Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s work on symbolic capital, wider network analysis frameworks and his own research into the production of cultural value, Daniel Allington outlines how the value of a cultural form is ultimately and fundamentally a social process. While this piece was originally written to engage with cultural policy research and practice communities, a sociological perspective on the production, transmission and propagation of ‘intrinsic value’ demonstrates the complexity of impact and the interdisciplinary potential of understanding these social relationships.
This originally appeared on The #culturalvalue Initiative under the title of ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’ and is reposted with permission.
Art for art’s sake. L’art pour l’art. What does this idea mean for cultural value? It means understanding the value of culture as intrinsically cultural. As not reducible to any other kind of value, that is: not financial value, of course, but not social value either. Not even the emotional value attached to the great (or minor) work by its creator’s many (or few) fans. No. Intrinsically cultural value, if it exists, can be none of those, which are non-cultural species of value applied to cultural artefacts. If it doesn’t exist, this does not mean that culture has no value, but that any value it does have must be of a kind that other things might possess in greater measure. What is this value, then – supposing that it exists?
The sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu suggests an answer: cultural value is a form of belief. Shared belief, that is. Drawing on Marcel Mauss’s work in the anthropology of religions, Bourdieu argues that a painting or a poem is a sort of fetish, that is, a ‘magical’ artefact whose special status derives from the fact that believers hold it to be magical. An ‘emperor’s new clothes’ situation? Not at all. It isn’t that there are people who have laughingly duped the rest of society into believing in something they know very well not to be real. Rather, it’s that there are people who so deeply believe that cultural value both exists and is unequally distributed, that they are willing to devote their lives (a) to creating artefacts that they hope will be taken to embody this value, and/or (b) to contesting with one another over which artefacts shall indeed be taken to embody that value.
As Bourdieu put it with regard to visual art, ‘the conviction that good and bad painting exist’ is both ‘the stakes and the motor without which [the field of painting] could not function’ (1980, p. 266). The making of art for art’s sake is thus not about satisfying an audience of consumers, but about earning the esteem of fellow producers, who are also competitors for one another’s esteem. This esteem, referred to by Bourdieu and his followers as ‘symbolic capital’, is what we are ultimately talking about when we speak of intrinsically or specifically cultural value; indeed, Bourdieu often referred to it as the ‘specific capital’ of the cultural field. When the accumulation of symbolic capital becomes great enough, it becomes convertible into other forms of capital, including good old financial capital – as when ordinary people pay £16.50 to view the sacred artefacts at the Tate Modern while the super-rich bid many thousands or even millions of pounds for the right to call them their own.
So far, so unremarkable: this aspect of Bourdieu’s work is relatively uncontroversial, largely because it accords so well with experience. It’s not even (as a superficial reading might suggest) an inherently philistine position: scientists pursue knowledge for its own sake and compete with one another for one another’s esteem, for example, but that does not mean that science is bunk. I’d like to do something slightly unusual now, however, and suggest that this account of cultural value can be advanced through a discussion of social networks. This is unusual in part because Bourdieu and most of his followers reject social network analysis in favour of other forms of quantitative analysis. I shan’t go into the reasons for that here; instead, I’ll explain why I find it to be a useful way of studying cultural value from a perspective informed by Bourdieu.
Take the interactions through which cultural value is produced. What cultural producers seek, as Bourdieu realised, is the esteem of esteemed cultural producers. We can represent this through what mathematicians call a ‘directed graph’: see Figure 1, in which each numbered ‘node’ (circle) represents an individual producer, and each producer’s work is esteemed by at least one other producer represented in the same graph. The more deeply embedded a producer is within such a network, the more symbolic capital he or she possesses: imagine value flowing around the network in the directions indicated by the arrows, and accumulating especially around the producers represented by nodes 1 and 8. According to this theoretical perspective, a work has cultural value if it is valued by those whose works have cultural value, so one could also draw a more complicated graph in which value flows from nodes representing producers to nodes representing works positively evaluated by those producers, and then flows on to the producers who authored those works: the more deeply embedded a work is within such a network, the more highly it is valued.
If we expand the network visualised in Figure 1 to include consumers who do not produce valued works of their own, but who value the works of producers 2 to 7, this can help us to understand the intuitive notion of the ‘writer’s writer’ or ‘musician’s musician’. Figure 2 shows just such an expanded network, with the grey nodes numbered 9 to 14 representing non-producers (or at least: non-producers of valued works). No matter how many such fans producers 2 to 7 acquire, producers 1 and 8 remain richest in symbolic capital because their works are the most valued by producers of valued works. At least in the short term, they may make less money, because compromising one’s creative vision in order to appeal to a popular audience (‘selling out’) results in lost esteem among one’s peers (not to mention among those audience members who pride themselves on their ability to appreciate works that make no concessions to the audience): a point emphasised by Bourdieu and which provided much of the tension, for example, throughout season two of the Ricky Gervais comedy series, Extras.
The graphs in Figure 1 and Figure 2 represent imaginary cultural producers, but it’s possible to construct similar graphs on the basis of real data. In research presented to the King’s College London Centre for e-Research and now forthcoming in Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Culture, the Media, and the Arts, I have used such graphs to study evaluative relationships within the subcultural field devoted to the production of what used to be called ‘text adventure games’ but now prefer to be called works of ‘interactive fiction’. These are computer games that use text for input and output; the earliest examples provided a sort of crude single-player Dungeons & Dragons experience, but over time, they vastly increased in both diversity and sophistication. Works of interactive fiction tend to be given away for free, which puts their producers in a similar position to anti-commercial artists: with no opportunity to ‘sell out’ (since there is no commercial market for what they produce), they have nothing to work for but the esteem of other esteemed producers. What I did was to scrape ratings from the Interactive Fiction Database, a website where enthusiasts go to review works of interactive fiction. And what I uncovered was essentially a far more complicated version of Figure 2: a mass of non-authors and authors of little-admired works finding value in the works of a small group of authors who found value in one another’s work; and at the heart of that group, three authors named Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, and Adam Cadre: authors whose works I had seen held up again and again as examples of what was best in interactive fiction. Their works were also admired by non-producers, but the more deeply a producer was embedded in the network, the more likely he or she was to find value in the work of one or other of these three: Short most of all, for while she was not the most popular author among site users generally, she was the most popular among other valued authors: a subcultural ‘writer’s writer’, in effect.
I am currently engaged in collaborative research that applies this methodology to the study of the production of value in other fields, such as music. But what about the transmission of cultural value beyond the field in which it is produced? This process typically follows on from what sociologists call ‘canonisation’ or ‘consecration’, which describes the identification of a particular creator not merely as good, but as classic, as one of the greats. With subcultural fields, this barely happens at all, which is why you are so much less likely to have heard of Emily Short than of Emily Dickinson.
What sociologists following Bourdieu have called ‘legitimate’ cultural fields, however, are served by powerful institutions for the conveying of (belief in) the value of consecrated producers to a mass audience: in the UK, one thinks of such value-propagators as, for example, the Tate Gallery, BBC2, the A level English Literature syllabus, and Penguin Modern Classics (Morrissey knew what he was doing when he demanded publication there!). It is thanks to these institutions that value produced within legitimate cultural fields does not stay locked within the fields themselves, like the value produced within subcultural fields. But no such institution can translate or amplify value produced within a cultural field without interfering to some extent in that field’s operation. This can be illustrated by reference to James F. English’s analysis of international cultural awards, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature: as he put it, ‘[e]ven simply to reinforce, to restage in a larger arena, the cultural hierarchies that already obtain within a particular local community is obviously to lend symbolic power to one side in a scene of ongoing shifts and struggles’ (2005, p. 298).
Much like that of the cultural fields in which value is produced, the operation of these value-propagating institutions can be understood in terms of networks of evaluative choices. A major retrospective exhibition on an artist’s work is not automatically triggered once he or she passes a certain threshold level of name-recognition, for example. Choices must be made by key individuals, and those individuals may contest with one another in much the same way as those whose choices produced the artist’s status within the field; moreover, the choices made by some may influence the choices made by others. This point is well established in empirical research of various kinds, but was perhaps most forcefully made by Jane Tompkins in her ground-breaking reception history of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
I have chosen as a case in point the literary reputation of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a reputation so luminous and enduring that it would seem to defy the suggestion that it was based on anything other than the essential greatness of his novels and stories. Indeed, that assumption is so powerful that what follows may at times sound like a conspiracy theory of the way literary classics are made. As Hawthorne’s success comes to seem, in my account, more and more dependent upon the influence of his friends and associates, and then upon the influence of their successors, it may appear that this description of the politics of Hawthorne’s rise to prominence is being opposed, implicitly, to an ideal scenario in which the emergence of a classic author has nothing to do with power relations. Yet to see an account of the political and social processes by which a classic author is put in place as a conspiracy is only possible if one assumes that classic status could be achieved independent of political and social processes.
Still remaining to be addressed is the question of how value produced within a field and transmitted beyond it through public-facing cultural institutions comes to be adopted by people in wider society. Although this doubtlessly happens on an individual basis too, it is clear that it frequently involves social interactions of various kinds, and therefore can be conceived as spreading through social networks. It’s no secret that belief in cultural value spreads between peers; that sort of thing happens all the time. For example, I started listening to the Tiger Lillies thanks to a recommendation from a friend whose opinion on music I respected; since then, I’ve dragged a further six people along to Tiger Lillies concerts. I am sure that anyone reading this essay will be able to think of similar examples, and the point can be made quantitatively through social research. Kevin Lewis and colleagues found that similarities between first year college students in terms of cultural ‘likes’ on Facebook varied according to the closeness of their social association:
Across all social relationships, we observe the highest similarity among friends who both appear in each other’s [Facebook] photo albums. With controls, reciprocal picture dyads are over twice as similar as categorically dissimilar strangers in the case of movies, about 96% more similar in the case of music, and 67% more similar in the case of books.
(2008, p. 340, emphasis in original)
So we might conceptualise the propagation of cultural value much as in Figure 3: the value of (say) a visual artist’s work (essentially produced through interactions among cultural producers) flows out into the wider social world through the disseminating agency of (say) a retrospective exhibition in a major public gallery, which plays a direct role in reproducing belief in that value among members of the public who attend the exhibition, as well as an indirect role in reproducing belief among those who hear about it from acquaintances and/or read about it in (say) a newspaper critic’s review (and which in turn impacts back upon the field by cementing the artist’s reputation, though this closure of the feedback loop is left out of the diagram for simplicity’s sake).
What are we to do with such a view of cultural value? That must depend in part upon the extent to which we’re able to accept the underlying premise (obvious though it must be to practically everyone who has worked in the cultural industries) that cultural value – which is to say, belief in cultural value – is a fundamentally social product. Advocating for the arts may seem more difficult if it cannot be done on the basis of (for example) their supposed contribution to individual wellbeing or the national economy. But such an objection springs from a view of culture in whose terms l’art pour l’art would be a nonsense: it represents a conviction that there is no alternative to the ‘defensive instrumentalism’ (Belfiore, 2012) of cultural policy under Blair and Brown.
Arts advocacy that begins with a recognition that the value of a cultural form is ultimately irreducible to anything other than belief held by those with a commitment to that cultural form is not weakened but purified, and its options are various. For example, it might argue for a particular cultural institution on the grounds that it demonstrably facilitates value-producing social interactions. Or it might campaign for publicly-funded value-propagating institutions to recognise and transmit the value of currently subcultural forms. What it ought to find impossible is the maintenance of any pretence that, in subsidising X rather than Y, a funding body could be rewarding what Tompkins calls ‘essential greatness’ in some abstract or universal sense, rather than taking sides in a struggle and favouring one group’s interests over another’s.
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Daniel Allington is a lecturer in the Centre for Language and Communication at the Open University and an affiliated academic member of the Centre for Research on Sociocultural Change (CRESC) at the Open University and the University of Manchester. He teaches English Language Studies and carries out social research on cultural production and consumption, with a special but not exclusive focus on prose fiction. More information on his work is available at www.danielallington.net.