Asking questions about someone’s social class may feel uncomfortable, but people are less sensitive than you might think. Maya Sharma and Dan Cowley explain why it’s important to tackle the subject head on – and how to go about it.
Cultural organisations are becoming far more sensitive and sophisticated in the way they understand and respond to the demographic mix of their audiences and communities. Many are now familiar with collecting audience data through the lenses of, for example, age, ethnicity and disability. There is less confidence and know-how, however, when it comes to class identity and socio-economic status. Organisations seldom collect this data routinely, unless it is required by project funders and/or the organisation exists specifically to work with a particular community or profile.
As long as we continue to make vague generalisations, we further the conditions in which a culturally entitled minority can continue to benefit
The challenge ahead
So what are the barriers that stop organisations from collecting this crucial – if sometimes uncomfortable – information and how can they be overcome?
1. Confusion around class, social grade and socio-economic status. Social grade and socio-economic status relate to a person or household’s current circumstances – income, occupation, housing status and so on. Class, however, is a more complex term, grounded in self-identification. It often includes someone’s financial and occupational status but can also be used to describe a kind of cultural identity: a set of tastes, interests and values, perhaps. Furthermore, the concept of ‘class’ has moved (and continues to do so) in step with social change. Someone might identify as working class due to their family upbringing, while their socio-economic status may actually indicate a high income.
2. Starting with the why. It’s easy to slip into the habit of asking questions unthinkingly. We recommend starting from the point of “why do we want data – what are we trying to understand?” If you want to understand the financial barriers facing your potential audiences, you might want to ask about socio-economic status or income – particularly of the disposable variety. If, however, you’re trying to understand cultural sensibilities, questions about class identity are more significant. Funding criteria often serve to confuse even further, with funders asking for information that can’t be used in this practical way, or asking for a dizzying array of demographic information in ways not compatible with other stakeholders.
3. Sensitivity about asking for the data. We should always be sensitive about whether and how we ask for personal data. And because “working class” and “low-income household” can be unfairly conflated with ideas of disadvantage and cultural poverty, it is unsurprising that organisations may feel awkward asking. Our experience, however, is that people are generally willing to give personal information if the reasons for asking are clearly and sensitively explained – especially when it’s in the interests of inclusivity. People also want to know that anonymity and confidentiality are assured. Organisations that ask in appropriate ways and – crucially – give examples of how they use personal data to improve and change things will get the richest audience data.
4. Using the right tools. At The Audience Agency we are fortunate to have some invaluable tools at our disposal to address challenges around class identity and socio-economic representation. Our free national audience data and development tool, Audience Finder, helps us understand existing and potential audiences’ socio-economic status in the context of the broader population. Audience Finder combines with Audience Spectrum, a profiling tool that draws on our data about cultural engagement, and Experian's data universe to segment the UK population by their attitudes towards culture, and by what they like to see and do. This kind of insight allows us to provide a post-code level breakdown of the demographic profile of any catchment area, and to conduct research around specific issues, for example, how to increase participation from culturally underserved schools. Crucially though, we recognise the need to conduct sensitive qualitative research to get a better personal picture of audience identities, where quantitative approaches wouldn’t be so useful or appropriate.
5. The sector workforce. Recent research, such as the Panic! report, has evidenced what has long been known: our sector workforce has poor class diversity, with an over-representation of people from affluent and culturally privileged backgrounds. Given that this is particularly marked in more senior roles, it is no wonder the sector is nervous and outside its comfort zone when talking about class. With a more socially diverse workforce, we may become more fluent and straightforward in discussing class, socio-economic status – and difference in general. To this end, we have recently worked with the British Museum and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to create ‘The Positive Action Recruitment Roadmap’, which is free for the whole sector and incudes tips, tools and templates to help arts, culture or heritage organisations think more about how to diversify their workforces.
Best foot forward
There can be no doubt that it is worth overcoming these hurdles. As long as we continue to make vague generalisations about the social background of our audiences and users, we further the conditions in which a culturally entitled minority can continue to benefit from the majority of publicly supported arts and heritage.
Some organisations are facing this challenge head-on, being bold and unapologetic about working specifically with working class communities and understanding the needs of users to ensure they are genuinely connecting with the people they are there to serve. The Creative People and Places (CPP) initiative has been a striking and successful example of this kind of work. It’s no secret that CPPs really do reach communities who are otherwise excluded from publicly funded cultural experiences – the data says so, loud and clear. They have not been shy about collecting, analysing and applying sensitive demographic information, which plays a key part in their compelling story of change. Organisers are candid about their personal investment in changing perceptions of what culture that is for and, crucially, of a broader range of class identities can look like.
For many of us, serving a truly socioeconomically diverse audience is a key part of our mission. If you are planning to challenge the socio-economic status quo of arts audiences, our advice is not to wait for a funder to ask you for the ‘right’ information. Let’s start thinking for ourselves about what we most want to measure and not be apologetic about making sure we put resources where they’re needed. And most importantly, let’s not make assumptions without testing them.
Maya Sharma is Diversity and Inclusion lead and Dan Cowley is Research Manager for The Audience Agency.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is in a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.
The Audience Agency has a range of research solutions linked to Audience Finder to help organisations and networks understand and develop the socio-economic profile of their audiences. Contact our Bespoke Research Team to chat about how we might be able to help.