Statistics and Culture: An Improbable Pairing?

Statistics and Culture: An Improbable Pairing?

At a quick and superficial reading, statistics and culture may seem like two separate realities that only interact under close supervision. To simplify, the cultured individual tends to stigmatize the false certainties hidden behind numbers, while the statistician perhaps looks with barely concealed annoyance at that galaxy of activities that escape easily definable metrics.

But fortunately, reality is a bit more complex and allows us to identify interesting relationships and interactions between the two poles. In recent years, by leading an office that deals with one (culture) and partly the other (statistics), I have been able to personally verify this dynamism.

I'm referring specifically to the experiences gained at the Cultural Observatory of the Canton of Ticino (OC), a service that also deals with cultural statistics. Established in 2006, it was the only stable experience of this kind in Switzerland until November 7, 2022, when the Observatoire romand de la culture (ORC) was officially presented. A welcome presence that joins, globally, a network that groups just over a hundred similar realities around the world.

As the name itself indicates, observatories tend to observe, using mainly primary and secondary statistics and data. They are specialized centers precisely because of the difficulties the sector poses: cultural practices are indeed a heterogeneous system of activities that articulate across multiple dimensions, such as economic and social ones, but also immaterial ones, those cross-cutting and hard to circumscribe. The variations are diverse, with areas well covered by official statistics and other disciplines that do not present continuous, methodical, or comparable information. Not to mention the dynamism of the landscape, marked by continuous changes, occurring at fluctuating rhythms.

To cope with the fluidity of the sector, our Observatory has not adopted a traditional approach, aimed solely at the elaboration of surveys and reports. In the Ticino experience, a central role is also played by interaction with and on the territory. Of primary importance in this sense are the projects developed in collaboration with cultural operators, university schools, and other public administration services. In recent years, the OC has launched several, including the Literary Guide of Italian Switzerland and the Cultural Agenda. Several proposals have allowed us to consolidate synergies with USTAT, such as the preparation of contributions in the magazine Dati, the exchange of data and especially expertise, thanks particularly to the presence of Chief Officer Pau Origoni on the OC's scientific committee.

From a methodological point of view, I would like to highlight one last central aspect that concerns the dialogue between quantitative and qualitative techniques, through which we can develop multiple and differentiated approaches particularly functional in certain investigation perimeters. It is indeed of great interest to highlight salient points that are not limited to the results of traditional surveys but are open to the suggestions of focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Research thus allows us to consider other dimensions, different and complementary, compared to the specifically numeric one.

To conclude: Are numbers and culture an improbable combination? No, quite the opposite. We must consider numbers and culture as two interconnected and complementary aspects of human knowledge. I find that there are synergies and relationships that could grow further: I'm thinking in particular of the introduction of more elaborate and differentiated statistical methods to "report" some cultural sectors that are little considered today, or the open and transparent dissemination of statistics collected by cultural operators themselves. On the other front, statistics could also consider or draw inspiration from some peculiarities of the cultural sector: for example, assessing with greater openness methodological syncretisms that exploit the potentialities of quantitative analysis with qualitative approaches. Or, by evaluating greater creative spaces in which to express statistical results with communicative strategies that refer to the visual arts or - why not? - performative ones.

New challenges are on the horizon for those called to support, monitor, and analyze cultural practices. Increasingly powerful and pervasive calculation methods with big data and open data, with the counterpart of privacy protection; all seasoned with the need to communicate the results better and the role of artificial intelligence, which is still to be clarified. The presumed bipolarism of statistics-culture creates a precious space of tension and dialogue between different sensitivities that may bring improbable answers to these challenges. As Oscar Wilde said, it is better to be always a little improbable.

Roland Hochstrasser

Dati - Statistiche e società, A. XXIII, n. 1, giugno 2023