Understanding Socially Engaged Arts as Discourse and Experience
: Discursive structures of inequality, and art as experience

  • Martin Cox

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis used a heuristic-ethnographic methodology to understand socially engaged arts practice. In so doing, the study has identified two distinct paradigms for conceptualising and exploring socially engaged art: as discursive practice in the funded arts sector, and as aesthetic experience in amateur participation. Part One explores socially engaged arts as discursive practice in the funded arts field, revealing structures of power, exclusion and dispossession that serve to produce and reproduce hierarchies of cultural value in the interests of funded institutions and those who dominate them. This phase of the analysis uses Bourdieu’s theorising of The Field of Cultural Production (Bourdieu, 1993) and language as symbolic power (Bourdieu, 1991b) to identify how the endogenous problematisation of inequality and the exogenous pressures of policy attachment construct socially engaged arts as, primarily, a discursive practice that legitimises the inequality of funding distribution, disconnects discursive from realised practice, and marginalises the visibility and social potential of amateur socially engaged arts.
Part Two explores socially engaged arts as aesthetic experience expressed through amateur participation, illuminating forms of creativity that are absent from existing scholarship and cultural policy. This phase of the analysis finds the limitations of Bourdieu’s analytical scheme, and proposes an alternative approach drawn from kinship studies and John Dewey’s conceptualisation of Art as Experience (Dewey, 1958). This alternative theoretical approach is used to probe the complexity and potential of amateur socially engaged arts practice, revealing intrinsic motivations that structure amateur socially engaged activities, and do not conform to the exigencies of competition and status that characterise the funded arts field (where discursive practices function as transmuted forms of economic capital, and are thus available to Bourdieu’s analysis) or to the commonly theorised motivations of sociability and self-interest (Stebbins, 1982; Putnam, 2000). The amateur socially engaged activities examined in this research are structured by, and organised to express, the aesthetic phase of ‘mutuality of being’ (Sahlins, 2011a) through the unity of volunteerism, nurture and creativity.
Taken together, these modes of socially engaged practice reveal that cultural policy, contemporary cultural policy studies, and research exploring amateur participation have issues to address when it comes to the disconnect between discourse and practice in the funded sector, the marginalisation of amateur socially engaged activities (that do not fit with limited, and limiting, notions of what socially
engaged arts should be, the forms it can take or how it can be done) and the social value of kinship as aesthetic experience realised through everyday amateur participation.
Date of Award1 Jul 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPaul Long (Director of Studies), Kirsten Forkert (Director of Studies), Nicholas Gebhardt (Second Supervisor 1), Nick Webber (Internal Examiner 1), Annette Naudin (Internal Examiner 2) & Eleonora Belfiore (External Examiner 1)


  • Cultural policy
  • Bourdieu
  • Dewey
  • amateur participation
  • Arts
  • discursive practice
  • social inclusion
  • socially engaged arts
  • aesthetics
  • experience

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