or negative scores in many or all social wellbeing domains, while a smaller number of neighborhoods show more variance. Overall, economic wellbeing is the biggest driver of other social factors, including cultural assets (defined as the number of nonprofit and commercial cultural institutions, the number of resident artists, and cultural participation rates). The authors’ examination of the distribution of cultural assets in the city over a 15-year period depicts a widening gap between neighborhoods with strong cultural resources and those without. A neighborhood’s access to cultural assets is increasingly predicted by its economic status, somewhat belying the narrative of the arts as a social equalizer that underlies earlier SIAP work. In fact, the authors find little correlation between the cultural indicators and indicators of face-to-face social connection, which was supposed to be the theoretical home for culture within the social wellbeing index.

As in their previous work, the authors identify “civic clusters” of arts activity where higher amounts of cultural activity occur than economic or geographic conditions would predict. Many of these civic clusters are losing ground in the density of their cultural assets relative to the rest of the city, and Stern and Seifert see their diminishment as a failure in cultural policy and a missed opportunity to foster more equitable growth. They call on policymakers, practitioners, and funders (in particular those with an interest in creative placemaking) to pay greater attention to disadvantaged neighborhoods and those with mixed wellbeing scores.

While these results are provocative, a note of caution is warranted here. In order to make the social wellbeing index and cultural asset indicators work at a neighborhood level, the authors had to make a number of compromises to data quality. For example, the data sources used to construct the current wellbeing index span a seven-year stretch from 2005 to 2012, a period that includes a major economic recession and its subsequent recovery. Other indicators, notably job satisfaction (a component of the key economic wellbeing subindex) had to be imputed in ways that can only provide a rough estimation of the actual figures. Most troublingly for the central conclusion presented in the article, the authors’ methods for constructing the cultural asset index changed between the comparison years of 1997 and 2010-12. Stern and Seifert attempt to minimize the impact of this deficiency by limiting their analysis to the proportional distribution of cultural resources across neighborhoods rather than absolute numbers, but they don’t seem to consider the possibility that the differences in data collection processes could have introduced a bias in those patterns of distribution that don’t reflect real changes in the city over time. While none of these issues are concerning enough to dismiss the report entirely, its findings should be considered suggestive rather than conclusive in the absence of further evidence.

Fortunately, SIAP is already well on its way toward improving upon this initial effort while simultaneously extending this work to three new cities: Austin, New York, and Seattle. This cross-city comparison will shed light on the extent to which the situation in Philadelphia reflects larger trends and inform theories about the underlying dynamics, while giving policymakers and arts practitioners new tools to understand patterns of advantage and disadvantage in their communities.

As much as we love new decision-making tools, for us the most intriguing aspect of Stern and Seifert’s latest research is its attempt to integrate culture into the capability approach. On a theoretical level, “Cultural Ecology” marks an important moment for arts research, opening up numerous possibilities for considering and measuring the value of culture in new ways. Arguably, Stern and Seifert could push much further in this direction than they have done here. Despite repeated references to overcoming the intrinsic vs. instrumental debate, the analysis routinely switches between using culture as an explanatory variable (identifying how other areas of wellbeing are influenced by culture) and a response variable (identifying how cultural indicators change between different neighborhoods and over time)–in essence reinscribing the intrinsic/instrumental divide. The game-changing potential of this approach would lie in developing a single, summative wellbeing score for each neighborhood based on its component parts. Approaching the task this way would give culture a specific weight and undeniable influence in the construction (and calculation) of overall wellbeing, while enabling an analysis of culture’s direct and indirect role in creating that wellbeing.

By nearly any measure, “Cultural Ecology, Neighborhood Vitality, and Social Wellbeing” is unfinished work, but the direction it points to is a tantalizing one. There is much to be gained and learned from examining cultural participation within a larger framework of wellbeing, and we can’t wait to see what Stern and Seifert have up their sleeves next.

Cover image of mural in Philadelphia, by Flickr user Classic Film. 

  • Brenda Kent

    If interested, we also adopted capabilities as key strand in the arts outcomes framework been working on for Belfast. Started 2013 and now in soft launch phase – papers here

  • Kiley Arroyo

    Great piece Katie and John, thanks for sharing. Thanks as well for introducing new audiences to Stern and Seifert’s boundary pushing work. I for one am excited to see how the cultural sector can better leverage the capabilities based frame. That said, I’m curious to learn why your summary doesn’t mention social justice aims at all, as achieving greater social equity is central to Sen’s thesis (an aim that the arts, culture and creative expressive can advance).

    If you’re interested in learning how others have integrated the capabilities based frame into broader debates about cultural value and policy you might enjoy reading these:

    1. Culture Shock:
    2. Material World:

    Thanks again,

    • John Carnwath

      Thanks for the references, Kiley. I’ve added them to our reading list.

  • Thank you both for these great resources! Kiley, to address your question, we only had a brief space to discuss the philosophical origins of the capability approach here, but we are in the midst of a larger investigation of the intersection of the arts with quality-of-life and wellbeing indicators, including the capability approach, which will allow us to get into more detail. We should have another article coming out on that in the next six weeks or so.

  • Randy Cohen

    Thanks for this article. I enjoyed the read. I do want to disagree with the idea that advocates are hotly contesting one strategy over the other. Quite simply, it is AND, not OR. An arts-rich community reaps many benefits and all are to be celebrated. Advocates need a quiver full of arrows that demonstrate the intrinsic, social, educational, and economic benefits of the arts–and they should deftly be able to share data and stories about all of it. None of this minimizes the great work at SIAP and that of many other institutions. It is all additive. I, too, look forward to seeing what Sterns and Seifert have up their sleeves next!

    • Kamella Tate

      I support Randy’s perspective here as well — “both-and” rather than “either-or.” Certainly there’s been a “debate” as Stern and Seifert call it, but in my experience it’s been pretty measured (in practice and research). I view it as a continuum, with an increasing case to be made that the intrinsic IS instrumental.

      • I’m glad there are reasonable people like you out there in the world. My experience has been a little different, suggesting that there are a number of folks who are really stuck on one or the other. In particular, there’s a quite vocal group who chafe at efforts to frame the arts in terms of instrumental benefits, particularly economic impact. It’s important to recognize that the people on either side of this divide don’t always use the intrinsic/instrumental language or recognize that there’s a divide at all. For example, I’ve encountered some individuals who are basically only interested in the arts for their tourism potential or ability to achieve social justice ends, but it’s not necessarily an exclusion that they’re making consciously. Kamella, I really like your point about intrinsic = instrumental – I think that’s the direction that we’re heading in, and Stern and Seifert as well with this wellbeing construction. We hinted at that in our review of Gifts of the Muse back in the day.

  • Carter Gillies

    As an artist I am drawn to an appreciation for art as intrinsically valuable and occasionally a suspicion of art as merely instrumental. And it occurs to me that this, perhaps, points to a pattern of thought that can be seen on a larger scale.

    As makers it seems that most artists I know do what they do because of its importance in their lives as not just a means of earning a living or making the world a better place, but fundamentally because this is how they themselves are expressed. The artist always sees the intrinsicness of art, their own art at least, or the capacity thereof, but that doesn’t mean that art isn’t at the same time also a means to ends. Its just that the instrumental quality of art is contingent in a way that its instrumental value is not. Art pays the bills? So too could working at McDonalds. You’d just have to get very lucky to find a job that had the potential for self expression similar to what making art does…..

    So, like Randy and Kamella have said, its not simply either/or by any means, even for most artists. And as Kamella also says, it seems that almost anything that qualifies as intrinsic at the same time embodies instrumental value. In other words, to BE intrinsic HAS instrumental value (also pays the bills, etc.). It would be extremely odd if it did not (What would have to be the case for something intrinsic to have NO instrumental value or be incapable of it? That seems like a narrow field….).

    The difficulty I see with instrumental arguments that ignore intrinsic value is that means are interchangeable. If the value of means are in the ends they serve, then one means will do as well as the next. Want to promote tourism? Will a restaurant district serve as well as a museum? If the choice between two options is only the ends they serve, then we are giving up the right to choose art as some other priority. Why build a museum when you can build a new sports stadium? Why send your kid to art school when they can study dentistry? If the value is strictly in what it serves, then the priority for art is entirely in the contingency of how well it serves its other non art ends…..

    If the ends are the important thing, then how we choose to serve them may side with things of lesser value in their own right. Its just that the value of means in their own right was never on the table. That is, it wasn’t unless we made some space for seeing them as worthy in some other way besides as inessential and disposable means….. To look at the things in the world purely as means strips a layer of value from it. Then, a thing takes on value only in so far as its good for something else, and that’s the danger I see. Is the world full of value or is it full of things that serve valuable ends? That’s a HUGE question. How do we see the world? How SHOULD WE see the world? (Was that an instrumental question?)

    And if you are not an artist it may simply not make sense to look at art as intrinsically valuable. That would take a special appreciation, I guess. And if its the case that most if not all artists measure art in an intrinsic way, does it seem to follow that an emphasis on the instrumental value of art is often made by non artists? And that if we need to build the case for art being even a VALUABLE means, and not just an indifferent instrument, more people need to see AS artists do? So how do we do that? How do we get there?

    Like I said, its hard not to find instrumental value in the world. Even the intrinsic things have their uses. The thing that bothers me is looking at the world as if the best we can do is measure how well it fits certain ideals. Chauvinism for art can be just as unseemly as chauvinism for commerce. In order to create equity it seems we cannot simply promote one cause at the expense of all else. That’s the gamble of seeing limited ends but infinite means. Rather, we need to be in a position where we DON”T look at the world simply as what its good for. We need to cultivate the capacity to see intrinsic quality all around us. How else is equity possible? (Is equity itself a means to some other end? Is it an end in itself? If equity is an end, what are its means? Is equity even possible in a world filled with means?)

    Rambling….. But those seem like serious questions.