The problem of ‘impact’ (MCV 4)

A conversation with Peter Wright at the Creative Communities 3 conference made me realize that it might be useful to explain why I no longer use the word ‘impact’ in relation to people’s experience of the arts.

Peter, who teaches at Murdoch University in Western Australia, gave a rich presentation about his work with Big hArt, which he has been researching for some years. We spoke at length afterwards about the project and more generally about ideas of social arts practice and its evaluation. Not surprisingly, since conference speakers had often used it, we talked about the word ‘impact’. When Peter subsequently asked me where he could read more about this, I couldn’t point him to anywhere that I’ve set out this thinking, so here is a short explanation.

I should say first, though, that I haven’t always seen this. 15 years ago, when I worked on a research programme entitled ‘The social impact of participation in the arts’ I took up the phrase (which others had coined by adapting thinking about the ‘economic impact of the arts’) without hesitation. What I write here is the result of much subsequent thinking and research and many valuable conversations, such as the ones I had with Peter.

The word ‘impact’ is a concept in physics and specifically mechanics, that describes what occurs when force strikes an object or when two bodies collide. It has been transferred to many other fields, and it is now commonplace to speak of the economic impact, environmental impact or social impact of policy decisions.

In moving from mechanics to, say, public policy, the word changes from being a technical descriptor to being a metaphor. Nothing wrong in that: we use metaphors constantly to understand and describe experience. But language also shapes how we think and my doubt here is about the effect the use of this metaphor might have on how policy interventions in general—and social arts programmes in particular—are imagined by those who commission, deliver, experience and evaluate them.

Here’s the problem.

Impact suggests a force striking an object, as a die impresses itself on a blank.  It implies an active agent and a passive recipient, a subject and an object. One might even say that it unconsciously reflects the gendered imagination that divides the world into active male and passive female. And like that imagination, it’s freighted with potential violence.

In this thinking, the social art project is conceived as an experience whose ‘impact’ changes those who take part. (And for ‘change’ one should read ‘improve’, in the terms of the problem-solving mission jointly identified by the artist and the commissioner.) Participants are not seen as active, autonomous individuals, capable of interpreting, responding to or even rejecting the experiences of an art project or the intentions of those who have offered it.

But that, even if it were not an offence to ethics and democracy, is just a fantasy. Artists cannot control how others interpret their work, whether that work is a performance, a text or a workshop. Governments cannot command through social interventions guaranteeable changes in people’s lives or behaviour.

We all interpret our experiences, and especially the ambiguous ones we gain through art, in our own way. That is why two people can sit side by side for two hours watching a film or a play and come away with completely different responses to what they have seen. That is why no two people have ever read the same book.

Impact is not just an inadequate metaphor for imagining how people experience, and are affected by, the arts. It is a deceptive one, reinforcing unequal power relations that divide societies into those who know and those who don’t, those who are acceptable and those who are not, those who fit and those who need to be changed.

Since it is also a completely inaccurate account of what actually happens as a result of participation in the arts, it is dangerously misleading. It encourages politicians, commissioners and even artists in the delusion that because art and culture have profound effects on people those effects can also be commanded. The effects on policy can be exceedingly perverse.

Will any of this stop people using ‘impact’ as a metaphor to explain the effects of art and to justify investing in it? Hardly. The idea is far too embedded and too flattering to those who use it to be set aside soon. But it would be a step forward if the artists who work in this field and the researchers who write about that work questioned the term a bit more.


  1. Reblogged this on The Scenic Route and commented:
    I love this post. Word choices have power. Don’t give buzzwords a place in your vocabulary without considering what they really mean and imply. Easy to say, hard to do – like most important things…

  2. I have a similar problem with the term ‘resilient’. If something is ‘resilient’ then it responds to ‘impact’ by returning to its original shape–like a ball that that takes a dent which then bounces back out to the original sphere. When we’re talking about organisations and communities, surely ‘malleability’ is a more desirable quality–like beating swords into ploughshares.

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