Among sociologists, the arts have traditionally been examined through the lens of social class. Much research has found the well-off and well-connected are more likely to appreciate the arts, suggesting that highbrow taste is a significant signal of status.
But those studies, as a rule, have failed to distinguish between passive enjoyment of the arts (say, going to the ballet) and active involvement (actually taking a dance class). A new study from England finds making that distinction is quite revealing.
A certain percentage of people go to the opera in order to be seen, to impress their bosses (or in-laws), or because it's what their friends and neighbors expect them to do.
Sociologist Aaron Reeves of the University of Oxford reports most forms of arts participation are strongly correlated not with class, but rather with education. To his surprise, he found that in a large sample of the English population, those with higher incomes were actually less likely to be active participants in the arts.
"Arts participation, like other forms of cultural engagement, remains stratified," he writes in the journal Sociology, "but it is not as responsive to those 'status concerns' shaping cultural consumption."
In other words, a certain percentage of people go to the opera in order to be seen, to impress their bosses (or in-laws), or because it's what their friends and neighbors expect them to do. But if you are actually a member of the opera chorus, it's probably because it feeds your soul.
Reeves used data on 78,011 people who participated in the Taking Part survey, which featured face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of the English population. He analyzed attendance at arts events and participation in the arts with a variety of factors, including age, gender, education, and income.
Reeves found that "arts participation, unlike arts consumption and cultural engagement generally, is not closely associated with either social class or social status."
Indeed, "those with higher incomes are less likely to be arts participants," he writes, adding that this finding is unexpected and difficult to interpret. Perhaps, he speculates, those at the top tend to work longer hours, and have less free time to devote to creative pursuits.
However, Reeves found education was "a strong predictor of the likelihood of being an arts participant." After adjusting for the influence of family background, he found that, compared to people who did not participate in higher education, those who had earned a degree were four to five times more likely to play a musical instrument, or be involved in painting, photography, or dance.
He points to several "plausible mechanisms" behind this connection. "Higher education may work as an incubator for cultural activity," he writes. It may also "serve as a proxy for," or even boost, graduates' "information-processing capacity." People who have been trained to think critically and creatively will likely want to channel those capacities, and the arts can provide an excellent outlet.
In any event, the findings can serve as a rejoinder to those who argue the arts are strictly of interest to the elite—an assertion that implies the rich can fund these organizations themselves rather than asking taxpayers to help do so.
These results suggest the arts actually impact a much wider strata of society—including people who can't afford front-balcony tickets.
Sure, some people view attendance on opening night as an important status symbol. But such concerns have nothing to do with the choice to attend a photography workshop, or to try out for a role with your local community theater. The creative impulse knows no class boundaries.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.