Theorizing (changes in research into) cultural policy

Earlier this month, I attended the 2nd International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP) in Milan. For thoughts on the conference as such, I recommend Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog post about his experiences at the conference – the purpose of this post is somewhat different, namely to try to structure some thoughts that I have had since the conference and, thereby, hopefully continue and contribute to the specific discussion I was part of in Milan. (Comments are most welcome below.)

My paper ”Media Policy Responses to the Convergence of News Media Sectors in Denmark” was part of a 13-paper panel on cultural policy organized by Kate Mattocks (City University London) and Lisa Marx (University of Geneva). Mattocks and Marx did a very good job in putting this panel together, and I think everybody learned something from the presentations and discussions.

The most important discussion arose after the section where I presented (but not because of me, I must emphasize!). Here, Clive Gray from Warwick University served as discussant, and instead of offering feedback on the presented papers (which is the normal approach in that situation), he took one step back and asked why all the papers were studies that explored some small instance of cultural policy in some concrete setting instead of asking larger questions about what cultural policy is for, what it is in the first place, and what is actually at stake in the contexts of the studies. I cannot remember the exact way he phrased his critique, but I think it is fair to say that he would have preferred more work that offered critical reflection on these questions than the papers in the panel had done so far.

Gray is right that we might be prone to focus more on “small” empirical studies, where we subject some piece of policy to intense scrutiny, and thereby miss the bigger picture – namely the question about what cultural policy really is, what its consequences are, and how different actors with different interests use the very concept of culture in very different ways. “All uses of the concept of culture can be both attacked and defended”, Gray asserted in his own presentation; cultural policy is a contested area where opposing views and interests compete for discursive hegemony as well as practical influence.

I know Gray intended to be provocative and kickstart an important discussion, so I will just put it out there for the record that while I agree with his overall point, I also think that we should avoid neglecting the value of empirical studies of even very small cases; the larger discussion about “culture” is important, but if we do not have a firm grounding in empirical data and interpretations of them, we risk disconnecting the normative discussion from the facts. But I do not disagree with Gray that we need more critical thinking about the very idea of culture and the implications of using that concept in the ways that we do (Raymond Williams famously called culture “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language“).

What I think would be a most interesting direction to move forward, however, would be to apply Gray’s ambition of addressing the bigger questions to the very tendency of smaller studies.

Rather than lament the absence of papers that asks grand questions about what culture and what cultural policy is, we should ask why 12 in 13 papers in the panel was of an empirical nature. Is it because it is considered easier to do empirical work than to develop theory? Is it because the “publish or perish” paradigm of higher education organizations grants primacy to this type of academic activity, which is often faster to do and can result in more journal articles (which, again, is particularly important for junior scholars who do not yet have tenure)? Is it because we cannot all think the big thoughts?

And is it really a bad thing – or is it necessary for the theoretical development of the field to have these empirical studies to rest upon?

So, while we look forward to the 3rd International Conference on Public Policy in 2017, it might be fruitful to start theorizing not only culture and cultural policy but also the current tendencies in cultural policy research.