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Trajectories of Participation and Inequality

We study how of social involvement and cultural participation change over the course of people’s lives and place these trajectories in a long term historical context.

Convenor: Dr Andrew Miles

About the theme

This theme is interested in understanding how social and cultural participation has changed in the UK since 1945. We examine how people spend their leisure time, what their interests in the visual arts, music, reading, television, film and sport and other cultural activities are, and how these have changed in recent years. We want to understand how these forms of participation relate to different aspects of people’s lives - such as work, relationships and travel - and how individuals themselves understand and interpret their social and cultural lives. 

The challenge of an historical and longitudinal perspective on participation and social change

There is a popular conception that people have retreated from participation in recent decades, with a resulting loss of social cohesion and civic engagement. We are sceptical of these arguments and recommend a broadening of the research agenda to recognize the importance of ‘ordinary’, everyday forms of engagement and activism.

We are therefore looking beneath and beyond 'indicator' models of participation to examine the often fluid and informal mechanisms which generate opaque, unorthodox and unappreciated kinds of engagement. It follows that we avoid prioritizing particular kinds of activity – for instance in voluntary associations or in traditional or ‘legitimate’ cultural institutions (museums, art galleries, etc) – in order to elaborate a comprehensive analysis more attuned to teasing out the links between everyday life practices and ‘mundane’ social and cultural involvements.

In this context, we are interested in how the delineation of social and cultural participation by government departments, businesses, the media, cultural institutions, voluntary organizations, academic researchers, and so on are themselves implicated in legitimizing and contesting what it means to be engaged, active and ‘included’.

A key part of our concern therefore lies in seeing how different agencies themselves construct indicators of engagement, so that we can recognize the absences, partialities and motives they entail.

Linking social inequality and participation

We are particularly interested to establish links between the study of social inequality and concerns with engagement and participation. Here we examine the changing relationship between elite and popular forms of social and cultural participation.

We pursue the argument that whereas in the post-war years popular and elite forms of engagement contested directly with each other, we have now entered a situation where participation is structured around unacknowledged middle class norms which indirectly disadvantage marginal populations of various kinds.

We therefore see it as important to develop more sophisticated historical accounts, which are also attuned to the role of lifecycle and generational processes in shaping people’s social and cultural activities.

Part of our work thus involves reflecting on developing theoretical frameworks, where we engage with issues arising from Bourdieu’s field analysis; urban sociological debates concerning segregation and the urban public realm; network processes; and interests in time, temporality and sequencing. 

The local, national, and global

We pursue our interests on numerous scales, involving European collaborations, UK based studies, and projects focused on Manchester itself. Here we have, over the life of CRESC, developed a series of interconnected studies of Greater Manchester that explore diverse aspects of socio-cultural participation in this historically revolutionary city.

A site of radical restructuring encompassing the industrial capital of the 19th century cotton textile industry, a major centre for the new industries from the early 20th century, through to its recent re-incarnation as a service led city specializing in cultural, leisure, and tourist activity, Manchester is a perfect location to reflect on trajectories of engagement and involvement.

Affiliated projects

This theme’s key concerns are being explored in the following collaborative projects and networks:

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Key research questions

London Eye

We explore how people spend their leisure time and how these have changed over time.