Do You Hear What I Hear? Empathizing With Many Voices in Cultural Production

Douglas Lonie

Douglas Lonie, Senior Consultant, BOP Consulting LinkedIn, Twitter: @douglaslonie. Douglas has over 12 years’ experience working in the academic, third and private sectors researching the effects of culture on people and society. He has particular expertise in cultural participation and health and wellbeing, children and young people’s engagement with culture, and culture and sustainable development. Since joining BOP Consulting in 2014 Dougie’s projects have included an evaluation of the British Council’s Culture and Development programme, data analysis for UNESCO’s 2017 Global Report on international cultural policy, and evaluations for Liverpool Biennial, BALTIC, Creative Scotland and the British Film Institute, amongst others. Dougie has an MA in Social Research and a PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Glasgow where he studied links between music and health across a 20-year longitudinal sample. His work on the social impact of culture has been published in a number of journals and publications and he has presented his work at over 30 international conferences.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.13

Art creates opportunities to challenge common sense perceptions of the world. It enables a viewer, listener, or participant to see into another person’s life, experience what they feel, and understand the complexity of making difficult decisions or dealing with challenging situations.

Most of my own research over the past 15 years has focused on how taking part in creative activities affects people’s mental health and wellbeing. Engaging in, making, or consuming something creative provides a moment to “switch off” from all the other distractions and stresses of life. Participating in this way can help people resolve complex emotions and better understand and cope with the human condition.

A participant in Tia DeNora’s seminal Music in Everyday Life (2000) describes how she uses music to “luxuriate in sadness”. This expression shows how some people use cultural artefacts and experiences to stop and process emotions. In the same way that someone might have a bath to unwind, time is carved out to go through the (e)motions using someone else’s artistic expression. But it is important to note that cultural experiences do not solely elicit positive emotions. Moments with culture are intentionally set up to feel different—to see the world through someone else’s eyes, hear it through their ears, or feel it as they would across the full range of human emotions.

If we accept that this is a core role of arts and culture across societies, we must also consider whose experiences are being shared. We must challenge the dominant voices, eyes, and ears to ensure that a full range of perspectives are being represented. If art enables us to feel the way someone else does, we should embrace and encourage the opportunity to represent a range of people and emotions.

Debate has moved beyond whether arts and culture are useful ways of eliciting empathy. It is time now to redouble efforts to access and amplify those people whose circumstances make them less likely to share their feelings in this way.Art provides the opportunity to reimagine the human experience. As divisions grow between nations, communities, and generations it can act as an interpreter of global emotional experience. One of the best ways to change the world is to enable people to understand it from another’s perspective. This necessitates a full range of human emotions being expressed from a full range of humans.


DeNora, Tia. (2000) Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press