Cultural Value Project Workshop: Ethnography and Anthropology Based Methods

By Dr Ann O’Sullivan

I attended this AHRC workshop, on Wednesday 11th  June to discuss some of the problems related to evaluating the value of arts and cultural activities. There were discussions around improving how we conceptualise cultural value and related methodologies. For the project we are currently undertaking we have used a number of tools from the anthropologist’s kit including focus groups, qualitative interviewing and the use of film alongside the working group meetings. The main issues to emerge from the workshop were:

  • The type of research process that we have been undertaking is difficult if not impossible to replicate by others at a future date and therefore questions of reliability and validity emerge as our research can be considered by those lacking understanding of our methods as purely anecdotal.
  • This creates difficulties within the current funding and appraisal frameworks and feeds into our work of how best to equip artists and cultural practitioners with suitable materials and techniques to represent the cultural value of their work. Basically the arts practitioner faces the same dilemma as the ethnographer. The work will always represent the perspective of the researcher or the artist and we can never attain the longed for objective God’s eye view of the world.
  • Using a range of methods and an interdisciplinary focus was seen to be essential and this is a key strength of our study.
  • Quantification is important in the public/funding domain but this needs to be underpinned by nuanced quantifiable measures gathered through a qualitative engagement with the phenomena.
  • We also need to challenge the resistance to personal and emotional responses by academic and public audiences. Basically qualitative researches need to stop apologising for the richness of our data.
  • The notion of art as a catalyst to transformation in both artist and audience. This is .something that we have been exploring in our own study and may become a key theme. This is matched by what some members of the discussion described as a move towards more socially engage methods for data gathering.
  • The traditional output of an research project might be a paper research report and the group suggested experimenting with video and other visual modes that might suit the creative sensibilities of practitioners.
  • The group reported that from artists and arts organisations the methods employed to examine the ‘value’ of their work such as exit questionnaires and on line surveys were very limited in the quality and quantity of information that they offer. They fail to offer any significant way of understanding the sensory, experiential and affective dimensions of the audience experience.
  • The mismatch between the rich and singular nuanced stories that we work with as researchers and arts practitioners do not really fit the culture of evidence required by funders.

There was a long and fruitful debate regarding how we replicate and validate our work to ensure its rigour. It was clear that all members of the discussion felt that ethnographic/qualitative research methods need their own conception of validity and reliability. Another research team could not replicate what we have undertaken over the past months in conducting individual interviews and focus groups. We did not conduct a randomised control group in which all variables were under our control, but there is evidence from ‘guinea pig narrative’ the randomised control trials may not meet this criteria either. There was a discussion on such pseudo-scientific concepts as inter-rater reliability rates. This is a technique whereby a group of coders will independently code a transcript using a standardised coding frame and a measure is taken of how often they agree. Given that coders all belong to the same community of language users it comes as no surprise that quite high levels of agreement are reached on the content or themes in qualitative data. The reason we can all communicate with each other in nuanced ways on a day to day basis is that we have all reached a consensus on what we actually mean when we say something. This suggests that validity or reliability of qualitative data is merely a consensus among a community of language users as to what a ‘thing’ actually means and not some ‘statistic’ that is true for all time. Who knows the same may be true of quantitative data although the positivists amongst you may not like this idea. What is validity or rigour but something that has been agreed upon through the use of language. It was once agreed that research carried out on the use of sun screen and skin cancer was valid and reliable but this is currently being questioned. It suggests that validity or reliability are not fixed for all time but are merely concepts that are agreed upon until further notice.

Guest Blog Post by Garry Abbott



By Garry Abbott

If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.

When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and  come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:

                “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”(“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)

This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.

There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with.  Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.

But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.

In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying  something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.

As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.

From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added

Chain of empathy v2

There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.

* I originally called this diagram ‘the chain of empathy’ overlooking the fact that empathy plays only a part, and can therefore in theory be examined separately – notably without judgement (something the psychologist Carl Rogers famously proposed). Therefore I am presenting empathy here in the chain of judgement and emotional response, as it is often used, if not exclusively.  (Revision added – 27/03/2014)

** I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.

Initial Conclusions

Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).

Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).

Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.

Authors plea!

Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).

Thank you for reading.

Garry Abbott




Twitter:                  @Garry_Abbott


Welcome to our Cultural Value Project!

This is a brand new blog where you can follow all the latest news and activities that are happening as part of  an exciting research project exploring the relationship between arts & culture and empathy, compassion & understanding. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is part of the Cultural Value programme of research which is developing innovative ways of demonstrating the value of cultural engagement. Please check out Our Project page for further details and watch this space for updates!