Forging the Frontline: Public policy and communities of cultural practice

Added on Monday, July 2nd, 2018

stars In the latest blog on her Instrumental Values study, the ICC’s Head of Research and AHRC Leadership Fellow Kerry Wilson discusses how she is using a communities of practice research framework to understand the multidisciplinary professional networks that create the real ‘frontline’ of crucial cultural work.


Since July 2017, I have been researching ethical dimensions of collaborative cultural practice, focusing on museums working in health care settings and prison library services as multidisciplinary sites of what I am increasingly coming to understand as crucial cultural work. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds the research, under a public policy highlight notice. The notice sought to encourage applications to the Leadership Fellows scheme, which proposed ‘innovative ways to exercise leadership through engaging policy makers in their research, and explore the potential for impact in policy development, in connection with any area of public policy’.

I have a long-standing interest in the cross-sector instrumental value of arts and culture. Whereas previous research has mostly focused on the benefits created for ‘other’ collaborating public services, the Instrumental Values study uses professional ethics as a lens through which to explore the impact of public policy-responsive cultural work on the sector itself, including professional identities, values and practices.

In order to understand the relative situatedness of cultural work in non-cultural settings (e.g. on the prison estate), the research has a ‘communities of practice’ (CoP) conceptual framework. I flirted with the concept as an early career researcher in critical management studies, and gradually became interested in its value as a valid multidimensional model for researching multidisciplinary collaborative cultural work. Main CoP-inspired research questions include the extent of work assimilation across professional boundaries; identification of shared repertoires and symbols of collaborative professional learning; the social construction of embodied professional knowledge and skills; each set within the context of public policy agendas and their influence upon developing cross-sector professional communities.

The CoP framework has a pragmatic function therefore in providing a taxonomy and organisational way of thinking about collaborative cultural work. In public policy contexts, there are other examples of communities of practice being used in this way. The NHS-supported Wellbeing our Way programme for example advocates the value of national, sector and place-based CoPs, which connect charities, community-based organisations and service users, in developing responsive health and social care systems. In this example, CoPs are used to facilitate peer learning, problem solving and change management. Alongside the research framework’s pragmatic function, thinking of sites of multidisciplinary cultural work as communities of practice has helped to consider how their ideological constitutions, the shared values that bind community members and their renegotiated professional ethics also underpin truly affective cultural work, as discussed in my first project blog.

On the cultural frontline

One of the more revealing outcomes of my ethnographic fieldwork so far has been the range and true extent of networked collaborative practice in the field. This is best explained using examples from my prison library case studies. At a micro level, cultural workers themselves (in this case, prison librarians) bring a wealth of cross-sector professional experience and expertise to their practice, with one having previously worked as a mental health nurse and another having previously held different posts in the criminal justice sector.

Many reputable projects and programmes run by prison libraries include a range of external third sector and charitable organisations. The prison librarian (employed by county library services) with a mental health background for example runs an award-winning therapy group for prisoners with dementia, in collaboration with volunteers from a local church-based charity. The group sessions take place in a HMPS (public sector) prison, but on a dedicated health wing that is sub-contracted to a commercial provider, meaning that four different types of organisation are effectively working together. Two regular volunteers in the group also have a wealth of clinical professional experience having worked as an NHS nurse and psychotherapist prior to taking retirement.

A core group of charitable organisations and volunteers underpins many examples of effective, reputable cultural work in prisons. These include for example The Reading Agency; The National Literacy Trust; Prison Reading Groups and Give a Book; The Reader; the Shannon Trust; National Prison Radio; and Storybook Dads. Together these organisations are making a profound case for the rehabilitative value of culture in criminal justice settings, particularly with reference to literacy and reading for pleasure. I had underestimated the prevalence of the third sector in this area of work. One of the core objectives of the research is to explore the transitional efficacy of codes of ethics for library and museum professions when working in specific, alternative public service settings. In reality, the ethical dimensions of collaborative communities of cultural practice are much more complex, influenced by a range of occupational codes of practice; organisational values; and the diverse ‘life-course’ professional skills, experiences and virtues held by individual community members.

The values that bind us

As stated in my opening paragraph, I regard the cultural work of those taking part in the research as crucial, both in terms of its situated responsiveness to real social need, and for what this work teaches us about shortcomings in cultural policy debates on the cross-government value of arts and culture. There is often a rhetorical simplicity to the ways in which the social value of the sector is narrated, that misrepresents the sophisticated degree of integration and collaboration across multiple layers of policy-making, sector governance, administration and professional practice that underpins the most ‘successful’ examples of instrumental cultural work.

A lot of this work is arguably held together by the shared values and sheer will power of those on the cultural frontline. In criminal justice settings, this often happens in spite of the prison estate rather than because of it, as suggested in my last project blog on prison libraries. This exposes the fundamental need for infrastructural investment in public services to begin with and in the third sector that supports them. Whilst there is certainly a social value to asset-based approaches rooted in communities themselves, we should not be flippant about the real cost of volunteering. It costs relatively little money to run a reading group in a prison library, but the real value of the collaborative infrastructure underpinning it in terms of professional, ethical, intellectual, emotional and other material resources is huge.

Having had the opportunity to spend quality time with CoPs on the cultural frontline, I am also starting to reflect on my own role and responsibilities in narrating its value and the ideological advocacy of a cross-government policy function for arts and culture, certainly as an AHRC Leadership Fellow. Appropriate care for cultural workers caring for others is paramount, including considering, supporting and protecting what constitutes ‘good’ cultural work for those working in the public good. These emerging ideas will be explored further as the research continues.

Comments are closed.

impact_logo livjmu_logo livuni_logo