My Culture My London Ethnographic Research

2 April 2014

A closer look at Young Londoners’ relationship with arts and culture.

(Photo by Giulio Marrazini)

AND’s Young Londoners’ survey, the focus of last year’s research programme, helped us uncover a number of key patterns in young people’s participation in arts and culture in London. It gave us an overview of how socio-economic background, geography, education and working status as well as parental influence, affect participation.

This year, our enquiry into what governs young people’s decision to engage with arts and culture continues. We are delighted to be releasing the findings from a piece of ethnographic research into the lives of 20 young Londoners. It is a rich and vivid account what young people’s relationship with arts and culture is like on a day to day basis, their perceptions of London as a cultural city and the deeper motivations that are at the heart of their engagement.

Culminating with the detailed portraits of eight Londoners, the research gives texture, colour and a deeper perspective on many of the findings from our previous research. It also opened our eyes to some of the things that a survey alone can’t tell us…

Download My Culture, My London Research Report

Perception of Arts and Culture – not just an issue of labelling

In general, ‘Arts and Culture’ is not a term that resonates with young people and is not one that they use to describe the activities that they engage with.

It is often associated with traditional and ‘high’ forms of culture such as museums, ballet and theatre and conjures up images of old-fashioned, intellectual and upmarket audiences with which young people struggle to identify. It is also perceived to be to do with history, ‘looking back’ rather than the present.

As one of our participants in the research put it “The term arts and culture doesn’t alienate me personally but I think for a lot of teenagers in London it would and it’s not really seen as a ‘cool’ think to do”.

Limitless possibilities

In contrast for our young people creative activities are dynamic, contemporary and often involve technology. They may be inspired by other aspects’ of their lives –Trey, 13, from Chiswick, for instance, was first inspired to explore animation and graphic design through playing the Xbox.

Crucially, creative activities should be interactive, responding to young people’s desire for co-creation and quick results. There are no limits to what these activities can encompass –beauty, make-up, tattoo design, graphic design, street dancing, computer animation, cookery, political demonstrations. Often there is no separation between these activities and the rest of young people’s lives and there is little acknowledgment of established cultural categories or boundaries.

Moving beyond the rational barriers to engagement

Our Young Londoners’ survey suggested that perceptions of cost, time commitment, lack of awareness of opportunities and travel are among the most likely factors to be putting off young people from engaging with arts and culture.

Although these barriers can be real and genuinely affecting participation, the My Culture My London research highlights that often these are a likely to be a way of post-rationalising the decision to not engage.

What truly lies underneath the surface is the emotional reaction associated with the activity (how will this make me feel?) and a sense of identity (is this for me?). Both of these are key in determining whether and how the young person will engage.

Inner directed and Outer directed young people

The type of the reward that young people gain from taking part in creative activities is at the heart of what happens underneath the surface of rational barriers.

Inner directed young people are driven by what they get out from an activity at a personal and internal level. Lawrence, 15, from Crystal Palace for example is deeply passionate about museums because they complement his interest in History and Geography and provide him with extra knowledge, confidence and also ambition to learn more. Inner directed young people have high expectations of themselves and of the activity and feeling out of their comfort zone may put them off.

For outer directed young people on the other hand, the reward is to do with external motivations. Often this relates to other people’s participation or approval of the activity. This is the case of Paloma, a 13 year old from Putney who is involved in a range of hobbies and activities including acting which she has started because of her friendship group.

The role of friends

The role of friends is an important theme within the findings, something which hadn’t emerged as strongly through our quantitative research. Friends are key to exposure to new experiences (“I will only go if they go”) and on-going commitment. For outer directed young people, whether they identify or not with a cultural activity ultimately seems to be hinging on a sense of not wanting to be different from the rest of the pack.

Arts and culture in a period of transition

Engagement is not just to do with motivation, but also with life stage. There appear to be key points in a young person’s life where arts and culture becomes more distant and less available because of circumstances, changes in levels of freedom/autonomy, changes in mind-set.

The findings suggest that the transition from primary to secondary school and the late teens are examples of these ‘vacuum points’. This is also borne out in our Young Londoners’ survey from which we know that engagement with arts and culture tends to decline post school age.

This is a strong reminder that, if these gaps are not filled in a timely way, some young people may never get a chance to develop a long term relationship with arts and culture, particularly where parental and family influence is lacking. Similarly their perceptions of it may remain coloured by what they experienced at school and may not refreshed.

It is also good news in that it reminds us that young people’s preferences are also in a state of flux and have yet to crystallise – not only their circumstances might change but their system of internal rewards may change and so may their motivations to engage (e.g. they could go from being inner to outer directed). They are still very ‘malleable’ consumers of arts and culture and, as such, they can be guided and influenced.

Food for thought

The insight that the My Culture My London research has given A New Direction so far has been invaluable. Being able to zoom into the life of these 20 Londoners has given us a much deeper and fresher perspective on many old issues and has, inevitably, raised a range of important questions, some of which are highlighted in the report:

  • How do we ensure that traditional art forms remain relevant to young people? How do we reassure them of their democratic nature? Can we encourage young people to see how newer and more contemporary art forms related to traditional ones?
  • How do we ensure the arts are as interactive and absorbing an experience as they can be?

  • How do we take into account the ecology of creative activities that young people consider and engage in? How do we ensure our definition of arts and culture remains current, fresh and at pace with the times?

  • What could we do as a sector to tackle some of the rational barriers? How do we reach out to young people that wouldn’t otherwise take the initiative to travel to opportunities? How do we move young people up the ladder of engagement?

  • How do we capitalise on the importance of friends?

  • How do we fill in vacuum points and help young people develop a relationship with the arts that lasts through adulthood?

Download My Culture, My London Research Report

Over the next few months we will be engaging in conversations with the cultural sector and young people to reflect on some of these questions and turn them into actions. We would of course love to hear what thoughts the report sparked in your head. If you are from the cultural sector and you are interested in getting involved in the conversation please get in touch with Caterina Violi


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