October 12, 2016

People United’s Tom Andrews, Director of Advocacy and Support, discusses the layers of complexity involved when researching the role of arts in growing pro-social motivation.

In June 2016, I attended an education conference hosted by the Royal Opera House Bridge organisation.  Set in grand surroundings of Hatfield Manor, we were greeted by the ebullient owner and embarked on a range of debates and talks.  The first breakout session that I attended focused on values and so-called ‘British Values’.  During the discussion on our table the conversation turned to the EU referendum and one of the participants spoke of how he felt uneasy about the process as it turned a complex situation into a simple yes or no; and that this causes division and oversimplification.

This struck me at the time as very perceptive and reminded me of conversations with our academic partner, Dr Dominic Abrams from the psychology department at the University of Kent, concerning the science behind prejudice, discrimination and social identity, particularly the dangers of labelling groups of people.  I have again been reminded of this, post referendum, while contemplating our major research project in Newington in Thanet, Kent.  We are working with teams of qualitative and quantitative researchers to understand and explore the role of arts in growing pro-social motivation (the motivation to want to help others).

Our work in Newington has layers of complexity: from communities themselves, to participatory practice (that changes and adapts through listening and partnerships) and the needs of the research.  This work is shaped by politics, personalities and context, as well as luck and judgement.  Much as I would like our work to prove x or y conclusively and prescribe a simple formula for success, the more challenging route is to be open to complexity, and to see our work as beginning to piece together parts of a bigger picture.  We need to present our work with clarity but I also hope we leave space for nuance, contradiction and uncertainty.  And just as research can help us paint this picture, maybe one of the roles of the arts too, is to acknowledge, provide space for, and help us make sense of our increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Related reading:
Arts and Pro-social Motivation: A Research Project,
What is the relation between arts activities and helping behaviour?


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