Wednesday 20 September 2017

‘Culture is a meritocracy’: Why creative workers’ attitudes may reinforce social inequality

By Mark Taylor and Dave O’Brien

There’s now extensive academic work on the creative economy, to match the public, media and policy attention. Sociology has been an important disciplinary home for this work, setting empirical and theoretical agendas on the creative economy. In this context, our new paper in Sociological Research Online aimed to give some new empirical insight to one of the key issues, inequality, in the creative economy, as well as testing some recent theoretical innovations. The paper is part of a broader AHRC funded project on the creative economy.

The paper makes three points: 

  • Our dataset of cultural workers have attitudes about inequality that are broadly similar to the general population; 
  • In our dataset, those with the strongest attachment to meritocratic views, that the cultural sector rewards hard work and talent, are those in the highest paid occupational locations;
  • Younger respondents who are well paid are less likely to hold critical or socially transformative attitudes.

To demonstrate these three points it is worth taking a moment to think about our data. Whilst we are confident in the analysis and the dataset itself, we do have some caveats. Data were collected in 2015, via an online survey hosted at The Guardian. The survey was part of an on-going partnership between academics and a range of cultural organisations seeking to understand issues of inequality in the sector. The survey was hosted prominently on the newspaper’s website, and was repeatedly publicised across social media and via publicity from prominent organisations in the cultural sector. Because of this recruitment method, this is not a representative sample; however, efforts were made to benchmark the sample against more representative data on the population’s cultural and creative workers.

In total we collected a sample of 2487 people, the largest survey of this group of which we are aware. We asked a range of questions, but here we focus on those associated with attitudes towards getting in and getting on in cultural and creative work. We asked ‘Looking at your creative occupation as a whole, how important do you think each of these is in getting ahead?’’ and then offered a range of options, including talent and hard work, class, gender, and ethnicity, amongst others. These are all well validated and well-known survey instruments.
Whilst the full and detailed analysis is in the paper, we concentrate here on the overall patterns observed in the dataset.

Figure 1: responses to the question “Looking at your creative occupation as a whole, how important do you think each of these is in getting ahead?”

The responses to each option are presented in Figure 1. This shows that respondents tended to agree that hard work, ambition, talent, and knowing the right people are very important or essential in getting ahead, while they were more sceptical about the role of coming from a wealthy family, class, religion, gender, and ethnicity.

Of these original eleven options, we generated three factors using principal components analysis. The three factors were around social reproduction, that characteristics such as class, ethnicity, and gender were important to success; meritocracy, that characteristics such as hard work and talent were important; and education. Of the three factors, social reproduction and meritocracy were the key explanations identified by our respondents for getting in and getting on in the cultural sector.

Figure 2: individual scores on the “Meritocracy” and “Reproduction” factors

Figure 2 shows the pattern of our respondents’ answers relating to meritocracy and social reproduction. At the top left hand corner we find those respondents most strongly attached to the idea that talent and hard work explains getting in and getting on in CCIs, while not thinking that class and knowing the right people are important. These respondents narrate the sector as ‘meritocratic’.

By contrast, those respondents clustered in the bottom right hand corner were most likely to explain getting in and getting on as an aspect of ‘social reproduction’. These respondents emphasised social barriers or exclusions, rather than talent or hard work.

Meanwhile, those respondents in the top right corner were those who emphasised both social reproduction and meritocracy: those believing hard work and talent are essential, but acknowledging the roles of barriers and exclusions. Those respondents in the bottom left corner emphasise neither, perhaps believing that success in the CCIs is more-or-less random.

Figure 1 showed us that the majority of respondents believed that factors associated with meritocracy were crucial in getting ahead in the cultural sector, while they were more sceptical about social reproduction. How did this vary? In the paper, we found that people’s income from creative work was one of the best predictors. Figure 3 shows that people who were less well-paid in the sector had varying attitudes towards getting ahead, but that the people who were better-paid are overwhelmingly in the top left quadrant, not only believing in the importance of meritocracy but being more sceptical of the role of social reproduction.

Figure 3: individual scores on the “Meritocracy” and “Reproduction” factors, by income from creative work

These results make fairly grim reading for those who hope that inequalities in the cultural and creative industries might diminish. Almost everyone believes that hard work, talent, and ambition are essential to getting ahead, while class, gender, ethnicity, and coming from a wealthy family aren’t. People in better positions in the sector – those who are the most highly-paid, and most likely to recruit and elevate the next generation – believe most strongly in the meritocratic account of the sector, and are most sceptical of the role of social reproduction. Most strikingly, these attitudes persist whether people come from privileged backgrounds or not; it seems that once people have achieved success within the sector, their attitudes towards how one achieves success are similar regardless of background, and in spite of all the media, policy and public outcry about the inherent unfairness of cultural and creative work.

This post is based on research published in Sociological Research Online. The original article can be found here.

Mark Taylor is Q-Step Lecturer in Quantitative Methods (Sociology) at the Sheffield Methods Institute at the University of Sheffield. His research interests are in the sociology of culture and its relationship to inequality, in terms of consumption, production, education, and the relationships between all three, and he teaches quantitative methods and data visualisation.

Dave O’Brien is Chancellor’s Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Edinburgh, based in the School of History of Art. He is the author of Cultural Policy: Management, Value and Modernity in the Creative Industries, and the editor of After Urban Regeneration, The Routledge Companion to Global Cultural Policy and Routledge Critical Concepts in Culture and Media Studies: Cultural Policy. He is currently working on inequality and the cultural and creative industries.