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«The Methodological Challenge of Cross-National Research: comparing cultural policy in Britain and Italy Eleonora Belfiore Research Fellow Centre for ...»

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Advocacy-inspired research […] does, of course, impose severe limits on the kind of research that will be conducted. Research questions will be designed to produce answers that are in the organisation’s interests;

research that might produce uncomfortable findings will, as far as possible, be avoided.


The present discussion has attempted to show how the pleaded effort to conceptualise and theorize about cultural policies cross-nationally needs to be founded on an extensive knowledge of the circumstances of the countries chosen as case studies, in respect of the principle of contextualization. In particular, those factors that might affect the cultural sphere need to be taken into account when assessing and investigating cultural policies. This is tantamount to advocating a strongly interdisciplinary approach to methodological issues in comparative studies.

This is a well-accepted notion in comparative social sciences. The sociologist Rokkan in 1978 wrote that cross-national research entails a “built-in transition from internationality to interdisciplinarity: it is simply difficult to establish acceptable comparisons between countries and cultures without bringing a broader ranges of variables than those of only one discipline” (quoted in Øyen 1990, 11).

More specifically, the most obvious requirement for the comparative research model here proposed would be a clear and complete picture of the mechanisms of cultural policy and their functioning within the nations studied as a necessary precursor of any rigorous comparative study. In particular, what is excluded or included by governments within their domain of action is very significant in shaping national cultural policies and should thus be a prime object of analysis. Moreover, the reconstruction of the historical development of cultural policies in the context of the political, cultural and intellectual history of the countries is unavoidable if we want to convincingly account for differences and particular national developments.

Furthermore, because cultural policy does not operate in isolation from other spheres of public policy, the approach that we are here proposing would require that we investigate and compare the legal, administrative and political frameworks in which cultural policy decisions are made. This would allow the researcher to understand how policy-making in the cultural arena fits into the broader patterns of state intervention. Indeed, understanding to what extent cultural policies develop and operate independently of other policy areas, and the extent to which they feel the effects of external pressures can clarify the changing circumstances of cultural policy within different states.

These are all very ambitious aims, and indeed the research model that this paper advocates calls for a strong methodological stance. I refer here to the need to acknowledge that, in order to achieve a comparative research that is able to go beyond the mere description (as recommended above), it is preferable to limit the number of countries being compared. This would enable the researcher to examine a larger number of variables and aspects than would be feasible in a larger-scale comparison (Hantrais 1999, 99). The currently popular format of comparative study exemplified by the report published in 1998 by the Arts Council of England (Feist et al., 1998) which compares data on public spending on the arts in eleven countries, does not lend itself to the type of in-depth study that we are proposing. Limiting the number of countries observed would also allow for a focus on the question of equivalence of concepts in different contexts - or even, as shown by the case study of Italy and the UK, the lack of equivalence in different contexts, a crucial issue in cross-national research. This is indeed an accepted principle within the social sciences. In Linda Hantrais’ words, “[t]he smaller the number of countries included in ‘narrow-gauge’ studies… the greater the contextual detail and the chances of approaching a more holistic comparison, and the easier it is to be consistent in specifying and applying concepts and in using qualitative evidence” (Hantrais, 1999, 101). This is certainly a necessary requirement to achieve a broader, multidimensional and multidisciplinary approach for cross-national cultural policy comparison, which is precisely what this paper has attempted to advocate.


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About the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies The Centre for Cultural Policy Studies provides a focus for teaching and research in the fields of arts management, cultural policy and the creative industries. Connecting with researchers, cultural managers and organisations in many parts of the world, the Centre forms part of an international network.

The distinctive approach of the Centre is its engagement with both the practical realities of working in the cultural sector and with theoretical questions around the conditions of contemporary culture. As well as producing its own series of online publications, the Centre also engages in cultural sector consultancy work and Oliver Bennett, Director of the Centre, is the founding editor of the International Journal of Cultural Policy.

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