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Social Impact of the Arts

In 2004, the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies was awarded a three-year Research Fellowship, funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Arts Council England, in order to develop rigorous procedures for a better understanding of the social impact of the arts. The project started in November 2004, with Eleonora Belfiore as the Research Fellow and Professor Oliver Bennett as Director. The research was conducted with particular reference to poetry, the novel and theatrical performance.

The first stage of the research resulted in a critical analysis of the claims made over time for the ways in which the arts can affect individuals and society. Entitled The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History, this extended analysis has been published as a book by Palgrave/Macmillan in 2008. Drawing on a wide range of literary, philosophical and political texts, from Classical Greece to the present day, the book identifies and explores both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ traditions of thinking about the arts. With chapters on corruption, catharsis, education and ‘art for art’s sake’, as well as a number of other key themes, the book examined the many different ways in which the value of the arts have been articulated. It suggested that an understanding of how certain ideas have evolved over time into commonplace beliefs is essential to any serious investigation of the place of the arts in modern societies. At the same time, it attempts to reconnect contemporary policy debates with a complex intellectual history, from which it is argued that these debates have become detached. An introduction to this study can be found in 'Rethinking the Social Impact of the Arts' in The International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol 13, no 2, 2007, 135-151

The second stage of the project focused on the cognitive, psychological and socio-cultural dynamics that govern the aesthetic experience. This resulted in an extended paper, 'Determinants of Impact: towards a better understanding of encounters with the arts', which was published in Cultural Trends, vol 16, no 3, 2007, 225-275. It postulated that a better grasp of the interaction between the individual and the work of art is the necessary foundation for a genuine understanding of how the arts can affect people. Through a critique of philosophical and empirical attempts to capture the main features of the aesthetic encounter, the paper drew attention to the gaps in our current understanding of the responses to art. It proposed a classification and exploration of the factors – social, cultural and psychological – that contribute to shaping the aesthetic experience, thus determining the possibility of impact. The ‘determinants of impact’ identified are distinguished into three groups: those that are inherent to the individual who interacts with the artwork; those that are inherent to the artwork; and ‘environmental factors’, which are extrinsic to both the individual and the artwork. The paper concluded that any meaningful attempt to assess the impact of the arts would need to take these ‘determinants of impact’ into account, in order to capture the multidimensional and subjective nature of the aesthetic experience.

The third stage of the research explored the conceptual difficulties that arise in the notion of 'the arts' and the implications of these difficulties for attempts to generalise about their value, function and impact. This has resulted in a paper, 'Researching the Social Impact of the Arts: literature, fiction and the novel', which was published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol 15, no 1, 2009, 17-33. The paper examines both 'essentialist' and 'institutional' perspectives, first on ‘the arts’ in toto and then on literature, fiction and the novel. It shows how literature sits uneasily in the main systems of classifying the arts and how the novel and fiction itself are seen as problematic categories. The position of the novel in the literary canon is also discussed, with particular reference to the shifting instability of the canon. The paper suggests that the dilemmas thrown up in trying to define or classify the novel are likely to be encountered in attempting to define other art forms. The implications of these findings for the interpretation and conduct of traditional ‘impact studies’ are explored.

The fourth and final stage of the project considered the implications of the research as a whole for understanding the social impact of the arts and the place of the arts in modern societies. It also explores the part that research actually plays in the formulation of policies for culture and the actions that follow. The resulting article, entitled 'Beyond the 'toolkit approach': Arts impact evaluation research and the realities of cultural policy-making', has been published in an article in the Journal of Cultural Research, vol 14, no 2, 2010, 17-33.


Belfiore, E. & Bennett, O. (2010) 'Beyond the 'toolkit approach': Arts impact evaluation research and the realities of cultural policy-making'Journal for Cultural Research, 14.2.

Belfiore, E. & Bennett O. (2009) 'Researching the Social Impact of the Arts: literature, fiction and the novel' (Word Document)International Journal of Cultural Policy, 15.1

Belfiore, E. & Bennett O. (2008) The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History, Palgrave/Macmillan, Basingstoke

Belfiore, E. & Bennett O. (2007) 'Determinants of impact: towards a better understanding of encounters with the arts'Cultural Trends, 16.3

Belfiore, E. & Bennett, O. (2007) 'Rethinking the Social Impacts of the Arts'International Journal of Cultural Policy, 13.2

Belfiore, E. (2007) 'A matter of values', Arts Professional, Issue 140, 26 February 2007

Belfiore, E., (2006) 'The Unacknowledged Legacy: Plato, the Republic and cultural policy'International Journal of Cultural Policy: Special Issue – Intellectuals and Cultural Policy, Part 1, 12.2

Bennett, O. (2006) 'Intellectuals, Romantics and Cultural Policy'International Journal of Cultural Policy: Special Issue – Intellectuals and Cultural Policy, Part 1, 12.1

Belfiore, E. (2006) 'The social impacts of the arts – myth or reality?', in Mirza, M. (ed.) (2006) Culture Vultures: Is UK arts policy damaging the arts?, London: Policy Exchange

Belfiore E. (2006) 'Evaluating "value"', Arts Professional, Issue 115, 13 February 2006


Prof Eleonora Belfiore went on to have a impactful career at Warwick, joining Loughborough University in May 2016 as Professor of Communication and Media Studies, further developing the exploration of discursive formations, as well as developing an international profile in policy sensitive research which combines a scholarly and critical drive with a commitment to facilitating public engagement with research and collaborations with non-academic partners, mostly from the cultural and creative sectors and from the third sector

Book cover