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Cultural value and inequality: a literature review

O'Brien, David and Oakley, Kate. 2015. Cultural value and inequality: a literature review. Technical Report. Arts and Humanities Research Council, Swindon. [Report]

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Abstract or Description

(Warwick Commission 2014). This literature review responds to those discussions by exploring the specific relationship between
cultural value, a key topic of academic and practitioner interest over the last 5 years, and inequality.
Inequality has become essential to understanding contemporary British and global society (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009,
Dorling, 2014). Whilst there is a wealth of work on traditional areas of inequality, such as those associated with income or
gender roles (CSI 2015a, 2015b), the relationship between culture, specifically cultural value, and inequality is comparatively
Lamont et al (2014), writing for an American audience, have stressed the need to take cultural aspects of inequality more
seriously. Their agenda is part of an ongoing struggle over the role of culture in explaining how society is organised, for example
whether culture is a resource used by those from different status groups (Goldthorpe 2007), whether culture is a type of capital
related to class positions (Bennett et al 2009, Savage et al 2005), or whether culture is better understood as more directly
constitutive of social positions such as class (e.g. Savage et al 2013, 2014).
Those debates point to a fundamental relationship between cultural value and inequality. The literature review considers
inequality and cultural value from two points of view: how cultural value is consumed and how it is produced. The review
argues that these two activities are absolutely essential to understanding the relationship between the value associated with
culture and social inequality, but that the two activities have traditionally been considered separately in both academic research
and public policy (O’Brien 2014a).
One area of work has focused on questions of representation in production and more recently on critical studies of cultural
labour conditions (Gill, 2007; Gollmitzer & Murray, 2007; Christopherson and Storper 1989; Blair 2001; Banks, 2007; Randle,
forthcoming) and the other looked at social stratification and inequalities in consumption, or as it sometimes referred to
in policy circles, in access (Chan and Goldthorpe 2007, Bennett et al 2009, Miles and Sullivan 2012, Friedman 2012). This
is the rationale for structuring this critical review around ideas of consumption and production of culture. The relationship
between who gets to ‘consume’ and who gets to ‘make’ and what is at any time considered legitimate culture is at the heart
of this review.
The review connects inequality to the consumption and production of culture for two additional reasons. The first is the
tradition, from cultural studies, of attempting to understand the ‘circuits of culture’ in which understandings of value are
attached to objects and practices; or are enabled and constrained by objects and practices. The landmark work in this case
is DuGay et al’s (1996) study of the Sony Walkman. In this text a team of scholars working in the cultural studies tradition
attempted to chart the impact of the Walkman in changing not only how music is consumed, but also the meanings of that
consumption, along with how it was produced and regulated. However the fundamental insight into studying questions
of regulation, production, and consumption, whilst still relating the answers to discussions of identities, has not properly
transformed the division between studies of production and consumption. This review aims to reassert the importance of a
perspective highlighting that these two strands intertwine in the process of cultural value.
Second, the review develops the need for research on the relationship between contemporary cultural consumption practices
and work in cultural and creative industries. Specifically this need is focused on understanding how emerging forms of cultural
consumption (Savage et al 2013, 2014, Friedman 2013), such as omnivorous attitudes towards cultural forms, are coupled
with rejections of snobbery and the embrace of meritocratic approaches to the social world. This relationship, in turn, is
characteristic of many in the cultural and creative industries (Banks 2009, O’Brien 2014) whilst at the same time those areas
of the labour force are characterised by inequalities grounded in a range of social structures, such as ethnicity, gender or class.
Thus specific types of cultural consumption are intertwined with who is able to succeed in cultural production.
This insight is at the core of many studies of social inequality (for example Rivera’s 2012 study of the role of shared cultures
in hiring decisions or Boliver’s 2014 work on Oxford admissions or Zimdar’s et al 2009 on university admissions) and is best
outlined in recent work by Skeggs (2011) on how persons are, or are not, designated as having value. However, how this
relationship functions and its exact bearing on the process of cultural value, for example understanding the links between who
produces, what is represented and thus what is consumed, is still yet to find its definitive research project.
The review that follows is in four sections. First the review defines inequality, then considers a working definition of cultural
value. Section three discusses inequality and consumption, with section four considering production. The review’s conclusion
presents areas for further research, based on four key ideas:
1. All of the research reviewed suggests an undeniable connection between cultural value and inequality.
2. Understanding that connection is impeded by problems with data.
3. Public policy must do more to provide robust data, particularly about cultural production.
4. Research has shown the relationship between cultural value and inequality. As a result, future research, funded by RCUK,
must focus on understanding how the relationship between inequality and cultural value functions, in the context of
consumption and production.

Item Type:

Report (Technical Report)

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute for Cultural and Creative Entrepreneurship (ICCE)



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

04 Aug 2015 12:38

Last Modified:

29 Jul 2016 10:43


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