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Arts Participation as Social Capital in the United States, 1982-2002: Signs of Decline

Working Paper #33, Spring 2004

Paul DiMaggio and Toqir Mukhtar


We analyzed Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts for 1982, 1992, and 2002 to see if trends in U.S. arts attendance are consistent with the perception of many sociologists of culture that the role of the arts as cultural capital is in decline.  From a Bourdieuian perspective, a dramatic deflation in the value of the arts as cultural capital (the “meltdown scenario”) would manifest itself in (1) large declines in high-culture arts participation rates (2) especially among the youngest cohorts that (3) are not evident in participation in middlebrow activities and (4) are concentrated among groups for whom cultural capital is most important, i.e. (4a) highly educated people and (4b) women.)  Results are mixed.  Trend data are not consistent with the meltdown scenario, but do suggest change in the position of different arts genres within cultural capital and ongoing attrition in the audience for many of the arts.   Consistent with the decline per­spective, younger cohorts attendance rates have fallen for most high-culture performing-arts attendance activities.  (Because college attendance increased in the 1960s, the decline is not visible in the middle cohorts until one disaggregates by education level.)   In contrast to the decline perspective, however, declines are as bad or worse for several middlebrow cultural activities; attendance rates for art museums and jazz concerts have increased; and rates have declined more slowly for women and college graduates than for others.  Two changes are evident: first, greater elite and general interest in the visual arts and jazz and less in classical music, ballet, and theatre (trends consistent with Peterson’s “omnivore theory,” aspects of postmodern theory, and the notion that the content of cultural capital evolves over time); and, second, gradual decline among almost all age/gender/education groups in rates of attendance at live cultural events broadly defined, probably reflecting greater competition from at-home entertainment options and changes in population composition and family structure.

A version of this paper can be found in Poetics, Volume 32, Issue 2, 169-194, April 2004). The paper is available online at

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