A Three Pipe Problem (MCV8)

‘What are you going to do, then?’ I asked. ‘To smoke,’ he answered. ‘It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’

Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)

The term ‘cultural value’ appeared in British policy discourse about 10 years ago, notably in Capturing Cultural Value, a pamphlet by John Holden for Demos. Its use has grown quickly and it is now central to several campaigns, research programmes, and debates (an overview may be found on the website of The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value).

Whilst this extensive and varied engagement in the value of culture is very welcome, particularly in a British context where such discourse has previously been limited, there is neither clarity nor consensus about what cultural value actually means. The use of an ill-defined and consequently slippery concept to advance knowledge and inform policy is concerning because it risks obscuring the very tensions and complexities its advocates set out to address. Consequently, the term’s intellectual value is eroded even as more capital is invested in its ideological value.

Here’s a brief note developed from a talk given to an Expert Panel for the AHRC Cultural Value Project and supported by the University of Exeter. It considers four areas where discourse around cultural value seems to me confused, including the distinctions:

  • between value and values;
  • between capacity value and effect value;
  • between intrinsic and extrinsic effect; and
  • between what is observable and what is controllable.

There are others, and there is much more to be considered if a stable basis for discussion could be established, so this note should be considered as no more than a beginning.


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