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A study designed to explore the cultural sector’s potential role in supporting the well-being of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic through social prescribing.

Museum of Historical Science- one man and two women, smiling and looking intently at artefacts in glass cabinet © Ian Wallman

We are currently conducting a study to explore the cultural sector’s potential role in supporting the well-being of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic through social prescribing. As part of that work, we have been engaging with fellow researchers, colleagues working in the cultural sector and members of the public. One of the recurrent questions that comes up in these discussions is what we mean by ‘cultural’? This is not merely a semantic issue, but has implications for policymaking, funding, and the research we are carrying out.


Defining ‘cultural’

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘cultural' as “of or relating to intellectual and artistic pursuits…the culture of a particular society, people or period…or to the philosophy, practice, and attitudes of a business or other organization or institution.” Thus, it is an extremely complex concept, often meaning different things to different people and varying across time.

In a 2019 report, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) delineated the cultural sector using existing Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes. For the DCMS, the concept of ‘cultural’ is linked to industry, whereby a cultural object, such as a gallery or play, is produced for consumption. In a similar fashion, a recent Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report used SIC codes to define the cultural sector for the purposes of analyzing economic data by the Office for National Statistics.

However, rather than focusing on a specific art form or object that is consumed, ‘cultural’ can instead be broadened to mean a location or venue that promotes engagement with the art form or object. From this perspective, ‘cultural’ is the institution that 

makes the consumption of art form or object possible. Museums, libraries, gardens, art galleries, archives, churches are all examples of spaces that both promote, preserve, and produce art forms or objects of interest.


Broadening definitions

Some may find depictions of ‘cultural’ adopted by the DCMS and CEBR too parochial, focusing more on the institutional aspects and less so on other elements. Indeed, ‘cultural’ may be regarded as part of a person’s identity or sense of belonging. Since each country has a different culture that can shape collective values, beliefs, and attitudes, there are many ways in which people can construct their identity. These may be through sports, music, or places of worship – to name only a few possibilities. Finding a cultural activity or entity with which to identify and relate to/with others is another way of thinking about ‘cultural’ in broader terms. For instance, associating with a particular football team can be a means of belonging, bringing fans together to celebrate (or criticize) their team. In doing so, part of an individual’s identity will be shaped through being a fan of that team.

The above example of a football fan highlights how there can be cultures within culture (i.e., subcultures) such as socioeconomic class and ethnicity, that further influence people’s framework for understanding themselves, others, and the surrounding world. It is perhaps for this reason that the term ‘cultural’ can bear an exclusionary connotation, conceived as something inaccessible or reserved for certain members of society (e.g. opera, ballet, art exhibitions). In this case, when ‘cultural’ is linked to status, it may become conceptually inaccessible for some people.


Defining ‘cultural’ for our research

So, what does this mean for our research? We recognize that the term ‘cultural’ can be understood in a multitude of ways, ranging from a narrow to broad definition scope. Placing limits on what is ‘cultural’ poses a set of challenges that requires justification. Our 

discussions highlighted the wide range of definitions and interpretations of ‘cultural’, which we appreciated in aiding our thinking. Acknowledging its complex nature, and for the purposes of our study, we have opted to be pragmatic in our definition. As our work builds on a previous report, we have limited our definition of ‘cultural’ to the following: museums, libraries, and gardens (we are using the American Public Gardens Association definition of: “An institution that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research, conservation, and higher learning”).

Although our study expands on our previous report and will continue to focus on gardens, libraries and museums, we believe our discussions will produce findings that are likely to have relevance to other cultural areas and activities mentioned above; cultural areas and activities through which people can experience well-being benefits because they a) feel welcomed or relaxed, b) find enjoyment and distraction, c) develop social connections. These, for us, are key ways in which the ‘cultural’, in its various guises, can play a role within social prescribing.  We welcome your thoughts and comments on what ‘cultural’ means to you and why.


Jordan Gorenberg

Stephanie Tierney

Kamal R. Mahtani


This research is funded by UKRI/AHRC (AH/V008781/1). The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and not necessarily those of their host institution, organisations mentioned or funding bodies.