Forthcoming, International Journal of Communication
Enabling Cultural Policies? Culture, Capabilities and
TORGEIR UBERG NÆRLAND
University of Bergen, Norway
JAN FREDRIK HOVDEN,
University of Bergen, Norway
University of Bergen, Norway
This article mobilizes the capabilities approach to offer a new and
empirically grounded critical perspective on how cultural policy should
promote citizenship to audiences. The capabilities approach posits that
public policies should be designed and measured in terms of what they
actually enable subjects to do or be. Focusing on the case of Norway,
we operationalize the capabilities approach in two steps. First, based on
survey data, we highlight systematic relationships between social
background, cultural consumption, and citizenship. Based on extensive
interview data, the article thereafter offers insight into how people
engage with culture and whether this engagement enables them to
function as citizens. In contrast to common assessments of cultural
policy, we argue that the merit of this approach is that it focuses attention
on how different measures actually empower different groups of
citizens, and fail to empower others, thus providing a basis for more
effective and just policy measures.
Keywords: capability approach; citizenship; cultural policy; cultural
consumption; democracy; TV-series; fiction literature
Cultural policies in Western democracies are motivated partly by the idea that
audiences’ engagement with expressive culture should enable them to function as
citizens. Such engagement should ideally stimulate political interest and knowledge,
and forge social ties to the polity. Success or failure of a specific policy initiative is,
however, often measured in exposure or access, asking how many watched a state-
supported documentary film or how many visited the library or the opera (Stevenson,
Balling & Kann-Rasmussen, 2017).
This article proposes a different take. It starts from the capabilities approach
developed by Amartya Sen (2004) and Martha Nussbaum (2000), which suggests that
public policies should be designed and assessed in terms of what policies actually
enable subjects to do or to be. Further, the approach foregrounds the resources people
have available to make use of what they are offered.
Whereas the approach is already informing fields such as development and
welfare policy, it is now emerging into discussions about how to motivate cultural
policies (Hesmondhalgh 2016; Moss 2017). This article offers a first attempt to apply
the capabilities approach in the empirical study of culture. More specifically, we are
concerned with the role of culture in promoting democratic capabilities (Coleman,
Moss & Martinez-Perez, 2018). In this context, we mobilize concepts from democratic
theory and cultural sociology to explore links between how audiences make use of the
expressive culture to which they are exposed, to which extent this use enables them to
function as citizens, and to what degree such enablement relies on the economic and
cultural resources audiences possess. In order to substantiate such an exploration, we
suggest a two-step empirical approach with data from Norway.
The first step of the empirical analysis draws on a nationally representative
survey undertaken in late 2017 (N=2064), which illuminates how Norwegians with
different social resources make use of expressive culture and engage with the political
sphere. In the second step, we use an extensive qualitative data set based on two rounds
of in-depth interviews with 50 informants, intercepted by a media diary phase. Insights
from this material are used to flesh out how different forms of expressive culture may
be enabling for certain members of the audience, as resources for citizenship. This
combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses allows us to, first, highlight
systematic relationships between social background, cultural consumption and what we
will call public connection (Couldry, Livinstone & Markham, 2010), and, second, get
insights into how people engage with culture, and whether this engagement actually
enables them to function as citizens.
In this analysis, we pay particular attention to two genres of expressive culture:
TV-series and fictional literature. TV-series make up an interesting case for several
reasons. For one, TV series comprise perhaps the most important source of fictional
entertainment in Norway (82% say they watch one or more TV-series in a normal
week). Moreover, TV-series are a prioritized genre in Norwegian cultural policy, and
subject to extensive state-funding. From a policy perspective, this focus on TV-series
is partly legitimized by the assumed civic benefits TV-series have for its audience.
Further, empirical research (Nærland, 2018) has documented the potential of TV-series
usage for facilitating informed citizenship. Fictional literature, while historically being
one of the most important genres for cultural policy, is by contrast marked by being
used less often, and by fewer people, and its use (and in particular, non-use) is, as we
will explain, marked by greater social differences. At the same time, reading literature
is a form of culture which traditionally has been assigned major importance in
contributing to critical citizenship (Habermas, 1991).
We aim, first, to show how the capabilities approach can be empirically applied
in the context of expressive culture, and thus further the agenda within policy-oriented
communication studies. Second, our aim is to provide original empirical insights into
how audiences’ use of culture facilitates citizenship, and on this basis stimulate critical
discussion about how cultural policy should be designed to strengthen equal
opportunities for all.
In the following, we first present our approach. We then outline our
methodology. Thereafter, in the first step of the analysis, we use survey material to
show patterns in how consumption of culture, citizenship and background resources are
related to each other. In the next step we draw upon in-depth informant interviews to
illustrate how the use of these genres may or may not enable citizenship, and the
significance of background resources for such enablement. In the conclusion, we
outline key implications for cultural policy. Our claim is that cultural policymaking
needs to pay more attention to how different measures actually empower different
groups of citizens, and fail to empower others. We demonstrate how the empirical
application of the capabilities approach can be vital in facilitating such attention.
Culture, Cultural Policy and Capabilities
The capability approach was originally introduced by the economist Amartya
Sen (1993), and later in a different version by philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2000).
Grounded in a liberal yet redistributive idea of social justice, the capabilities approach
foregrounds individual flourishing and well-being as the aim of development and
policy. A fundamental objective is thus to extend discussions beyond economic
measurements and metrics. In Sen’s conceptualization, a capability is the opportunity
people have to be or to do things they have reasons to value. Capabilities are in turn
vectors for what Sen terms ‘functionings’, such as to be happy, have self-respect or take
part in community. Crucially, the perspective is sensitive to the different resources
groups of people have available to realize the same capabilities, that is, the resources
they have available to make use of the goods or services they are offered.
There is a longstanding debate about how to substantiate and justify capabilities
(Robeyns, 2003; Moss, 2018). A central feature in Sen’s theory is that people should
be free to pursue their own visions of a good life. From his perspective, capabilities can
be thought of as any condition that makes possible the pursuit of this life. Others, most
prominently Nussbaum, have developed lists of basic capabilities to which all persons
are entitled, such as bodily health, emotions, affiliation and bodily integrity (Nussbaum,
2011, 32–34). Whereas Sen’s approach has been criticized for offering a weak basis on
which to substantiate a framework for motivating or assessing policies, the latter has
been criticized for being paternalistic and universalistic. Our ambition is not to solve
this debate. Yet, as we will return to, we take inspiration from Nussbaum in that we
pre-define democratic capabilities that we argue enable inclusive and informed
In a policy perspective, a capabilities approach posits that policies should be
designed to enable people, rather than to simply offer goods or services. It is thus a
normative perspective, used both to motivate policymaking and for critical evaluation
of existing policies and policy outcomes. As this article aims to show, the approach has
relevance for policy-oriented research on cultural consumption. We are not the first to
propose such an argument. Nussbaum (2012) sees the strengthening of liberal arts
education and institutions as a vital means to enable people to become democratic
citizens. Drawing upon the capabilities approach, Appadurai (2004) argues that
culture—also in its expressive forms—is key to facilitate the capacity to aspire towards
a better life among economically marginalized citizens.
In the context of media and cultural policy, Garnham argued 20 years ago that
a capabilities approach could reframe policy discussions by stimulating “a move away
from focus on goods (and exposure) in itself, to what goods do to human beings.” (1997,
28). Garnham also argued that we need to move beyond crude measures of access and
usage in media and cultural policy, and attend to how people make use of what they are
exposed to and the resources they have available to benefit from such usage. As such,
he argued for a bottom-up perspective: policymaking should be informed by people’s
needs and experiences.
We take inspiration from Garnham’s call and aim to contribute to emerging
discussions about how to motivate media and cultural policies, and how to evaluate
such policies critically (Moss 2018; Hesmondhalgh 2017; Schejter & Tirosh 2016;
Couldry, 2019). In the context of political communication and broadcast media,
empirical research based on the capability approach has also been carried out recently
(Coleman & Moss 2016; Coleman et al., 2018). In the field of cultural policy research,
Sen’s work has been important for discussions of culture and sustainable development,
in debates related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. Throsby 2017; Isar
2017), and as a framework for evaluating and motivating urban planning (Zitcer,
Hawkins & Vakharia, 2015). This article offers a first attempt to operationalize a
capabilities approach in the empirical study of people’s use of expressive culture.
In recent cultural policy scholarship, there has been a great deal of debate about
how policy should be motivated, what policies should achieve and how achievements
should be measured, centering on the often-conflicted relationship involving cultural
value, instrumentalism and accountability (e.g. Holden, 2005; Hadley & Gray, 2017;
Carnwath & Brown, 2014). By focusing bottom-up on how culture enables some and
others not, and by grounding policy measures in the context of people’s resources and
conditions, we argue that a capabilities approach has the potential to provide new
impetus to this debate.
To operationalize the capability approach, we mobilize concepts from
democratic and sociological theory. First, public connection, conceptualized by
Couldry et al. as people’s “orientation towards a public world where matters of common
concern are addressed.” (2010, 5). The idea is that for people to be able to function as
citizens, they need to have a minimum orientation towards issues or problems that
require collective solutions. To be publicly connected thus typically involves attention,
interest, and knowledge concerning issues of political relevance. As such, public
connection constitutes a bottom-line factor in functioning democracies, and a factor
implicitly inherent in all major theories of democracy (Couldry et al., 2010, 8-10). In
this study, we premise that to be oriented towards the public sphere where matters of
common concern are addressed—to be publicly connected—is a capability that enables
a person to function as a citizen.
Second, in order to examine the significance of background resources for
people’s opportunity to use culture in a manner that enables public connection, we draw
upon Bourdieu’s cultural sociology (1979) for our methodology and theory. In so doing,
we build on studies which have employed his framework in different Western European
countries, in more recent years (e.g. Coulangeon & Duval 2014; Hovden and Moe 2017,
for studies on Norway). We argue that Bourdieu’s sociology of culture complements a
capabilities approach in key respects. First, it casts light on how economic and cultural
capital informs cultural tastes—which in turn may or may not facilitate public
connection. Second, cultural capital informs the dispositions and sensibilities through
which people make sense of the cultural works they encounter—and thus their differing
ability to make use of culture to orient themselves towards the world of politics.
Cultural Policy and Citizenship in Norway
We focus on Norway for a combination of three reasons. The first concerns
features of cultural policy itself—defined as the responsible public authorities’
structured actions vis-à-vis the cultural sector (Mangset, 2018, 1)—which is proactive
and far-reaching. Following Dubois’ dimensions of cultural policy (as cited in
Henningsen, 2015), the Norwegian case can be characterized by an expanded notion of
culture, encompassing not least local, amateur, and civil society initiatives. Cultural
policy has been legitimized with reference to national identity-building internally and
status-building externally, balanced by a strong strand of popular enlightenment
(Henningsen, 2015, 30). The second and third reasons for the case selection are
contextual. Norway is, mainly due to its oil fortune, a wealthy country characterized by
high penetration of information and communication technologies (e.g. Syvertsen, Enli,
Mjøs & Moe, 2014) as well as consumer appliances and money spent on spare time
activities. And, finally, it is a Nordic welfare state with still relatively small class
divisions (Hjellbrekke, Jarness & Korsnes, 2015). In sum, then, Norway appears as a
challenging case for studying how, despite relative equality both socially and in the
potential access to culture, different cultural goods might be unequally used and
mobilized by citizens, in a society with strong and active policy measures in place.
The promotion of citizenship is a staple objective in Norwegian cultural policy.
White and green papers from the past decade have all emphasized the role of culture as
a basis for democracy and social community. The most recent white paper on culture,
from November 2018 opens with the following:
Art and culture constitute expressions with society-building powers, and
cultural policy shall be built on freedom of expression and tolerance.
The cultural domain and civil society are prerequisites for Bildung
[dannelse] and an enlightened public sphere, and therefore an
investment in democracy. (Kulturdepartementet, 2018, 7).
This is a bold statement of the links between cultural policy, expressive culture
and citizens’ role in democracy. It is worth noting that the sender was a
Conservative/populist coalition government, which underlines the features of the
Such grand aims trickle down on specific policy instruments, art forms and
cultural domains. Support schemes for documentary film making, for instance, are
explicitly about facilitating the portrayal of certain aspects of social life or uncovering
shady sides of political life—both of which are thought to serve the viewers as citizens.
The maintenance and development of museums is likewise a tool to bring history to
citizens. In this study, we apply the capabilities approach to examine whether such aims
are actually realized, and on this ground shed critical light on existing policies.
This basic assumption that engagement with culture cultivates citizenship can
be problematized. As found by Stevenson et al. (2017) in other small-nation contexts,
this ‘discourse of enlightenment’ is key in legitimating cultural policy and state support,
while constructing other types of engagement as a problem or deficit. Yet, as it
constitutes a fundamental motivation for Norwegian cultural policy, we in this article
focus our attention on how engagement with certain forms of culture—TV-series and
literature—can be seen to facilitate citizenship.
Method: A Two-Step Approach
In this study we apply a two-step methodological approach with a quantitative
and a qualitative part.
The quantitative part of the analysis is based on a representative web-panel
survey of 2064 Norwegian citizens (18 years and older), conducted in November—
December 2017. The survey consisted of 76 main variables (600 items) which included
questions about social background, media and cultural use, and participation and
interest in civil and political life.
Following the sociological and methodological example from Distinction
(Bourdieu, 1979), we will first present a rough model of the Norwegian social space
(based on Hovden and Moe, 2017), aiming to statistically reconstruct the major
divisions in central resources (capital), and in effect, the space of social classes, using
variables for educational level (five categories), type of education (three), type of
occupation (seven), working in the private or the public sector (three), the value of
one’s house (six), household income (seven) and cultural capital in parental home
(four). The first two axes of the model explain respectively 40% and 18% (in sum 58%)
of the significant variance of the variables, using Benzecri´s modified rates.
resulting model, with selected supplementary categories added to indicate major
differences in political and cultural orientation, is given in Figure 1. While there are
important links between the resources and practices studied and age and gender, we
will focus on the class-based social differences.
The analysis of these survey data allows us to identify relationships between
central resources, preference for culture and public connection. This first analytical step
is needed then, to build a basis for exploring in detail how people actually make use of
different forms of expressive culture that we map based on the survey. This forms the
second step of our methodological design.
In the autumn of 2016, a team consisting of five researchers and three assistants
carried out in-depth semi-structured interviews of 50 informants. The informants were
split across age, gender, and across social, ethno-cultural and regional backgrounds,
For details and the questionnaire, see Kantar TNS (2017).
While the third axis also appears as statistically significant (explaining 6% of the
variance), it offers only nuances to the interpretation of the second axis and will be left
out of the following.
and recruited to reflect the socio-demographic composition of the Norwegian
population. In order to systematically capture diversity in social background, the
recruitment was based on pre-established occupational categories adopted from
Norwegian sociological register data class schemes (Hansen, Flemmen & Andersen,
2009). The selection of informants covered occupational categories from cultural,
professional, and economic elites, cultural, professional and economical upper/lower
middle classes, and occupational sub-strata of the working classes.
Each informant was interviewed twice. In between the two rounds of interviews,
each informant also kept a diary. In the first round of interviews (carried out in
September), we investigated a wide variety of factors. These included their everyday
media habits and repertoires, interest in news, interest in topical affairs, civic
engagement, and also their use of culture. In the month-long diary phase, we asked
informants to chart their media and cultural habits: what sort of media and culture they
had engaged with, and if some of this had made a particular impression on them. In the
second round of interviews we focused specifically on the informants’ experiences of
engaging with particular cultural products. We also asked the informants to reflect on
their cultural preferences. We further asked if their textual engagement had made them
think about matters in culture and society, and if they experienced the cultural works to
have given them any insights or added to their knowledge. The interviews amounted to
approximately a hundred hours of recorded material, which was subsequently
transcribed by assistants. Our analysis focuses on the second round of interviews yet
takes advantage of the whole process to attain a comprehensive understanding of how
the use of culture is integrated into the informants’ overall lifestyles. We concentrate
specifically on the extent to which the informants’ accounts of engaging with different
cultural genres involve reflections about politics, or matters of collective importance
Taken together, the two steps allow us to explore the links between how
audiences make use of the expressive culture to which they are exposed, to which extent
this use enables them to function as citizens, and to what extent such enablement relies
on the economic and cultural resources audiences possess.
In this study we operationalize public connection as people’s interest,
understanding and attention concerning issues related to institutional politics, its
processes and mediations, encompassing also questions of value and identity when
these are contested or on the public agenda. Whereas previous conceptualizations of
public connection emphasize also the reflexive dimension, that is people’s own sense
of being connected (Couldry, et al. 2010), our operationalization foregrounds
connections to the sphere of politics proper and indicators of manifest orientations
toward the world of politics. As discussed in depth elsewhere (Nærland, 2019), while
this narrower operationalization limits the scope, it also allows for
the elucidation of manifest links between engagement with expressive culture and
Relationships Between Social Background, Use of Culture and Public
In this part, we start by sketching the distribution of Norwegian citizens´ basic
social resources (the distribution of capital), before investigating how this social logic
(i.e., the class-based structuration) is related to, first, indicators of public connection,
and second, citizens’ actual use of various cultural institutions, and their reported
interest in various forms of culture.
The differentiating principles for the distribution of basic resources in
Norwegian society appear to be a variant of the pattern first established for France by
Bourdieu (1979). This pattern has later been shown to be a feature of most modern
Western societies (Coulangeon & Duval, 2014; Rosenlund, 2015): a first division by
capital volume, e.g. citizens’ overall level of resources (economic, cultural, social etc.),
represented by the vertical opposition of the map shown in Figure 1, and a second
dimension by capital composition (horizontal opposition). In regard to the latter,
citizens on the right are characterized first and foremost by being richer in economic
capital and often working in the private sector, whereas citizens on the left more often
are characterized by cultural capital (via having culturally active parents, having an
education in the humanities or the social sciences, working in the public or cultural
sector, and often all of these). The second dimension in this way distinguishes between
different fractions inside the dominant and dominated classes, e.g., between university
professors and successful business leaders in the former case, and between lower
teachers and public servants versus lower-paid employees in the private sector.
Figure 1. The Norwegian social space with projected cultural and political
Being in a less affluent and prestigious position in the distribution of the wealth
(of all kinds) and honor is closely related to educational level, which must be regarded
as a particularly important resource for many types of public connection. At the same
time, such a position is characterized by diverse indicators of a looser and more
disenchanted connection to the political system. These indicators include less trust in
politicians, less feeling that politics is relevant for them, fewer who think that they are
knowledgeable about politics or can influence political processes, and so forth. A
similar disposition is seen toward the news, where the politically disenchanted are also
less likely to be interested in national and international political news and news-related
debate content. Significantly, the lower classes typically show a high (and higher)
interest in local news and local politics. Closer readings suggest that the basic
opposition is not simply between higher and lower levels of public connection, but
between varying attachment to more or less socially prestigious and powerful parts of
society, between elite- versus non-elite forms of public connection, where lower classes
are typically more oriented to their local community (see Savage, 2015), and feel less
connected to the worlds of national social elites (in particular political, but also other
types). At stake here is varying attachment toward more and less prestigious parts of
the public, most fundamentally between a national/international versus a local public
connection, as suggested by the diverse interests and consumption of news and politics
from different societal levels.
The reasons for these differences are complex. For example, different types of
higher education and occupations do offer very different opportunities and motivations
to engage in and be knowledgeable about various core institutions in the political
discourse (compare e.g. being a civil servant in a government department with working
as a carpenter, a senior policeman with a fisherman etc.). The differences, in any case,
emphasize that attention to ‘important’ issues and national politics follows a basic
social logic of affluence versus precariousness, also in a society of such relative social
equality as Norway.
While different forms of expressive culture are enjoyed by all social classes,
their use and interest vary clearly by social position. Use of the traditional cultural
institutions (e.g., having been to a theater, art gallery, museum, cultural festivals, even
concerts) is generally much more likely for citizens with high volumes of capital. Such
use is at the same time clearly related to the volume of cultural capital and education
(increasing towards the upper left of the social space). By contrast, going to sports
events is more likely in the economic fractions of this space. One can, as we will see,
hold that use of such forms of culture (at least compared to non-use) offers a potential
resource for public connection. To this, however, one might argue that such
institutionalized forms of culture comprise today a very small part of people´s actual
cultural consumption. For example, only 40% say they have been to a museum in the
last year, and only 33% to the theater.
In contrast, 82% of citizens say they watch TV-series—our first case—a normal
week, and 52% at least three days a week. Rather than being the great leveler in terms
of offering a means for public connection, however, the TV-series people say
themselves interested in follows a similar social logic as for more traditional cultural
forms. The lower social classes have typically a higher interest in traditional crime-
related series (Criminal Minds), whereas higher social classes typically are more
interested in series with more complex narrative structures, which often tackle issues
of current social and political relevance such as Norwegians’ engagement in foreign
wars (Nobel), homosexuality, and the integration of immigrants (Skam), the workings
of the political process behind the scenes (House of Cards) and realistic portrayals of
social problems in modern urban societies (The Wire).
The proportion of the population who say they read fictional literature—our
second case—is lower than for watching TV-series: 28% do this at least three days a
week. Whereas we find almost no difference in regard to educational level for the use
of TV series, someone with a secondary degree is clearly less likely to read fictional
literature than someone with a master’s degree. This finding is in line with other
statistics showing that such reading is a consistently more socially select cultural
activity than the use of TV. As in the case of TV-series, there are also big differences
between the literary genres. For instance, 31% of the population say themselves
interested in reading newspaper reviews of crime and suspense literature, but only 14
% say the same for contemporary literature (almost half, in contrast, are interested in
reading reviews of movies or TV-series). And where there are small differences in
educational background for interest in crime and suspense literature, those with a
master’s degree are almost three times more likely to be interested in contemporary
literature. As also suggested by the position of the categories in the map in figure 1 and
table 1, literary preferences appear to be even more strongly linked to cultural capital
than the use of TV-series. Similar findings on the importance of cultural capital for such
reading that demands symbolic mastery (Bourdieu, 1979) or a political interest have
been reported in other countries (e.g. Atkinson, 2016).
Table 1. Positive Preference for Three Forms of Expressive Culture by Class
Position Among 30-50 Year Old’s (N=612). Percentages, Controlled for Gender and
The table is based on a division of the social space in figure 1 in nine class fractions,
based on capital volume (high, intermediate, low) and capital composition (culture,
balanced, economic). To control for the effect of gender and age, the percentages are
the predicted marginals following a logistic regression with class fraction, gender and
age group (by 10-year intervals) as predictors, with interaction effects between gender
The main finding from the quantitative analysis is thus one of a strong affinity
between social resources (capital), elite-oriented forms of public connection, and the
use of expressive culture. The findings indicate the varying potential for the use of
expressive culture (including TV-series and fictional literature) to support, energize,
and amplify citizens´ public connection—first, through exposure, second through the
socially varying interest in these forms, and finally, through the strong probability that
certain resources (such as some forms of education) put citizens in a better position to
bring out not only the aesthetic, but also the political (in the widest possible sense of
the word) potential of a cultural work. To explore this link further, however, we will
need to engage in qualitative analyses of how citizens actually engage with cultural
Everyday engagement with culture and public connection
Drawing upon in-depth interviews, we can now substantiate the broader
tendencies outlined above. We illustrate how the consumption of, first, TV-series and,
then, fictional literature, for some informants constitutes a resource for public
connection and for others not. Moreover, we exemplify how connecting to the world of
politics through the use of culture depends also on background resources.
Use of TV-series and public connection
The following two informants are both avid consumers of TV-series, yet
exemplify differing positions in the social space. Tina, exemplifying a position towards
the middle-left of the social space, is a 34-year-old secondary school teacher. Her
cultural tastes are exclusively directed toward popular culture. Yet, her parents’
occupations (father economist, mother teacher) suggest relatively high levels of
inherited cultural capital. Tina’s news habits are extensive, she thinks of it as a ‘duty’
to keep informed and she is knowledgeable about current political events.
Tina watches TV-series on a habitual basis, several times a week. She identifies
TV-series as a means to understand “what goes on in society.” In the diary phase of
the data collection, Tina wrote that she watched the Norwegian series Nobel on a daily
basis. Nobel centers on Norway’s contested military involvement in Afghanistan, and
offers a graphic portrayal of military operations. Upon watching Nobel, Tina reflects
(In the series) ...we are shown that orders are given to shoot children and
similar kinds of stuff. And you are shown children with suicide bomb
vests. (...) Norway is supposed to be a peace-keeping nation...we’re so
concerned about peace…but they (the Norwegian soldiers) actually
engage in battle and shoot and they kill. (...) This is something that this
series helped me understand: Norway plays a role which is not all about
peace...it is a war...and they are active in that war.
As illustrated, watching Nobel for Tina clearly facilitated public connection. For
one, watching focused her attention on a highly contentious and topical issue. More
importantly, the graphic depiction of war operations as part of the fictional universe of
Nobel offered a narrative through which she could make sense of war operations. She
further problematizes Norway’s collective self-understanding as a ‘humanitarian
superpower’ or ‘nation of peace’. Through her engagement with the TV-series, the
informant can be seen here to elaborate meanings and connect dots within the wider
case-complex of which the Norwegian military’s involvement in Afghanistan is a part.
Our next informant example, Astrid, is 43 years old and works as a secretary.
She exemplifies a position toward the lower right in the social space. Her level of
achieved education (high school), parents’ occupation (father painter/mother
secretary), and cultural tastes (stand-up, light talk shows and action movies) indicate
overall low levels of acquired and inherited cultural capital. She reads online
newspapers on a daily basis but is mainly focused on local news and sports.
She watches TV-series on a habitual basis and prefers series such as Criminal
Minds, CSI and the Norwegian crime series Frikjent. When talking about why she
enjoys the latter series, she reflects:
Well it is because I like that actor Nicolai Cleve Broch. I think his acting
is so good. And it is very exiting the... I like the suspense! In general, I
like series because of the suspense and pastime... yes pastime. And of
course, the actors.
Compared to the first example Tina, there is little suggestion that Astrid’s
engagement with TV-series enables her to enact critical citizenship. In the interviews,
she does not identify TV-series as a means to keep informed or to understand political
or social issues. Neither do her tastes, which are mainly confined to crime, seem to offer
support for an orientation toward the sphere of politics.
These two informant examples illustrate the relationships between the taste for
certain types of TV-series and public connection indicated through the statistical
analysis, in which series that explicitly portray social or political conditions emerge as
a self-evident resource for public connection. However, there are features in the
interview material that complicate this picture. For some, engagement with seemingly
a-political TV-series also emerges as a resource for public connection. Victor, a 41-
year-old journalist and academic, for instance, makes the following reflection about his
affinity for kung-fu and blaxploitation series: “(the series) addresses important issues
whether it tries to or not.. Sure we need series that address issues explicitly, but also
those that mirror reality more indirectly.”
The example illustrates a common trait among many of the informants who have
extensive news habits, developed an interest in politics, and who generally possess high
levels of cultural capital. For these informants, also seemingly apolitical series become
objects for political interpretations. Crucially, this also points to the significance of
social dispositions. Engaging with TV-series as a means to connect to society
constitutes a natural and morally desirable practice for some, for others it does not.
Use of fiction literature and public connection
The following two informants are both avid consumers of science fiction
literature yet exemplify differing positions in the social space. Comparing their use and
experiences of engaging with the same genre allows us to elucidate two key aspects of
how the use of expressive culture may, or may not, work as a resource for public
connection. First, the comparison brings to our attention the significance of
interpretative resources, dispositions and also other media and cultural habits for what
they gain from such textual engagement. Second, this comparison highlights the
significance of taste, within a genre.
Our first informant, Marcus, is a university professor in the humanities, in his
mid-40s. Marcus inhabits a position towards the upper left in the social space. He
possesses high volumes of cultural capital. His parents’ occupations indicate relatively
high levels of inherited cultural capital (father, bank manager/mother, economist).
Marcus exhibits an omnivorous cultural taste. In addition to science fiction literature,
his tastes include light sit-coms, punk music, and sophisticated novelists. Marcus’
media habits and practices support and enable an orientation toward the sphere of
politics: his news consumption is comprehensive, and he exhibits considerable interest
in and knowledge about politics.
As the following quote illustrates, the reading of science fiction literature for
him functions as a means to orient himself beyond his private world, to issues of
Science fiction literature is to a considerable degree concerned with the
present. I’ve just read a trilogy by the Chinese science fiction author
Cixin Liu. (…) These are books that have been hugely popular in China,
so they must resonate in some way. And that’s a strange and unfamiliar
universe to me... to put it that way. But, if I want to intellectually
legitimate my reading… I can in this case say that this is a means to gain
insight into a completely different way of understanding the world from
what we have. And I think it is interesting...many of the thematics on
which these books focus are about politics... they’re about technology—
they’re about how we handle different kinds of challenges...
In this example, science fiction literature thus emerges as a means for reflecting
upon conditions in China and also Chinese modes of thought. And more generally, as
he contends, reading inspires both reflection about how we are to approach political
challenges. His interpretations of the literature he reads are indicative of a sensitivity to
the political relevance of art. Marcus exhibits a general inclination to connect art
works—high and low—to social and political conditions. Moreover, his taste within
the sci-fi genre facilitates public connection: he prefers authors that thematize societal
matters. For Marcus, the engagement appears to deepen and expand his orientation to
the world of politics and thus enable him to function as an informed citizen. It is
important to note, however, that the example of Marcus also highlights the classed
nature of engaging with research. While his articulations do indicate that culture for
him is a means to connect to society, they also testify to a familiarity with the perceived
expectations of the researchers, and of discursive competency to address such
Our next informant, Ove, is 33 years old and works within logistics. Ove
inhabits a position toward the lower right in social space. Compared to Marcus, he
possesses considerably less cultural capital, acquired and inherited (father,
engineer/mother, shop assistant). Ove’s cultural tastes center on popular culture such
as sit-coms, Bruce Springsteen, the lad magazine FHM, and football. Ove reads news
on a daily basis. Yet, compared to Marcus, his habits are centered on local issues and
less on politics. He defines himself as ‘not interested in politics’, and expresses a lack
of trust in politicians.
Ove spends considerable time reading fictional literature; he reads in idle
moments at work and often in the evenings when he comes home. His taste in literature
is entirely confined to the genre of science fiction. As the following quote illustrates,
for Ove, the extensive and habitual consumption of science fiction literature can be seen
to fuel an orientation away from the sphere of politics. Although he maintains that there
are parallels between the fictional universes of science fiction, and the real world, he
foregrounds the pleasure of “...being sucked into a fantasy world”.
When I read something, I like to dream away from reality, you know…I
don’t like reading crime novels and that kind of stuff. Then you might
as well read the newspapers where you find the same as in a crime novel.
So that’s not so interesting to me (…) I like to get into another universe,
something that doesn’t exist, and use my fantasy...
This example suggests how the engagement with sci-fi can form part of weak
orientations towards the sphere of politics, in which science fiction emerges as a means
for civic withdrawal. Moreover, Ove’s accounts of engaging with science fiction
exemplify a type of disposition that involves limited sensitivity to the political aspects
of popular culture. However, Ove’s limited inclination to articulate connections
between his engagement with culture and the political world may also be a matter of
class-based unfamiliarity with the themes and language of research interviews. This
unfamiliarity does not exclude the possibility of such connections taking place.
These two informant examples illustrate the strong affinities between social
position, cultural capital and civic uses of fiction literature indicated through the survey
material. Yet, evidence from the interview material also complicates the matter. Grete,
a 47 years old office worker, makes the following reflections upon reading the historical
novel Girl with a Pearl Earring:
The story was really strong... about a maid and a high-ranking man who
grew feelings for each other, and how social status matters. And also
how people are mean to other people lower down on the social ladder...
And if you think about people from different cultures who have just
moved here (to Norway), it’s common to see them act that way. But
when immigrants come to us and don’t know our ways, when you’re at
the bottom of the ladder... people are not nice to you. But we got to
This example illustrates, for one, how connecting to the current world of politics
through fictional literature is not exclusively a matter of cultural capital. For Grete, who
has little formal education beyond high school and whose cultural habits otherwise
center on light TV-entertainment, the reading of Girl with a Pearl Earring clearly
provided her with material to reflect further on a highly topical political issue in
Norway—how immigrants are treated. Second, the example illustrates the more subtle
nature of how engagement with fictional literature can stimulate public connection.
Grete highlights how affective experiences of injustice or human nature induced from
the engagement with a narrative far removed from present-day political reality may
energize reflections about issues of current political significance.
Conclusion: the need for (re)motivating cultural policy
This article started from the basic observation that although cultural policy is
motivated by grand aims of facilitating civic belongings and participation in
democracy, our discussions of cultural policy and expressive culture often rely on
limited measures of engagement. If we want to take the democratic role of culture and
cultural policy seriously, we need a different approach.
We have argued that a capabilities approach allows for a nuanced understanding
of how different groups of audiences make use of the expressive culture to which they
are exposed, and the extent to which such use enables them to function as citizens. We
have mobilized the concept of public connection to show how people’s use of culture
can contribute to democratically desirable orientations toward issues of collective
significance. Moreover, by mobilizing Bourdieu’s cultural sociology, we have shown
how and to what extent such enablement rely on the economic and cultural resources
Our analysis relied on a two-step methodological design, combining
quantitative and qualitative analyses. We have demonstrated statistically how public
connection and use of the selected forms of expressive culture appear clearly dependent
on social resources. Specifically, we find that those most likely to prefer genres and
works which provide the most obvious and direct potential for public connection—e.g.,
direct engagement with contemporary public issues—are also, statistically, those
generally most socially resourceful. Thus, they are also most likely to have a strong
public connection via other means than culture, e.g., via higher interest in the news and
their place of work. Importantly, such exposure appears particularly strongly linked to
At the same time, the analysis suggests that a general and one-dimensional view
of public connection is problematic, as it tends to naturalize an elite conception of
citizenship, and downplay how local and non-elite forms of public connection might
positively contribute to local citizenship. This problem is nourished by methodological
concerns when studying the working class. Typically, both surveys and interviews with
such groups on political and cultural matters are marred by researchers’ middle-class
mistaken views that practices of the lower classes are easily measurable and read.
Surveys do for example seldom capture the more informal forms of participation by
such groups (Savage, 2015).
Through qualitative analysis, we have further suggested how socio-economic
resources are vital for the audience’s ability to make use of the culture they have on
offer in a way that enables public connection. Concentrating on fictional literature and
TV-series, we have illustrated how use for some informants clearly seem to facilitate
public connection, and for others not. Our analysis brings to attention three key aspects
of how the use of culture may work as a resource for public connection. First, it
highlights the significance of taste—some forms of culture facilitate public connection
better than others. As we have shown, this is also a matter of taste within specific
genres. Second, it highlights the significance of interpretative resources and cultural
capital for making use of culture as a means to connect with politics. Third, it highlights
the significance of other supporting resources. Engaging with culture stimulates public
connection when it is supported by high news consumption, civic values and general
knowledge about what goes on in the world. The qualitative analysis thus highlights
the need to understand the use of culture as integrated into socially constituted
lifestyles. However, social scientists often lean toward a view of such groups as defined
by what they lack, and not measuring up to ‘respectable’ standards in political and
cultural matters (Skeggs, 2013). To fully explore the view from the precariat in such
matters, more extensive ethnographic work is needed.
Our analysis has thus shown how a capabilities approach yields better insights
into where exactly cultural policy works, and where it does not. Cultural policy should
not be expected to even out social inequalities and differences in democratic
engagement—other policy sectors and domains of society clearly matter as well, such
as social policy. Still, cultural policies need to address inequalities of the kind we have
To address these inequalities, we suggest the following basic measures. The first
concerns (re)motivation and implementation. The capabilities perspective should be
implemented in actual policymaking and cultural production. This means that the
attainment of empirical knowledge about the needs, experiences and conditions of
audiences should be integral to processes of policymaking and cultural production. It
also means, as suggested by Sitcer et al (2015, 47), that policy initiatives need to be
evaluated in terms of how well they advance democratic capabilities. Such a measure
has the urgent potential to ground policy in people’s needs and conditions and thus to
counter what Hadley and Gray (2017) term ‘hyperinstrumentalism’, in which culture
becomes a means to non-cultural policy ends.
The second concerns the relevance and appeal of cultural content. We argue that
a cultural policy committed to promoting democratic capabilities needs to stimulate
cultural production that appeals to the tastes, stylistic sensibilities and thematic
orientations of those less advantaged. Our study offers only a scant empirical basis on
which to further concretize such a proposal. Yet our findings suggest that such a
strategy could, for instance, work to stimulate the production of socially and politically
committed crime programs or sitcoms. The logic of this strategy is thus to address those
less advantaged on their own ‘turf’, with content that is also empowering. As such, it is
a strategy that resonates with Appadurai’s (2004) call for policy initiatives that engage
the dispossessed locally and on their own terms, to facilitate recognition and voice. By
extension, it is a strategy that also points to the importance of socio-cultural diversity
in cultural production to ensure relevance and appeal.
The third concerns the introduction and exposure to arts through basic
education. Although there is an abundance of evidence showing that education in many
cases amplifies socio-cultural inequalities (Bourdieu, 1979), and although Nussbaum’s
(2012) emphasis on liberal arts education as a means of cultivating democratic citizens
has been criticized, and perhaps rightly so, for being elitist, we still maintain that the
education system—at the basic levels— remains a key mechanism for addressing the
inequalities we have identified in this study. The education system remains one of the
few domains which can ensure that everyone is introduced to and familiarized with
different forms of culture. This is not least the case in welfare states such as Norway,
where the basic education systems remain, predominantly, publicly owned and
comparatively egalitarian. A measured and sociologically reflexive introduction to art
through education can help disadvantaged groups both familiarize themselves with
genres and expressions and master the interpretative resources necessary to make sense
of these—and in this way enable themselves to make use of culture to connect to
We have addressed the capacity of cultural policy and culture to promote
citizenship. Whereas (cultural) policy is always instrumental, insofar as it is concerned
with using certain mechanisms to achieve certain ends (Hadley & Gray, 2017), our
study implies an instrumental view also on the value of culture—indeed, we have
framed culture as a means to achieve democratic goals. Yet, we acknowledge that both
culture and cultural policy are important for many reasons other than democratic ones.
Most fundamentally, the task of cultural policy should be to advance essentials of
human flourishing and well-being, such as recognition, voice, and positive social
identity. Or even more radically, as Sen proposes, to promote capabilities that enable
people to achieve the freedom to choose the life they think is worth living.
Our study has limitations. The first is related to the complexity of the
phenomena studied, and the methodological difficulties involved in making causal
claims about democratic capabilities from statistical correlations and people´s own
narratives. The second is the limited number of cultural genres and works studied. The
third is connected to the national case—we have relied on empirical data from a wealthy
welfare state with extensive cultural policy schemes. Finally, our data are mostly
connected to national forms of public connection. Further research is needed to extend
the approach proposed here to other cases—with different political cultures, different
histories of cultural policy and different macro-economics. Our study can thus be seen
as a “plausibility probe” (Eckstein, 1975), an empirical trial to gauge the potential for
the capability approach in the context of cultural consumption. However, the relation
we have found between social class, interest in the specific cultural forms and politics
appears not unique to Norway, but resembles those suggested by other European studies
(e.g. Warde et al., 2009 in the case of UK). The findings presented here thus make
probable such links between people’s engagement with expressive culture and their role
as citizens. A task ahead is to further explore and document such links.
Appadurai, A (2004) The capacity to cspire. In V. Rao and M. Walton (eds).
Culture and public cction: A cross-disciplinary dialogue on development policy,
Stanford, CA; London: Stanford University Press.
Atkinson, W. 2016. “The structure of literary taste: class, gender and reading in
the UK.” Cultural Sociology, 10 (2): 247–266. doi: 10.1177/1749975516639083.
Bourdieu, P. 1979. Distinction. London: Routledge.
Carnwath, J. D. and A. S. Brown. 2014. Understanding the value and impacts
of cultural experiences. A literature review. London: Arts Council of England.
Coleman, S. and G. Moss, G. 2016. “Rethinking election debates: What citizens
are entitled to expect.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21 (1): 3–24. doi:
Coleman, S. N., G. Moss, and A. Martinez-Perez. 2018. “Studying real-time
audience responses to political messages: A new research agenda.” International
Journal of Communication 12 (2018): 1696–1714.
Coulangeon, P. and J. Duval, eds. 2014. The Routledge companion to
Bourdieu’s' Distinction'. London and New York: Routledge.
Couldry, N, S. Livingstone and T. Markham. 2010. Media consumption and
public engagement: Beyond the presumption of attention. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Couldry, N. 2019. “Capabilities for what? Developing Sen’s moral theory for
communications research”. Journal of Information Policy, 9 (2019): pp. 43–55
Eckstein, H. 1975. “Case study and theory in political science”. In Strategies of
inquiry. handbook of political science, Vol. 7, edited by Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson
W. Polsby, 79–137. Reading, MA: Addison-Weasly.
Garnham, N. 1997. “Amartya Sen's capabilities' approach to the evaluation of
welfare and its application to communications.” Communication and Social Policy 4
(4): 25–34. doi: 10.1080/13183222.1997.11008658.
Habermas, J. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere. Boston:
Hadley, S. & C. Gray (2017) Hyperinstrumentalism and cultural policy: Means
to an end or an end to meaning?, Cultural Trends, 26:2, 95
106, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2017.1323836Stevenson et al (2017)
Hansen, M. N., M. Flemmen and P. L. Andersen. 2009. The Oslo register data
class scheme (ORDC). Oslo: Universitetet i Oslo.
Henningsen, E. 2015. ”Kulturpolitikkens sedimentering: Kulturløftet som
kulturpolitisk vekstperiode.” Nordisk Kulturpolitisk Tidsskrift 1/2015 (18): 28–40.
Hesmondhalgh, D. 2016. “Capitalism and the media: Moral economy, well-
being, and capabilities.” Media, Culture & Society 39 (2): 202–218. doi:
Hjellbrekke, J, Jarness, V, Korsnes, O. 2015. Cultural distinctions in an
‘egalitarian’ society. In: Coulangeon, P, Duval, J (eds) Routledge companion to
Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’. London: Routledge, 187–206
Holden, J. (2004). Capturing cultural value: How culture has become a tool of
government policy. London: Demos. Accessed 05.02.2020
Hovden JF, Moe H. (2017) A sociocultural approach to study public connection
across and beyond media: The example of Norway. Convergence. 23(4)
Isar, Y. R. 2017. "‘Culture’, ‘sustainable development’ and cultural policy: A
contrarian view." International Journal of Cultural Policy 23 (2): 148–158. doi:
Kantar TNS. 2017. Media Use, culture & public connection. Oslo: Kantar.
Kulturdepartementet. (2018). Kulturens kraft — kulturpolitikk for framtida.
Meld. St. 8 (2018-2019) Retrieved from:
Mangset, P. 2018. “The end of cultural policy?” International Journal of
Cultural Policy. doi: 10.1080/10286632.2018.1500560.
Moss, G. 2017. “Media, capabilities, and justification.” Media, Culture &
Society 40 (1): 94–109. doi: 10.1177/0163443717704998.
Nussbaum, M. (2011) Creating capabilities: The human development
approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Nussbaum, M. 2000. Women and human development: The capabilities
approach. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2012) Not for profit: Why democracy needs the
humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Nærland, T.U (2018) Fictional entertainment and public connection. Audiences
and the everyday use of TV-series, Television and New Media, First Published August
31, 2018; pp. 651–669
Nærland, T.U (2019) From Pleasure to Politics. Five Functions of watching TV-
series for Public Connection. European Journal of Communication. 35:2
Robeyns, I. (2003) Sen’s capabilities approach and inequality: Selecting
relevant capabilities. Feminist Economics, 9:2, 6–92,
Savage, M. (2015). Social class in the 21st century. London: Penguin UK.
Schejter A. and N. Tirosh. 2016. A justice-based approach for new media
policy: In the paths of righteousness, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sen, A. 1993. “Capability and well-being” In The quality of life, edited by
Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, 30–53. New York: Routledge.
Skeggs, B. (2013). Class, self, culture. London and New York: Routledge.
Stevenson, D., G. Balling & N. Kann-Rasmussen (2017) Cultural participation
in Europe: shared problem or shared problematisation?, International Journal of
Cultural Policy, 23:1, 89–106, DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2015.1043290
Syvertsen, T., G. Enli, O.J. Mjøs and H. Moe. 2014. The media welfare state:
Nordic media in the digital era, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Throsby, D. 2017. "Culturally sustainable development: Theoretical concept or
practical policy instrument?" International Journal of Cultural Policy 23 (2): 133–147.
Warde, A., E. Silva, T. Bennett, M. Savage, M. Gayo-Cal and D. Wright. 2009.
Culture, class, distinction. London: Routledge.
Zitcer, A, J. Hawkins, and N. Vakharia (2015) A capabilities approach to arts
and culture? Theorizing community development in West Philadelphia. Planning
Theory & Practice, October, 1–17.https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2015.1105284.