The episteme of the Pratiques culturelles survey in France: materialist practices and humanist culture

by Hervé Glevarec, Head Researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Communication and politics department

Cultural democratization efforts can be monitored. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Ministry of Culture instated a survey entitled “Pratiques culturelles” (Cultural practices), to track French citizens’ cultural habits and activities. Hervé Glevarec, researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), argues that though the numerical data garnered from these surveys does not suffice to explain cultural habits from a sociological point of view, the compiled information is necessary to understand the importance of culture in society.

Glevarec thus seeks to understand the sociological origin of the results exhibited in the Pratiques culturelles survey. Can cultural practices be explained by the education received by individuals? Are such practices also informed by political intervention in cultural affairs? Consequentially, Glevarec asks himself the following question: what are the a priori and intellectual choices that explain the results presented in Pratiques culturelles? With time, cultural practices change; similarly to revolutionary discoveries leading to Kuhnian paradigm shifts, time alters the status quo of what is known and accepted as truth. The introduction of the time factor in this presentation allows Glevarec to refer to Michel Foucault’s notion of “episteme”.

The sociology of cultural practices associates the notion of accessing art to a humanist definition of culture, formulated as a discourse on possession and deprivation of a superior good, or what M. Foucault calls an “episteme” – the form adopted by a truth at a given time period and in a given community. Glevarec advances two traits that define this episteme: a materialist conception of cultural practices and a humanist definition of culture. The latter is implicit in its nature, and coexists with the materialist understanding of these practices, without contradicting it. Glevarc argues that the sociology of cultural practices, based on statistical surveys, could better yet be called sociology of “cultural possessions”, as this form of sociology is concerned with measuring possessions (to have or not to have the ability to practice a cultural act) more so than defining these practices (their meaning).

Glevarec proceeds to analyzing the materialist conception of cultural practices. The Ministry’s surveys focuses primarily on the number of attendances and the use of goods and cultural infrastructures, as a reflection of how French citizens “access” culture. As such, the privileged tool on the Cultural Practices survey is the rate of attendance, and the targeted object of study is the practiced act itself. This rate takes into account the responses from different sociological categories (sex, age, profession, level of education and place of residence). In certain cases, attendance can be a reflection of a specific sociological category’s proneness, or even disposition, to a given cultural practice.

The Cultural Practices surveys from 1997 to 2008 also provide an indicator of “general attendance to cultural infrastructures” – namely movie theaters, libraries, performance spaces, exhibit centers, and national heritage monuments. This “general” statistic blurs the lines between the cultural practices and their respective genres, specific to each infrastructure in which they take place. As a consequence of this undifferentiated data, cultural practices are perceived as substitutable and thus placed on equal footing. The portrait of a cultural being becomes universal: one is no longer defined by one’s association to certain practices, which cannot be compared in their use and practice. The “general attendance to cultural infrastructures” is the embodiment of a non-qualitative episteme, hiding these cultural practices, and even their meaning, behind statistics.

“Cultural capital”, as originally articulated by Pierre Bourdieu, is a key concept in the materialist sociology of attendance, as it is an explanation for the obtained rates. Oliver Donnat, researcher at the Département des études, de la prospective et des statistiques (DEPS) of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, attributes the evolution – or stagnation – of cultural practices to two factors. The first is that the level of cultural capital continues to inform individuals’ cultural habits thus furthering social stratification. The second, Donnat calls the “force of generational changes”, a dynamic variable which explains the rejuvenation of certain cultural practices in a contemporary context. While cultural capital accounts for constants in cultural practices rates, the generational dynamic qualifies the evolution of these habits.

However, Gleverac contends that to truly understand the concept of attendance rate for cultural infrastructures, this indicator must be defined relative to a humanist apprehension of culture. This definition remains implicit to culture. It accounts for these cultural infrastructures’ role in edifying and liberating their local environments. Nonetheless, this humanist definition lies at the heart of a tension between “learned” cultures and “mass” cultures; as such, Glevarec wonders if culture can escape its “educational” mission and become an aesthetic goal within itself.

Glevarec concludes that the results of the Cultural Practices survey are often used to proclaim the failure of cultural democratization. The researcher cautions against relying only on this numerical data, as such facts do not reflect the French audience’s tastes and dislikes. Glevarec proposes a reconfiguration of the Cultural Practices survey, based on a renewed understanding of the episteme – both materialist and humanist – that structured its findings as of its inception.

[Read the full text in french]


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