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June 15, 2007

Inconvenient Entaglements

by Steven J. Tepper

I love Alan Brown's parsing of the word "engage" (see entry "So you think you can dance?") And, I think he has, in his typically perceptive way, identified a core set of concepts that help clarify our thinking (at least mine). What perplexes me is the contrast between Alan's notion of "commitment" - common cause; collaboration; shared risk; interlocking - and the concurrent trends of individualization, personalization, and self-centered media consumption. As Alan's own research on college students has shown, the greatest barrier for many students when it comes to attending the arts is the notion of "opportunity costs" - many students don't want to commit to an event because they want to wait and see if something better comes along. People want convenience; they want to leave their options open; they want to "drop in and drop by," they want to be able to customize their play lists rather than trust someone else to curate their experiences. How do we square these new habits with the notion that true engagement sometimes requires inconvenient entanglements. If you play in a string quartet, your fellow musicians expect you to show up to rehearse at the scheduled time. You must make a social commitment, which, while reaping social benefits, might be personally inconvenient at times.

In an article I wrote several years ago with Jason Kaufman on the benefits of group membership for social capital in the 19th century, we found that not all groups spurred social capital and civic participation. Rather, those groups that seemed to require mutual commitment and "entanglements" had the greatest positive consequences for democracy. I think the same is true for culture. The challenge is to get audiences and participants to move from convenience to commitment.

Posted by stepper at June 15, 2007 6:07 AM


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