Why I picked it up: It is a rigorous look, on a neighborhood basis, to determine if the presence of culture within a neighborhood enhances social wellbeing and neighborhood health. It's all about impact! Of course I picked it up!
What the researchers were looking for: Two key questions shaped their research:
1. "What aspects of the city's neighborhood ecology are associated with concentrations of cultural resources," and
2. "How is the presence of cultural resources, in turn, related to other aspects of social wellbeing?"
Two concepts come out of this that need examining:
The researchers note early that the ecology of a neighborhood "exerts a powerful effect on the wellbeing of its residents," especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This implies an understanding that an individual's social wellbeing is influenced by a neighborhood's ecology, but also that a neighborhood's ecology is healthier when its individuals have a higher degree of social wellbeing. The two things are closely intertwined and highly reliant on each other.
What they found: Economic standing, race, and ethnicity are the most significant influences on social wellbeing, with low-income neighborhoods, and those with higher percentages of African American or Hispanic residents, having lower social wellbeing and poorer neighborhood ecologies. Economic wellbeing was, overall, the strongest variable towards social wellbeing as it affects a number of other measures in many ways.
But when other factors are controlled for, culture appears to have a positive impact on neighborhood health, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. For example, low income neighborhoods with relatively high cultural amenities also had lower levels of obesity, serious crime, and investigations of child abuse, and increased rates of children scoring higher on standardized tests. There was also "spillover," in that residents in those neighborhoods that don't participate in culture still benefited.
But does culture itself increase social wellbeing? Their ultimate answer was "yes, but …" with notes about methodological challenges. Point is, they rigorously used the best data available, but that doesn't mean data collection across all potential variables couldn't be improved. And for these reasons, they say that culture predicts wellbeing, but they cannot say that culture causes it. Healthier neighborhood ecosystems, which include access to culture, have greater social wellbeing because those neighborhoods have more opportunities for social connection … and culture supports that rather well.
So while as a matter of policy it makes sense to focus on economic wellbeing to address social wellbeing challenges, there is also room for what are likely cost-effective programs that may not directly address economic wellbeing, but have meaningful, and even outsized, impact when it comes to individual social wellbeing and the health of neighborhood ecologies. This can include things like planting trees, greater access to prenatal care, and, of course, culture.
My take: What I find most interesting is the interplay between individual social wellbeing and a neighborhood's ecology. I like how they framed it that way, as it gives me a framework for trends I see in my data as well.
As you will see in the coming months, as I release major research on The Data Museum, individuals who are highly connected to, and engaged, with their community tend to be museum-goers and cultural consumers. Thus, we could reason that if we can boost cultural engagement through museums, those new audiences may be open to a greater degree of connection to, and engagement with, their community, thus improving a community's ecology as well as increasing individual social wellbeing.
And, indeed, my research indicates there is a desire for more community connection among some segments of the population that do not visit museums regularly (or, perhaps, at all). Work can be done here. Really good work. And by increasing access to all ten of the dimensions of social wellbeing, including culture, the long-term outcomes can be tremendous.
The researchers also mentioned a tension between the intrinsic value of culture and its "instrumental influence on other social factors." I have to confess, I have always been thoroughly perplexed by this. One doesn't preclude the other. We can value culture for its own sake while recognizing its broader impact. Just because we find a place of natural beauty that is good for our souls doesn't mean that we can't recognize that that place also has positive instrumental influences on us and our society. So what is culture's problem with this? And, pragmatically, let's be honest. There are some individuals who value that broader impact more than intrinsic one, especially in positions of influence. Fine. Let's find evidence of that broader, more instrumental impact, and share it.
Implications for museums: The researchers didn't discuss museums specifically, but the implication is that if museums want to deliver true, lasting impact, they should consider it via:
Neither of these in any way take away from our core missions of art, history, or science (or some mix thereof), but instead values what those things accomplish in individuals and neighborhoods … when they are done well.
But there is, buried in the report, a call to action. They note that since culture is spread unevenly, with lower-income neighborhoods having fewer resources, it means that "privilege [is] generating more privilege" in wealthier ones. A case right there to make our work more accessible in neighborhoods that are under-served, and delivering out-sized impact when we do so. And let's be practical about it and go to where they are (and not expect them to come to us).
Read or skip? This research is important, so yes, you should read their summary, which gives you their overview in six pages. Feel free to skip the longer report unless you have a particular reason to dig in.
A note on their methodology: The project had three phases:
Full citation: Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert. "The Social Wellbeing of New York City's Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts." Research report published by the University of Pennsylvania Social Impact and the Arts Project. Released March 2017.
See also "Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project" for their excellent summary.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.