Several months ago, the book American Generosity completely changed how I thought about how and why people engage with their world. In particular, they described people's generosity (which includes civic engagement) in terms of capacity. Everyone has different capacities to engage, and those capacities are rooted in socio-economic status, upbringing, childhood experiences, peer groups, and other factors.
It wasn't judgmental. It could have been. They could have said "someone who doesn't even give a dollar to charity is a jerk." But they didn't automatically make that assumption. Instead, through the lens of capacity, they found much more nuance, and by not being judgmental, it was easier to see how deeper change can be affected.
I'm going to try and do likewise. Because I think the capacity approach is crucial not only to generosity, but to civic engagement and to lifelong learning. That matters, and deeply, to museums.
(You'll see me refer to American Generosity, based on work done by the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, a few times as I continue to share research. I strongly encourage you to read my review of it on The Curated Bookshelf. Then you can decide if you want to dig through the book itself.)
Which brings me to the disengaged. In my broader population work last fall, I kept looking at this group of people.
Because, first of all, they are not generally museum-goers. As a field, we talk constantly about broadening our audiences across different demographic and socio-economic dimensions. These are those individuals.
But it isn't that it is a world of either people who visit museum or those who don't. It is much bigger than that.
The disengaged are far less civically engaged. They feel less connected to their communities. Additionally, they have fewer concerns about, less interest in, and do far fewer things in their communities.
And when it comes to politics, they are more likely to say they don't care about politics than to identify themselves anywhere on the political spectrum.
In American Generosity, when describing individuals who fit into this category of disengagement, they wrote about them, well, generously. They described individuals focused on providing for themselves and their families at the basic level of food, shelter, clothing, medicine. They described individuals with their heads down, working multiple jobs to provide for their families, or to save for their children's educations. And they described people who came from backgrounds of want, who psychologically need to feel any future rainy days are taken care of.
In those descriptions, I could see why museums don't fit in. Or even community engagement or political engagement. It is a very inward focus, and one most of us have. I know I am focused on providing for my family, making sure college educations will be paid for, and that a rainy day doesn't set us back. You probably are as well.
But I have resources. Or, privilege. I'm well-educated, my spouse is well-educated, and that inward focus doesn't take 100% of my attention. I have capacity. Capacity to look up and see what is, first, going on in the world directly around me (my community), and then the world more broadly. Capacity to engage with both. And capacity to continue to educate myself about both, meaning time to read books, visit museums, and be generous to others in need. To my utmost capacity.
You probably do too. We're peers. And we are in that biggest bubble in the illustration below from American Generosity (I don't like their term "professional;" I'd replace that with engagement with broader world). That makes us privileged, and it is incumbent on us to not only acknowledge that, but to be more understanding of those who have less capacity than we have.
Because where this bubble chart is actually misleading is the size of the bubbles. In reality, it is more like a Maslow's hierarchy, and the individuals at the apex (which I would call "broader world - lifestyle generosity") are a small sliver of the population, while far more people fall in those other bubbles/lower in the hierarchy.
How many? Good question.
A lot. In my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, virtually all respondents are engaged with their communities to some degree. But most people who are focused 100% on self or familial (or friend) sufficiency are not museum-goers. Museum-goers, it turns out, are outliers.
But a fair number of the disengaged do show up in my broader population work. And here it becomes really complicated. Bear with me, and let's walk through making an estimate about the population.
The typical markers of disengagement are, in my work, feeling "not very" connected to a community and/or not caring about politics. Those folks, overwhelmingly, are disengaged individuals who do little in their community and are unlikely to visit museums (among other markers). They comprise 42% of my broader population sample, but I want to be conservative. Let's knock it down a bit.
To 30% of my sample.
But when I look at individuals who say they are only "somewhat" connected to their community, their response patterns to questions about their community and museum engagement are very similar to the disengaged. They comprise 30% of my sample, but not all are disengaged. I'll be conservative and say half are.
So 30% + 15% = 45%
And then there are the people who feel very connected to their communities by virtue of birth. Turns out, feeling connected in this way does not necessarily mean engagement. About half are "rooted in place" by choice, and are engaged and active citizens (and more likely to be museum-goers). But about half are "tied to place" by default, and their other responses indicate that they are, you got it, disengaged. 15% of my sample were very connected by birth; the half that are "tied to place" then comprise 7.5%. Let's be conservative again and say 5%.
So 45% + 5% = 50%
Scary number. But there's more. Survey bias. If you go back and read my introduction to the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, you'll read about the blind spot that every broader population sample has. A large segment of the population that surveys never reach in the first place. To be conservative, let's say that 30% of the population never see these surveys at all (and never seeing surveys in the first place is a sure-fire sign of disengagement).
So, my 50% above is of that 70% of the population represented in broader population surveys. 50% of that 70% is 35%.
Which means 35% sampled + 30% never sampled = 65%
Two-thirds of the population isn't that engaged with their communities or the broader world.
Seem high? Maybe. But remember, disengagement doesn't mean they never vote (many do, especially in presidential elections). Yet this explains the low levels of voting in local elections, why it is always the same people that volunteer and run local organizations, and why so few Americans have visited a museum in the past year.
This doesn't mean that 65% of Americans are never generous, never paying attention to their communities, or that they don't care, however. My research indicates significantly lower levels of engagement, but not necessarily zero engagement. Additionally, my handful of surveys, like every other survey in the world, are imperfect. My surveys are not capturing neighborhood dynamics. Or engagement with informal neighborhood networks. Or desires for more involvement. They also don't capture capacity to engage that would increase dramatically if economic necessities were taken care of. That's a lot more nuance than a few surveys can tell us about. Yet you have to start somewhere.
What about museums? Does this mean that the broadest audience we can hope for is 35% of the population? Because if that's true, we've pretty much tapped that out in terms of casual + regular visitation.
Actually, I think to the contrary. It means there is a huge potential for delivering impact in truly meaningful ways. And it all has to do with motivation.
The vast majority of that two-thirds of the disengaged population (as well as a fair number of the engaged), are extrinsically-motivated learners. Yet we know from my work about the value of museums that museums can make a difference in lives, and deliver meaningful impact. Museums can do so in ways that meet the explicit needs of the extrinsically motivated.
We're not going to convince them by talking about the joy of discovery or unleashing creativity, however. We have to be more pragmatic about it and deliver content that meets their needs, where they are, with outcomes that matter to them. Their kids will do better in school. This will help them land a better job. And so on. In no way does that diminish our missions because this pragmatic approach does not preclude the joy of discovery or the unleashing of creativity. We can do both. In fact, I'm not sure anyone else can do both as effectively.
And, finally, a word about jerks.
While I appreciate the nuance and sensitivity around thinking about engagement through a capacity lens, let's be honest. There are some people who are just jerks that don't care about others. They can have billions of dollars, power, and influence. And they can be stuck in the self or familial sufficiency bubbles. Not because they lack capacity but because they are jerks.
I'm making the assumption that these individuals are outliers, and are not at all typical. The exceptions that prove the rule. I hope you do likewise. But that doesn't mean it isn't prudent to be aware of them and, when necessary, resist them.
Or, even better, reach them in meaningful, even transformative ways. I'm optimistic.
A note about fielding research. I hold dear the idea that research for the field, about the field, should be shared with the field. But that only works when museums work together to make it possible. Since individual museums are needed to field this work, the survey also benefits participating museums on an individual level by providing benchmark data on visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographic questions … all of which can then be tracked over time in the future. Participating museums are also allowed to add 1 - 2 custom questions specific to their needs.
Which means if you value this research, want more of it in the coming years, and want to track your own museum's progress over time, please support this work by enrolling your museum in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum Goers. The fee for 2018 is only $1,000 per museum.
The questions for these surveys have been inspired by ongoing conversations within the museum field (who does/does not go to museums, why they do/do not visit, and what that means for communities) and ongoing research in the fields of education and psychology around lifelong learning and intrinsic motivation.