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
- Social connection (including measures of culture)
- 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.