11/22/23 · Culture

Inequality in taking part in culture has the greatest impact on low-income neighbourhoods, migrants and women

According to UOC researchers, taking part in culture online mirrors the inequalities found in the face-to-face world

New research aims to help create new inclusive policies and put an end to privileged cultural spaces

According to researchers, culture can represent an opportunity for improving democracy, but also a risk in the proliferation of inequalities (photo: Erik Mclean / unsplash.com)

Some 58% of those in Barcelona living in low-income neighbourhoods regularly attend cultural activities. However, if we look at high-income districts, this figure rises to 75%, according to the city's survey on cultural rights.

These figures are partially due to the fact that, in many neighbourhoods, the right to culture is experienced though activities and in spaces that are often not formally acknowledged as "cultural". Nevertheless, they also conceal a reality to which little attention is paid: not everyone enjoys the same right to culture.

This is what is at the heart of a research project –  El derecho a participar en la vida cultural de la ciudad: desigualdades y políticas de equidad (The right to participate in the city's cultural life: inequalities and equity policies) – led by Nicolás Barbieri, researcher at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), teacher on the Master's Degree in Cultural Management and author of the ubicarse.net blog.

The project, funded by Spain's Ministry of Science and Innovation, features a team of researchers drawn from the UOC, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, the University of Barcelona and Pompeu Fabra University, alongside staff from the universities of Montpellier, Paris, Manchester and Buenos Aires and Diego Portales University. The team also includes public administration professionals, specifically from Barcelona City Council's Cultural Data Observatory.

The chief mission of this new project is to gain an understanding of what the existing inequalities are and what prevents people from taking part in the city's cultural life. At the same time, the research seeks to create knowledge for designing and implementing policies to provide a response to this issue.

Culture: one of the key elements in social inequality

There has been a great deal of discussion and debate around inequalities in income, health or education, but far less looking at inequalities associated with cultural rights. This has a number of consequences, including increased urban and social segregation.

"We're ignoring a dimension, that of culture, which is key to understanding more widespread situations of inequality," explained Barbieri. "Culture can represent an opportunity for improving democracy, but also a risk in the proliferation of inequalities."

According to the researcher, the conditions under which people can participate in culture and, particularly, the public resources available to them, are unequal. "This means that many cultural activities and spaces end up being privileged activities and spaces for a specific social class, neighbourhood or gender, for example. This helps perpetuate inequalities that aren't 'natural' but rather the result of power relationships," he explained.

Tackling this issue from the standpoint of academic research paves the way to developing specific tools that can help make culture more inclusive. "Compliance with cultural rights depends not only upon available economic resources and on the degree of formal institutionalization, but also on having reliable, scientifically-measurable parameters," he said.

In search of culture that embraces diversity

This new UOC research project is based on the premise that everybody enjoys culture and a cultural life. For a better understanding of this reality, we need to distinguish between legitimate, non-legitimate and hybrid culture.

The first of these entails those activities recognized by public institutions or other formalizing agents associated with the cultural sector. These might include visiting museums, attending artistic performances or participating in a professional theatre company.

Whereas, 'non-legitimate culture' "is regarded as those informal, popular, community-based activities and practices that form part of daily life and that contribute to the development of the cultural rights of individuals and of communities, but that aren't regarded as 'cultural' by institutions, surveys or reports on taking part in culture," explained Barbieri. For example, sharing tales or stories with the family, strolling through the city or taking part in community celebrations such as festivals and carnivals.

Lastly, there is the hybrid space, a middle ground between what is and what is not clearly 'legitimate culture'. "This is a particularly lively and dynamic space, which often involves situations of tension and conflict," added Barbieri.

Taking all these cultural expressions and the different types of participation into account is essential when tackling the phenomenon of cultural inequality. "We have to start by avoiding any stigmatizing of people in their cultural lives. There's a great amount of cultural life outside of institutions and organizations, and we need to acknowledge this diversity and imagine what cultural policies might do to connect with it."

With this research project, Barbieri seeks to test different hypotheses, such as that inequality in participation in non-legitimate cultural activities is less than that associated with legitimate culture, or that only some projects that feature equity as a core focus and that promote cultural participation manage to address the issue of inequality.

The pandemic: boosting inequalities

One of the core aspects of the research project is based on two premises: firstly, that inequalities in the right to participate in the city's cultural life increased during the pandemic and, secondly, that cultural policies in response to its impact are centred much more on problems affecting the professional sector that on people's right to participate in cultural life.

"We're beginning to see evidence that online cultural participation, which grew over the pandemic, mirrors prior inequalities. For example, those who participated the most in online activities provided by cultural institutions (such as museum websites) were practically the same as those who had physically attended them," said Barbieri.

"In turn, Barcelona's survey on cultural rights showed that the closure of cultural venues affected some people more than others. For example, 17% of women surveyed were highly impacted by the closure of civic centres, compared with 11% of men."

Likewise, non-EU nationals and people living in very low-income neighbourhoods were seen to be much more affected by the closure of libraries than those born in the European Union or living in high-income districts.

Building the foundations for creating more inclusive policies

This new research by the UOC can provide data and analytical knowledge for a better understanding of cultural participation and thus contribute to identifying strategies that promote equity. "In addition to gaining a better understanding of why inequalities arise, we want to identify policies that foster cultural equity and that help build diverse cultural spaces which act as a meeting point," indicated Barbieri.

"It's unrealistic to expect that this project will automatically give rise to the creation of new, more inclusive policies, but we do want to connect with stakeholders to create knowledge on a shared basis. In this way, we'll be able to contribute to the formulation of knowledge-based policies built around values such as equity and equality.".

The research team headed by Barbieri will take a multidisciplinary approach embracing both the social and the human sciences, combining disciplines such as political science, the sociology of culture, cultural anthropology, the applied arts, the economics of culture, organizational studies, social psychology, cultural history and philosophy.

By creating knowledge that can be used to develop tools to implement change, the impact of this research project may not only be technical, but also social and economic.

This research contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4, Quality Education, 5, Gender Equality, and 10, Reduced Inequalities.

Project PID2022-138429OA-I00, funded by MCIN /AEI /10.13039/501100011033 / ERDF, EU.

Press contact

Rubén Permuy
+34 659 05 42 39



The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.

Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.

Experts UOC

Press contact

You may also be interested in…

Most popular

See more on Culture