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What is Cultural Science?

By JohnHartley | April 17, 2008

I did a write-up of cultural science for a magazine and thought I might share it here. If you think it needs improvement please say so; if you’re wondering what this site is all about hopefully it will help to explain. Comments welcome!


John Hartley*

A long term trend can be observed in which disciplines formerly located in the humanities have drifted ever more firmly into the sciences: biology (once ‘natural history’), geography, economics and psychology to name a few. Meanwhile, the sciences are becoming ever more confident about explaining culture, for instance using neuroscience, game theory, complexity theory and evolutionary theory.

Does it follow that humanities-based disciplines are of declining utility? What can they offer to the study of culture as a science?

Where once such a question was an excuse for insults across the divide of the ‘two cultures,’ now it has a much more productive point. What is bringing science and the humanities together is evolution – the adaptation of complex systems to change.

Evolutionary economics has found an unlikely partner in cultural studies and the creative industries; a branch of the humanities not noted for scientific ambitions in the past.

However, the cutting-edge of research on creativity lies in the triangulation of three domains: evolution, complexity, and creative innovation. This interdisciplinary interface is counterintuitive but highly productive.

Creativity can be understood as reflexive adaptation to unpredictable change within complex systems.

Complexity studies explain how social network markets are a vital enabling technology for the distribution of choice.

And evolutionary theory focuses on the dynamics of change in the growth of knowledge.

All of these developments are assisting those coming from anthropology, cultural studies and creative arts to rethink creativity as a property of agency in dynamic systems, not of heroic individuals.

Cultural science identifies patterns of action in complex social networks; their past evolution and possible future scenarios, including paying attention to unintended consequences of choices at any given moment.

Researchers in Australia are at the forefront of this new cultural science. A high level international workshop has just been held in Brisbane to plan future research. The meeting attracted thought leaders from Europe, the USA and Australia, in complexity and network studies, evolutionary economics, anthropology and creative innovation, both historical and contemporary.

The event, called ‘Creative Destruction,’ was hosted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries & Innovation at QUT, and supported by FEAST (the Forum for Australian-EU Science & Technology cooperation), the British Arts & Humanities Research Council and the State Library of Queensland.

Its purpose was not only to develop an interdisciplinary manifesto for cultural science but to link it with innovation and research policy formation.

The future-oriented view of this group is that creativity – both expert and amateur – is driving change in the nature of markets as well as dynamic growth in creative sectors like digital content.

More fundamentally, reflexive creativity is what enables human culture to adapt and change, a process that – despite some ‘mass extinctions’ throughout the millennia – has resulted in an exponential growth in knowledge and in the creation of new values, both economic and cultural.

Culture can no longer be seen as the preserve of artists. It is made up of the activities and productivity of the millions who interact in the social networks that are now dispersed among whole populations. With the growing ubiquity of digital media these are becoming a more dynamic source of productivity than industrial innovation. The social network ‘swarm’ outperforms the IP-protected ‘lab,’ and at twice the speed.

One of the best examples of how that sort of innovation works is in science itself; astronomers and physicists use digital networks to increase the scale and speed of their calculations. But the same model works in fashion, where constant innovation is equally imperative and a complex social network market determines individual choices.

Such systems can be analysed using both in-close contextual techniques from the humanities and computational power to map social networks of choice and change in the way that people perform their cultural identity and relationships, a process that is well under way in internet and network studies. Theory-building is also vital to model how such actions are patterned in complex adaptive systems, and how agents and enterprises navigate those systems.

This provides the evidential basis for what creative entrepreneurs know intuitively – that despite its wealth of creative talent Australia is not pulling its weight internationally in distributed, creative, networked, crowd-sourced innovation.

The cultural science initiative can be sampled at the new website

*John Hartley is ARC Federation Fellow and research director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries & Innovation at QUT.

Topics: creative destruction, cultural science | 1 Comment »

One Response to “What is Cultural Science?”

  1. The Stagnancy of Cultural Studies | Living Large Says:
    February 7th, 2015 at 3:27 am

    […] ignore. This is the plight of cultural science. Cultural science, as a field, seeks to find and understand where complex theory meets human interests, changes in relationships and identities. This basically […]


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