Them and Us through the Looking Glass: Race, Arts and Politics

Them and Us through the Looking Glass: Race, Arts and Politics.

This event looks very interesting. It takes place at The Drum, Birmingham on Thursday September 18th, 7-9pm.


The organizers are asking the following questions:


  • What does it mean to be a BME artist?
  • How does the title affect your work and visibility as an artist, practitioner or thinker?
  • What does it really mean when wider institutions used ‘BME’ as a frame of reference?
  • What can we do to negotiate it- and other such terms that confine us to single narratives and tick boxes exercises-to ensure the fluidity, nuances and textures of our practices are reflected in these cultural and artistic domains?
  • Is the process of abstraction a useful tool in liquidating the racial markers used to define the sociological body when trying to penetrate the cultural and artistic spheres that exclude us?

Cultural Entrepreneurship: New Perspectives for Entrepreneurship Studies

From the perspective of entrepreneurship studies, my research reflects a growing appeal for non-conventional aspects of entrepreneurship to be studied as a means of developing a closer understanding or even ‘surprising’ the academic field of entrepreneurship (Hjorth and Steyaert, 2006, p. 3). A critical perspective on current depictions of entrepreneurship can act as a catalyst for seeking new narratives. Hjorth and Steyaert’s book includes a study of indigenous people from deprived communities who change their socio-economic circumstances by rebuilding their community through entrepreneurial practice, thereby demonstrating their ability to control their future and challenge dominant views of their socio-cultural identity (Anderson et al., 2006, p.56). Continue reading

The Entrepreneur as Jester.

imagesCACYS744In popular discourse, the identity of the entrepreneur is described as an individual’s life story, achieving entrepreneurial success in the face of adversity, thus creating a strong association with the innate attributes of the entrepreneur, acting as an autonomous ‘free agent’, and often against all the odds. For instance, Alan Sugar’s profile is that of someone who from humble beginnings has become a highly successful entrepreneur. This narrative is depicted by Warren and Anderson in their study of the ‘aesthetic performance of an entrepreneurial identity’ which illustrates the personality of Michael O’Leary, Chief Executive of the airline Ryanair (2009). For the authors, O’Leary’s entrepreneurial character is playful in his interactions with the media; he adopts a ‘jester-like pose, where the freedom of the clown’s cap allots a broad license to lambast both figures of authority influential in setting governance structures and also, the greyed ranks of august established competitors’ (ibid, p. 149). Warren and Anderson expose O’Leary’s ability to use entrepreneurial rhetoric as a means of challenging the structures which stand in his way, as a business man (ibid). Here, the idea of the entrepreneur is similar to that of the maverick, the disruptive individual who acts differently from the establishment. According to Warren and Anderson, O’Leary is empowered by performing this role and employs the character of the entrepreneur to meet his business needs in a competitive marketplace.

But O’Leary’s jestering acts as and provides an emotional shortcut, where the ‘people’s champion’ narrative amplifies the ascribed values of being enterprising from a valuable personal identity into an enterprising corporate identity for Ryanair. (Warren and Anderson, 2009, p. 149.)

As the authors argue, O’Leary’s narrative fits with the notion of entrepreneurship as ‘creative destruction’ based on innovation and change. In this case, O’Leary makes use of the media to communicate the story of change as better value for the general public, namely cheaper flights, and in opposition to larger, established companies who are his direct competitors. This is achieved through humorous and emotive behavior by O’Leary, who performs ‘selected components of the munificence of entrepreneurial identity’ to appeal to potential customers (ibid, p.161.). Warren and Anderson also describe how this instrumental approach to adopting an entrepreneurial identity and endearing himself to the general public, backfires on O’Leary, when his meanness towards his staff is exposed by the media (ibid).

O’Leary’s story is acted out in a public sphere; his style is depicted as adversarial and provocative. The cultural entrepreneurs I interview are not necessarily interacting with the general public through the media, rather, their public space is Birmingham’s cultural milieu, a space in which they jostle alongside their peers to perform their role. For instance, Tom presents his entrepreneurial character as being driven by social objectives rather than purely focused on financial gain. Tom describes how his entrepreneurial activities have to have ‘an element of goodness through the relationships we have with other people’ (Tom, 2012). In his story and actions, Tom performs the ‘good guy’, a person who should be perceived as the antithesis of the money grabbing entrepreneur, Richard, who he describes as: ‘you know, he’s a serial, power hungry person’ (Tom, 2012).  Tom’s dramatic language (power hungry) ensures that he is positioning himself in direct opposition to Richard within Birmingham’s cultural milieu.

When I ask Jack if he is a cultural entrepreneur, he compares himself with Dave, and distances himself from the idea of the entrepreneur by describing his role and work as opposite of entrepreneurial. It is often in relation to others, as Hall states, that we are able to identify our own behaviour. Jack imagines how he wants to be portrayed or, how he wants to be viewed by others, in relation to Dave. Jack articulates an awareness of performance associated with Dave and prefers to identify with different aspects of his work, starting with the idea of being a designer which he describes here:

Design is the actual rigorous application of trying to do something creative, on time, on budget, to meet client expectation – it is a really difficult job and you know, you try to satisfy you own expectations and needs and aspirations and preferences but really you are trying to do something that is always, I think it is far more like an engineering process than an art related one. Art being at the opposite end. Art being a pure form of creative personal expression. (Jack, 2011)

Since his company has grown, Jack has moved on from being involved in the creative process and now seems himself as a manager, involved in telling people what ‘to do in the right order, at the right time and being a lot more organised’ (2011). Jack is keen to describe his work as a set of tasks which are process driven and managed rather than the entrepreneurial style epitomised by Dave. For Jack this reaction to the idea of the cultural entrepreneur is more than a reaction to Dave, it is also about his other relationships with friends and family. In this statement, I find Jack to be very thoughtful about his work, how it has changed and how it compares to others.

Yes it is ambivalent because, partly it just feels like ok, when it was a creative role you just think, I think I always had a sense that you were not taken as seriously. I don’t think that people in the creative industries are. Like my two best friends, one is a consultant psychiatrist and the other is a human rights lawyer. And you know, amongst my peers, I always thought I ought to get a proper job sometime. And I never regarded what I was doing that seriously and it’s also parental expectations. Having done serious things, it was always kind of well this is fun, but it’s not actually that fun, there is quite a lot of stress as you know, to do with design rather than being creative. (Jack, 2011)

Jack is only too aware of the idea of the entrepreneur or the creative person, and the performative aspects of this role but chooses to distance himself from that personae. His ability to do that appears to rest on his social circle and his family context enabling him to decide on his own position by drawing on a range of experiences.

The idea of observing and rejecting entrepreneurial characteristics is echoed in some of the findings from Couldry and Littler in their research of the show The Apprentice (2011). Couldry and Littler’s investigate the ‘reality’ of work in an environment in which enterprise is normalized through the contestants’ performance on screen, emphasizing values such as passion and competitiveness as positive and highly desirable (ibid). Although Couldry and Littler are critical of the programme, suggesting that it offers a narrow view of entrepreneurship for both audience and participants, they suggest that viewers have the possibility to reject this reductive depiction of the entrepreneur (ibid). The stylised documentary approach creates a distance between viewers and the entrepreneurial norms being presented, offering some room for agency. In other words, the very limitations of the programme, point to choices we have as viewers. From our perspective as viewers, we can encounter the performer/contestant with the ability to make our own minds up as to how we view their entrepreneurial ‘performance’. Similarly, Jack can laugh or reject the cultural entrepreneur as performed by Dave.

In contrast, Luca identifies with some entrepreneurial traits and explains his position from a very different perspective. Luca could be described as an artist, but when I ask him about being a cultural entrepreneur, he states ‘That’s what I am. That’s how I describe myself.’ (Luca, 2013). He elaborates by stating:

Minimum resources, maximum output. That’s what I’m interested in. Anyone that’s worked with me will tell you how much you get from working with me on and what I would generate as an output. I often think that I’m really lazy and don’t generate a lot of stuff, whereas most people around me think I generate loads. So for me, entrepreneurship is about looking at maximising resources, and I think I do that really well… (Luca, 2013)

Luca is drawn to the ideas associated with the entrepreneur; a self-reliant individual and in particular this sense of achieving a lot from few resources. But as we discuss this further he also reveals a disapproval or dislike of being reliant on public funding, a position which is common to many artists.

So this will come from nothing. I will go for very little public funding if any at all. What I won’t do which I think is not anti-entrepreneurial but lots of people invest lots of their time in writing funding applications and going through administrations and bureaucracies around I need £500, and they’ll probably waste £1000 of their time generating £500, and I’m just thinking, just use the resources you’ve got, your time. (Luca, 2013)

The role of the enterprising individual suits Luca as a means of distancing himself from other artists providing him with attributes which suit that specific narrative. As Du Gay’s argues, individuals are capable of adopting certain habits through immersion in a specific context: ‘the practical means through which individuals are equipped with the capacities to conduct themselves as particular sorts of persons (2007, p.23). These attributes can be tested to see how they ‘feel’ and they are not fixed and learned by an individual coming into this milieu, but fluctuate both in form and dynamics.

The figuration, in other words, does not connect persons with already established identities but, rather, it provides those persons with their very dimensions or characteristics. The persons, their characteristics, what they are and do are all dependent upon the relations in which they are involved. (Du Gay, 2007, p.)

The language and characteristics associated with the entrepreneur can be adopted as a means of presenting a version of oneself or to explore new territories. It can help individuals project how they want to be perceived, for instance as pro-active or what they are not, such as Tom who does not want to appear as ‘power hungry’.

As I have argued, personality traits inform popular notions of the entrepreneur which permeates many aspects of contemporary work. Rather than contesting the mythical figure of the entrepreneur, I have tried to position him within this discussion.  I have found little resistance to the entrepreneur other than the character being made fun of and depicted as specific individuals such as Dave. For the cultural entrepreneurs I interview, entrepreneurial behaviour tends to not be associated with capitalism per say but with a positive attitude, with change and innovation. The character of the entrepreneur is adopted as and when an individual finds it helpful, creating ambiguity in terms of the cultural entrepreneur’s identity. McGuigan refers to Schumpeter who remarked that the very nature of capitalism creates societies in which individuals can be both supported by the system and critical of it, in particular, artists and writers (2009, p.23). As Jones and Spicer state:

By paying attention to the active contests around enterprise discourse we begin to become aware that the entrepreneurial subject is not simply given – rather it is a terrain of struggle, resistance and power. (Jones and Spicer, 2009, p. 25)

Furthermore, the authors suggest that enterprise can be met with ‘ritualised humour and cynicism’ in certain work cultures. The type of response articulated by Jack when describing Dave, as having a badge that would tweet ‘cultural entrepreneur’!

Feminist analysis and Bourdieu: 1. Resistance

I am using Bourdieu’s theoretical framework to explore cultural entrepreneurship. However, I am aware that I’m no expert in Bourdieu’s theories, and I wanted to explore a feminist critique of his work to help me understand my own approach. Beverley Skeggs has done a lot of work using Bourdieu as well as using feminist and poststructuralist theory, to understand value and values beyond economic perceptions.

In an article in The Sociological Review, 2004, Skeggs states that:

Bourdieu is useful because of the parallels between feminist approaches to epistemology and methodology, in which theoretical frameworks and political programmes are always embedded in social relations. (Skeggs, 2004, p. 20)

For Skeggs, Bourdieu’s work includes three main strands:

  1. Linking of objective structures to subjective experience (structure and agency)
  2. metaphorical model of social space in which human beings embody and carry volumes and compositions of different capitals  – capitals
  3. methodological insights in which reflexivity, as a prerequisite to knowledge, provides us with a way of examining the positions from which we speak  – reflexivity

Skeggs is more specifically interested in issues relating to gender and class, which are not part of my study. However, I have found some thought provoking insights in her arguments. I have two issues  that I am trying to apply to my own study. In this post I explore the idea of ‘resistance'; people who do not ‘fit’ neatly into a position within the field, may be more likely to resistant dominant discourse or individuals.

Bourdieu would argue that dominated groups are more likely to be resistant because they are less invested in the games of power. (Skeggs, 2004, p.25)

In feminist research that might be women who do not identify with conventional and dominant male power. In my research, this could be influential individuals (policy makers, those deemed to be powerful within the social context) and/or the rhetoric of enterprise which has permeated the language of cultural work. Could it be the case that, for example, if a cultural worker is not looking for funding or support from local agents, he/she is in a better position to act autonomously. However, again referring to feminist research and women’s experience, Skeggs notes that this is not always the case. Rather, ambivalence and contradictions are found in women who can both:

produce a perfect critique of masculine traits and dispositions, yet this does not lead to resistance or change as Bourdieu would predict; rarely to women take on the ‘view of the dominant on the dominant on themselves’ (Bourdieu, 2001:42). (Skeggs, 2004, p. 26)

For me, this complexity is useful because it echoes Banks’ idea that cultural entrepreneurs are not ‘desocialized drones’ and that there is an opportunity for ‘uncovering alternative rationales’ for entrepreneurship and ‘morally diverse approaches to capitalism’ (Banks, 2006, p. 467).  My understanding is that I can expect an ambiguous response to entrepreneurship and to dominant cultural policies from the cultural workers I am studying.


Cultural Entrepreneurship: the role of personal agency in the cultural worker’s experience of entrepreneurship

In this blog I outline the context for my study of the role of personal agency in the cultural worker’s experience of entrepreneurship. The research draws on the academic disciplines of cultural studies, cultural policy studies and entrepreneurship studies as a context for empirical research of the lived experience of entrepreneurship in cultural work. In exploring the tensions between a celebration of entrepreneurial modes of work and critiques of entrepreneurship as a characteristic of a neo-liberal agenda, I reveal a more nuanced experience through individual narratives set within the context of a cultural industries milieu.


Oakley questions the possibility of entrepreneurial work being ‘good work’ in her chapter ‘Good Work? Rethinking Cultural Entrepreneurship’ stating that there is a ‘disconnect between the discourse of cultural entrepreneurship and the reality of it’ (Oakley, 2013). The thrust of Oakley’s argument is that the policy rhetoric encouraging entrepreneurship needs to take note of the challenges of self-employment and the precarious nature of work in the cultural sector. A better understanding of different practices and individual experiences needs to inform the ‘rethinking of cultural entrepreneurship’. This ‘disconnect’ is the context for this study which seeks to reveal the lived experience of cultural entrepreneurship in the context of Birmingham’s (UK) cultural milieu.

My investigation draws on academic disciplines such as entrepreneurship studies and cultural studies which, at first glance, have very little in common. One is driven by a tradition of critical thinking (cultural studies), shaped predominantly by Marxist theories, while the other tends to prioritise practical implications for policy makers and practitioners. However, while on the surface there is little parity, I have found common ground on several points. Firstly, as Oakley and others (See Banks,  Hesmondhalgh, Hjorth and Steyaert) have suggested there is a call for more empirical studies capturing the lived experience of cultural entrepreneurship. Secondly, there is emerging literature which seeks to re-invent entrepreneurship, including being ‘enterprising’ for counter cultural activities or for ‘good’ work (morally, ethically and practically) within a social context.

The diversity of experience and the extent to which it represents meaningful work for cultural entrepreneurs is problematized by Hesmondhalgh and Baker in their investigation of good and bad work (2011). This study compliments that research but with an emphasis on the discourse of entrepreneurship as a means of exploring cultural work. Like Hesmondhalgh and Baker, I do not assume that the individuals I interview are ‘entranced’ (p.47, 2011) by cultural entrepreneurship; I argue that they are active agents within a Bourdieusian field. The accounts I have collected for this study are taken seriously, as the lived experiences of cultural entrepreneurs within constantly changing, complex social circumstances and structures (Bourdieu, 1993).

I explore this by engaging with critical debates and by investigating the contextualised experience of individual cultural entrepreneurs. Themes such as self-management, the myth of the entrepreneur and the relevance of place will be explored as a means of investigating the role of personal agency and in order to advance our understanding of cultural entrepreneurship. The process seeks to re-imagine the cultural entrepreneur by recognising the role of reflexivity and the possibilities for agentic practice. The distinctiveness of the approach aims to reveal highly personal experiences and subjective positions set within the context of a relatively small cultural industries community in Birmingham; a community in which I have been immersed for a number of years prior to this study. I draw on my knowledge of people, networks and of local policies by exploiting my position as part of Birmingham’s cultural industries community.

This work will further enhance current academics debates specifically in two disciplines: firstly scholarly work engaged with advancing the European tradition of entrepreneurship studies which seeks to explore entrepreneurship from broader perspectives and challenge dominant notions of the entrepreneur. Secondly it will inform scholarship in cultural policy and cultural studies by further developing critical perspectives through empirical research.

Using evernote for research: making notes and organising data

After recommendations from many friends, including academics, I have started to use Evernote regularly. I wish I had started earlier.

I use Evernote in 2 ways:

  • To make notes about specific articles which I attach to the note.
  • To organise my data.

I also occasionally use it to make notes at conferences or events but I generally prefer to write and doodle with a pen and paper at events.

Making notes while you are reading a paper is a great way of connecting specific ideas and concepts to your research by tagging the note. For example, I have just read a great paper about cultural policy which relates to certain ideas but also to one of my interviews. By using tags I have connected my notes to an issue I raise in my lit review and to a quote by the interviewee. It will be really easy to find using the tags.

My research is qualitative and I have done 15 interviews which are each between 1 and 2 hours. As part of the process of analysing and organising the data, certain themes became important and I knew they would connect to the broader question. I created folders for each of the interviewees and tags for all the themes. This has enabled me to collect quotes for each interviewee creating separate notes for each person but using the same themes as tags. Now all I need to do is use one of the tags, say ‘cultural capital’, and all the quotes tagged ‘cultural capital’ are collected together.

I have not finished my research yet but so far, this has been really helpful.

Transcribing and Analysing Interviews

I have done about 12 interviews so far and will probably end up with about 15 in total.  The interviews are recorded using an app on my iphone and then I use dropbox to store the recordings. I transcribed each interview verbatim to enable a familiarity with the material by listening closely to the interviewee. As Gray states, transcription can seem an onerous task but it has the advantage of engaging the researcher in a profound way with the material. Indeed, Gray suggests that detail such as voice qualities and pauses in the conversation can be significant for the interpretation and analysis. For example, I state when someone laughs and describe the nature of that laugh as best I can.

Furthermore, Gray’s approach enables the emergence of certain themes and ideas to develop as part of the transcribing process.

In this way analysis and interpretation became part of the process of research. This is when I was able to use my imagination, being sensitive to the material and experimental in my analysis. (Gray, 2003, p. 149)

Following Gray’s methodology, I have created categories such as: control, freedom, sense of responsibility, passion, role models, key networks, precarious work, happy, work and lifestyle, and so on (about 20 so far) based partly on the entrepreneurs’ stories but also as a result of key themes arising from the literature. Sections from the transcripts are collected under each category to enable me to see each entrepreneurs’ articulation of the theme together; these can be compared and contrasted in relation to each other and to the literature. For the analysis, Gray advocates flexibility and an open mind to the potential relations between categories and for new themes to emerge. I am using simple processes with colored pens and large sheets of paper to make these connections – a bit like a mind map or a conceptual map.

But Gray also talks about the importance of not loosing the individual’s voice through this process of chopping up the text. The individual narrative or story created during the interview is unique. While the idea of a ‘true’ story is nowadays considered an anathema, it is not up to the researcher to re-describe it. The researcher needs to respect the interviewees’ story as it was told at the time of the discussion. For more information on this subject see Narratives in Social Science Research by Barbara Czarniawska.


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