Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Issues with Quantification II: "Social Movements"

I just finished breaking down the Thriving Arts report I keep whinging on about into its component parts--just the distilled information in my MindMap software. So now the ruminating begins while I look-up other sources.

Today's question comes from one of the more surprising but enlighting passages in the report:

Of greatest significance to the present study, the work [by Mark J. Stern and Susan Seifert in their Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP)] discusses commuity arts as "weak organizations" with strong social impact. The study suggests the need to understand cultural community based organizations more as "social movements" than as classically modeled formal organizations." (emphasis mine)

So far so good. I like this, because it explains the fact that even though most art institutions are short-term and fall apart, the art community thrives. In a way, it would be the same as postulating that the strength of an economy is independent of its component corporations.

Which is true. My brother (an economic Libertarian) points out that one of the greatest stimuluses of innovation is a liberal bankruptcy law, allowing an entrepreneur to feel comfortable striking out on his own to try out a new idea. 50% fail. So? The innovation makes up for it. Compare to countries that still have Debtor's Prison, and I'm sure there's no comparison. In fact, if we covered the cost of healthcare in this country, it'd be even easier to start a company. But I digress.

In the artistic world, it's the same. Can an artist who fails carry on? Will there still be an arts community outside of their own efforst if they fail? A leader is a person who will carry on with what they're doing no matter what the world around them looks like. But a community can't: in the face of adversity, it slowly withers, slowly.

At any rate, let's take that assumption as true: the arts community shouldn't be measured in terms of the health of its particular organizations or institutions. Metrics like "age of theaters" or "operating budget of largest theater" are not good measures of the health of a community. What we are trying to pin down lives outside of these institutions. Hence the reason nobody has come up with an accurate index yet--they're the difficult to measure, since they're not easily defined.

So, how does this change the metric system? Well, for one, it means to leave it less organization-centric and more human-centric--which is always a good shift in thinking. For instance, if I wanted to look at metrics relating to children's exposure to the arts, a classical indicator might be to measure the number of after-school arts programs. But measuring something like % of children in community who have attended at some point an after-school arts problem, or % of time on average that a child has been working in the arts... those numbers are a bit more useful to us. Although not necessarily helpful enough.

Two other questions present themselves from this information:
  1. Is there a sociological method of tackling the prevalance of a particular social movement? I'm guessing there's not one that works 100%, or there'd be a lot clearer knowledge of, say, the degree to which feminism or democracy or socialism is prevalent in a given area. (Actually, if sociologists had a more accurate way of tackling that, we'd have a much clearer idea of what we're doing in Iraq. After all, it seems to me that the Bush Administration put a heavy emphasis on the existence of organizations and institutions, irregardless of the long-term viability of those organizations/institutions).

  2. Is there a quantitative methodology of tackling the prevalance of memes? Again, probably not yet, and not in a way that's 100% accurate. But I'm going to try and track down the science involved, such as it exists. After all, art is a series of memes: the meme of practicing art, the meme of viewing arts, etc.
Well, that's my stream of consciousness for the night. What have we learned?

  1. Arts needs to be tackled as a movement, not a set of organizations
  2. Sociology studies movements, so any theories they utilize might apply here
  3. The study of the spread of memes might also help to spread the arts

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