Academic research into cultural value often raises more problems than contingent theories. Although current academic research illuminates certain themes of cultural value, it is difficult to synthesize the research into a common narrative. In fact, even trying to synthesize the research raises broader methodological questions currently associated with social science research.
The promise of research into value is often associated with a better quality of life and with the integration of non-market sources of value, such as cultural and ecological value (Snowball, 2008), into society’s socio-political-economic framework. However, despite the need for non-market value being self-evident to some, the inability to synthesize the research acts as an adversary to understanding the process of value, let alone cultural value, in its entirety.
One example of this problem is the case of the proposed Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki Finland. Ultimately, the city council rejected a proposal to build a Guggenheim Museum. We withhold judgment on the accuracy of their decision to explore their decision making process. Their decision making process is similar to current academic research: multiple perspectives seemingly sound in their own right, but coming from such different disciplinary and epistemological perspectives that common ground becomes impossible. This paper aims to identify and contextualize this problem of research into cultural value, explore current literature, and analyse the subsequent gaps in existing academic research.
II. Identifying the Problems of Cultural Value: From the Broad to the Specific
To highlight the expansive scope of research into value it is interesting to consider the extremes on which value is discussed. The concept of value could call to mind discussions anywhere from accounting’s role in the recent financial crisis (Laux and Leuz, 2010) to the nature of value as a constructed reality (Hines, 1989).
Having such a broad set of values, purposes, or conceptual framework, we are forced to categorize our understanding of the literature by the characterizations and tensions researchers analyse when they discuss cultural value.
We have identified three overarching characterizations within the current literature: 1. cultural value draws from differing academic subject areas which effects considerably the nature of empirical research, 2. research into cultural value is characterized by different epistemological perspectives, 3. the definition of the term culture is allusive, and lastly, 4. cultural value and other forms of non-market value are man-made constructs.
Different subject areas and the challenge of empirical research. Cultural value draws on perspectives from different academic subjects such as sociology, religion, and philosophy (Snowball, 2008). One example of this is Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2002) early insight into the relationship between mass culture and social power. They argue that the valuation of mass culture is based on a perspective that seems to have one foot in the market process and one foot out – it is the consumption of mass culture that lowers its value to the consumer because of the docility the consumer takes when consuming the media (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002). Part of their argument (mass production) is inside an economic framework, but another part (power-seeking) seems to take a more sociological perspective in assigning a power relationship to the creator and the consumer. It is no surprise that lacking a distinctive subject area, these authors become two of the early ‘critical theorists’ as in fact the nature of critical theory is inter-disciplinary.
To engage the notion of cultural value with empirical evidence is difficult. One of those attempts seeks to investigate whether cultural values encourage economic development (Granato et al., 1996). It is difficult to judge the validity of the empirical findings because those findings often depend on the shaky epistemological grounding that cultural value rests on. For example, we might refute the empirical evidence of the aforementioned paper with World System’s Theory, which argues that it is an illusion to see a country’s economic development as fundamentally different than 4 anothers because each country exists in a global, free-market capitalist system (Chirot and Hall, 1982).
Different Epistemological Perspectives. It is possible to identify further the varying epistemological nature of cultural value to include the following: A. cultural policy linked to public value is highly political and strategic in nature as concluded by a literature review from the Arts Council of England (Keaney, 2006) B. ‘contingent’ perspectives, include the theories of contracts by Caves, ‘cost disease’ by Baumol and Bowen, and ‘cultural discounts’ by Hoskins et. Al (Doyle, 2010), C. a more general perspective of value is argued to distinguish between a functional definition of value and a ‘what is’ definition (Miller, 2008), and lastly, D. the perspective of cultural value within the subject field of cultural economics may contain the seeds of an economic theory that includes cultural value in the form of ‘singularities’ or those goods and services that are multi-dimensional, incommensurable, and uncertain drawing on research from Chamberlin (Karpik, 2010) or related to Schumpeter’s creative destruction (Doyle, 2010).
Definition of Culture. It is further difficult to define culture which would precede a definition of cultural value. It is argued that to provide a definition of the word requires an identification of the values one might associate with the word (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952) 344-345. These values are relative to the observer, meaning that they vary across different locations, and subsequently have different definitions both by academics and by broader users of the term (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011).
Also, there is a dark side of value, which takes the view that intellectual property is a way to assign value to cultural processes in a form of class imperialism to resolve problems of over accumulation (Hesmondhalgh, 2008). It is interesting to see the critique of neoliberalism as opposed to ‘conservatism’ capitalism which is a growing idea to discuss a more inclusive understanding of value (Reisman, 1999).
Man-made and Complex Nature of Value. Some academics site the ‘man-made’ nature of value (Hines, 1989). A ‘man-made’ understanding of cultural value catalyses the aforementioned problems of perspective making the idea of cultural value subject to complexity theory or viewed as an artificial science (Doyle, 2010).
A more specific and compelling argument that explores the man-made nature of the concept of value is generally in the rationalist behavioural model fundamental to capitalism. One argument explores Weber’s concept of an either-or prospective of either cost-effective value or not costeffective value (Reisman, 1999). He elaborates on this relationship drawing from Mises and Becker who share a similar understanding of instrumental rationality where the cost-benefit ‘nexus’ as a ‘comprehensive explanatory value in respect of a wide range of social phenomena are not normally associated with prices and shadow-prices payable at the margin (Reisman, 1999).
III. Contextualizing the Problems of Cultural Value: The Case of Guggenheim Helsinki
A recent real life example involving the opening of a Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki, Finland is an example of how these tensions may play out in real life. Recently, the City Council of Helsinki made the decision to reject plans to build a Guggenheim Museum (Saarikoski, 2012). The debate was formed around two different parties calculating the value of the museum in entirely different ways. The potential value of the Guggenheim was argued primarily by two groups: the Guggenheim organisation, who paid for the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a large willingness to pay survey on potential viability of a museum in Helsinki (Sanomat) and the city council led by a statistician named Aku Alanen, who conducted a statistical analysis of museum visits by the population of Helsinki to argue against the viability of a proposed museum (Alanen, 2012).
There were further arguments of valuation within the project that were outside financial revenue and subsequent tax revenue of the proposed project. Some members of the Helsiinki City Council saw the Guggenheim project as ‘Artdonalds’, that is to say a franchised and commodified art 6 museum that might lower the brand value of Helsinki and in particular their existing art museums (Saarikoski, 2012). We will analyse this event in the next section.
IV. Gap in the Literature: Complexity as a key to Value
A few key themes begin to emerge in the literature we have presented. First, the nature of value is subject to linguistic, economic, and social constructions (Hines, 1989). It is also highly uncertain (Reisman, 1999). To say that value is a complex discipline is nearly self-evident, however, it necessitates an understanding of what we mean by complexity.
Complexity does not mean that we can map an empirical or mathematical framework of social reality (Simon, 1996), however, we can begin to see relationships working within a holistic system. Further, a complex system is non-linear and the sum of the parts are generally said to be greater than the whole (Simon, 1996).
If we take Simon’s (1996) framework one more step, we see the relationship between reality and the individual’s conception of reality or their will to action as mediated by an interface. If we are constructing value we might see imagination as an important interface that mediates the internal and external relationship. It is interesting to ponder where and how the parts of a social system might become greater than the whole. In our case, the imagination could be considered a source of infinite ideas, yet still remain one part in the whole system of value.
The ‘ongoing normative assessment’ is one methodology, although not currently explicitly applied to value, that argues that another source of infinity that make the parts of a project greater than the whole is the potential of time (Dupuy and Grinbaum, 2005). Ongoing normative assessment seeks to create a method that argues retrospectively from the future to the present (Dupuy and Grinbaum, 2005).
This methodology raises tensions between a normative process, as opposed to a social constructionist perspective whereas the normative process might seem to necessitate a collective 7 system of values and rules applied to large portions of fundamental aspects of society. However, at the very least, the idea of the infinite potential of imagination and the infinite potential of the future necessitate we apply complexity theory to our notion of value.
In our example of the Guggenheim Museum, one specific event helps to contextualize our discussion. The statistician who opposed the museum did not perform a willingness to pay valuation, but sought to sum the whole of museum goers from the area in and around Helsinki. He seems to have created a holistic system in his methodology. However, he is reasoning from the present to the future. An ongoing normative assessment might prove a more efficient way of valuing the potential for a Guggenheim Museum because it would necessitate the decision of the city council to proactively create a holistic system of museums or cultural value for Helsinki at the beginning of their discussions of museums rather than try to analyse potential value without a holistic construct of what their system of value is defined by and what parameters may shape it.
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