Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 7 Evidencing Culture for Policy

Well-being data and ‘cultural access’

Once we put the culture/well-being link under the right set of analytical lenses, it turns out quite clearly that ‘culture counts’, namely, that there is clear evidence that cultural access has a definite impact on individual psychological well being (and particularly so if cultural access occurs in a well-balanced mind–body perspective), and moreover that culture provides for some of the most effective predictors of well-being.

(Grossi et al. 2012: 147)

Among the various potential factors considered, cultural access unexpectedly rankes [sic] as the second most important determinant of psychological well-being, immediately after the absence or presence of diseases.

(Grossi et al. 2012, 129)

Moving national contexts again, the Italian Culture and Well-being Project used what it called ‘data mining’[1] to understand the ‘interaction between culture, health and psychological well-being’ [2]. It is clear to see from its concluding lines that it is of interest to our exploration of how people understand what it calls the culture/well-being link. The headline outcome (also quoted above) foregrounds what it calls ‘cultural access’. Interestingly, the authors claim that ‘cultural access unexpectedly’ appears to be the second most important thing for people’s well-being, after physical health. We will return to finding the right set of lenses and a finding being unexpected at the end of this section. First, we will look at what the researchers mean by culture.

What does the report mean by ‘cultural access’? The 15 ‘cultural activities considered in the survey’ consist of ‘jazz music concerts; classic music concerts; opera/ballet; theatre; museums; rock concerts; disco dance; paintings exhibition; social activity; watching sport; sport practice; book reading; poetry reading; cinema; local community development’ [2]. Therefore, does ‘cultural access’ mean ‘can you access these activities?’ or does it mean ‘do you do these activities?’ This is a key question for cultural policy as social policy, as we have discovered a number of times in the last few chapters: for if taking part in culture becomes some kind of proxy for having access to things that improve our well-being, the word access—and the implications for fairness of who has access and who wants access are important to establish.

One of the concerns over using well-being metrics to value culture is that the models used do not include all forms of cultural life [3]. As we know from Chap. 6, defining culture is complicated. Thus, the value of what has come to be described as ‘everyday participation’ [4], including activities, such as attending sporting events [5] or chatting in a local shop [6] should be acknowledged in some way when valuing ‘culture’ as something broadly defined. Increasingly, evidence indicates that it is ‘participation per se’ that is good for well-being, irrespective of what one is participating in [7]. Likewise, when people describe what is important to them for well-being, arts and culture activities, such as formalised theatre attendance, appeared less frequently in the ONS data I analysed than a more general and everyday participation [8]. It is therefore important that well-being metrics include—or at least acknowledge if they exclude—everyday participation, together with recognised artforms, such as theatre.

The inclusion of various ‘everyday’ forms of participation in Grossi et al.’s model might address concerns about formal culture and everyday participation. However, can 15 activities address the concerns of O’Brien and Jones in 2010, that metrics miss some aspects of cultural life? The 15 aspects of ‘cultural access’ chosen by the authors are said to have resulted from a literature review. Incidentally, this review and its results are not mentioned in more than passing by the authors, so as readers we don’t know why or how they came upon these 15, how many documents were reviewed before the 15 were decided, and so on.

These 15 categories of cultural access were formulated into a question that was added to a questionnaire. There is also no detail on the decisions made in this respect. The survey was conducted by an Italian pollster company called Doxa, through telephone interviews, according to the CATI[9] system, with 1500 random participants of the National Statistical Survey conducted by the Italian Statistics Bureau [10]. You may remember in Chap. 3 that the ISTAT is one national organisation that uses the same dimensions of well-being as the OECD. This project didn’t use these dimensions of well-being.[11]

Instead, the authors describe that ‘their survey collected information covering socio-demographic and health-related data’ [12], together with the 15 activities as a proxy for cultural access. See Table 7.6 for these categories, as described in the article. They also describe questions from the Psychological General Well-being Index (PGWBI), which has 22 self-administered items ordinarily, but they used a trialled and tested shorter version of six items [13]. As you can see in Table 7.7, these psychological questions ask very similar things to the ONS4 that we have encountered multiple times before. They are however worded slightly differently, which will have an effect on the data which may or may not be relevant to the claims made about the findings.

In order to analyse ‘cultural access’, the authors take the answers from the questions about how many times people have participated in a particular activity. What is intriguing is that the authors have then combined these activities into a single measure, without accounting for this in the paper’s definition of ‘cultural access’. Consequently, the authors seem less concerned with deciphering what it is that people do (i.e. the nature of cultural access) than the frequency of cultural participation.

Table 7.6 Variables used in Grossi et al. (2012)

Cultural access categoriesJazz music concerts
Classical music concerts
Rock concerts
Disco dance
Paintings exhibitions
Social activity
Watching sport
Sport practice
Book reading
Poetry reading
Local community development
Socio-demographic and health-related categoriesGender
Age (years)
Civil status
Education level
Cultural access frequency PGWBI (average)

Table 7.7 The Psychological General Well-being Index questions used in Grossi et al. (2012)

PGWBI: The six ‘shorter version’ questions
Have you been bothered by nervousness or by your ‘nerves’ during the past month?
How much energy, pep or vitality did you have or feel during the past month?
I felt downhearted and blue during the past month.
I was emotionally stable and sure of myself during the past month.
I felt cheerful, light-hearted during the past month.
I felt tired, worn out, used up or exhausted during the past month.

If we follow the recommendation that it is participation per se that matters for well-being [7], incorporating various types of activity into a single dimension of culture could be a positive research decision. As we have already encountered a number of times, valuing one activity over another is ethically, methodologically and politically problematic. Of course, the data in and of itself do not account for all ‘cultural access’, or as we have described before, cultural activity. The questions can only account for the 15 activities included, missing out many social and cultural concerns, but as we saw in Box 7.4, this is not unusual in and of itself.

The analysis includes variables for aspects of cultural activity which are undoubtedly important to some people’s well-being. It is in the descriptions, categories and claims where issues may arise. For example, a question on ‘social activity’ could end up with data including almost anything, depending on the wording of the question. We do not know the exact wording of the question, but the paper states:

Each subject being surveyed in the study had to go through a structured questionnaire asking about the daily frequency of access to all of the activities listed.

(Grossi et al. 2012, 132)

This seems to imply that the participants could define social activity for themselves, which could include leaving the house and talking to someone in a shop, which while valuable (feeling all the more valuable as I edit this book in lockdown), is not able to argue the value of investment in opera, say.

Is that a problem in and of itself? Possibly not. However, to include all social activity, and then conflate all the results to a single measure, without making this explicit in the headlines of the research may be misleading. As a consequence of these decisions, the value of ‘cultural access’ potentially includes the value of all social activity, as defined by different people. The authors have decided upon such a list to act as ‘a proxy of individual levels of “cultural access”’ [12]. However, they have then combined the 15 proxies into one measure of cultural access. This could considerably inflate the impact of ‘cultural access’. This is important, as, the authors state ‘that there is clear evidence that cultural access has a definite impact on individual psychological well being’ [14].

Combining variables into one category is an issue with the evidence base for culture and it confuses the well-being evidence base as well. The language used in findings, and reproduced in evidence reviews, assumes it argues the value of a particular idea of culture. This limits the reach of the ‘discussion’ aspects of academic journal articles, as much as it does our understanding. Here we see the slippage in the definitions of culture described in the previous chapter can be used to include many aspects to account for culture’s impact; yet ‘cultural access’ comes to mean the arts when this argument is reproduced, as we shall see.

Before we move towards our conclusion, let us remind ourselves of the headline findings, again:

The results show that, among the various potential factors considered, cultural access unexpectedly rankes as the second most important determinant of psychological well-being, immediately after the absence or presence of diseases, and outperforming factors such as job, age, income, civil status, education, place of living and other important factors.

(Grossi et al. 2012, 129)

In spite of queries with the Italian Culture and Well-being Project, the headline results appear in other high-profile reviews. These include the ‘Understanding the Value of the Arts and Culture’ report from the AHRC’s Cultural Value project [15] and a 2020 report to the Welsh government [16]. The more findings are reproduced, the more credible they seem, and the more they are reproduced. One review [17] was commissioned by the CASE programme, which you may remember from Chap. 6. The report describes the Culture and Sport Evidence (CASE) programme as a joint programme of strategic research led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in collaboration with the Arts Council England (ACE), English Heritage (EH) and Sport England (SE). The report was of a systematic review of the literature and evidence [18] and it evaluates the above study as follows:

Grossi (2012F) offers arguably the most authoritative review based on quantitative research, linking participation in arts with better social outcomes and impacts, including health.

(Taylor et al. 2015, 71)

[A]rts-related activities are seen as central to wellbeing by most people, according to a recent Italian study (Grossi 2012F). Among the various potential factors considered, cultural access ranked as the second most important determinant of psychological wellbeing, immediately after the absence or presence of diseases, and outperforming factors such as job, age, income and other important factors.

(Taylor et al. 2015, 75)

Even without concerns about the category of cultural access, the methods of the study did not ask people whether culture was central to anything. It asked them what they did and how they felt. There is a concern, with all social research, that if you look for a particular outcome, you are more likely to find it. Hold that thought. Because, we might want to have a think when considering others’ research, whether it is putting the culture–well-being relationship under different ‘lenses’, until it finds the one it likes? That is until that lens, or series of lenses, finds that ‘culture counts’ in the way that is desired [19].

It is easy to see that the CASE review of the literature and evidence cut and pasted the findings directly from the article and, in fact, its abstract. The reason I mention this is that this is not abnormal practice. Instead, I want to highlight that it is not always clear that when a finding appears in a review commissioned by such significant body, that this does not actually qualify that the finding has been checked by that authority; there is no guarantee that the authors checked for robustness, or that it should be authoritative.

So, in presenting the impact of ‘cultural access’ (however defined) on well-being, research satisfies the hunger for those who want evidence of the culture–well-being relationship. This also has silly ends, fuelling the fires underneath claims such as culture can ‘reduce crime’ [20] or ‘tackle poverty’ [21]. The sad thing is these actions are a double-edged sword: they are popular because they seem to justify people’s feelings that the arts are good for us, while at the exact same time discrediting the good evidence that is available for advocacy.

This indicates both the value of, and requirement for, a review of rigour when it comes to data and their categorisation in the empirical work underway to understand the relationship between different activities and programmes on well-being. Perhaps, even more importantly, attention must be paid to the resource in the teams synthesising and evaluating the evidence base in order to direct future research, policy and practice. It is not simply a case of levels and areas of expertise, but the resource of time to review and evaluate evidence.

This chapter has revealed that it is not hard for everyone to look a bit further—beyond the headlines—and establish potential issues. If we acknowledge that culture and well-being are slippery concepts, then how a concept such as cultural access is defined and measured requires some clarity if the evidence is going to be used politically, whether that is to justify funding or as we are increasingly seeing in this book, how resources decided by policy-makers are related to inequities of resource in society more generally.


  1. ‘Data mining’ might seem a bit of a reach. The sample of 1500 people would not necessarily be considered a large enough ‘dataset’ to warrant data mining. The novelty of the method at the time was in its complexity, because it aimed to assess the importance of lots of variables at the same time. This approach was called AutoCM and is described in the paper.[]
  2. Grossi et al. 2012[][]
  3. Jones 2010; O’Brien 2010[]
  4. Miles and Gibson 2016[]
  5. Oakley 2011[]
  6. Edwards and Gibson 2017[]
  7. Miles and Sullivan 2010[][]
  8. Oman 2020[]
  9. CATI is a computer-aided telephone system that is widely used in largescale surveys, as well as examples such as this, where participants in large surveys are invited to participate in a smaller, specialised survey. CATI does not involve the computer doing the interviewing (as may be suggested). Instead, people, who still do the interviewing, will follow an electronic survey script. As a participant answers, the responses are recorded in the CATI system, which guides the interviewer to questions which are routed through the questionnaire based on prior responses.[]
  10. ISTAT 2015[]
  11. The ISTAT implemented its well-being domains and measures in 2012, see: https://www.istat.it/it/fles//2018/04/12-domains-scientifccommission.pdf for more details. Therefore, the Grossi et al. study preceded the ISTAT’s new measures.[]
  12. Grossi et al. 2012, 132[][]
  13. Grossi et al. 2012, 133[]
  14. Grossi et al. 2012, 147[]
  15. Crossick and Kaszynska 2016[]
  16. Browne Gott 2020[]
  17. Taylor et al. 2015[]
  18. Taylor et al. 2015, 8[]
  19. Grossi et al. 2012: 147[]
  20. Morris 2003[]
  21. National Assembly Wales 2019[]