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UMBC Researchers Move Ahead: Exploring the Arts-Culture-Behavior Connection

In the fall of 2012, fifteen UMBC researchers assembled to submit a cutting edge proposal to a fledgling program at the National Institutes of Health. It was to explore some basic mechanisms that connect culture and health. Though we did not get the grant, the subject and the discussions we had were engaging. We want to keep exploring this research thread. In a meeting on 5/16/13, I promised to post the description (below) of the gist of our concept to gather our thoughts about it and take a snapshot of where we are. (I improved it just a bit since the meeting—it’s starting to get comprehensible). Please post comments to capture the valuable perspectives you all shared in the meeting, and any further thoughts you have.

Here it is:

Our culture-based approach to affecting behavior deserves to be tested. Our hypothesis comes from triangulating research from a number of disciplines including ancient studies, the arts, art history, anthropology, social psychology and education. We believe it is possible that arts making, around a subject of concern—say health or education, and the artifacts it produces can cultivate local culture and a psychological sense of community. These, in turn, might influence social norms in the forms of beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviors. We are now asking how/when/where might artist-facilitators work with a local population to investigate the process and its impact? Is ethnography the best way to study the processes of change? If we are at the beginning of this line of research, shouldn’t we be trying to determine whether it works rather than how it works?

Culture and Issues painting

  • Lee June 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    These comments are a place where we can keep track of conversations and maintain a record of them if we choose.

  • Mavis June 12, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Hi Lee,
    After reading your post, the idea of intentionality came to mind. I think that the link between arts making, culture, and attitudinal/behavioral change has to be intentional. I doubt that it occurs spontaneously – I imagine that a great deal of arts making is not intended to and doesn’t result in the development of a culture or changes in the attitudes and behaviors of those involved. It was my understanding that in the proposed project, intentional discussions supported by guiding questions and selected texts were going to occur in conjunction with the arts making in the process of developing a cultural environment that facilitates change. If intentionality is critical then it might be difficult to find artists (artist-facilitators?) engaged in such work (I don’t know – I am not familiar with local artistic communities). So perhaps it is necessary that we develop an intentional plan to connect arts making, culture, and change in order to investigate both if and how it works.

  • Lee June 13, 2013 at 10:59 am

    This is exactly what I would have shared with Bambi Chapin at our meeting if I could have found the words. Bambi did a great job of suggesting that if we simply want to find out what effect artists are really having when they work with various populations, that we should simply study those situations. You’re picking up on what our NIH grant really proposed: that the often open ended arts making activities often practiced are really quite different than an intentional, content specific, participatory form of inquiry and would likely have a very different effect. Your comment is very helpful.

  • Bambi Chapin June 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    For me, part of the mismatch in these discussion centers on the concept of “culture.” If culture is the set of more-or-less shared/sharable schemas we derive from our experience and draw on to act, interpret, and shape our material and social world (among other things), then art-making is necessarily part of this — both for the artist who makes something and for those who experience that something. Much of that making and experiencing will draw on and reinforce existing shared culture, but there is also built into this process the possibility for culture change. Does that make sense?

    My understanding is that the intuition at the heart of this project is that intentional social/cultural change-directed art that involves community members could indeed be effective at changing culture — and that if we understood better how that process worked, then we could use that understanding to design programs using art to effect particular goals — like improving the health of a community. Is that right?

    My sense is that this NIH RFP wasn’t asking for us to find out ways that health could be improved — and certainly not to design a program to do so — but to develop new understandings of the cultural processes that underlie the production, maintenance, decline, or improvement of health in a community. If that is right — and I don’t know if it is — then it’s a little confusing to be simultaneously designing a program of intervention-though-art and studying the ways that the processes of cultural change and reproduction happen. Of could we COULD do both — like creating an experiment. But it seems to me that this is adding a lot of extra steps and distractions when there are lots of arts-oriented community intervention programs already in existence — or at least there were when I worked in the school and violence-prevention world in the 1990s. So instead of asking for a grant to do and test an intervention, we could just identify someone else’s intervention and investigate what was going on at the level of cultural models and practices as this (other folks’) intervention proceeded. I am not sure this is the best way to understand processes of culture and health, if we were starting from scratch — but this seems at least in keeping with this group’s interest in art as a tool in culture change and health promotion.

  • Lee June 15, 2013 at 11:20 am

    I think Bambi’s explanation of what we’re interested in and potentially how it could work is spot on, until the last bit. So here’s the problem and the reason this research might require original interventions, or action research: the kinds of arts making typically occurring are not the kind we hypothesize would move a local culture toward an outcome that could be measured. Arts making is often open ended in its intention and/or doesn’t adhere a to process likely to optimize adoption of ideas by the local culture. That said, if we could FIND one that does, studying the process of change that might occur would be relevant. That said, even if we could find one that is close to what we are looking for, why wouldn’t we want to have something that’s exactly what we’re looking for if we could? I think Mavis’s idea of intentionality is really key here?

    But maybe we don’t have to both develop the intervention and measure its effects at the same time. Bambi’s point could be really valuable if interpreted as the wisdom of splitting up the intervention design and the study of it. For example, what if we were to work with an after school arts program to develop the kind of intervention we imagine, see if we can get it working, then study its effects beginning to end on a fresh population (class) of young people?

  • Bambi June 15, 2013 at 11:44 am

    That really helps clarify things for me, Lee — thanks! I had been missing the part where you thought you had a new kind of arts-intervention program in mind that you believed could do more (or more directly) to foster fundamental changes in cultural ideas and practices around health than anything currently happening. Now that I see that, I still find it easier for me to get my head around this being two separate but interdependent projects — one to create this kind of program and a second to see what kind of effects the program was having and through what processes. I also think it makes sense to run those two projects concurrently, so that we could really see whether/how/in what ways the COMMUNITY (and it’s many different members) was changing ideas and behaviors, rather than just a particular cohort of kids. Sorry to be so slow to grasp this!

  • Lee June 16, 2013 at 6:22 am

    Bambi, this has been difficult for all of us to get our heads around, so please, no worries, and I still think the impetus for your point has real value for us. I would love it if you could flesh out for us a little more about your idea of COMMUNITY versus a particular cohort of kids. Also, if these are separate projects, building the program and measuring its effect, why do you believe they should be concurrent?

  • Bambi June 16, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    For both of these issues, I guess I was working from the idea that what we are trying to understand is culture change. Of course, culture change happens person by person and generation by generation for sure, but it seems to me likely to be more fundamental and lasting if it is supported by a network of people. Or maybe that is an assumption that could be tested. Is a (momentary?) change in one kid’s ideas and maybe behavior going to have the kind of effects we’d call “culture change”? Is it likely to be lasting if it is countered by contrasting messages and experiences in the rest of their life? Or can it? And what ARE those other messages and experiences the kids are having? All of that would be interesting and relevant if we want to understand how culture is taken up, endures, and can be altered.

    As for the measurements at different points in time, if we want to understand a change in a community (or the failure of a change-making attempt) and the processes through which that happens, then I would think it would be ideal to have a pretty good ethnographic grasp on the community before the intervention and then to see how that community (including but not only the kids) responds to the program as it progresses, and then to see something about what that community is like down the road.

    I also think that the effects on the program and it’s staff might be interesting to follow as well, as they will also be shaped through interactions with the community as the project is implemented.

    But again, I am not sure how helpful or relevant this is, given that I am working with only a very fuzzy idea of the goals, parameters, and priorities of this project now that the RFP is not a factor — or is that still on the table?

  • alan kreizenbeck June 17, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Finding the place to start from, the point of departure seems a good thing. From past experiences, I know that there are tests out there that ask kids what they would do in certain situations. We could then create art programs that would have the intention of making those responses more mature and more civil–or mentally or physically healthier. After the art process, we could have the kids retake the test to see if their potential behaviors had altered at all. Although there are a ton of variables, we could show that participating in the art experience could have had some influence. Later–say a year–We could go back and test again to see if the possible effects of the art experience were lasting. Culture to me in this situation means how you relate to and act with the rest of the people in your community- yourself, family, friends, total strangers you might have contact with. What values does your behavior reveal? Can this behavior be altered through an artistic experience to create healthier (whatever that might mean, probably less violent, less impulsive, more constructive ) behaviors?In other words, find out what we think the kids need by testing, design the art projects to fulfill those needs, teat again to see if it worked.

  • Stephen June 23, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Thanks for this discussion and framework Lee, which has been most insightful and stimulating – and challenging in how to proceed. Is it possible to receive notices when someone posts to this thread?

    I agree with Mavis that intentionality is essential for developing and measuring cultural change through arts engagement. In addition, we need to be specific, targeted, and make a long-term commitment to a small community. If we work with young people we need to include some parents, too. Bambi makes a good point about being “fundamental and lasting if it is supported by a network of people.” In a community cycled in a continuum of poverty, the family structure is fragmented and faces many obstacles that “our culture” might not consider. The lack of human services, jobs and job training is huge. Looking at the community school model would be useful, as they have figured out that schools should be community centers open beyond the class time to high school students and to the general community. The parents and community stakeholders need support, continuing education and entrepreneur opportunities.

    Looking at projects around the Baltimore area, the ones that seem to be most successful are modeled after community centers—dealing with real issues, using the arts to create community. We might look at Art on Purpose,
    VISION: Art on Purpose is dedicated to the notion that art has an intrinsic value that is best revealed when it connects and engages with real life concerns and is, at the same time, presented professionally. We view artists’ expressions and community interests as equally important, and believe each can enhance the other through innovative and informative art workshops and exhibitions. Art on Purpose provides an educational, guided process, so that individuals and groups whose concerns really need to be seen, and should be heard, will be understood through a high-level of artistic presentation.
    Art on Purpose projects are led by artists, whose artwork becomes part of projects when it supports the voices, expressions, and needs of the communities we serve.

    MISSION: Art on Purpose enriches, inspires, and informs Baltimore communities by using, making, and sharing art to bring people together around issues that matter to them.
    What other models should we be looking at? Generally, the successful artist engagement efforts create safe places for activities that involve arts and other knowledge based encounters that are not just about art making, but about learning practical skills such as; i.e., DIY projects, gardening, cooking co-op groups, health care discussions and entrepreneur cottage industry – the art of living. It is hard for me to imagine a group participating with art making if they are hungry, stressed about making a living, or functioning in an unsafe neighborhood, all factors that impact mental and physical health.

    The school that I am involved with is a community school, which might be a good place to begin. This coming fall I am designing a new project that might take place after school or in a classroom. We are still figuring this out. However, we will make ever effort to involve the parents and or guardians of the children — the involvement of one or two parents or a caring adult could make the world of difference in the outcome.

    Alan writes, “What values does your behavior reveal?”
    Great question. What are the values of the community we hope to work with? I presume this is where the ethnographic process comes into play?

    Alan’s point regarding impulsiveness seems to be most important. I would be interested in the issues regarding impulsiveness with youth– How to measure and encourage delayed gratification might be a good place to begin since we know that successful achievement in life has been correlated with the ability to delay gratification (I would like to know more about the study, too). Working for a paycheck, exploring the safe pleasure of developing curiosity (as reported recently on NPR), and the gratification of problem solving provides avenues of creative engagement.

    Do we need to prove that youth (and adults) who are active; play sports, make music, create visual art, participate in theatre, gardening, and cooking and who are challenged intellectually are generally more curious and healthier?

    What concrete proposals can we make? I am ready to begin.

  • Lee June 24, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Pulling together a couple of thought from both Alan and Steve, I think the idea of helping a population of individuals be less impulsive is a perfect example of the kind of thing that I think we should build the study around. That said, it would probably be optimal for the actual issue we choose to emerge from the community itself. Getting to it might itself be an art project.

    I also think that switching to a kind of pre/post test scenario used for evaluation the impact of an intervention is where we should go now that we are not burdened by the NIH’s focus on the mechanisms of affect. Measuring the impact of an intervention is best done with some kind of control. For example, an art project done in a similar school but without the intentional focus on building a specific value like mature decision making. This would be a good way to separate this critical notion, that when it comes to building resilience, not all art activities have the same impact.

    Incidentally, just as an update, Art on Purpose has folded and is now Strong Art Strong Youth. They had their big event Saturday, which I attended and presented at, and I would love to debrief a bit with you all about that experience.

    Thanks for all of your input. I think we have a good snapshot here!!

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