Brexit as a Problem for the Sociology of Culture

By Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor

British social science is currently responding to the puzzle of contemporary political events. Most obviously this takes the form of thinking through the vote to leave the EU and the associated rise of reactionary sentiment. There has also been, understandably, a quest to think about the role of social science more generally, in relation to the Trump victory in the USA. In this blog we’d like to offer some reflections on work in cultural and creative industries, as a way of suggesting some connections to current political events. We’re seeing this post in dialogue with the work above, and with a series of insightful posts from University of Bristol’s Siobhan McAndrew. This could represent the beginnings of a ‘cultural sociology’ explanation for the politics we are living through.

We are cautiously suggesting that the way cultural production is organised has an impact on how particular social and political issues are represented. At the same time, the organisation of cultural production also impacts on various social groups’ relationship to the creative occupations making culture. Whilst the debates over how organisations such as the BBC report political and economic affairs have a long history in British social science, our current work suggests more general questions about the relationship between cultural production and politics.

In a paper published earlier this year, we demonstrated the limited, and rather elite, basis for cultural production in the UK. Tables 1 and 2 show how our core cultural occupations, such as journalism, music, publishing, film and TV, and the museums sector all have significant over-representations from those from affluent, ‘middle class’ social backgrounds (NS-SEC 1&2), and under-representations of those from ‘working class’ social origins (NS-SEC 6-8), as well as exclusions based on gender, ethnicity, and education.

Moreover the full paper details the lack of representation of women and ethnic minorities in particular cultural occupations. So, we know there is a question associated with who is making our cultural representations.

In addition, two new datasets from a current project can develop the question as to what the social closure of cultural production means for politics. During 2015 we conducted a survey of cultural workers, hosted by The Guardian. Although this was a self-selecting web survey, we attracted almost 2500 individual responses from people working in arts and cultural occupations in the UK.

Figure 1 shows the results of asking our survey respondents about what kind of occupations they know. As we can see, the results suggest that our participants are least likely to know occupations associated with traditional working class jobs (and, as an aside, the bank manager). As demonstrated in figure 2, our respondents are more like the middle class respondents captured by the 2005 Culture, Class and Social Exclusion survey (CCSE). CCSE suggested evidence of social closure by occupation at the top of British society.

Second, over the course of 240 interviews with cultural workers, we found a similar distance between cultural production and broader political trends. Our initial analysis of responses to questions about cultural interests and whether people would say our respondents have good taste, fit with the findings about which occupations our respondents know. Our interviewees were culturally open, tolerant, professing caution about questions of taste and expressing eclectic cultural interests. This sense of cultural openness may be a crucial contrast with those who do not share this new middle class aesthetic of ‘emerging’ cultural capital. This analysis is by no means final, but reveals some initial striking impressions about our interviewees.

Essentially, our data raises the issue that the attitudes and outlook of our cultural workers may be at odds with many parts of the population characterised as being pro-Brexit. Moreover, the socially exclusive nature of cultural occupations, and the lack of certain occupations within the social circles of our respondents, raises questions as to who and what is excluded from cultural production. Whilst there is another debate as to the underlying causes of this difference, in particular engagement with higher education, there are potentially questions about what is excluded from contemporary cultural production as a result of who is producing culture.

Obviously more work is needed, particularly in devising surveys that are exactly representative of the UK’s entire cultural and creative workforce, in order to have definitive conclusions. However, based on the datasets we currently have access too, the socially closed nature of cultural production, whether in terms of social origin, social position, or cultural tastes, maybe a useful site for thinking about politics.

This presents a problem for those of us seeking to defend agendas that seek more diversity across cultural production and raises questions of how best to represent the range of cultural tastes and social groups that are currently not part of artistic and cultural production in the UK. We need all parts of British society to feel part of cultural production, to feel that cultural jobs are less closed off and socially exclusive. Indeed, if this were the case perhaps people would express less alienation from mainstream culture and media. There are already important voices responding to this need. For academics, partnerships between media and cultural studies, political science, and cultural sociology, may be best placed to deepen social science’s engagement with our current political landscape.

Dave O’Brien is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Edinburgh. He tweets @drdaveobrien.

Mark Taylor is a Lecturer in Quantitative Research Methods at the University of Sheffield’s Sheffield Methods Institute. He tweets @markrt.

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