In Brief

How Do We Define Culture? A Study Tries to Find Out

Culture Track surveys how Americans define culture, as well as which cultural activities they seek.

(all images courtesy Culture Track 2017)

If you’re reading Hyperallergic, you’re already well aware of the importance of culture to society, but what exactly is culture? How do we define it now? And is that definition different from what people would have thought as little as 10 years ago? These are some of the key questions for Culture Track — a survey of Americans’ views and habits in the realm of cultural activities — which made public its 2017 findings in October.

Culture Track 2017 fielded their answers from 4,035 people, trying to represent the diversity of US census demographics in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, geography, education, and so forth. It asked questions not just about the definitions of culture, but also about how often people seek out cultural activities, the reasons they do (or don’t), and how technology helps (or hinders) their experience.

The data is available to the public for free on Culture Track’s website, in both raw and variously analyzed forms. Before delving into our perceptions of culture, the study offers fascinating tidbits, including activities people like to do in their free time (50% of respondents answered cooking and/or socializing with family at home, with 19% saying they make art). Among those who participated in the study, only 44% said they’re employed full-time, 75% live in either a city or suburb, and 37% reside in the South. I was surprised to learn that a full 43% of Americans are millennials (20 to 35 years old), perhaps cementing the importance of the technology questions.

In terms of how people define “culture,” it seems it’s no longer limited to museums, theater, and music. Culture Track found that 62% of respondents think of street festivals as a cultural activity, while less than 50% answered the same of opera and ballet. Culture Track calls this new melding of “low” and “high” culture a “paradigm shift” in how we think of culture at large. When these results are broken down by generation, it becomes clear that young people are leading the way in this expanded view of culture.

For art museums specifically, when asked why people go to them, the three top answers were “learning something new,” “experiencing new things,” and “interest in the content.” The fourth most common answer, “having fun,” topped the charts for a majority of the other categories, including dance and opera. When asked what was considered to be a “barrier to participation,” most people who like to attend cultural activities cited inconvenience, whereas those who don’t generally attend such events said “it’s not for someone like me” — an answer particularly prevalent in the art museum category.

As for how cultural institutions benefit society at large, Culture Track found that most people think the community-building aspect is most important. Art museums specifically were seen as venues for education and preservation of history and heritage.

The question of technology varied widely by category (particularly by generation), but in museums, it seems people are more or less evenly split between either wanting more digital technology and preferring none at all.

Reading through the data and charts, Culture Track provides us with something much more profound than just definitions of culture or practical information for cultural organizations. Perhaps the most salient, however unsurprising, takeaway is how younger generations have a broader view of culture, while their older counterparts retain the traditional definition of culture as roughly equivalent to the high arts.

Culture Track 2017 provides all of its raw and charted data for free on its website.

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