Jeanette Snowball’s new mongraph “Measuring the Value of Culture”

South African academic Jeanette Snowball has written a timely and important new monograph entitled Measuring the Value of Culture.

Snowball’s aim in writing this valuable short review is explained in her introduction:

“Economic impact studies are thus one way of measuring the value of arts, but only one way, and it smethodology is not unproblematic. A better way of capturing the non-market value of culture might be to use contingent valuation (willingness to pay) studies or their newer relation, choice experiments (also called conjoint analysis).” (Snowball, 2008: 3).

Unfortunately for my doctorate, such analyses are typically large and expensive and carried out by professional market research firms. Never-the-less, there is much of value for the professional arts administrator and cultural policy academic in this book. It summarises the debate about willingness to pay studies –  in particular , the controversy over the Exxon Valdez environmental damages litigation, where courts used contingent valuation studies as part of their reasoning.

What follows is a detailed analysis of four different ways of measuring culture:

  • “qualititative/historical” – art historical and sociological analyses. Snowball is raher weak here when she dismisses this vast field by pointing out that it “does not result in one, easily comparable figure.”
  • economic impact – Snowball summarises the controversies over the rubbery figures of economic impact studies, especially of arts events like festivals. She correctly points out that the “multipliers” used by many of these studies are so various as to be basically meaningless
  • willingness to pay – in contrast to economic impact studies, willingness to pay or contingent valuation studies represent an imporant methodological advance in the cultural economics literature – however these studies have their own methodological controversies too
  • choice experiments – the newest frontier in valuing culture, incorporating some of the discoveries of behavioural economics, choice experiments are also labour-intensive in their survey methodology.

A major disappointment for me in the book was that Snowball has not examined the micro-economic efficiency studies in the musuems sector of researchers like Stefania Funari and Paul Bishop.  Even so, it remains an important review.


3 thoughts on “Jeanette Snowball’s new mongraph “Measuring the Value of Culture”

  1. I haven’t read this book but it seems from your summary that by ‘value’ Snowball is really only looking at the exchange-value of arts/culture and not use-value/symbolic-value or any other of the many ways of conceptualising value?

  2. Absolutely. Her concept of value is fairly narrowly defined as economic value, expressed in monetary terms. “softer” forms of value such as the educational synergies of arts education are mentioned but not addressed – and the symbolic value of the arts are not treated at all.

  3. I agree that this is an important piece of work. Jeanette Snowball is indeed only using the classic tools of economic analysis, but she makes it clear right up front that she sees these as limited.

    I quote “All terms central to this book ‘the arts’, ‘culture’, ‘value’ and even ‘economics (or at least its scope are contentious. This chapter outlines the current state of the definition of these terms and their relationships in cultural economics. It is argued that, … a complete measure of value for arts and culture also requires a more qualitative social valuation, probably not based on neoclassical utility theory.’

    The real issue that both of you hint at is that within 230 pages, and in a field which crosses so many disciplines, which as yet struggles to stand alone (and which arguably only goes back to Baumol and Bowen on the economics side anyway), most of us find it difficult to mobilise the insights of each contributing field of inquiry beyond the conceptual spectacles endowed by our primary field of training. (As a side point, these kind of cognitive biases have been extensively explored by Tversky and Kahnemann and extended by others) In my experience, public policy analysts are particularly prone to this kind of cognitive error, and especially in the cultural policy space.

    Snowball is not seeking to carry out, or even contribute towards the social valuation to which she refers, but to add some building blocks from within her primary discipline. We still await a general theory which synthesises the insights of contributing disciplines in this area. There is enormous scope for contribution to the conceptualisation of a theory of value which is sufficiently robust to inform a better policy debate.

    Snowball’s comments contain much with which I would take exception, and much with which I would agree; whether or not we disagree with her analysis, she makes useful points which stimulate debate. The book is worth reading, whether or not economics is your field, (and if not there is a wide range of other work in this area to round out and contextualise her comments since, as we all do, she reacts and responds to the work of others. To my way of thinking, the gaps and suggestions in her analysis, as in those of others such as Throsby, Cowen, and so on are a challenge to us to contribute. I look forward to seeing more comment!

    Particularly in the wake of the global economic crisis, public and not-for-profit funding for culture is often (literally) at the cutting edge). It seems that protest is muted and limited in too many instances. Nothing is more practical in informing better public debate, and better cultural policy than good theory properly translated into good practice! Enough call to arms from the soap box for today!

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