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  • Laura Parsons

What is Hidden Culture? Part 1

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Defining Culture

Despite reams and reams of cross-disciplinary scholarship, culture remains a contested notion. Culture is often presented as both a cure-all for societal ills and regenerator of cities, and an asset in the creep of neoliberal politics. The influential work of Richard Florida credits the cultural industries, however they may be defined, as a key driver for growth. However, the result of this framing of culture has been a focus on economic impact and institutions, with emphasis on public value and return on investment. This has arguably narrowed the wider view of what constitutes culture. This initial blog post, then, looks deeper into how culture is defined, in order to begin to look beyond current limited understanding.

In existing literature, culture seems to be presented as embodying one of more of the common characteristics below:

1) culture as a way of life, pertaining to the beliefs, values, behaviours and activities of certain sections of society;

2) culture as a utopian ideal, or the mark of a successful civilisation;

3) culture as an artistic activity or product representative of a specific way of life. (Parsons & Granger, 2020)

While these views of culture are all broadly anthropological, suggesting an indicator of a way of life, different disciplines narrow and widen the scope of this association considerably. For example, while centring the cultural object seems almost ubiquitous, the notion of culture as a way of life is especially marked in policy and sociological work, whereas the civilising force of culture seems mainly applicable to literary and art history scholarship. Exploring these flexible definitions of culture in the context of a broad range of fields may allow us to expand on current discourse by formulating a more comprehensive definition of culture which encapsulates idiosyncratic cultural forms.

Policy approaches

Although policy literature frequently alludes to the soft power of culture – for example, the DCMS describes culture as being created by “an extraordinary network of individuals and organisations, that together preserve, reflect and promote who we are as a nation, in all our rich diversity”, and discusses the value of what is local and unique – in reality the methods used to measure and evaluate culture mainly focus on the tangible and often economic benefits of culture.

This is most evident in the 2016 White Paper, in which pages are devoted to articulating the financial value of the creative economy, whereas just one paragraph refers to the intrinsic benefits of culture:

“Culture creates inspiration, enriches lives and improves our outlook on life. Evidence suggests that culture has an intrinsic value through the positive impact on personal wellbeing. Data shows that engaging with culture (visiting, attending and participation) significantly increases overall life satisfaction” (DCMS, 2016, p. 15).

Creative Scotland and Creative Australia use culture more broadly, to denote defining national characteristics and heritage, rather than an overt focus on institutional outputs. They eschew the economic markers used in the White Paper, instead looking at nuanced terms such as transformation, empowerment and sustainability. There appears to be a common language of community and transformation in Western cultural policy, but a very different approach to defining what culture comprises. However, without adequate methodological transformation, nods to concepts such as empowerment may ring hollow.

Literary Approaches

Historically, authors such as Coleridge and Bentham positioned culture as a tool for lifting the common man into civilisation. Though a transformative force, this disregarded the value in the pursuits undertaken in normality. Raymond Williams rejected such elitist tropes when defining culture: he classified all outputs with an intellectual basis as cultural objects, including trade union marches and political speeches. For Williams, culture is inherently political, with emancipatory potential. This builds on Coleridge’s vision, by elevating culture to a device for freedom.

Terry Eagleton, on the other hand, rejects the notion that acknowledging everyday culture can form a utopia, suggesting that Williams’ definition would render a public lavatory a cultural institution (2000). However, in criticising postmodernist readings of culture which “privilege the minority” as a concession to ‘identity politics’ (2000, p.10), Eagleton also disregards feminist, post-colonial and queer critiques of culture, thus silencing the voices which may effectively disrupt traditional and restrictive definitions of culture, and which have a stronger voice in contemporary spaces.

Visual Arts

For visual art scholars, art objects tend to represent cultural norms and values. Symbolism in visual art is understood to convey conflicts including class struggle and gender inequality. However, it seems evident that the role of the artist as a unique and imaginative creator in society is the true proxy for the value of art. Janet Wolff discusses this extensively in The Social Production of Art, recategorising the artist as a producer, rather than a creator. This bestows creative agency upon a much greater range of individuals and communities, by acknowledging the broad categories of cultural producers and the multi-directional influence of wider societal values on art itself.

Economic Scholarship

Despite the focus of policy makers on the economic benefits of the cultural industries, cultural economists themselves have frequently resisted a reliance on solely economic methods to value culture (see Throsby, Bakhshi & Cunningham). Throsby in particular acknowledges multiple forms of value, including aesthetic, spiritual, historical, symbolic and authentic value. In contrast to Williams’ view of the creation process itself being a cultural artefact, to Throsby the result of the process is the cultural object. Throsby posits that in order for an object to represent culture:

- activities must concern some form of creativity in their production

- they must generate and communicate symbolic meaning

- their output must embody some form of intellectual property.

Arguably, while such a focus on intellectual property may be read as problematic, it is also possible to read this as some form of unique cultural signifier: for example, the one-of-a-kind designs of the tā moko, or Maori tattoos, hold intrinsic meaning both to their bearers, and to observers. If we take culture to mean any activity or object which fits Throsby’s provisos, we may begin to separate out cultural products, especially those which do not fit within the mainstream view of culture.


Bourdieu’s work on cultural practices within the stratification of existing class structures remains influential with scholars in the present day. The notion of ‘habitus’ reflects Wolff’s idea of a circular system of influence: cultural practices have meaning because of their relationship to one another, not as master works in isolation. For Bourdieu, our tastes are a clear signifier of class and education.

Stuart Hall’s vital work on the politics of representation mirrors the assertion that the cultural products that we consume are a material representation of the wider system of societal values, but Hall also posits that rather than social reproduction, the symbolic meaning of cultural products changes more rapidly, in fact influencing societal changes. In this sense, Hall’s work positions culture as a tool for radical social change.

A New Definition of Culture

Looking across these different areas of scholarship, we can identify three areas of common thought which warrant further discussion:


Culture is meaningful: the importance of semiotics is evident in all of the discourse noted above, especially in David Throsby’s symbolic value. Cultural products have meanings understood by those who produce and consume them. In Image Music Text Barthes frames this as “The Third Meaning – in other words all social systems contain elements of signification, but the act of signifying unspoken shared meaning is specifically culture-defining.

Wider social context

In order to illuminate the cultural object and give insight into the context in which the object is formed, culture should be defined to include the influence of wider society and its values. This shows how culture reinforces certain norms, or elicits change. Consideration of context also allows for analysis of power relations which influence cultural production, including appropriation of marginalised culture for mainstream audiences.


An inclusive definition of culture which encapsulates the broadest possible scope of cultural activity is a means of democratising cultural participation while acknowledging the cultural output of marginalised communities. Raymond Williams argues fiercely for the everyday to feature strongly in our understanding of culture: “what kind of life can it be… to produce… this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work?” (Williams, Culture is Ordinary)

With this in mind, for the purposes of this project, I define culture as:

‘An object, activity or rite resulting from or in a transformative process, which conveys symbolic meaning to a community bound by shared experience, iterating a wider system of practices and values’.

This moves away from historical utopian ideals, and focuses on the specific circumstances in which the cultural artefact was created. This definition of culture focuses on plurality of belief, the importance of a transformative process, and the necessity of a shared understanding in a community, in order to move away from the long-held myth of the singular creative genius. The notion of an iterative system suggests the way in which culture influences values and vice versa.

Next blog instalment: The Emergence of Hidden Culture

For further reading on Hidden Culture please see the chapter “Problematising Hidden Culture” (2020, Parsons & Granger) in Value Construction in the Creative Economy (ed. R. Granger), for sale here.

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