Cultural Literacy in Practice

Summary Statement for CLE workshop, Prato.  July 8-10 2018

Introductory Comment
Different groups exemplified Cultural Literacy in different ways…
Domains of practice
The influence of policy
An emphasis on education

1. Creative Writing

2. Music and dramatic performance: a workshop

3. Cinematography, documentary and performance-led research

4. Some implications of Technology on project design, management and impact.

5. The role of policy

6. General Conclusions

Introductory Comment

This summary statement is an outline of discussions during the academic year 2017-2018 between Robert Crawshaw, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Chair of the CLE Special Interest Group on Social Futures, and a number of senior academics and expert practitioners within UK Higher Education.  In the context of the CLE Programme, Cultural Literacy (CL) entailed the ability to identify dynamic systems which govern the collective behaviour of groups in society through analysis of the different symbolic forms which represent them: in other words, taking the hermeneutic tradition of The Frankfurt School and its precursors and the more recent writings of Fredrick Jameson as potential former benchmarks, to ‘read’ states of society through examples of cultural output[1].

 Different groups exemplified Cultural Literacy in different ways…

For professional ‘observer/commentators’: researchers, policy makers, journalists and broadcasters, CL entailed specialist theoretical knowledge and insight as well as methodological expertise peculiar to their professions, marked by more or less predetermined discursive positions;

for creative artists in whatever domain, it demanded a certain level of consciousness of the relationship between their work and the state of society which they were seeking to represent;

for members of the public at large, CL implied what Alan Brown (2006) has termed ‘the readiness to receive’[2] : a mental capacity to distance themselves from their immediate behavioural routines and to understand them and related artefacts both in aesthetic terms and as part of the wider social system of which they were part.

In this sense, for citizens of whatever origin, CL was allied with ‘creative practice’ in everyday life with the added element that it entailed reflection leading potentially to ‘meaningful generalisation’- analogous to Merleau-Ponty’s theory of ‘double sensation’[3].  Contained within the term was therefore the ontological notion of individual autonomy combined with the space to exercise relative agency whether on the part of researchers or those who take on the position of ‘the collective observed’.  At the same time, it had to be borne in mind that in an environment riven with conflicts surrounding migration and decolonisation, the boundaries of the ‘observer/ observed’ dialectic were increasingly blurred and interchangeable.

The SIG, like that of the CLE as a whole, rejected the idea of an ‘a priori’ content as exemplified by the polemically nationalistic work of Edwin Hirsch (i.e. what should be known in order for a citizen of a given national constituency to be deemed ‘culturally literate’ or otherwise) [4].  As a rationale for research, CL could not be seen as prescriptive.  It had to be taken for what it was, or as it was found to be.  While necessarily imbued with ‘value’ related to the collective consciousness of the participants, it was recognised that the properties of CL were, by definition, a function of their contexts.  The notion of CL could not rest on a hierarchy of values or a set of teleological principles, notwithstanding the pioneering theoretical stances of major European thinkers such as Cassirer, Lukács, Adorno, Williams, Hall and others who had sought a compromise between Marxism and traditional humanism.  Even positions which respected post-enlightenment beliefs in tolerance, human rights and democracy ran the risk of being branded ‘neo-colonial’ if their political application contradicted the moral grounds on which those beliefs were based.  In a ‘post-modern’, post-theoretical environment, even the assumption that CL might ‘improve’ levels of well-being in society could not be taken for granted.  CL was inevitably ideologically informed and was variably interpreted in the injunctions of policy, whether those of national governments or of international institutions such as the EU or the UN.  Nevertheless, its relationship with the conditions of the social environments to which it referred needed to be understood, just as it was important to form a view as to whether its form of expression was leading to the betterment of society according to a given set of values which could be meaningfully articulated.

A form of reasoning such as the above necessarily extended the scope of CL beyond the level of aesthetic appreciation to include insight into the manner and extent to which the development of CL was influencing the outlook and behaviour of groups in society.  Artistic practice could not be understood independently of its interaction with its social environment.  In this sense, it incorporated a notion of ‘value’ which was both ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’[5].  As suggested by Crossick and Kaszynska (2016) [6], in the absence of a transcendent reference point, cultural literacy was best understood through empirical observation: case studies.  Such an approach would be the only way in which the problems emanating from the increasing cultural fragmentation in the UK and other western democracies, let alone those in other parts of the world, could be addressed with minimal prejudice.  It would help to clarify what cultural literacy meant in practice and would inform the complex value judgements which attended curriculum design and pedagogy in secondary and higher education.  It would also contribute to the policy debates surrounding the relationship between ‘the culture industries’, which interpreted cultural value in primarily economic terms, and a view of culture informed by a combination of arts and humanities, science and social theory[7].

The approach taken owed much to the authoritative proposals of the Arts and Humanities Research Council of England and Wales (AHRC)’s Cultural Value Project, comprehensively summarised in Crossick and Kaszynska’s 2016 report already referred to, despite that fact that the report related primarily to projects based in the UK.  Time constraints and the limitation of resources meant that the SIG could not hope to match the coverage of this report but sought rather to complement it by considering a limited number of more recent cases led by members of the SIG group and other leading academics known to the Chair who agreed to be interviewed.  While the views of the interlocutors helped to inform the current paper, the opinions expressed here are those of the author who framed the discussions and, in many cases actively contributed to their direction.  The interchanges took the form of ‘off the record’ dialogues rather than interviews in the traditional sense.  This is reflected in the stylistic shifts in the text which attempt to take account of different points of view.  While doing my best to report accurately on the statements by the discussants, I take full responsibility for any misrepresentation of their positions and the provisional conclusions which may have arisen from the different exchanges.  With reference to the definition of CL above, my aim has been to adopt a deliberately critical position on the design and outcomes of the projects reviewed, the primary objective being to assess the extent to which they have contributed to social change and to identify the reasons why their impact may perhaps have fallen short of expectations, as all provisional attempts to comment on cultural phenomena through active investigation inevitably do.

 Domains of practice

The discussions have been organised around ‘domains of practice’ corresponding to a set of artistic fields in which CL-related research has typically been carried out: ‘literature and creative writing’, ‘film and recorded performance’, ‘art’, and ‘music’.  Inevitably, these epistemological categories overlap and are intrinsically self-limiting.  While they may appear to refer to established areas of creative practice, they relate rather, as already explained, to the ways in which arts and crafts are integrated into everyday life and thereby subvert traditional definitions.  Most forms of cultural manifestations, especially in the current technologically conditioned environment, are multi-modal in that they combine different forms of artistic expression demanding different yet complementary skills on the part of populations of whatever background.  This imposes particular challenges on researchers whose professional task is to observe and understand them.  Yet despite the repeated pleas of research councils and independent charitable foundations, much research into culture sponsored by western institutions is still discipline-led: an expression of the academic expertise of investigators and the departments to which they belong.  These distinctions have been particularly marked in the relationship between arts and humanities and social and physical sciences, reflected as they are in the methodological debates surrounding the value of quantitative and qualitative data, approaches to the social interpretation of technical objects and artefacts and so on.  The categories chosen for the present study correspond to different forms of artistic expression and to the specific interests of the discussants, while recognising that in many cases, the application of their expertise reaches beyond the norms of the discipline concerned.  It has also been clear from the outset that certain crucial determinants of modern culture are independent of disciplinary categorisation, both in terms of research methodology and of social communication in general.  These include three features in particular: the ubiquitous impact of technology, the archival storage of cultural artefacts and public access to them, and the multi-cultural character of modern societies resulting from global trade, geopolitical upheaval, economic circumstances and the mobility of populations.

 The influence of policy

In addition, as already alluded to, prevalent attitudes to CL and the criteria applied to the funding of CL research in different national and international constituencies are directly conditioned by the policy of governments and international organisations.  It is axiomatic that policy is itself a manifestation of culture and that an important aspect of cultural literacy, especially on the part of university-based research staff, is critically to identify the determinants of the research culture within which they operate.  Key factors condition the training of future researchers and their conditions of employment, the structure and objectives of research funding and the dominant priorities within research-led institutions.  A separate section of this study is devoted to these questions insofar as they affect the nature of cultural literacy research.

 An emphasis on education

The present document is not a final draft.  It has been written as a working paper for discussion at the CLE workshop to be held at the Italian (Prato) campus of Monash University in July 2018.  In addition to reflection on the paper as a whole, three specific themes have been selected for consideration at a Round Table focusing on the work of the Special Interest Group: ‘Event Culture’, ‘Music and Interculturality’ and ‘Curriculum Design’.  Overall, the most important outcome of research into cultural literacy is educational.  While schools may not be able to ‘compensate for society’, it is axiomatic that from the cradle upwards, educational infrastructure, curricular constraints, available resources, belief systems and political priorities determine citizens’ skills levels and their capacity for independent thought.  In view of the emphasis of the Prato Symposium, the conclusions of the present investigation into cultural literacy are intended to be understood first and foremost in educational terms.

1.      Creative Writing

In the last twenty years, creative writing, and especially life story narrative, has become an established means of investigating the responses to the social conditions experienced by selected informants in specific cultural situations.  It also offers a direct insight into cultural literacy as an intrinsic property of the medium through which the experience is communicated.  It is distinct from the reliance on oral testimony employed as source data in historical research and more variably in journalism where selected recorded statement leaves itself open to obvious bias or false claims of ‘balance’ posing as objective representation.  The advantage of creative writing as data is that the voices of informants are less trammelled by a predetermined structure imposed by researchers acting as social observers, though this of course depends on the way in which such narratives are elicited.  The same cannot be said of writings produced outside the framework of social research, given the commercial interests of international publishers who control media networks.  It follows that a critical reading of published literature demands that the circumstances of its production be fully taken into account.  As far as social research is concerned, the project itself then becomes the context in which the creative writing is generated and therefore demands a high degree of open-ended reflexivity in design as well as processes of interpretation which entail awareness that language is not transparent but contains within itself the insignia of its own relativity.

The first discussant is an active writer of poetry and prose, former project leader of Crossing Borders, a distance learning programme for emergent writers in 9 sub-Saharan Africa countries under the auspices of The British Council.  He was a leading partner in the AHRC funded project Moving Manchester (2006-11), whose objective was to assess the impact of creative writing by first and second generation immigrants to Manchester on the culture of that city. Other projects followed, of which the most recent has been an initiative to engage younger generations of Kurdish people with the experience of older Kurdish women by recording and transcribing the women’s oral testimonies.  The testimonies focused on lives under duress, political and military, due to the Kurds’ struggle for recognition as an independent state in the geopolitical chaos of the Middle East [].  The co-investigator on the project was an experienced teacher of mixed Nigerian origin, herself a creative writer and former core participant in Moving Manchester when she had been active in promoting writing in secondary education.  At the time of the project, she held a post as lecturer in Soran University .

As a case study, Many Women Many Words is a classic example of the contextual specificity which attaches to the term ‘Cultural Literacy’. There was a definite sense that the informants wanted their stories to reach a younger generation of men and women, rather than just women.  The project allowed for limited generalisation in terms of its outcomes, though there were obvious potential analogies with other environments where geopolitical conflict was directly affecting the anarchic pace of cultural change and the physical suffering which goes with it.  The findings which had emerged from the testimonies, interviews and focus groups forming the main data sources has been all but superseded by the more recent repressive measures undertaken by the Iraqi and Turkish governments.  These have made it difficult to see how the states of awareness generated by the project can be absorbed into a new way of life in the longer term see

In addition to the possibility of political comparison, there were a number of features in the design and operation of the project which are frequently replicated in transgenerational studies of writing covering periods of unstable social transformation.  The older women’s reminiscences about the simpler agricultural way of life which they had experienced in their youth underpinned a sense of Kurdish identity of which the following generation had only partial appreciation.  The testimonies bear witness to the pain and confusion arising from patriarchal/domestic manipulation, multiple displacement, the death of children, looting by fighters and so on which have become the stock in trade of accounts of political and religious conflicts in different parts of the world.  Their experience had been dominated by a sense of victimhood, counteracted by pride and resilience in the throes of political struggle, either as wives of fighters, single mothers or partners of negotiators engaged in attracting international funding for new infrastructural projects such as buildings, education and communication.  The question remains as to how this type of narrative and the research methodology which underpins it contribute to an understanding of CL and by whom.

The methodology followed by the project sought to ensure that its outcomes extended beyond the personal, thereby addressing an essential challenge for qualitative research that selected data sets might not allow for collective conclusions.  The extent to which this challenge was met can only be judged independently by studying the testimonies which feature on the project’s website.  A sample of 14 women subjects were selected by colleagues at Soran university.  Objectively the sample size was small by social science standards even in the context of qualitative research norms.  The papers on which the testimonies had been written were then studied simultaneously by the two investigators and members of the groups of informants aka participants.

Months later and in a separate national location in Western Europe, physical copies of the testimonies were literally cut up into fragments representing specific experiential features which were successively grouped and re-constituted around foregrounded issues.  This allowed the totality of the testimonies to be re-cast thematically, translated, performed out loud in quasi-poetic form and recorded in Kurdish and English.  The recordings could then be revisited as a basis for retrospective reflections.  In essence, this process followed the same analytical procedure as established ethnographic data coding software, but did so in a much more physical, participatory way leading to a performed outcome. It also allowed for a form of generic translation in which narratives of lived experience were collectively distilled as prose poems.  Semi-structured interviews were the primary data source.  The women’s oral accounts were transcribed, then translated, the translations being checked and re-checked by local native speakers with a working knowledge of English and reviewed by the two investigators. The women were identified initially as a pilot group, often known to each other, mainly from the Rawanduz region and were selected as representatives of a social range from teachers to women who had led more circumscribed and hence less well-educated lives. They were not all Muslims; at least one was Christian.  The notion of a stable demographic was being simultaneously undermined by the onset of genocide during and after the life of the project.  Social structures, and living space were literally being levelled.  Consequentially, the most significant identifier of the sample population was probably their willingness to go on the record.

As can be seen, the project was applying appropriate features of qualitative research methodology conducted in a culturally and linguistically distinctive context.  In addition to the issues of cultural difference, the researchers had to meet the challenge of trans-lingualism.  The testimonies were delivered orally in the native language of the participants and were translated into English with all the awkward implications this raises.  As such the process could perhaps best be qualified as creative writing by proxy in that oral testimony passed through two subsequent phases: initially through the medium of an interpreter and then refined and poeticised by English language experts.  The overall conclusions to be drawn from the data were mediated by the researchers and selectively diluted in subsequent presentations of the project’s findings to ‘outsider’ academic communities of diverse cultural backgrounds.

As the principal investigator put it:

The process of transcription into Kurdish was relatively straightforward, because we had a recording. Our bi-lingual translators then translated the recording into English and we used members of staff at Soran whose English was more advanced to translate what were obviously idiomatic uses of Sorani Kurdish. So, there were at least three iterations of each interview […].  We went back to all the women about being identified by name and featured in photographs on the website (not all women had agreed to this anyway) because Daesh were very close to Erbil and we were anxious that they might be endangering themselves.

While all the methodological criteria of qualitative research were applied as effectively as conditions allowed, enabling the researchers largely to overcome the difficulties associated with conducting research in a trans-cultural, trans-lingual, ethnically distinct, politically unstable environment, this strikingly original, logistically challenging, even exotic project, raises interesting questions when viewed from a cultural literacy perspective.

Who has become more ‘culturally literate’?

This question is only relevant if one of the original aims of the project was to promote CL amongst the participants.  Logic and ethical imperative demanded that this be the case – by default if not explicitly.  To have set up an investigation based on written and oral testimony without tangible benefit accruing to the data providers would have raised serious issues surrounding the motivation for conducting the research, however scrupulous the methodology used.  As it was, there was some evidence from the feedback provided that the participants increased their knowledge and understanding of their own culture, though the precise nature of this gain remains unclear.  Intuitively it may be assumed that through articulation they sharpened their insight into their previous history as an ethnic and culturally independent group, adding to their awareness of the processes of change which had affected them and their families.  Also, that the experience of narrating was itself therapeutic.  The challenge of recording their testimonies in speech and then in written English would have made them more ‘culturally articulate’ in the strictly technical sense of the term defined by such writers as Stuart Hall[8]and Eva Hoffman[9] [i.e. the manner in which an individual or group interacts with a wider social and cultural environment].

It must also be assumed that the researchers themselves extended and deepened their own CL.  They came to understand better the demands for Kurdish independence and acquired privileged first-hand knowledge of the way in which the political and economic developments in the region were affecting the everyday lives of the population.  As researchers, they were able to experiment methodologically and thereby to contribute to the academic culture of which they were/are a part.  The study was based on fieldwork, the form of mediation being directly representative of first-hand experience rather than corresponding to a pre-existing generic frame acting as a cultural lens or filter.  Furthermore, while the researchers may have subscribed to the Kurdish national resistance movement, it was paradoxical that the women’s plight and their nostalgia for the pacific culture of the past was a direct result of the conflict.  It was therefore all the more sobering to recognise retrospectively that the project’s findings had effectively been eradicated by subsequent military action.

In the words of the PI:

One factor was the relationship between individual experience (though the women knew there were other women who’d had similar experience, hence our network) and the Kurdish project of nation building through media-based propaganda. It seemed that Peshmerga women fighters were being celebrated (and a new generation were fighting Daesh in Iraq), but that other forms of resistance and resilience were ignored.  It’s also interesting to note that women Peshmerga fighters are rarely expected to marry and re-integrate into society.  In some sense they have transgressed traditional family values and roles. Yet the women who had upheld these values by fleeing with their children, waiting for their imprisoned husbands…  were ironically rendered invisible by the veil of what was regarded as normative expectations.  So the women wanted their ‘women’s stories’ to be told and recognised.

There is a sense […] that participation (writing, narration, bearing witness) was perhaps the primary social change that these processes of intervention bring about. The sense of hitherto silenced groups shaping their experience though this process. In terms of the historical creative writing ‘movement’ shaping it personally and in some senses within what the creative writing professionals hoped was a developing ideological context of empowerment.

In some sense, I think that our urge to participate in the re-formulation of interview data as a narrative art (our performance poem) as artists was a desire to respond, to create an ideological continuum. That the women would remain as participants (and not become subject to research methods or objects of investigation) through the direct use of their words (which remained almost entirely unchanged in the new text). We had built this anticipated process into our ethical framework, which the women had all read and signed, so from the outset we had put a particular perspective on how their ‘data’ might be used – first as an unmediated archive through recordings in Kurdish with Kurdish and English translations, then as ‘new artistic work’ generation through a collaborative engagement with the same material, that would enable its effective transmission through a multi-valent and dynamic narrative form that also echoed aspects of oral culture.

The presentation of this work at an academic conference sought to further position the role of artwork, not as the subject of academic research, but as a more direct vector for a complex human experience and history that had been re-configured through narration and forms of transcultural working and translation to create understanding and realisations in new audiences – an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ in itself, performed in the public and academic spheres, rather than an artwork subordinated to or realised by theoretical hegemonies. So, in a sense also, perhaps ironically, responding to the underlying rationale in ‘impact’ agendas to have significance outside academia. Also, perhaps, also a way of reconciling Creative Writings’ awkward but opportunity-rich straddling of public and academic audience.

The third group of potential cultural beneficiaries were ‘outsider’ members of the public, mostly academic specialists, staff or students who would have read or listened to accounts of the project, on line and/or textual, or otherwise delivered by the researchers or participants to peer-groups or acquaintances, mostly in more or less formal academic settings or controlled public fora.  Such presentations are of course heavily mediated by the presenters in that they are habitually designed for a particular audience and are normally strictly time limited.  Their objective is arguably more focused on illustrating, if not promoting a particular methodological approach, selecting data which supports a set of provisional conclusions based on the ethnographic findings of the project.  There is no doubt that a well-designed, well-run project in a cultural setting with which an audience is relatively unfamiliar can only contribute positively to that audience’s CL, provided that the project allows for a sufficiently representative range of participants’ voices to interact with the findings of the project as the data emerge.  Even then, the cultural awareness of the audience/readership will inevitably be conditioned by the form and content of the mediation involved.  Findings may well be used to support a particular ideological or theoretical position, in which case the term ‘literacy’ itself becomes relativized to an extent which undermines its generic status.

It seems that the Kurdish project was able to confront the above challenges by focusing on the project’s methodological coherence and the human impact of the testimonies themselves.  As has already been pointed out, this meant that its findings were ‘exportable’, that is to say culturally transferable, thus retaining its capacity to draw the attention of other groups in politically analogous situations to some of the key issues which the project had highlighted.  This was demonstrated by re-enacting the poetically reconstructed samples of the original data: a significant achievement in itself, as was borne out by the intensity of the local audience’s emotional response to the mediated performance.

The PI again:

[The selected poetic output] was performed in English at the Cape Town Writing for Liberty conference by three coloured SA women, one Nigerian/English woman and one black American woman. The poem was also performed at Soran by younger Kurdish women in Kurdish to an audience including some of the original interviewees.  I have no detailed feedback from this event because, by then, [the co-investigator] had left Soran […] and many other things were unravelling due to tension between Kurdistan and Iraq and intensified military activity during which the money supply was cut…). Our original hope, of course, was that our project would inform and contribute to a developing research culture at Soran University, another form of cultural literacy in which research methodologies based on artistic process could be seen as integral to the understanding of social processes and events.

What is the nature of cultural literacy involved?

To some extent this question has already been answered.  CL varies according to the interests and backgrounds of the groups to whom the term is applied.  The academic culture governing research methodology is quite clearly different from the symbolic and material priorities of Kurdish women living under the threat of civil and military oppression.  The responses and forms of awareness to which the Kurdish project has given rise will have been qualitatively distinct for local participants, researchers and subsequent third party audiences whose perceptions will have been directly conditioned by the mode, content and structure of retrospective mediations.  Inevitably, the different backgrounds of members of the different groups: ethnic, intellectual, cultural, linguistic, personal, will have meant that the cultural gain which they have derived from their contact with the project will have been experientially distinctive in each individual case.

Each ‘performance’ of a well-designed project extends the original narrative of the participants and becomes itself a culturally literate inter-text whose adaptation, if respectfully mediated, reinforces its outreach and hence the cultural literacy of others.  Collaboration between public media and high-quality university-led research should be a symbiotic component of projects designed to promote the dissemination of cultural insight.  Reflexively structured research and the best journalism go hand in hand.

 In developing cultural literacy, what should be the balance between cognition and emotional identification?

There is no simple answer to this question.  The burden of the above analysis is that empathy is only one element in a composite response to mediated communications of experience which should entail an adequate degree of factual information.  The sharing by proxy of the lives of others undoubtedly increases awareness of individual circumstances.  Whether this alone can be described as ‘literate’ is less clear.  The act of ‘reading’ in a symbolic sense implies that emotional identification be understood in relation to a wider context, political, historical and cultural which extends beyond personal experience while being derived from it: in short that it be ‘framed’ in a way which reflects on the determinants of the experience being narrated as well as the form which the narration takes.  Such a condition places special demands on research design, in terms of the type of questions put to participants, the manner in which the questions are formulated and so on, just as it does on ‘responsible journalism’.  On the basis of the discussion, it was not clear how or to what extent the participants’ informed understanding of their predicament had evolved, though it was inevitable that it did through the very act of translating it into words which were then shared with others and preserved for future reflection.

The PI’s response:

I think one issue here may be specific to the exploration of events that are traumatic to a society, through their traumatic effect on individuals. One might argue that such personal trauma, enacted through mass evacuation, bombing and gassing is inevitably damaging to the emotional and psychological responses of that collective social group. The experience of these woman had been hidden from their children, but it also seemed to have been hidden from a wider society that was ‘nation building’ though selective narratives that simultaneously projected victimisation and resistance with a redemptive outcome – the emergent, semi-autonomous state of Kurdistan whose project was to become an independent state recognised by other states. The women too, needed recognition, but wanted it based on the ‘real’ terms of their experience and not massaged by a State PR apparatus. That their experience was deeply felt was unmistakeable (I attended some interviews in Kurdish and was gripped by the obvious anguish of the women), so it seemed part of our ethical framework and understanding that those feelings were central to the ideas that they also carried forward. Our choice of an expressive linguistic medium rich in emotional overtones (rather than stripped of them to secrete a sense of rationality in the resulting prose) was obviously influenced by this sense that we had become participants in that narrated experience.

To what extent does the development of ‘cultural literacy’ imply lasting change?

Is CL simply the capacity to take stock of a current set of circumstances on the basis of limited evidence and to communicate one’s understanding to others, or does it imply internalising the ingredients which make it possible to promote social change?  The answer to this question can only be that it is difficult to achieve the second criterion without satisfying the first but that to have acquired a certain level or form of culturally literacy does not necessarily mean that you have the power to act.  The opposite is often true.  The uncertainty surrounding the quality of CL within a particular group does not, however, negate the value of identifying its content, structure and mode of articulation, nor its effects on the wider social environment.  Research into CL should seek not simply to capture its essence but should also define the outcomes which result from promoting greater awareness, the way in which in which new states of sensibility and knowledge impact on everyday life.  As has already been said, in a state of rapid change induced by overriding geopolitical upheaval, this is almost impossible.  The fact of knowing more about the outlook and feelings of two generations of Kurdish women helps educated sectors of western populations to appreciate more fully the contexts in which they eke out their lives, but one important finding of this ambitious project has been that the increased level of CL which this implies has not made it any easier for them – or us – to change things for the better.

The PI’s final word:

I think this is why I became somewhat anxious during our interview, because that sense of ‘social change’ in Western society has almost been synonymous with an improvement in material conditions, greater social inclusion, sharing and personal agency. Working in African countries – and dramatically in a two-year period in Kurdistan – shows that social change can be a reversal of all those things, sometimes dramatically through a coup or political reversal, often through the pervasive contamination of vitiated political and civic processes. That takes me back to the locus of desired social change and what we mean by that and by cultural literacy. Back to the idea of the conversation, the precipitating process, the immediate engagement between individuals and social groups. In the simplest sense it reminds me of the difference between historic silences and articulated feeling and thought, the difference between textual literacy and the illiteracy that has existed for most people for most of human history, the difference between a record and the blank page, between presence and absence. I think you’re absolutely right to ask this very important question which is incredibly difficult to answer. Some of the answer falls back on belief, desire and paradox itself, the sense that cultural practice and its transformations into and though art forms, makes us more fully human through something that we prioritise over brute necessity, or in the presence of that necessity. So, the social change has, in large part, to be participation itself – then its accumulation is the thing we believe in and hope for, but which you quite rightly identify as a somewhat elusive consequence.

Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.[10]

Creative Writing (2)

The second discussant in the domain of creative writing was a Lecturer in the Institute of Social Futures (ISF) at Lancaster University.  A former research associate on the AHRC-funded Authorship Project (enter URL), she was a graduate in German Studies from Oxford University whose doctoral research and associated publications had focused on the representation of women in performance poetry and song.  The focus of her most recent research was to explore issues of identity and visions of social futures through the practice of group story-telling.  The paradox of using creative narrative to explore hypothetical social futures was an experimental alternative to the reliance on data derived from economic or scientifically driven forecasts.  As such it could be seen as an initiative which promoted CL by developing participants’ ability to imagine possible futures by writing creatively about them.

The project was at an early stage in its development.  It left provisionally unanswered some of the key questions which attended research based on oral narrative: how best to capture the relationship between embodiment, individual identity and imagined futures.  A group would be brought together and invited to compose narratives.  These would be read out loud, recorded and subsequently transcribed.  The records of the stories, whether written down in note form, or digitally recorded and transcribed could be taken in hand by a professional writer and translated in summary form as a ‘distillation’ of the collective narratives of the group or as a number of different narratives then to be made available for subsequent use.

The interest in the above approach when compared with that of the Many Women, Many Words Project reviewed above, was that ‘raw data’ was to be ‘translated’ by professional creative writers before being presented to a wider public as an output.  As with the Kurdish project, the process of ‘re-writing’ would thereby become an object of analysis in its own right.  It would enable the participants’ original narratives to reach a wider audience, thus constituting an incentive to them to engage in the project in the first place.  At the same time, it would curtail the participants’ potential to develop their own cultural literacy unless a further, cyclical, phase was introduced into the design which would enable the validity of their prognoses and their degree of self-awareness to be tracked in subsequent iterations.

One such group had already been convened.  The majority of the participants were children who had been invited by way of introduction to build narratives of their choosing around real-life objects including toys, either brought by them or made available at the session.  The guiding principle behind the narratives was to imagine how these objects and their functions – social and operational – might usefully be transformed in the future. The design of the workshop allowed the participants to capture the relationship between the reality of everyday life as contained metonymically in the material form of objects and the symbolic or associative representation to which they gave rise.  This in itself offered a potent insight into the cultural literacy of the participants.  It mobilised both their functional practicality and their linguistic capacity to express their awareness of its meaning now and in an imagined future.  Apart from its educational potential (technically and culturally), it constituted a powerful research tool in that it made explicit the participants’ everyday relationship with material objects of their own choosing, the transformative powers of their imaginations and their linguistic abilities.

Two additional participant workshops had been planned in principle but had not yet been scheduled.  The first concerned senior adults whose experiences might assist in imagining viable futures for health care while helping them as individuals to express their personal concerns, physical and psychological, with others in the knowledge that their narratives might help to ‘make a difference’.  The second had been mooted by designers of an interactive computer system whose future applications were still being developed.  Once again, open-ended group-based oral or written reflections by individuals might advise future design priorities and potentially facilitate styles of living.

All three models based on the elicitation of creative written outputs involving the application of creative imagination to existing material objects had the potential to shed light on CL.  At the same time, in all three cases, a number of critical methodological issues presented themselves.  The first of these concerned the constitution of the prospective story-telling groups.  The contextual relativity of CL demanded that identification of an experimental qualitative research group be determined from the outset in terms of background, age, class, place, gender, professional situation etc. and of course of the wider cultural environment of which the group was part.  A related consideration was the extent to which the research aimed to anticipate wider generalisation, either in its formal design or in its conclusions.  If the potential for societal change was to be one of the principal objectives of the project as a whole, the experimental group would need to be carefully constituted with this in mind and its distinctiveness based on comparison with other groups in which exactly the same procedures had been followed

The same methodological qualifications would apply to the instructions given to the groups, the manner of recording the data, as well as the opportunity for the group members to comment on any ‘translation’ of the primary data into either re-cast summary, topic based extracts, key-words, psychological profiling, performative re-enactment and so on… as well the form of feedback on the part of participants.  All this was to apply strictly methodological concerns to what was still an exploratory enterprise.  Future research design of projects seeking to capture the relationship between group narrative and cultural literacy would depend on the prioritisation of certain objectives.  If positive social change or hypotheses for the state of future well-being were seen as the ultimate goal of research based on narrative, then the basis for generalisation would have to be embedded in the method used.

It was clear from the direction of the above discussion that technological innovation was changing all aspects of sociological research and its impacts and was breaking down the divide between qualitative and quantitative approaches.  Data gathering could incorporate the transmission in real time of group discussion, oral narrative and enactment of scenarios on video which could in turn lead to the interactive design of outputs.  For example, imagined end-users of the facility could take on roles within a given narrative structure and could dynamically change the material outcome of the scenario.  The participants’ CL would be developed accordingly, not only as a consequence of adopting the ‘point of view’ of the character they were impersonating but also through having to take account of the situations in which the characters found themselves.  The translation of narrative into interactive games which mobilised verbal, visual and physical skills represented a rich field for innovation in applying story-telling to inter-active simulation for social purposes.  Both personal narration and recorded performance offered lenses which offered insights into the state of CL appertaining to an individual or group.

2.      Music and dramatic performance: a workshop

This, the third ‘discussion’ in the series, consisted of a one day workshop at Bath Spa University, convened by the Professor of Music and Head of the Music Research Group in collaboration with the Director of the university’s Research Centre for Transnational Creativity and Education.  The convenor and joint Chair of the event was a graduate of Dartington College of Arts and Reading University.  She had emerged as a leading international expert on the ethnography of musical practice, particularly that involving the transcultural translation of musical codes, either on the part of an individual composer (Béla Bartók, Michael Finnissy) or, more recently, in the simultaneous creative interaction of musicians from different musical backgrounds.  Apart from exploring the implications of conducting research into culturally mixed live performance, she had been working with educational networks in the South-West of England, enabling her to investigate the incorporation of hybrid musical practice into educational experience.

The scope of investigation undertaken by this varied team was impressive.  Participants had been invited to prepare answers to four questions covering research methodology, the relationship with participant/informant populations and longer term impact/exportability of eventual outcomes.  Virtually all had addressed the questions head on and offered an insightful range of answers which covered many of the issues confronted by pioneers in Cultural Literacy research.

Cultural Literacy, Cultural Studies and Creativity

Before embarking on the individual presentations by researchers and following my general introduction to the CLE/CL project, two questions were raised by the co-convenor.  The first concerned the relationship between CL and ‘Cultural Studies’.  My own brief answer hardly did credit to the complexity of this important question.  ‘Cultural Studies’ was a broad church whose origins lay in the pioneering work of Raymond Williams in the 1950s.  Williams’ Culture and Society was based on an evolutionary model derived from a deterministic, dialectical view of history inspired by Marxist theory.  It explained the transition from an elitist, author-led view of high culture sponsored by the western bourgeoisie to an approach which focused on the politics of cultural production of all kinds in an era increasingly dominated by mass-consumerism.  Cultural artefacts lent themselves to analysis either as the outputs of powerful institutions in capitalist-led societies, supported by Fordist systems of production and raw materials imported from the Third World or as sites of resistance which challenged existing norms.  Since the establishment in 1964 of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham by Richard Hoggart, later directed by Stuart Hall, the interests of specific minority groups based on class, colour, ethnic status, gender, sexual orientation, bodily form and their mode of representation in different cultural media had progressively become objects of critical sociological analysis as part of the so-called ‘cultural turn’.  Closely allied to media studies, such topics were lent global outreach by the US Academy as a reflection of that country’s internal preoccupations.  As succinctly described in Simon During’s revised 2007 introduction to The Cultural Studies Reader [11], the combined influences of post-colonialism, feminism and queer studies, identity politics, subjectivism and the scepticism surrounding post-modernist fragmentation had exploded the early ideological basis of cultural studies as a field of study which now found itself without a clear-cut disciplinary base. The high period of ‘cultural studies’ had given way to the infinite pluralism of post-theory.  It was against a backdrop where the global power of technology, population mobility, the growth of nationalism and the awareness of diversity had superseded intellectual coherence that the concept of CL was now set.  In this discussion, it was being posed as a deliberate, non-partisan challenge which had to be met through education as a fundamental democratic principle, one which took account of the mass-culture of the marketplace while critically opposing it and which engaged with the economics of social change in specific local contexts.

The second question raised the issue of the position of ‘creativity’ within a CL-led research paradigm.  I agreed that creative practice was by definition an engine of culture but was one from which ‘literacy’ could not be excluded.  As I saw it, the inclusion of the term ‘literacy’ as understood by the current initiative implied a degree of consciousness on the part of ‘creators’ in any sphere of life such that their actions and outputs were seen to be making a social contribution which extended beyond individual expression for its own sake.  ‘Creativity’ was not a purely singular project.  It entailed reflexivity and an awareness of its wider significance.  It followed that research could not overlook issues of origin, production, process and sustainable impact while recognising that the work of art was susceptible to being ‘read’ as a lens through which the social dynamics of particular social populations could be better appreciated.  Such an approach was not so far removed from the theoretical position of the German hermeneuticists such as Gadamer and Spitzer, that successful works of art contained within themselves formal features which reflected structural properties of the wider cultural environment.  The current problem, however, was that in a fractured or fragmented context in which cultural norms were themselves inherently dynamically unstable, multi-layered, diverse and hybrid, structural correspondences were hard to identify and unlikely to lend themselves to coherent social action.  ‘Creativity’ was essentially to be valued as a human characteristic insofar as it embodied fundamental freedom of expression as a counterpoint to political hegemony, but creative thinking expressed through practice and material outcomes was equally important if meaningful social impact was to ensue.  Evaluating the relationship between creative expression and cognitive reflection as it applied in particular environments was the challenge which Cultural Literacy had to meet.  Only through high quality research and social action led by education would this be possible.

Orality and Literacy

The first presentation from the local Chair of the workshop focused on the cultural significance of the distinction between written forms of notation and modes of cultural transmission which were dependent on oral traditions.  Musical notation could be seen as analogous to written language in that it was a culturally derived shared code which, like writing, could be removed from its immediate context of performance and re-interpreted in different environments.  Like prose or dramatic script, it transcended the moment but carried with it distilled features of the cultural context in which it had originated.  It could also be understood independently as a convention whose properties were not vested in a particular author yet against which authorial originality could be set.  The potential physical separation between writing and the material combination of time, place and person lent it special status as a symbolic mode of representation (what Derrida [1967] referred to as ‘présence[12]), as distinct from the iconicity of the visual image or sculpture.

The local Chair’s argument was that the independent facility of transmission inherent in written notation should not be ascribed a value which occluded the cultural importance of orality.   Oral traditions and practices more generally were in a sense more immediately significant than their written counterparts in that they were dependent in the era preceding sound recording on the reality of collective performance.  They were a physical embodiment of group belonging whose patterns had to be known by the group if they were to be shared. They had the properties of a language which was collectively ‘understood’.  Transmission of the language was dependent on memory and, as far as music was concerned, on the instruments through which the sounds were transmitted.  It also relied on imitation rather than on an act of translation from an independently written code.  In addition, the oral performance would normally be framed as a ritualised event whose social significance would mostly transcend the act itself.  These physical attributes of the oral tradition did not detract from their symbolic value or from their underlying structural features as a ‘language’, they simply implied that they were inseparable from living practice.

As I subsequently commented, while transmission might take place as an integral part of the social dynamic, in many societies, musical motifs and the content of songs were preserved by individuals: singers or instrumentalists who became the guardians of the cultural legacy they represented (cf the epic as defined by Bakhtin[13], the roles of ‘Rhapsodes’ in the Homeric tradition[14] etc.).  In many cultures, they might be ascribed quasi- spiritual status which preserved alive in sound the souls of forebears as a form of transcendent mediation, or even the basis for culture wars such as those in the Balkans where the names of the instruments and the versions of the epic songs were themselves the subject of border disputes[15].

In a context in which orally transmitted music occupied a cultural position analogous to spoken language, hybridisation became a form of ‘interlanguage’ whose different codes needed to be understood before they could be merged in performance, let alone transmitted to others in their hybrid form.  This was all the more pertinent for the fact that, apart from technical proficiency, performative codes become a constituent part of sound, in turn the product of the emotional and physically spatial relationships between the performers.  Notation was one element of a whole whose cultural significance could only be realised cumulatively in successive performances in which each was a variant of those that had gone before. Even in a purely oral tradition from which written notation was absent, the skills of observation as a form of visual reading, listening, imitation, learning by rote and remembering through practice were paramount to successful performance and cultural continuity.  It was no coincidence that, since classical times, blindness had been a trope applied to the figure of the performer of epic narrative.  Familiarity with the content of the narrative, its rhythmic structure, tonal articulation, conventions governing the representation of character and responsiveness to audience reception were fully internalised by the performer as much as by the listeners with whom it was shared.  What they had in common was cultural literacy.

If the above set of working principles had coherence as an analysis of the interaction between notation, performance and culture, that could only be said to apply for as long as the conventions themselves were relatively stable and had a degree of contextual uniformity.   Organic processes of adaptation or evolutionary change (the Blues, the American folk tradition or the incorporation of Indian or Caribbean motifs into Western popular music) followed traceable filiations which could be deconstructed and ‘explained’ in the traditional language of cultural history [16].  As soon as performative codes were deliberately mixed, however, for experimental purposes, it was a different story.  Musical cross-cultural interaction became an engineered activity, created in what could be described as a laboratory environment which permitted the interactions between performers and the musical codes they brought to the event to be studied as an object of analysis in its own right.  The ‘laboratory’ became a ‘forum for observation’ in which the essential skills of performative reading, listening and imitation as well as the improvisational flexibility of the performers could be tested.  As the local Chair put it, the music-making became literally a ‘rehearsal’ from which provisional conclusions could be drawn: a microcosm from which wider, ‘macro’ insights could emerge.  While stable conventions were dependent on what Schutz described as a specific ‘stock of knowledge’[17], situations in which the conventions were deliberately ‘de-stabilised’ through acts of cultural combination would, in all probability, have unpredictable consequences.

The issues as far as ‘cultural literacy’ was concerned were multiple.  First what special attributes, technical and psychological, were required for group-led, culturally mixed musical performance to succeed?  Second, while the specialist insights gained by the participants and the academic designers of the laboratory-led experiments were fascinating in themselves, what factors would be required for these to be conducted in ‘real-life’ settings, and if they were, what benefits might be anticipated for non-specialist populations?  Third for that benefit to be gained, what ‘stock of knowledge’ or other form of cultural literacy would be needed?  For the Chair, the success of cross-cultural musical experimentation depended on going beyond combination so as to achieve a new generic form.  This meant participants’ passing through three phases: ‘acquisition’, ‘translation’, and ‘transformation’, implying that the performers must each (a) acquire the technical knowledge to appreciate the different musical codes of the other participants, that they must (b) severally and collectively translate their own cultural code into a form which took account of those of the others and finally (c) that through negotiation and practice a new integrated form of musical output be allowed to emerge.  The act of music-making would then become a metonymy for wider forms of cultural interaction, a catalyst for the establishment of a ‘community of practice’ [18].

It was not difficult to see that the human characteristics demanded by such a metamorphosis (listening, learning, imitating, creating, transforming) corresponded closely to the attributes inherent in successful cross-cultural interaction, if not in group interaction generally.  Further, that musical practice (‘collaborative creativity’) was increasingly recognised by the media – almost to the point of commodified cliché – and to a lesser extent in hard pressed secondary schools – as a potent means of promoting belonging, group identity and the respect for difference.  The challenge was now to translate the findings from the laboratory into the context of everyday life with all that this implied in terms of technical musical expertise, logistical organisation, leadership and time.

The relationship between musical notation, the design and sound produced by different instruments and the local contexts in which performance took place was an intrinsically rich field of academic study.  It was an important area of ethnographic research which increased cross-cultural understanding provided that the dangers of exoticisation were neutralised.  The potential, as well as the tensions inherent in this type of research were encapsulated in a presentation of the physical links between the natural environment of South Korea, the material out of which the Korean flute was made, the formal pattern of the musical output which it produced, and the original effect of adapting music derived from western traditions for the instrument.  This the presenter illustrated in a live performance which vividly communicated the properties of the instrument and the appreciation of difference which went with it, though the way in which this might best be translated into cultural practice was left unstated.

Musical universals?

Anyone who had worked in theoretical linguistics in the 1970s and many that followed in the period preceding the discursive, pragmatic turn in the discipline which marked its progressive alliance with sociology and politics was familiar with the search for universals which lay at the heart of the so-called Chomskian revolution[19].  The belief in an innateness hypothesis or ‘language acquisition device’ (LAD) which defined the uniquely human capacity to generate language from an early age was thought to be universal.  The challenge had then been to design an algorithm containing within itself a flexible function capable of generating an infinite number of rule-governed forms in different languages across the world: the paradigm known as Transformational Generative Grammar (TG).  A debate had quickly emerged concerning the difference between ‘formal’ and ‘substantive’ universals, that is between the abstract rules of the algorithm and the realities of linguistic usage, both within and between languages.  Fifty years later, it could be claimed that the hypothetical relationship between formal and substantive universals had never been satisfactorily verified and that while the underlying principle that human beings were biologically capable of learning any language if the structural conditions were right, the correlations between the syntactic, semantic and phonological structures of languages were much harder to establish and had to be learned ‘bottom up’ as well as ‘top-down’ through comparative experience or etymological study.  And this before graphic representation of verbal symbols and scriptology were taken into account.  Instead, current linguistic theory and research practice favoured a relativist position in which, notwithstanding the Chomskian distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’, linguistic form was, to a significant extent, contextually and culturally determined.

Objectively it seemed that the same challenges applied to music – with the one overriding difference that in verbal language, grammatical systems conveyed referential meaning, intention, and propositional logic which were not made explicit in musical sound alone.  Where it exists, musical notation, like that of grammatical description, is nevertheless a metalanguage represented partly in abstract symbols which figure in formulaic formats and partly, within the western tradition at least, in verbal language (piano, fortissimo, diminuendo etc.).  All the above factors came into play in a research proposal forming the basis of another presentation.  This aimed to compare different musical notational conventions with a view to identifying their hypothetical common ground and even to testing their potential for collective performance based on a shared notation – a kind of musical Esperanto.  The apparent difference between this approach: a theoretical development of the practice-led laboratory experiments described above, and the Chomskian position was that it was not explicitly based on an a priori theoretical proposition.  It was an empirical ‘open book’.  It relied on the humanistic aspiration that ‘common ground’ – a kind of musical ‘third space’ was substantively achievable.  Approaches of this kind conformed to the contemporary post-theoretical mould in that they were contextually emergent and experiential and did not depend on a pre-programmed algorithm.  However, the terms in which the outcome were to be represented were not entirely clear in the proposal as it stood.  Sooner or later this was a problem which would have to be confronted, but as a feature of cultural literacy it pinpointed the issues involved in attempting to reconcile cultural difference in a cognitively intelligible musical language which lent itself to replication.  Whether this was possible remained open to speculation but this in no way diminished its importance as a heuristic.

Adaptation, cultural translation and politics

The predominantly synchronic approach adopted by Chomsky was at one level a historic reaction against a diachronic, essentially German, model based on the evolutionary or etymological principle that philology and culture were inseparable.  When this was expressed in cross-cultural terms, the approach became one of identifying themes or movements which would be absorbed by other cultures and modified accordingly, often as a result of the movement of populations.  A combined study of history and aesthetic form enabled such changes to be tracked and ‘explained’ in causal terms.  Such an approach was exemplified by a project which studied the integration of the Polka as a dance form into Paraguay culture.  The Polka had taken on the status of a national symbol of the ‘host’ country.  At the most reductive level, it could then be argued that a key marker of ‘cultural literacy’ for a given sector of Paraguayan society was knowing how to dance the Polka, albeit in a manner somewhat different from its original, Polish form.  The nature of the adaptation could also be studied in more abstract terms through differences in rhythm and tempo reflected in written records as much as in sound recordings: a classic musicological approach.

The proposed research, however, went further.  In line with the point that notational systems often reflected the power of political institutions, the researcher planned to investigate the factors which had led to the Paraguayan adoption of the Polka and, further still, the extent to which young people in Paraguay society saw this as a political counterpoint to their own desire for new forms of dance.  His research was addressing a complex set of questions, each of which would demand a different methodology: from historical archives: books, scores, commentaries, sound and video recordings etc. to live contemporary data, oral and on-line, derived from fieldwork testimony, twitter exchanges and so on which would capture the current attitudes shared by carefully selected populations.  If successful, the work would undoubtedly inform the interdisciplinary approach demanded by research into the relationship between art, politics and cross-cultural translation on which cultural literacy depended.

The nature of ‘understanding’

As already mentioned above in response to the earlier questions from the co-convenor, it was felt that ‘understanding’, which in turn implied an unspecified body of knowledge and technical skill, was integral to cultural literacy.  However, there was nothing fixed about what such knowledge should entail, nor what form it should take in order for a qualified degree of ‘literacy’ to be attained.  The concept of ‘understanding’ itself remained a deeply controversial topic, notwithstanding the investigations of enlightenment philosophers and the dramatic recent advances in neurophysiology (witness the current debates about the neurological origins of ‘empathy’[20]).  It was difficult to evaluate the appropriate balance between emotion and cognition or the part played by creative impulse as a component of cultural literacy, but it remained more or less axiomatic that it should entail a significant cognitive element if memory and sustainable embedding in social behaviour were to extend beyond the moment.  The outstanding question was the form any transferable cognitive framework should take as well as the content to which it should be applied.  These were deep-seated issues which could only be addressed through education and concerted criticality on the part of funding institutions, researchers and creative practitioners alike.

The implications of the above debate were addressed in yet another presentation on the changes in the secondary school curriculum for music which had been heavily influenced by the examination syllabus as well as by the mode of examination (e.g. the move to multiple choice).  The mastery of metalanguage (technical terminology) and its application to musical practice remained a crucial subject of debate.  Did ‘musical literacy’ in its current westernised environment demand a knowledge of key notation, descriptions of tempo etc.?  A marked shift in emphasis in UK syllabi had taken place between 1999 and 2012.  Less importance was attached to historical knowledge and notation and more to ability in performance.  The media, led by televised celebrity competition, as well as more social engaged series such as ‘The Choir’, had played a key role in promoting this trend.  What were the implications of these developments for cultural literacy?

Research on the longer-term impact of these different aspects of what could be described technically as ‘competence’ was important, especially if the influence of different types of music on society at large were to be taken into account.  One Bath Spa project focused on a particular group (The Truro Male Choir).  It had highlighted the centrality of language and media in communicating musical ideas: motivation, the elicitation of performance, quality of output, etc.  Its position was that the formal properties of music which underpinned performance were valuable, not simply as elements of shared knowledge in themselves but as a common cultural foundation which would facilitate the communication of musical ideas and extend performance skills.  The extent to which a prescribed ‘common core’ was necessary or appropriate was left open. Nevertheless, the problem of cognition and knowledge could not be ignored.  It could ultimately only be resolved through empirically informed, political decisions about social priorities and the development of individual sensibilities, reflected in educational practice.  Musical literacy, while it might be a valued attribute in itself, was not the same as cultural literacy as a whole which by definition incorporated an appreciation of social impact.  It was just one example of a wider issue concerning the relationship between knowledge and performance. The project highlighted the twin issues of understanding and content but without proposing a clear-cut solution.  Further close enquiry informed by educational research was needed.

 The artist as cultural mediator

All artists, and musical writer/performers in particular, fulfil an ambivalent cultural role which needs to be taken into account, as much by researchers into CL as by artists themselves.  The issue of their personal creativity has already been alluded to.  Equally significant is their position as culturally constructed figures, products of commercial and historical forces which have brought them to prominence, conditioning the form and content of their output, ensuring its promotion and dissemination and lending them status as personalities.  Inevitably there is a tension between performers’ sense of their responsibility in conveying a message to their audience by generating a collective experience at an event and the visceral identification with the meaning of the words, music and body language chosen to do so.  All the above have long served as foci of cultural studies. The figuration of writer/performers as the products of identifiable processes, has gained in importance as a research field under the heading ‘authorship’, normally restricted to the field of creative writing but now applied more widely to mixed modal forms of creation.  ‘Authorship’ entails not simply the traditional analysis of personal creative practice but, more interestingly, the interaction of writer/performers as cultural artefacts with audiences as actor/respondents in their own right[21].

A further presentation raised all the above issues with particular emphasis on gender identity and inequality.  How these were represented had become an immediate challenge for song writers and performers, especially women. The impact of song writing in performance was changing as new forms of technology such as open microphones were facilitating co-performance, rendering creativity a more collective practice.  This was a reflection of a macro-cultural development in which news-making, documentary and different forms of cultural expression were becoming increasingly dynamic and specific to a given time and space.  This opened the practice of music-making, including song writing, to innovative forms of pedagogy in which both animator and learner could find forms of expression which reflected their immediate concerns – in this instance, gender inequality or other topics which a group felt were relevant and which could be negotiated.  A correlation would need to be sought between differences in the forms of musical representation and the social structures of which they were the expression.  It would be the task of the culturally literate researcher to demonstrate those links in negotiated experiential production involving the researchers and selected participants in a range of contextually specific projects.

Puppetry and the virtual: a meeting place between creative writing, gaming, co-production and performance

The move in dramatic and cinematic production towards the conventions of video-gaming involving preconceived scenarii, the representation of characters as animated cartoon figures which crossed the boundaries between human, animal and the supernatural built on tropes which had marked western and oriental art since pre-classical times from the Balli di Sfessania through Disney to Spielberg.  Over the same space of time, the physicality of pantomime and musical drama had reached across all levels of culture from fairground street performance (funambule) and music-hall to comic opera and globally commercialised musical theatre.  The interest of puppetry as a cultural catalyst was that it contained in concentrated form all the elements of artistic representation, including material craftsmanship, which, as with live theatre, found expression in more or less improvised group performance.  As with theatre and musical event, a scenario could arise directly out of the concerns of a particular population and achieve a form of sublimation through the process of creative representation.

The task set by the researcher on the particular project being presented was to reinterpret ideas emanating from a group of learners and by combining them with other materials such as established folk narratives, video games, dramatic plots and so on, to create a new text.  Once again, the researcher found herself by design in the role of co-operative cultural translator.  The original idea emanating from the participants could then be modified as appropriate to the group and enacted by puppets created by the learning team, in this case moving behind a flat surface such as a table acting as a form of stage.  It was clear from the presentation that a creative format such as she was describing had enormous potential for the development of cultural literacy since it brought together all the inter-modal elements entailed by creative dramatic production, including mixing physical puppetry with digitally devised audio-visual effects and independent translation into video format.  The virtue of this type of co-authorship together with collective collaboration in the creative process of ‘making’ – including scene design, mini set painting, musical track recording and so on – allowed for the richest meeting point between tradition and contemporary social concerns.  It involved a stock of knowledge and its translation into an output at once physical and virtual which lent itself to easy dissemination.

Performance and sustainability

One of the most intriguing methodological aspects of relating group creativity and performance to longer term impact was to compare past experiment with retrospective analysis.  It was clear that to talk of CL implied lasting change both on the part of a population who were acquiring skills through experience and reflection and for educators whose professional responsibility it was to devise situations in which co-creative experience would lead to lasting outcomes.  The nature of the collective experience would not only affect the individual but would be designed to be transmissible to others within the same community at the domestic and professional levels.  The presentation of yet another projected experiment was therefore of the greatest relevance.  Having invited trainee teachers to co-compose a piece of music as an example of creative pedagogy which they might replicate with pupils, the outcome was recorded and was then listened to again several years later as an object of reflection for a new generation of trainees.  The primary retrospective data of the research would consist of the recorded verbal reflections of the later generation on the design and outcome of the earlier experiment.  It would raise questions concerning the pedagogical effectiveness of the teaching method and the cultural significance of changes in musical taste which had taken place in the intervening period.  The presenter had listened to the earlier recording and had been struck by how dated it sounded. She was inviting the group to consider in the light of her experience what might be learned about cultural literacy as an educational objective and how such material might best be exploited in the current climate for training purposes.

In response, it was recognised in discussion that longitudinal studies were of the highest importance when it came to evaluating the cultural impact of educational practice but were difficult to design and carry through in practice.  Certain classic examples stood out: Marsden and Jackson’s Education and the Working Class[22], the still current Granada Television’s study of personal changes in outlook over successive decades based on successive face to face interviews[23], but this was not the same as targeted investigation of specific pedagogical interventions.  The potential existed for research into retrospective reflection on experimentally induced experience to form a key strand in the investigation of cultural literacy and its promotion through education.

Appropriation, definition and method

Underlying the discussion as a whole was the cultural specificity of the CLP/CLE Cultural Literacy project itself.  Who was asking the questions and what were the assumptions on which the questions were based?  This very paper, like the workshop itself, marks a critically reflexive attempt to address this fundamental question.  One discussant rightly argued that it was impossible to address the questions as framed without adopting a position on what cultural literacy meant for him and that he needed to reflect further on the position that he would find most coherent in terms of his own cultural background.  There was no obvious solution to this conundrum.  As with Michel Foucault’s celebrated opening to his 1970 inaugural address to the Collège de France[24], a relative starting point has to be adopted by the researcher in terms which are not simply a reflection of western-inspired post-enlightenment rationalism.  Authentic ethnicity is non-universal by definition yet globalisation of trade and the geopolitics of economic power militate against the durability of micro-cultures.  Spaces which are culturally self-sufficient are unsustainable without an adequate economic base, yet in the absence of material prosperity, their inhabitants enjoy forms of cultural literacy which are reflected in the transmissibility of their several ways of life.  Simply to acknowledge that reality and to learn to respect it through dialogue must constitute the core of a form of cultural literacy on the part of the researcher which has to understand itself before it can reasonably investigate that of others.  Research is inevitably positioned.  The only legitimate starting point for investigating cultural literacy is to recognise the forces which frame design and method in a given context and, through action, to seek outcomes whose long-term benefit to particular populations can be clearly identified.

3.      Cinematography, documentary and performance-led research

This discussant was currently Head of the department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at Kings College London.  Her reputed expertise lay in the impact of technical advances in filmmaking on its democratisation and accessibility.  Her previous and current projects had clear implications for cultural literacy in that they took fully into account the fact that privately created moving images had become the stock in trade of everyday communication, due to the rapid development of personalised software applications.  Such changes were opening new opportunities for creative pedagogy whilst simultaneously presenting fresh challenges to research methodology.  They also allowed for creative engagement in cultural activities by more diverse populations than had generally been the case in the UK.  Personal creative autonomy was challenging the domination of popular culture by television, advertising and other forms of corporate media.  At the same time it left the creators open to exploitation by those same multinational corporations by enabling them themselves to become profit-making agents.

The relationship between new techniques of film-making and CL affected three populations in particular: first, those responsible for the creative output itself: established artists, scriptwriters, producers, directors and increasingly ‘amateur’ (sic.) members of the public, second, researchers whose job it was to analyse, understand and communicate to a wider audience the processes which lead to the generation of specific forms of cultural output and third, members of the general public as recipients of the filmic performances and mixed-media physical artefacts to which they were exposed.  Increasingly these populations overlapped with each other.  The merging of creative functions and their socio-cultural impacts formed the basis of the discussion.  The main issues had been summed up in the questions below briefly addressed at the CLE Warsaw conference in May 2017.  They were illustrated by at least one project currently being undertaken under the direction of the discussant.

  • To what extent has mobilised cinema led to the democratisation and accessibility of filmmaking?
  • What are the conditions and politics of production within the milieu of mobilised cinema? How can these be accessed and analysed?
  • What are the theoretical and methodological tools required to ‘read’ culture in mobilised cinema practices where the sites of spectatorship are dispersed and the content is very often ephemeral? What are the politics of access and circulation?
  • How do emergent forms of ephemeral content impact upon the interpretive practices needed for the analysis of their impacts?
  • What is the further potential of a mobilised cinema for the expression of human rights issues in transnational and global contexts?

The term ‘mobilised cinema’ referred to the fact that hand-held cameras capable of taking moving pictures were by definition personalised and instantaneously transferable and that the images thus recorded were subject to widespread dissemination which by-passed corporately controlled distribution networks.  New technologies were allowing hand-held filming to be more flexible in its functions.  For example, fragmentary, simultaneous ‘takes’ by multiple cameras of a collectively experienced event allowed for different perspectives to be represented in a single sequence.  Other ‘special effects’, previously only generated by sophisticated in-studio techniques, were now accessible to interested individuals with only limited training alongside more or less highly qualified creative talent.

The diverse practices made possible by these technological advances could be summed up by the term ‘witnessing’:  the potential for observers to become participants by recording everyday life events, obtaining immediate responses capable of modifying the way in which the event proceeded, potentially affecting its outcome.   Common interactive recording of events by public and performers constituted what could be described as an ‘immersive circle’: a more flexible model of the traditional ethnographic ‘loop’ in which commentary by an observer gives rise to further comment by the ‘observed subject’.  By undermining the observer/observed dichotomy, immersive technology altered the traditional model of documentary in which a reporter and subsequent producer/director mediated the event, inevitably imposing their own interpretation on its significance through selective use of the data and the mode of acquiring it in the first place.  ‘Interactive documentary’ (idocs) made possible by new technologies allowed for a re-assessment of cultural literacy: the replacement of traditional ‘linear’ forms of mediation by ones which were dialogic, more dynamic, provisional and situationally enactive, one in which commentary and response become an intrinsic part of the event[25].

A related area of research which had been directly affected by technological change was the development of social media as a record of everyday life: an elaboration of the BBC’s ‘Listen to Britain’ archive begun in the 1930s or the evidence of testimonial as legacy as traditionally typified by, amongst others, the 1960s’ Akenfield project[26]. The fact that social media was authentically unstructured and interactive lent such data a different type of cultural significance which called for innovative forms of discourse analysis.  It might focus on interactive storytelling such as that developed by the UWE Bristol idocs team[27] or simply on shared, ‘home produced’, reflections of the everyday which could then be deconstructed as research data.

Another aspect of performance-led filmmaking was the capacity to engage with socially derived art-forms which were currently marginalised by mainstream cinema.  It clearly challenged Hollywood produced hip-hop such as that of the immensely popular Pitch Perfect film series, involving instead on-site records of funambulesque performance or street cabaret which took social critique out of the studio and auditorium into public space (nouvelle-nouvelle vague? see the 2017 film directed by the veteran Agnès Varda in collaboration with the youthful son of Jean-Luc Godard JR[28]).  As a counter-genre whose origins reached back beyond medieval times to classical festival and later fairground performance, the application of interactive filmic technology facilitated a more socially authentic form of expression than that of the globally marketed pop-video or conceptualised, aesthetically inspired, scenography.  It incorporated actors who were themselves otherwise excluded from publicly mediated forms of artistic expression, enabling them to co-participate in collectively inspired shared events which commented on social conditions, allowing for on-line streaming, which could itself become graphically interactive.  Such experimentation was the basis of a forthcoming project run by the Kings team in collaboration with the University of Brighton.

The speed of the ready-made, instantly accessible video also facilitated innovation in research design.  It enabled questions and semi-structured interviews to be more easily composed and retrospection to be based on previously recorded material.  At the same time, it drew attention to the scientific importance of selecting appropriate topics and sample populations as well as the need to establish methods of data analysis leading to  longer term impact.  The capacity of software to analyse ‘big data’ recorded verbally or in audio-visual form made for speedier access to existing material, whether on-line or archivally stored, facilitating empirical analysis based on ‘action-led’ categorial features.  It also raised important questions concerning the way in which audio-visual data was presented in academic publications.  New approaches prioritised multi-media montage rather than analysis of mises-en-scène based on individual frames.  In this, the institutional infrastructure of journal-based publication and quality evaluation was ‘behind the curve’, as was the content based, interpretative modes of analysis which had traditionally characterised ‘film studies’.

As far as researchers in Arts and Social Sciences were concerned, the ubiquity of ‘mobile cinematography’ meant that to be ‘culturally competent’, they had to be not only to be historically informed of past documentary procedures and their impacts on social behaviour, but also theoretically grounded in the ethnography of participant-designed, practice-led research.  It implied more widespread expertise in the application of new digital instruments to complex mixed data, demanding team work in collaboration with research-led laboratories closely associated with individual projects.

Equally challenging at a fundamental level was the pressure to deconstruct the social effects of change in patterns of interaction between individuals and groups.  It was a noteworthy feature of contemporary culture that the extraordinary mobility of interactive responses to events, whether of documentary status as news items or aspects of daily life should have been accompanied by an emphasis on the emotional and the subjective.  In lauding interaction – the dialogic – as an intrinsically unstable form of representing an unstable and inconclusive reality, there was a danger of traducing the authentically personal, the understanding which meaningfully related past and present.  The liquid immediacy of technologically driven cultural literacy, while promoting an artistically inspired challenge to corporate hegemony came at a cost which could arguably only be alleviated in the public sphere through historically informed education.

4.      Some implications of Technology on project design, management and impact.

The next discussant was Deputy Director of the Computer Laboratory of the

Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Kings College University, London.  She was supported by one doctoral and one post-doctoral researcher, the latter CI on a CL project involving secondary school pupils in an East London Borough.  The primary function of the Kings unit was to support research activities within the Faculty by advising staff and re-designing existing software programmes. There was a particular emphasis on methods of data collection, storage and analysis.  However, the mission of the lab went further.  Insofar as humanities research was increasingly concerned with forms of literacy which relied on integrated access to technological communication systems (Apps, Social Media, Multi-modal text, Textual form, On-line publication, Co-creation and so on), new approaches to capturing the data to be analysed, the techniques of analysis and the subsequent commentary on findings were radically changing the design of research projects and fundamentally altering the nature of cultural literacy itself among the general population.  It was doing so to different degrees and in different ways according to the age of users, their educational backgrounds, their individual habits and abilities, and was conditioning the types of ‘text’ which were being ‘read’ as well as the process of ‘reading’ itself.  It was also radically changing the nature of community through the impact of virtual networks on human relations.

The cultural impact of such developments was re-defining the scope of humanities research, to such an extent that the multiple implications of the term ‘digital humanities’ were outstripping the capacity of research methods and educational curricula to keep pace with the rate of change.  Technology was transforming the relationship between researchers and informants in that research was becoming less reliant on verbally recorded data and more on interactive, immersive performance in which the researcher was simultaneously observer and co-participant.  More than previously, the process of ‘reading’ culture and thereby developing cultural literacy was a shared, technology-led experience.  It also involved access to a wider and more numerous range of textual and audio-visual material than ever before, demanding a continuously expanding set of skills and modes of understanding.  In addition to supporting more than 200 initiatives led by other colleagues in the faculty, the lab was meeting this challenge through its own externally funded projects of which two were presented and discussed.

The first investigation was seeking to analyse the relationship between texts made accessible through the application of ‘big data’ as a means tracking the emergence of dominant or hegemonic forms of expression in discursive frames.  The close analysis of the speech habits of different sectors of populations, alongside other types of information on lifestyles, professional and domestic circumstances etc. as well as psychographic profiling were tools in common use by corporations, political parties and criminal elements seeking to profit from the dissemination of false news.  These developments had been made possible through big data analysis which had become a cultural phenomenon in its own right as well as an instrument of independent research.

The second project Coding Education, funded under the AHRC Creative Economy programme, had been conceived as a response to a situation in which young people were dominated by technologies affecting every aspect of their lives but without understanding the principles on which the technologies were based.  Formal teaching of programming was rejected by many learners as dry and detached from lived experience.  The rationale behind the project was that to be culturally literate, more young people should be informed of the practical applications of coding and should have developed basic skills in its use.  These could most effectively be acquired through real life simulation.  In the Coding Education project, coding was designed as a game, conducted in groups, in which actors – professionals or trained ‘participants’ – adopted the role of ‘ghosts’ whose movements followed fixed patterns.  Working in teams, the learners’ task was to design an ‘app’ which would anticipate their movements: a programme from which the ‘ghosts’ could not escape.  The preliminary information was presented in the form of narratives which the groups of learners were then invited to translate into code in order to ‘engineer’ the ghosts’ capture.  A particular interest of the project was its dependence on group work and collaboration with outside experts in performance.  The project was designed as an educational prototype.  Its more general replication within schools within the setting of the school had still to be tested, as did the best techniques for evaluating students’ progress.

The second discussion focusing on technology was with a Research Associate with a background in psycholinguistics and corpus-based data analysis, previously attached to the Department of History at Lancaster University under the auspices of the Institute for Social Futures (ISF).  His relevant expertise lay in the educational application of Minecraft, a software programme first developed in Sweden, recently purchased by Microsoft and operated in the UK through the Aberdeen based company 4J.  Minecraft allowed the selective analysis of large corpora of verbal data to be made flexibly available, at minimal cost, for different forms of cognitive mapping, including the imaging of spatial configurations.  The facility was designed for educational contexts where the application of the programme could be seen to have wider benefits for society at large.  The discussant was currently working on a follow-up to the original Lakecraft Project (see below), this second initiative was an AHRC-funded project under Lancaster’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities Fellowship programme, extending the application of the Minecraft software to the cognitive processes involved in reading and understanding literary text in spatial terms.  His research was attached to The Wordsworth Centre at Lancaster University, within the Department of English Language and Literature.

The original Lakescraft Project, is unfortunately now in abeyance. It appeared to be an excellent example of developing CL through the application of new technology.  It was aimed at a specific population in a particular locality, was based on a cross-section of society in terms of socio-economic background and was rooted in an educational environment. It was a one-year AHRC-funded project which aimed to translate verbal data derived from non-fictional descriptive text on the topography of the English Lake District into an on-line gaming format using Minecraft.  It deserved to be extended.  Its aim was to develop pupils’ spatial awareness of the Lake District as a physical and historically constructed environment.  It had the potential for further development thanks to the future availability of data from the Ordnance Survey which would enable Minecraft to incorporate further information on the iconic and physical features of the Lakeland landscape.  It would therefore tap into determinants of identity and belonging, potentially capture aspects of everyday life and highlight economic activities which might go on to become part of children’s cultural capital.

The main challenge facing the Lakescraft team was to adapt the software for the appropriate keystages in the existing examination curricula.  Even having designed a progressive series of modules, the problem remained of embedding the programme in classroom practice.  Not surprisingly, this depended on the aptitude and experience of individual teachers, as well as on their willingness to experiment with innovative pedagogical material.  It was unfortunate that due to the ending of the one year’s funding of

Lakecraft, its full potential had not so far been realised.  Instead, the experience gained was now being applied on a different and arguably more controversial canvas: that of topographically reconstructing the imagined world of fictional text, a technique which could perhaps be described as a form of linguistically derived cinematography or sophisticated illustration.  The pedagogical application of this technology is still under development.  It is an interesting – perhaps frustrating – reflection of the institutional factors governing research focus and methodology that the applied benefits of the Lakescraft Project should not have been followed through due to the disciplinary shift of the researcher from one department to another.  It had the advantage, however, that the relevance of Minecraft for the development of CL could be applied to two different forms of knowledge.

 What was the relevance of the Minecraft applications to cultural literacy?

As far as researchers are concerned, technical expertise in the design of the application for educational purposes was crucial.  Such knowledge and skill lay outside the realm of many arts and humanities researchers, even at the younger end of the spectrum.  The importance of working in bespoke teams could not be overestimated.  The Faculty-based Kings model was effective, but depended entirely on the quality and volume of its staff who were qualified to operate at the same level as full-time academic colleagues.  It demonstrated the extent to which CL research was bound up with education and cognitive development in particular.  In the Lancaster case, the researcher’s combined expertise in etymology and socio-linguistics alongside highly developed computing skills was the defining feature of the project.  Without these, neither project could have existed.  It demonstrated the interrelationship between language, human geography and the perceptual skills involved in understanding space.

With reference to CL, the impact of the models on young learners was equally fundamental.  It touched on the critical distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘false’ which is of course perhaps the commonest critique of virtual reality, especially when the mediatic instruments are controlled by large corporations and when virtual experience becomes, as Debord puts, it indistinguishable from the physical relationship between human consciousness and the natural environment [29].  Alongside the physical pleasure and pain derived from lived experience, CL implies awareness: the knowledge and mental capacity to differentiate between the real and the virtual.  The extent to which the Lakescraft project was able to address these issues had not so far been clarified, any more than had the implications for literary studies that of the subsequent Minecraft-inspired project in which the discussant was now engaged.  The heuristic value of both projects remained to be demonstrated.

5.      The role of policy

The influence of current policy on the development of cultural literacy research derives from the author’s role as consultant to The Missenden Centre[30], alongside discussions with leading advisors to AHRC strategy and international humanitarian agencies such as UNESCO.  The present study falls at a time when the merger between the major UK research councils is seeking simultaneously to promote cost-effectiveness and inter-disciplinarity.  At the time of writing (July 2018), on the eve of the 2020 Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey, the balance between economic competitiveness and speculative research combining Arts and Humanities and Social Science methodologies remains critically unresolved.  It is widely recognised that CL is as important to effective economic management as it is to the quality of life in society as a whole.  Yet despite the efforts of research councils to combine critical thinking with economic development, discussions point towards inevitable strategic shortfalls.  The divide between Humanities and Social Science still exists at a time when a new generation of graduates has been familiarised from early childhood with social media and its implications for information access and sharing.   Discussions covered the validity of CL as a field of research, the qualified success of UK research policy regarding the promotion of CL, the training of researchers, the design and methodology of research projects, public access to the results, the social impact of funded research and the long-term benefits to researchers and the general public.

Cultural Literacy as a field of research

Some scepticism was expressed about CLE’s adoption of the term ‘cultural literacy’.  Suggested alternatives included ‘creative practice’, ‘cultural value’, and ‘cultural agility’.  The word ‘literacy’ was excessively ‘traditional’ and smacked of ‘high culture’.  It was also felt that the central roles of language and cultural translation had been underplayed.  I insisted that CL did not imply an a priori position on cultural value and repeated that the generally accepted meaning of the term ‘literacy’ needed to be extended in order to embrace a creative combination of practice and awareness in addition to an exclusively hermeneutic approach towards existing artefacts.  The binary distinction in the application of CL to ‘researchers’ (i.e. those professionally responsible for conducting studies into the nature of cultural understanding among different groups in society) and that of members of the general public themselves as ‘the observed’ was accepted as inevitable in principle but increasingly questionable in practice.  Co-participation was becoming an imperative in the design of culturally led research and superseded traditional ethnographic method.  Transcultural projects which focused on cultural literacy were shared phenomena.  They demanded a phenomenological approach[31] which combined performance and recorded data, demanding familiarity with theoretical ‘literature’, research design and methodology extending beyond the strict boundaries of their specialism as well the skills and aptitudes involved in collaboration.  Despite such reservations as the above, there was broad consensus that CL was a viable concept which could usefully be applied critically to the current state of research into the role of culture in society in an era dominated by political division, global finance and nationalism.

The centrality of language

For both researchers and as for the public at large, a fundamental feature of CL was language:  the ability to communicate within and beyond the limitations of verbal expertise in trans-lingual environments, whether intra-lingual or conventionally inter-lingual in character.  This principle applied as much within as between national boundaries in overcoming the specificities of dialect, accent and culturally specific discourse.  While culture necessarily involved the capacity to symbolise in and through verbal language and other forms of mediation such as music and signing, it also entailed the patterns of life incorporated into ritual and everyday aspects of communal belonging, as well the meaning of bodily movement and gesture.  In this sense, the analysis of contemporary culture retained the ethnographic character of its anthropological origins with the significant difference that the modern-day ethnographer employed techniques derived from co-participation rather than from a binary ‘top down’ relationship between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ with its patriarchal vestiges of the colonial dynamic.  There remained the issue of what could be termed ‘granulation’ (the fact that the identification of culturally specific ‘informant groups’/aka ‘participants’ was susceptible to infinite fragmentation… ‘fractalisation’, and was therefore problematic to categorise meaningfully).  Selection of specific groups ran counter to the desirability of confronting diversity as an expression of cultural literacy and yet boundaries had to be set if the research were to be cogent.  This was particularly significant where language was concerned.

 Research Council strategy as a lever of investigation into Cultural Literacy

While the range and sophistication of UK research councils and alternative funding opportunities were remarkable by any standards, a number of factors were impeding the capacity of projects to promote sustainable social change.  The concept of ‘impact’, laudable in principle, implied too direct a cause-effect relationship between a given project and its potential outcomes in the sense that application criteria demanded that the latter be anticipated in advance at the expense of more open-ended investigative research.  The result was that project outcomes tended to be too time-limited and project-specific rather than supporting a joined up, sustainable developmental strategy.  As a promoter of CL, the ‘Connected Communities’ programme[32] had been an exception to this generalisation and illustrated the benefit of other thematically based programmes such as ‘Translating Cultures’.  At the same time, the mobilisation of ‘impact’ within REF was a highly resource-intensive exercise in consciousness-raising.  It was putting a strain on the resources available both at the HE institutional and national levels.  REF had been an exemplary mechanism for focusing on quality and accountability but had arguably achieved its objectives in terms of cost-effectiveness and was ripe for reform.

Another drawback of the ‘accountability agenda’ was the bureaucratic framing of the application process.  By analogy with impact, the focus on aims and objectives tended to predetermine outcomes rather than these being a function of the research itself.  There was scope for greater open-endedness in the exploratory analysis of definable social issues attributable to cultural illiteracy.  As with previous approaches to literacy studies, there was a case for concentrating on existing cultural practice and the habit-forming attitudes which underpinned it rather than following a line which identified in advance what desirable activities should consist of.

The reliance on discipline-specific peer group assessment of research imposed its own limitations.  While in no way seeking to undermine the Haldane principle according to which universities, and by extension the academic community, should be free from political ‘interference’ to define their own research agenda, it could be argued that an excessively ‘demand-led’ system was limiting the scope and volume of imaginative interdisciplinary projects likely to investigate and promote sustainable CL.  There was a case for allocating a larger proportion of the available public resources to thematic, pathway-led, intrinsically interdisciplinary programmes which extended over a longer period so as to allow their outcomes to be more permanently embedded in social practice.  It was also true that despite the ubiquity of web-based information, project outcomes were not readily accessible to the general public nor their value internalised by citizens at large.  This inevitably meant that the benefits of projects tended to be specific to the populations to which they had referred rather than being more widely applied.   Despite the pressure on applicants to demonstrate the sustainable potential of research outcomes, funders lacked the means to verify their long-term effects which were often dissipated or simply overtaken by events.

Cultural Literacy and the development of young researchers

Apart from the excessively formulaic structure of application forms and despite the positive emphasis on inter-disciplinarity inherent in the merging of research councils, a significant factor in the narrowing the focus of research expertise was the training afforded to doctoral and post-doctoral students.  The highly specialised, extended character of the traditional PhD within the UK limited students’ familiarisation with the different methodologies demanded by social science.  The result was an enduring schism between quantitative and qualitative research, to the detriment of the latter insofar as data analysis based on selective quotation lent itself all too easily to accusations of subjectivity and anecdote by avatars of metrics.  Modern digital programmes enabling the rigorous deconstruction of larger corpora and the dynamic flexibility of categories allowed by recent ethnographic tools meant that the social science/humanities divide could more easily be overcome than in the past.  This was all the more important at a time when material being researched derived from a variety of textual sources.  Yet the scope for training in such approaches remained restricted as did the requirement as part of doctoral coursework to extend the theoretical base within which students were working.  There was a case for establishing doctoral programmes beginning at Masters level which focused less on utilitarian co-funding and more on securing a solid intellectual grounding in social theory and research method.  Such an overview would simultaneously preserve the critical rigour and applicability of the PhD qualification, which was currently undermined by the wide variety of practices and standards within different institutions.

Co-participation and teamwork

A leitmotif in the call for greater inter-disciplinarity and the recognition that research agendas should be broadened has been the promotion of mixed teams.  It nevertheless remains an issue within existing reward systems in UKHE, especially in the humanities, that individual output is still accorded pre-eminence over group-based research, or rather that the latter alone is judged insufficient in itself to merit high order peer group recognition within individual fields.  Broadening the base and combining diverse expertise in collaborative projects is all too often seen as a dilution within a given ‘Unit of Assessment’.  As already discussed, even ‘impact’ is seen in the context of the REF as a product of specific UOEs rather than in terms of its wider social implications.  Yet in an era where technical know-how has become a sine qua non of analytical procedures leading to effective outcomes, the sole fact of incorporating IT support into project management is no longer an adequate response to the challenges presented to researchers by modern communication systems.  Neither is ‘modernisation’ for its own sake an appropriate epistemological reaction.  Increasingly, mixed teams engaging expertise in cognate disciplines such as history, ethnography, art, performance and film, religion, discourse analysis, language, literature and cultural studies should be prioritised if a critical understanding of society and culture is to be developed.   And these objectives cannot be successfully pursued without active collaboration with educational institutions at regional and national levels.

The issue of teamwork leads on to that of co-participation.  Agenda-led research or the critical preoccupations of academic specialists did not necessarily correspond to the material or spiritual needs of groups in society.  This was especially true in contexts dominated by linguistic and cultural difference whether this be intra-nationally or in other countries.  There was a current promoting the engagement of the ‘observed’ in the design of contemporary research projects such that ‘informants’ or ‘subjects’ become ‘recast’ as fully fledged participants from the early planning stage onwards and that the research be both reflexive, multi-directional and action-led.  One of the most noteworthy recently completed international projects involving mixed-method co-participative, action research was the AHRC-funded ‘Researching Multilingually: The Body, the Law and the State’ (, in which the issues of preserving local cultural and linguistic identity within the oppressive environment of a divided African state and the problems of communicating these to a culturally and linguistically distanced international audience were explored through narrative and performance in close collaboration with an international research team.  The focus of the project was as much on the methodological challenges posed by a ‘decolonisation’ agenda as it was on positing sustainable outcomes for the participants themselves.  In this respect the project carried with it its own message:  the need for ‘on-site’ exchange which was politically and economically neutral and constituted its own narrative.  The outreach of the project was best described in terms of ‘deployment’ rather than ‘definition’, through translation into other discursive forms: poetry, documentary, theatrical performance and so on.  In this way, as with other cases mentioned above, local cultural practice, narrative, artistic representation and retrospective reflection form part of a mixed agenda.  Built-in flexibility increases the demand for teamwork and shared expertise which in turn requires special training in project design and management.  This, as already outlined, should be incorporated into PhD programmes.  It also calls for projects whose outcomes are more open-ended and exploratory rather than being primarily objective-led.

Evaluation and outcomes

The topic of project evaluation has already been mentioned above.  Given the importance of verifying lasting impact and of monitoring progress, it was felt that the current mode of assessment was too systems-led.  It tended to invite excessively formalistic criteria and evaluation which focused on individual projects at the expense of gaining a general overview such as that provided by the AHRC’s CVP review discussed above.  One advantage of a thematic approach was that, as with the AHRC’s ‘Translating Cultures’ programme, the theme-leader, aided by an advisory group, acted as a project mentor during its lifetime and that, moreover, s/he had an ‘insider’ understanding of the interrelationships between the different projects funded under that theme and could advise accordingly.  In short, the mentoring system was much more flexible and allowed for adjustment along the way.  It also permitted a more realistic estimation of the longer-term opportunities presented by individual projects and could serve as a basis for selectively extending funding in order to facilitate sustainable embedding.

If lasting change was to take place, there was a case for thinking not only in terms of the longitudinal potential of individual projects but more broadly within an interdisciplinary, context-specific framework which would allow a more joined-up approach to the evaluation of social outcomes.  From this perspective, a more explicitly regional approach might be beneficial, one which would take fuller account of existing infrastructure such that the issue of ‘granulation’ referred to above could be addressed with particular contexts in mind.  It would follow that meaningful ‘outreach’ should be a more significant priority within frameworks such that local advantage would be gained from closer engagement between university-led research and government-funded institutions such as libraries and schools, cultural institutions and media as part of planning policy.

6.      General Conclusions

The present study is incomplete.  Insufficient coverage of the issues connected with information storage and access to knowledge: the relationship between the notion of the archive and the internet, the role of libraries and museums and so on as well as the incorporation into the review of the increasing importance attaching to fine arts and installation (‘artistic practices’) into the ‘domains of creative practice’ referred to in the introduction.  These, together with an update on funding policy which conditions research into cultural literacy are major lacunae which deserve to be addressed.  It is also clear that, for reasons of resources, the study has been almost entirely UK-based and would benefit from input from international collaborators, in and beyond Europe.  Nevertheless, a number of general interim conclusions can be drawn, if only to highlight priority areas in the promotion of CL within what are already topics of political and epistemological debate:

  • A continued focus on inter-disciplinarity, in particular as regards the combination of mixed-methodologies involving secondary sources such as literature and historical text as well as fieldwork data collection and analysis, combined with the appropriate technological expertise.
  • The importance of team-based, project-led research which, while concentrating on specific local issues, is capable of modelling research practice applicable in different international environments.
  • The centrality of ‘reflexivity’, an in-built awareness of the limitations of the outcomes of the research imposed by the cultural context, project design and data collection.
  • The need to give language (‘trans-languaging’) a higher profile in research projects, as reflected in the analysis of non-native language data and communication in multicultural environments, both as regards speech habits within and between groups and interaction between researchers and the populations targeted by the research.
  • The implications of the above for more ‘open-ended’ investigative methodologies based on co-participation: bottom-up consultation with participants, co-design of performance and evaluation and variety in dissemination practices.
  • The need for greater emphasis on mixed methodology training as a monitored, integral component of doctoral programmes. This should also include an in-built theoretical formation covering major historical precedents.
  • Closer collaboration between university research institutes, schools and agencies responsible for secondary education curricula.
  • Greater integration of innovative IT programmes into secondary school and HE pedagogical practice.
  • Further development of integrated programmes which investigate cultural literacy as an outcome of educational practice. These should include activities involving the combination of the creative arts and an evaluation of the learning outcomes.
  • A greater focus on sustainability of outcomes over short-term impact i.e. close analysis of longer-term cultural change resulting from CL developmental project.


The compilation of this interim draft report would not have been possible without the advice and input of friends and colleagues whose experience has informed the CL project over the last few years:

Muli Amaye, Sarah Atkinson, David Barton, Amanda Bayley, Bambo Soyenka and the Bath Spa team, Rebecca Braun, James Butler, Nathalie Carré, Loura Conerney, Arianna Ciula, Adam Fish, Charles Forsdick, Corinne Fowler, Elizabeth Fryer, Mary Hamilton, Gabriel Garcia Ochoa, Dorota Jarecka, Patryzja Kaszinska, Pete Kalu, Jackie Kay, Sandra Kemp, Joanna Kosmalska, Szymon Kula, Maciej Maryl, Graham Mort, Lynn Pearce, Jo Pemberton, Alison Phipps, Ute Papen, Qaisra Sharaz, Naomi Segal, Emily Spiers, SuAndi, Galin Tihanov, Karin Tusting, John Wakeford, Li Wei and many others.

Robert Crawshaw

Lancaster June 2018

[1]See the entry on the CLE website describing the aims and objectives of the SIG ( ).
[2]Alan Brown ‘An Architecture of Value’ in The GIA Reader (Santa Monica: Grantmakers, 2006), Vol. 17, No.1 p.19.
[3]Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phénoménologie de la Perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945)
[4]Edwin Hirsch, What every American needs to know (New York: Random House, 1988).
[5] Alan Brown op.cit.
[6]Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszynska Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture: Report on the AHRC Cultural Value Project (London: AHRC, 2016)
[7] See Kevin F. McCarthy et al. Gifts of the Muses: reframing the debate about the Benefits of the Arts (Santa Monica: The Wallace Foundation, 2004)
[8] Stuart Hall ‘Who needs identity?’ in S.Hall & P.du Gay (eds.) Questions of Cultural identity (London: Sage, 1996)
[9] Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation (London: Penguin, 1989)
[10] Seamus Heaney, The Parliament of the Tongue (London: Faber & Faber, 1988).
[11] Simon During (ed.) The Cultural Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2007)
[12] Jacques Derrida, De la Grammatologie ( Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967).
[13] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘The epic and the novel’ in Michael Holquist (ed.) The Dialogic Imagination (Austin/London: University of Texas, 1982).
[14] Albert Lord The Singer of Tales (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1960/2000).
[15] Robert Crawshaw ‘Literature, metahistory, ethnography, cultural heritage and the Balkans: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H.’, in R.Byram and U. Kockel (eds.) Moving, Mixing and Memory in Contemporary Europe (Berlin: Lit. Verlag, 2006), pp.54-75.
[16] see Carolyn Cooper Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘vulgar’ body of Jamaican popular culture (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1995)
[17] Christine Skarda ‘Albert Schutz’s Phenomenology of Music’ in Journal of Musicological Research Vol.3, 1-2, 1979, pp.75-132.
[18] Ted Cantle [Chair and ed.] Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team (London: Home Office, 2001).
[19] Noam Chomsky Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge: MIT, 1965) ff.
[20] Robert Crawshaw ‘Beyond Emotion: Empathy, Social Contagion and Cultural Literacy’ in Maciej Maryl and Naomi Segal [eds.] (London: Palgrave, forthcoming 2018)
[21] See Rebecca Braun et al.
[22] Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class (London: Penguin/Pelican, 1973).
[23] Granada Television 7-Up series .
[24] Michel Foucault L’Ordre du Discours (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).
[25] see
[26] Ronald Blythe Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (London: Penguin, 1969/2002)
[28] Agnès Varda and JR (dirs.) Visages Villages
[29] Guy Debord La Société du Spectacle (Paris: Buchet Chastel, 1967/Gallimard, 1992).
[30] The Missenden Centre .
[31] Clark Moustakas Phenomenological Research Methods (London: Sage, 1994).