20 July 2009

Ethnicity, Racism, Culture: A mild mannered meander...

I’m a secret and highly selective statistics enthusiast. The insight into the wider society – the surprise that lies concealed and undetectable beneath our everyday experiences – irritation about the categories the researchers have gathered information around - and, as a sparkling chaser, endless potential disputation about the causal force driving the numbers reported in the raw data.

"Ethnicity" data drives me up the wall, largely because of the persistent and irrational intrusion of race thinking in its terms. Since when was “white” an ethnic group, if ethnicity as a notion is based on culture, background, education? Gathering information of this type is sometimes discreetly described as identifying “visible minorities”. From the point of view of studying the causes of racism, and analysing the effect of skin pigmentation as a trigger for racist thinking – this may be useful. Even if I’m not a racist, others may be. This sensitivity moves one from philosophy into sociology, and the question of how particular ideas start to drive the social life this way and that. Such diverting issues are not, I fear, at the core of census takers and governmental information gatherers decision to include this racist “white/black” ethnicity pairing into their pre-selected categories. The “mixed” alternative, is even more depressingly resonant. Indeed, our attempts to emancipate ourselves from the old(ish), villainous idea of race are not assisted by the degree to which our debates are conducted under the long American penumbra, and its idiot and conclusionless discourse about Barack Obama's "race". That, and enactments whose nomenclature – Race Relations Act 1976 – support a dialogue and a vocabulary which supposes the world may cogently be divided along racial lines.

I could go on – particularly about the binary gender categories these researchers frequently employ – but I shan’t. What I wanted to talk about was culture, culture strategy and devolution. Which brings us back to the statistics. Some of you may be familiar with the Scottish Household Survey. Most of you probably haven’t looked at it. As with all quantitative explorations in public opinions, how generalisable the indicated conclusions are may be debated, and are naturally the subject of considerable social scientific exploration and critique. Today I’m particularly interested in the People and Culture in Scotland section of the survey, and what it reveals about the habits, predilections and cultural choices made by the (hopefully) representative sample of people living in Scotland.

There are many curious little corners. 69% of all of the people asked read and/or buy books. Breaking it down into male and female, however, revealed that this 69% was constituted by only 62% of men reading, to 74% of women. Peering further into this 69% by age reveals a fairly stable level of reading for pleasure across all of the cohorts, with 69% of 16 – 24 year old doing so, a fall to 67% of 25 – 34 year olds, 70% from 30 – 74 year olds – before dropping away to 61 % among the over 75s. Perhaps predictably, when mapped onto the Scottish index of multiple deprivation quintiles – 1 being most deprived to 5, least deprived – there is a significant divergence. While 56% of those people coded as most deprived read – 79% of those least deprived do so. A deviation of 23%.

Education undoubtedly plays a part in this. When reading is divided by “highest qualification”, there is a even more marked deviation. If one has a degree, 83% of people are apt to read. Interestingly, that figure doesn’t sink much when the highest qualification is a “higher, A level or equivalent”, with 83% of respondents with such qualifications reading. By contrast, those with no qualifications reported that only 48% of them picked up a novel and gave it a thumbing through.

Of course, the survey doesn’t take into account what folk are reading. It also excludes those under the age of 16, and so can’t tell us how enthusiastic the younger weans are about squinting through their books. The qualitative issue aside, the evidence would suggest that any complaint from the older sections of society that the “young can’t even pick up a book” is false. Other interesting nuggets from the document include that 37% reported visiting a museum or gallery in Scotland over the last 12 months. That 6% of the population amuses itself by writing - and that even if they don't care for reading other people's prose - men are more disposed to scribble than women, 8% to 6%.

With respect to attending cultural events, the report found that 75% of those questioned had attended visual art, film, music, theatre or so on during the last 12 months. Leaving 25% who did bugger all. Going to the cinema proved the most popular with 55% of folk going at least once annually on average. When related to the indicators of deprivation, the least deprived went to the cinema 13% over the average, while the most deprived were 15% below average, with 40% going. This is just one local expression of a sharp theme. Across the study, and attendance at all cultural events, while 60% of those from the most deprived areas had attended anything cultural across the year, among the least deprived this figure is 89%, a radically wide difference of 29%.

Was it what you expected? And why is this true anyway? Although for some people, it is simply a matter of poverty and an inability to meet the costs of access to cultural goods – attitudinal barriers play a part, as do senses of entitlement to public spaces and particular services. It also may raise some questions. For example, only 5% of the population examined indicated that they went to the opera. Similarly, ballet attracted only 5% as well. It is obviously impossible to tell whether these populations overlap, although one might have one’s suspicions. Either way, one cannot confidently say that in total 10% of the Scottish total population like their Nutcrackers and their Aidas.

The merest of explorations, however, reveals the public money which is channelled into the National Companies­ the new National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera. The last two were funded directly by the Scottish Government to the tune of £3,598,022 and £7,896,293 in 2006/2007 respectively, a handsome total of £11,494,315. The figures increased to £4,620,868 and £8,459,091 for 2008/2009 – totalling £13,079,959 – and the indicated but no doubt imperilled plans for 2009/10 and 2010/2011 continue to increase. I’m not making an argument, nor are my greedy paws lingering near the plug, with a manic grin towards the operatically enthusiastic. In point of fact, while I very much enjoy the theatre and try to go regularly, I never tread near ballet or opera. However, I am self-conscious enough to recognise that those preferences are precisely mine and bind others not a jot. I think that the creation of the National Theatre of Scotland was a splendid idea, credit to the previous Labour-Liberal executive for taking it forward. I do, however, find it curious that while the Survey indicates 19% of the population can be coaxed into attending drama – or 35% who attend any theatrical performance including panto and musicals - that the Theatre’s budget is just over half that of the Opera, which respectively seems to interest at most 5% of the public. Or to formulate it another way, a mere quarter of those who may be interested in the National Theatre’s performances.

Of course, to comprehend the wider funding picture, one would have to take into account the funds disbursed by the Scottish Arts Council – or Creative Scotland in the future. Nevertheless, it does raise interesting questions about what should be the basis for funding awards, and what the policy ends? Should popular things be paid for out of public coffers, or should various high-end performances be propped up despite ostensible lack of public enthusiasm based on abstract artistic goods and a broader, “high culture” goal? Alternatively, as opposed to binary questions about money or no money how would we want the allocation to be weighted, and what factors should determine our choices? Should it matter than only a tiny sliver of the Scottish population bothers its posterior with operatic howling or graceful pirouettes?

This takes us back to the much broader question of arts, government, cash and society which we rarely trouble ourselves to consider, while the funding streams quietly and consistently drift by. An important issue for devolution - and given the late debates on Creative Scotland, and a Culture Minister who is less than enthusiastic about the cause he is espousing - these considerations are live. Given imminent spending constraints, it is natural that the choices about how much public money to spend on the arts becomes more focussed than in phases of easy economic vigour. One can expect political eyes fixed on the opportunity cost and clichéd comparisons of hearty bread and butter spending - and showy artistic expense. Such brute crudities are disposed to underestimate the value of the arts, and of investing in cultural capital, but such calculations are unavoidable.

What do you think?


  1. The arts companies are expert at tugging heartstrings. Any title which includes 'national' immediately pricks the conscience and cannot be allowed to take its rightful place within our culture but must be promoted, at high cost at times, way above its interest factor.

    Your breakdown of the stats was fascinating, particularly reading. It would be good to see similar studies from European countries to see if there are any great differences.

    That's not a suggestion for you to go off digging up European studies!

  2. "given the late debates on Creative Scotland, and a Culture Minister who is less than enthusiastic about the cause he is espousing"

    Any examples of this less than enthusiastic espousing?

  3. To turn lawyerly, I'd naturally never accuse Mike Russell of being anything less than vigorous in the act of advocating a policy.

    Nevertheless, I distinctly recall that in the course of his meeting at the Traverse Theatre, he mentioned that historically, he had had his doubts about the Creative Scotland idea. Nevertheless, as he said at the time, its "too late", so I'm sure he's working hard to make sure that the structures are the best they can be.

    It was discussed in the Sunday Herald here:


  4. If you look at Scottish Opera at the present moment 2009 2010. The majority of touring is being done by a quartet of singers called Essential Scottish Opera. The Company has more office staff on the books than a full time chorus and is the only company in the world that has a full time orchestra without full time singers. Something is very wrong here and they are in receipt of over £8 million a year. Have a look at the inside of the company and clean it out!

  5. The Traverse was the first meeting, a couple of weeks if that, after taking up post.
    As you'll recall the Q&A session was fairly vigorous with some good questions, others a tad hyperbolic "Scottish Architecture puts £1bn a year into the Scottish economy" in essence though there was a general feeling after the event that the right guy was in charge and actually knew yer genuine culture from a mince pie. Turning 'Creative Scotland' into a reality
    is long overdue, and still has to be passed by Parliament, look out for more fireworks there.

    It's quite a task to change a bureaucratic heavy sector to a balance of creativity and efficiency, particularly given the constant bleating from the already well subsidised Arts sector.

    A lot of the imbalance in funding is historical with establishment figures getting their collective fingers in the pie for high brow, long before other sectors grew up and realised they were cultural too.

    Opera and ballet in particular need a root and branch overhaul, with more funding coming from business sponsorship.

  6. An interesting post, Anonymous.

    Methinks there may be a journalistically fiery story lurking concealed beneath the Opera's offices, if one had time and gumption enough to pursue it.

    I don't, unfortunately. At least, not at the moment.