Measure of the multiplying effects of social factors in French cultural practices

by Sylvie Pflieger, specialist in Economy and Culture, Lecturer at l’Université Paris Descartes

Sylvie Pflieger, HDR lecturer at Université Paris Descartes/CERLIS, studies the evolution of cultural practices in France between 1973 and 2008. Pflieger bases her research on the results gathered by the Pratiques culturelles surveys led in France and commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. Her work consists of tracking the variation of results with time, taking into account internal variables of the surveyed population, namely: socio-economic background – profession or catégorie socio-professionnelle, CSP; age; size of city inhabited; and education level. The Ministry’s cultural democratization mission has evolved over the decades, progressively completed by cultural democracy initiatives to favor more diversified artistic practices in France. This top-down system catalyzed by the Ministry informs how “culture légitime” (legitimate culture) is made accessible to, and thus approached by, various members of French society.

In this study, five different cultural activities deemed “légitime” are analyzed: theater attendance, museum excursions, movie outings, reading, and library membership. Pflieger focuses on the results obtained after asking the sample population the following questions: Over the course of the past 12 months, have you been at least once to the theater? … in a museum? … to the movies? … to a library? … Have you read at least one book? It is important that these questions pertain to the level of attendance of cultural institutions, as well as the use of cultural equipment that is publicly subsidized. Indeed, the results of the survey will thus be a direct reflection of the cultural policy initiatives implemented by the Ministry and regional public authorities. While reading is considered an interiorized and fundamental cultural practice, going to the movies is an exteriorized and more widespread cultural activity. The scope of cultural practices is just as diverse as is the studied population.

Pflieger studies the results from all five Pratiques culturelles surveys, spanned between 1973 and 2008. She then calculates the multiplying coefficient from one year to the next of each internal variable of the surveyed population, for each of the five cultural practices. Hence, Pflieger can then compare the multiplying coefficient for one variable practicing one specific activity to that of another. Ultimately, these coefficients will also show increasing or decreasing tendencies of one variable’s cultural practices over the course of three decades.

Pflieger begins by presenting the variable that is at the origin of the greatest discrepancies amongst French citizens in terms of their cultural practices. It appears that more frequent cultural practices and outings are proportional to the spectator’s level of education and CSP level. Indeed, a French individual with 4+ years of education post-high school engages three times more in cultural practices than an individual who has not received a higher education diploma. Furthermore, it seems that relative to the other criteria, the size of the city in which the surveyed individuals live (especially, if situated in urban or rural settings) has the least incidence on their cultural practices. That being said, the population that has the most distinct advantage due to geographic location is the group living in Paris, due to the high concentration of cultural institutions in this capital. Finally, it appears that over the course of three decades, the senior population has increased their cultural practices compared with those of 15 to 24 year olds.

Pflieger goes on to comparing the multiplying coefficient for each of the five cultural activities. She begins by studying frequency of attendance to theatrical productions. According to the Pratiques culturelles results, the number of attendances across all variables has increased (12% of the surveyed population attended in 1973 versus 19% in 2008). However, upon observing the coefficient for each variable, it becomes evident that theater is a particularly discriminatory cultural practice. A high CSP incurs greater attendance to theater productions than a low CSP. That being said, within lower CSPs the number of performances attended has increased between 1973 and 2008. Furthermore, thanks to cultural democratization and theatrical decentralization endeavors, rural populations have gained greater access to theater performances, and hence, the number of attendances in rural areas has gone up (multiplied by a factor of 5).

The focus then shifts to museum visits. It appears that museum excursions are a cultural practice shared more generally across variables and within each criterion as well. Nonetheless, the CSP and education criteria remain the most discriminatory when evaluating these visits. Indeed, an individual with a higher CSP (cadre supérieur) visits museums 4.4 times more than a non-qualified worker and 3.3 times more than a farmer. Pflieger’s results show an actual decrease and social exclusion of workers (qualified or not) from the museum setting, which could reflect a failure of cultural democratization initiatives to attract lower socioeconomic, socio-professional, and educated populations to museums. Here, the size of the city also plays a role in fostering this cultural practice: Paris houses a greater number of museums than smaller, rural cities, and thus garners more visitors.

A movie outing is the most widely shared cultural practice across all variables. In this case, the age criterion is the most discriminatory. Younger generations attend the movies more often than senior citizens (60+), though this age group has increased its outings over the course of thirty years. A similar pattern is shown amongst farmers who augmented their movie attendances by 46% between 1973 and 2008, thus reaching the average movie attendances in 2008. The size of the city has fewer incidences on this cultural practice, as France is the nation with the highest density of movie theaters in a given area. There is thus a more equal distribution of movie theaters across the nation, allowing for more broad access to cinema.

Reading appears to be the cultural practice that has been in the most consistent decline since 1973, across all variables. There are no criteria that are more discriminatory relative to others, as reading is a homogenously shared activity in the studied population.

One of the greatest cultural democratization initiatives was to establish a denser network of libraries in France. Hence, the size of the city variable is the least discriminatory in Pflieger’s study. However, the level of education is the most discriminatory criterion; individuals with higher education diplomas are 4.7 times more likely to become members of a library.

Hence, Pflieger’s study of the Pratiques culturelles surveys between 1973 and 2008 reveal certain evolutions in French citizens’ engagement with cultural activities. She concludes that level of CSP and of an individual’s school diploma are the two most discriminatory variables of the five studied. Furthermore, within the cultural practices analyzed, theater and museum attendance are the most biased toward these variables. However, certain categories of the sample population have shown positive progress in terms of their cultural activities, namely workers and retirees (senior citizens).

Pflieger ends by pondering if the actual results of cultural democratization initiatives can (and should) be measured numerically, or if the quality of the impact prompted by these activities is not of greater importance. She ultimately deems the numerical results incomplete and suggests methods to develop the qualitative output of this data: through an econometric model that would highlight the interdependence or independence of cultural practices; through an in-depth analysis of the demographic and sociological evolution of French society; and finally, through the systemic intersection between regional supply in cultural equipment and platforms, and the population’s cultural demand.

[Read the full paper in french]

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