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Myth of a cultural elite -- education, social status determine what we attend, listen to and watch

Economic & Social Research Council

There have been a number of theories put forward to explain how our tastes in cinema, theatre, music and the fine arts relate to our position in society. New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has concluded that there is little evidence of a 'cultural elite' that aspires to 'high culture', while turning its back on popular culture.

The research, carried out at the University of Oxford, aimed to determine which theory fits most closely with reality. To ensure the findings applied internationally, survey data was studied from the UK and also from six other countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Findings confirmed that a cultural-elite, linked to social class, does not exist in society.

Researchers sought to refine the differences in the hierarchical arrangement, known as social stratification, of people in society. To achieve this, their work took into account the backgrounds of the people surveyed, including education, income and social class. Previous research in this field had used such factors interchangeably, but this project sought to draw a clear distinction between social class and social status.

Doctor Tak Wing Chan, who conducted the research with his colleague Doctor John Goldthorpe. commented: "Our work has shown that it's education and social status, not social class that predict cultural consumption in the UK, and broadly comparable results were obtained from other countries in our project too."

Using terms more familiar to those studying the animal kingdom and, in particular, the eating habits of animals, the researchers identified several different types of groups in society that 'consume' culture.

These included:

  • Univores: people who have an interest in popular culture only

  • Ominvores: people who consume the full variety of different types of culture

  • Paucivores: people who consume a limited range of cultural activities

  • Inactives: people who access nothing at all.

In the UK, it turned out that the consumption of culture is very clearly patterned:

  • For theatre, dance and cinema, two types of consumer were identified - univores (62.5% of the sample) and omnivores (37.5%).

  • For music, three types were identified - univores (65.7% of the sample), omnivore listeners only (24%) and omnivores (10.3%).

  • For the visual arts for example, art galleries, festivals, video art presentations, again three types were identified - inactives (58.6% of the sample), paucivores (34.4%) and omnivores (7%).

"There's little evidence for the existence of a cultural elite who would consume 'high' culture while shunning more 'popular' cultural forms," said Doctor Tak Wing Chan, "Furthermore, at least a substantial minority of members of the most advantaged social groups are univores or inactives."

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:

Dr Tak Wing Chan, tel: 01865 286176 or 01865 279593, or e-mail: tw.chan@sociology.ox.ac.uk
Dr John Goldthorpe, tel: 01865 278559 or 01865 556602 or e-mail: john.goldthorpe@nuffield.ox.ac.uk

ESRC PRESS OFFICE:

Alexandra Saxon, Tel: 01793 413032, Email: alexandra.saxon@esrc.ac.uk
Danielle Moore, Tel: 01793 413122, Email: danielle.moore@esrc.ac.uk
Phillippa Coates, Tel: 01793 413119, Email: phillipa.coates@esrc.ac.uk

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. The project, Social Status, Lifestyle and Cultural Consumption, was funded jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council and was carried out by Doctor Tak Wing Chan and Doctor John Goldthorpe. Both are based at the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UQ.

2. Three existing theories of cultural consumption were evaluated using nationally representative survey data commissioned by Arts Council England (e.g. Arts in England 2001). Data from the UK, Chile, France, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands and USA was analysed by 13 researchers in the different countries. A focus was placed on three domains: theatre, dance and cinema; music; and the visual arts.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2007-2008 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'outstanding'.

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