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Conflicts Over Art, Cultural Expression and Social Values in American Society

Paul DiMaggio, Principal Investigator

In the fall of 2000, the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study contemporary debates about conflicts over art, cultural expression and social values in American society. (see press release).

Under the direction of Center research director Paul DiMaggio, the Center pursued three areas of research.

First, scholars have analyzed recent social surveys in order to determine trends in public attitudes toward the arts as well as a variety of other "hot button" issues related to race, gender, sexual behavior and school prayer, with a particular focus on whether polarization of opinion is has become more or less pronounced. Results from this research can be found in a recent study by professor John Evans, published as a Center working paper and available here. A preliminary study of polarization of public opinion was published in the American Sociological Journal , "Have Americans' Social Attitudes Become More Polarized?" Paul DiMaggio, Bethany Bryson and John Evans (Volume 102, Number 3, pp. 690-755. Republished in Rhys Williams' edited Cultural Wars in American Politics, pp. 63-99. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1997.)

Second, the Center has been investigating hundreds of actual cases of public quarrels and controversies in communities across America in order to learn how the incidence and content of such disagreements has changed between the 1960s and the present. Such an investigation will also illuminate why the frequency and intensity of such conflicts appears to vary so much from place to place and from time to time.

Beginning with Philadelphia as a case study, this project identified and analyzed every case of arts conflict in the Philadelphia area from 1965 to 1997. The project's primary research question is, "Has the incidence of public conflict over the arts increased and has the nature of such conflicts changed in the past three decades?" In an effort to test several theories related to cultural conflict, researchers are examining such questions as: What is the nature of the grievances brought against arts works (e.g., exhibitions, performances, books, films)? What role do local and national organizations play in articulating grievances or initiating conflict? How often do conflicts revolve around religious concerns? How have conflicts been resolved and how have patterns of resolution changed? To what extent do conflicts become politicized and how has this changed over time? The research has produced a number of reports and articles. Including a prototype coding sheet that can be amended and used by other researchers interested in studying community conflict over the arts.

A preliminary analysis of some of the Philadelphia data is available in the Center working paper 16, "The Role of Religion in Public Conflicts over the Arts in the Philadelphia Area, 1965-1997" (summer 2000, Paul DiMaggio, Wendy Cadge, Lynn Robinson and Brian Steensland).

Scholars have also replicated the Philadelphia study in Atlanta, Georgia – a city that differs from Philadelphia in a number of important ways, and expect the results from the Atlanta study to be available shortly.

Steven Tepper applied the methodology from the Philadelphia study to an examination of 72 cities across America, where he investigating almost a thousand cases of conflict between 1995 and 1998. The research has produced a dissertation, Culture, Conflict and Community: Struggles Over Art, Education and History in American Cities. (Princeton University, 2001). Additionally, a Center working paper has just been published, "Culture, Conflict and Community: Rituals of Protest or Flairs of Competition."

In addition to the statistical overviews described above, the Center has also supported numerous case studies of cultural conflict. In particular, Tammy Brown, Princeton University Department of History, is doing a case study of conflict surrounding the work and life of Choreographer and dancer, Pearl Primus, whose worked challenged notions of black identity and racism from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Lynn Robinson has written about a controversy over a visual art exhibition at Penn State University that depicted sexual and religious imagery. The study Something About Mary: Conflict over Art at Pennsylvania State University, is available as a Center occasional paper. Kim Babon is examining controversy over three sculptures in San Francisco in a project entitled, “Ugly Art Thingies” and Controversial Public Sculpture in the City of Love.” And Steven Tepper and Jesse Mintz-Roth are completing a study of a conflict over all-night dance parties, known as RAVES, in Chicago in 2000 and 2001.

Finally, the Center is pursuing research that seeks to understand how the press has covered—and shaped—cultural conflict in the United States since 1985. This study will identify the major "frame" or points of view that journalists have used in discussing moral disputation, and will try to understand when and why the press calls attention to value dimensions of public policy issues.

The grant from Rockefeller also supported a working meeting of social scientists and historians to discuss recent methodologies and approaches in the study of cultural conflict. For more information about the working meeting, including the text of several papers presented at the meeting, click here.

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