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 a 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 the 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:

Key research questions

How does ageing and the life course affect diverse kinds of social and cultural participation?

We have shown in earlier research that the cleavage between 'high' and 'popular' culture is no longer based predominantly on class divisions.

Age is now a key differentiating principle, which distinguishes the middle aged and elderly, who are attracted towards established and traditional cultural forms (eg classical music concerts, museum and art gallery attendance), from younger age groups, who are more attracted to popular/commercial forms of music and cultural consumption (see Bennett et al 2009; Scherger 2008).

Here we are developing novel theoretical and substantive analyses of generation, age and temporality, using both quantitative and qualitative analyses in methodologically integrative and distinctive ways.

This includes the use of multiple correspondence analysis and the employment of longitudinal data sets where possible.

How do we understand the changing boundaries of disengagement and participation in historical perspective?

This strand of work examines how social inequalities have structured formal, informal and more opaque kinds of cultural involvement since 1950.

We recognize that educated middle class groups are more likely to participate in a wide range of formal and legitimate cultural institutions compared to the working class and other more marginalized groups. However, we contest the view that this is a sign that the working classes are socially disengaged more generally, noting their active kinship based and neighbourhood involvements, and the way that interactions with popular media can be conceptualized as active forms of engagement.

We are interested in recognizing how the changing demands of work and the remaking of urban neighbourhoods can affect the activities of these groups. We therefore seek to go beyond ‘deficit’ models implied by the ‘social exclusion’ literature and criticize views that the ‘non users’ of established cultural forms are simply passive or isolated (see Miles 2013).

Within this we are especially interested in examining the territorial dimensions of involvement and engagement, where the contestation over belonging is central to understanding forms of participation.

How are the dynamics of the cultural sector being historically redefined?

Recognising that the cultural sector itself sets the terms for formal understandings of engagement and disengagement, we examine the historical formation of the cultural sector, including the relationship between ‘legitimate’ cultural institutions and other public and private sector bodies, and the institutional frameworks which support alternative cultural forms.

A major component of our analysis here is to locate the dynamics of present day arrangements in the historical context of the cultural sector’s emergence from the post-war political settlement as a distinct arena of production and governance. A related concern here is with the role that elites play in the organization of cultural capital and social exclusion.

Building on previous CRESC work calling for the rehabilitation of elite studies in Sociological research (Savage and Williams eds. 2008), we examine processes of elite formation and domination in Britain. Once more, a particular focus is on Manchester as a case study, deploying a series of linked local studies.

However, we are also participating in international networks concerned with measuring the comparative dimensions of cultural capital and social stratification.

Here we have active alliances with researchers in Australia, Chile, Denmark, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Portugal, and the United States.