Engaging in culture under pandemic restrictions: Where do we find culture and how do we feel about it?

Engaging in culture under pandemic restrictions: Where do we find culture and how do we feel about it?

Tally Katz-Gerro, Neta Yodovich, Yeala Hazut-Yenuka, and Moran Constantinescu

Many feel that adjusting to new routines in our everyday life since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, and making changes in our daily habits during lockdown and restrictions of social distancing have significantly shaped the way we engage in culture. But what changes are actually taking place, and how do individuals feel about them?

To start thinking about this new condition, we conducted a survey in June and July 2020, which is part of a larger research project about the meaning of culture in everyday life, involving nine countries, and funded by the EU Horizon 2020 framework (https://inventculture.eu/). In the UK survey, on which we elaborate here, we used a snowball method, distributing a short questionnaire through Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. This yielded a non-representative sample of 100 respondents. Although the sample is small and biased towards more educated individuals, it is quite heterogeneous in terms of religious identification, urban status, and age, and it is balanced in terms of gender.

Several themes repeatedly emerged from responses to our questions about cultural engagement during the lockdown, reflecting similar experiences and meanings attributed to the effects of the pandemic on everyday life. A common feature of these themes is that they represent ambivalent attitudes or contrasting effects in relation to how lockdown and other restrictions have influenced engagement with culture.

The first theme we identified is that some participants are experiencing a decrease and others an increase in social interactions and a sense of togetherness. According to some participants, “Social spaces have changed” (N29, male, 50 years old, sixth form, white-collar employee). The respondents who reported a significant reduction in their social interactions shared that due to the lockdown, they “cannot go to work or socialise with friends” (N59, male, 26, tertiary education, white-collar employee). Another participant (N12), a woman in her late 20s (tertiary education, no current employment) felt isolated from other people and her culture: “holidays celebrated alone, languages that go unspoken, and always feeling like an outsider in the current country I live in”.

In contrast to these accounts, others felt closer to their families and people in their immediate environments, such as their neighbourhoods: “the new situation forced people to interact with communities based on local geography, rather than cultural echo chambers across a more dispersed geography” (N47, female, tertiary education, self-employed). This finding joins a recent YouGov survey in which 40% of respondents reported that their social bonds with their local communities have become tighter during the lockdown. However, in light of the comment made by N12, if one’s immediate community is culturally different than their own, this might increase feelings of isolation and loneliness during the lockdown.

A second theme included a contrast between opportunities and barriers. Some respondents highlighted their inabilities to travel or engage in cultural practices, such as going to the theatre. In contrast, others found new opportunities during the lockdown, for example by consuming culture through digital platforms. Certain respondents expressed their discouragement when encountering barriers to follow their cultural pursuits: “my son is unable to continue his language studies while the schools are closed. Unable to visit cultural sites” (N66, male, secondary education, white-collar employee).

In contrast, a female respondent in her late 60s described how the use in digital media allowed her to “connect more easily with more people than ever” (N44, female, tertiary education, manager). Indeed, for some participants, current circumstances presented an opportunity to be more rather than less creative. While they could not express themselves and consume culture like they used to, they were able to detect alternative cultural avenues and were open to experimenting and experiencing online forms of creativity. For example, N16 (male, 36, tertiary education, white-collar employee) observed “an enormous flourishing of cultural practices, especially online. Creativity has gone through the roof as people have had to find other media for their cultural expression”.

In general, it appears that those who were able to find new opportunities to consume culture were the ones who made the shift to online use: “I’ve missed going to the theatre and concerts but have enjoyed good drama at home (National Theatre etc). I’m dancing most days with friends via Zoom and am listening to more music with Spotify” (N96, 68, tertiary education, manager). In a similar manner, few participants compensated for the reduction in social interactions by using digital media: “It has reduced my social interactions with friends and colleagues, it has encouraged me to plan my social activities and access to contents through the internet” (N18, age and gender not available, tertiary education, manager).

A final theme involves a tension between spaces, where the home becomes a mixed-use space in which work and leisure blend with each other. For instance, a male respondent in his 30s explained that the lockdown made him “connect to a more holistic sense of culture, as something inseparable to work, home, art, and social life, rather than a discrete set of rooms” (tertiary education, self-employed). With digital media, the home turned into a multifaceted platform for cultural consumption and cultural practices, which allowed “free and convenient ways to ‘be’ in places or shows I would have not been” (N47, female, tertiary education, self-employed).

Likewise, a male respondent in his 20s (secondary education, occupation not available) explained that because he could not go out, he looked for “other methods of exploring my art and passions”. This finding aligns with a sentiment analysis of Twitter posts with the hashtag #WFH (working from home) during the early days of lockdown in the UK. Most tweets expressed a positive sentiment regarding working from home. The researchers explained that thanks to technology, we can keep most of our work-related daily routines. This survey found that this is also true in regard to cultural consumption and engagement.

The themes that emerge from our data point to a division between Brits: while some feel a lack in social interactions, others find a new sense of togetherness; some identify opportunities in social restrictions, others emphasise the barriers they encountered when trying to consume culture. We find some indication, qualified by our small sample size, that different social groups, based on gender, age, and education, experience the lockdown differently. For example, more male participants compared with female reported the lockdown as presenting barriers to engaging with culture. Tensions between private and public spaces joined together to form a new understanding of the way individuals think about culture and engage with it.

Similar findings have recently been reported in relation to the tension that arises from being forced to stay at home but wanting to socialize. Moreover, other studies depicted the strengthening of social ties with the local community after lockdown, the consumption of art through digital platforms, and arts institutions trying to reinvent the new normal. Together, these reports allow the portrayal of new opportunities for policy to reshape the way we engage with culture, to ensure the viability of this important aspect of our lives.

As predictions and news reports indicate that the UK will go under a second lockdown during the winter, previous reports and the current survey findings demonstrate the importance of accessibility to culture for individuals’ well-being. While some independently found creative ways to connect with their families, friends, communities, and culture, there is room for governmental responsibility to ensure that cultural engagement will be accessible for all.

 

The project reported here has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870691.

 Tally Katz-Gerro is a sociologist at the University of Haifa, with research interests in culture, consumption, environment, and inequality. She is Honorary Reader at the University of Manchester, Docent at the University of Turku, and serves as co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Poetics. She is Principal Investigator for the UK in a Horizon 2020 funded project on culture and cultural policy (https://inventculture.eu/). Neta Yodovich is a sociologist interested in fandom studies, popular culture, feminism and gender studies. Neta has a BA in Behavioral Sciences from Tel Aviv-Yaffo College, an MA in Sociology from Tel Aviv University and a PhD from University of Manchester. Her previous studies on have been published in journals such as Feminist Media Studies and European Journal of Women’s Studies, Women’s Studies in Communication. Yeala Hazut-Yenuka is a practitioner in arts management and art curatorship, PhD student at the University of Haifa and lecturer at Sapir Academic College. Previously she served as Head of Arts at the British Council Israel, Director and Curator of Beit HaGefen Art Gallery-Arab Jewish Cultural center in Haifa, and Curator at the Haifa Museum of Art. She holds an Executive MPA in Administration and Public Policy and diplomas in Museology and Culture Management. Moran Constantinescu is an M.P.A. student in Political Science, interested in cultural inequality, public administration and E-government, sustainability and environmentalism. A social activist working with local organizations to influence decision makers and impact public, sustainable, environmental and social policy.  

IMAGE CREDIT: Monica Tolia & Moses Ward ‘2m’ (2020)

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