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Cultural participation and cultural preferences in Helsinki

Cultural participation in Helsinki is a little studied topic.

The ‘Urban lifestyles in Helsinki’ (Urbaani elämäntapa Helsingissä) research project, initiated in 2013, has now reached its second phase. A new survey was sent to respondents in the winter of 2016. The first findings to be presented include this article on cultural participation and preferences, along with another one by the same authors addressing the topic of shared economy (Lindblom & Mustonen 2016). Cultural participation is an area in which there is a surprising lack of information as far as Helsinki in concerned, considering the Finnish capital's importance as a city of culture and the significance of culture in our free time. (see Mustonen 2014, for example).

Despite the relative scarcity of Helsinki-specific information, there is naturally plenty of information on cultural participation in general. The data, and the analyses derived from it, are often quantitative and cover differences between population groups, for example. There is far less information on consumption, attitudes and preferences, which is arguably an important area to be explored. It could of course be assumed that, given the limitations related to time and money, people primarily attend and engage in cultural activities that they happen to enjoy. The matter is slightly more complex than that, however. For example, a person's professional status may affect their involvement in activities – resulting in them taking part in an event that they do not enjoy. On the other hand, budgetary limitations may prevent people from participating despite their willingness to do so. Indications of this kind of behaviour have been seen in the context of food consumption, for example (see Lindblom & Mustonen 2015).

An excellent overview of cultural participation and studies focusing on the theme can be found in a recent publication by Cupore, the Finnish foundation for cultural policy research (Virolainen 2015). It features a comprehensive look into statistical reports on the topic from recent decades. Virolainen states that non-participation and the factors that contribute to it have been largely neglected. This is partially understandable as studying non-participation is challenging. On the other hand, it can simply be seen as the reverse side of participation. For instance, if two out of three Helsinki residents visit museums, as shown in Lindholm's study (2011, 36–38), then roughly every third resident is a non-participant. When working on the basis of survey data, examining these aspects separately and comparing the groups is a fairly simple task. When it comes to visitor and customer studies, however, examining non-participation is more challenging. General surveys fail to reveal why non-participants do not go to museums such as Kiasma or Ateneum.

More often than not, information on participation has been collected specifically through a variety of surveys. In some cases, sections on culture have been added to surveys focusing on other themes. One such survey is the 2012 national-level study on city and municipal services (Kaupunki- ja kuntapalvelut, KAPA; see FCG 2012). The purpose of the KAPA study was to poll residents’ views on municipal services, with a short section on cultural services.

Among the most important sources of information on culture-related habits have been Statistics Finland's studies on leisure activities and the use of time. The downside of these statistics is their infrequent collection at intervals of approximately ten years. Furthermore, city-specific information on Helsinki is naturally absent, and the latest data, especially as regards the leisure survey, are beginning to become obsolete as it was collected in 2002. Regarding the Time Use Survey, the latest data was collected in 2009–2010.

The latest Leisure Survey clearly indicates the connection between engagement in various forms of culture and structural background factors – mostly level of education but also age and gender (Liikkanen 2005, see also Statistics Finland 2011). However, that was 16 years ago. The much more recent Time Use Survey shows that the differences between population groups have decreased while cultural participation has increased (Statistics Finland 2014).

Around the time of the latest Time Use Survey, the Lindholm et al. (see Lindholm 2011) report on audience outreach was published, which considered cultural participation in a wider context. In his article, Lindholm (2011, 41–42) examined the consumption of culture and stated that stereotypically women and people with higher education are more likely to participate in cultural events. The same study showed that areas of residence seem to have an impact on participation. The city centre and its fringes would seem to be home to people who are interested in culture. With this introduction, we will now examine cultural participation and preferences using the new data provided by the Urbaani elämäntapa Helsingissä project.

Data used in the study

There were some differences in the survey conducted in early 2016 and the previous survey in 2013. From the perspective of this article, an essential new element was a section to measure cultural participation and preferences. Distinguishing these two areas is justified since people's behaviour is inconsistent. Liking something does not necessarily lead to actual corresponding activities, and some may engage in activities they do not in fact like. Consumption choices reflect taste structures, which are linked to a person’s cultural capital. Those with the largest pool of this capital control the taste landscape and, in a manner of speaking, set the standards for legitimate taste. This results in some forms of culture being more popular than others and more sought-after among all consumers regardless of social status. (see Lindblom & Mustonen 2015; also Mustonen & Lindblom 2014).

For the purposes of the study, a random sample of 4,000 Helsinki residents between 16 and 75 years of age was picked from the Helsinki population information system. In addition to filling in a traditional paper form, the survey form could be completed online. The sample was also supplemented with an informal online questionnaire, which ultimately yielded more responses than the actual sample. However, this article relies solely on the sample material and adult respondents. The representativeness of the material is undermined by the low response rate, which stood at approximately 20 per cent: 890 usable response forms were submitted.

The division of the material based on gender, age, level of education and area of residence is presented in Table 1. The area of residence is represented with a dichotomous variable that was formed according to whether the respondent lives in a postcode area within the Helsinki tram network or outside it (indicating domicile in either Inner Helsinki or the suburban area). We have named this the ‘tram variable’. A corresponding variable has been used in other studies under the Urbaani elämäntapa Helsingissä project, and it has been found to distinguish behaviours among people fairly efficiently (e.g. Mustonen & Lindblom 2016 & 2016b). This article focuses on differences between genders and between areas of residence. The material is slightly skewed towards educated residents and, due to the low response rate, the survey cannot be regarded as completely representative. However, the results give some indication of cultural participation and, from this perspective, fill some of the gaps in prior information.

Library, cinema and the theatre the most popular

As argued, there is a lack of information on cultural participation among Helsinki residents, and even less is known about culture-related interests. The aim of this article is to determine what kind of cultural activities Helsinki residents participate in, on one hand, and which they prefer, on the other. In addition, we will examine the relationship between liking certain forms of culture and participating in related activities and events.

Two studies on cultural participation have been conducted within the past four years in Helsinki: the Keskinen and Kotro study of 2014 and the KAPA study of 2012. The latter was not an actual culture study as it only included one section on culture. Keskinen and Kotro (2014) examined participation in cultural activities and views about Helsinki as a city of culture by means of an online survey that utilised the ‘snowball sampling’ method. This study is most probably the latest one exploring this theme specifically in Helsinki. The information of the KAPA study applies to 2012, which is why it can be viewed as fairly relevant for comparisons (see Keskinen 2013).

In their study, Keskinen and Kotro (2014) examined people who participated in cultural, art or other events. Based on the participation percentages, the most popular forms of culture were libraries, cinema, theatre and free events. Among the polled activities, the circus, Helsinki Book Fair, dance performances (including ballet) and the Restaurant Day drew the least people. The study indicated clear differences between genders. The proportion of women was higher than men in almost all activities. There were also significant differences between age groups.

In the similar examination in the KAPA study, the top positions were held by libraries, cinemas, theatres, concerts, art exhibitions and museums. The survey did not include questions about free events. In other ways, the results were very similar between the two studies.

There were slight differences in the cultural services or forms of culture examined in our study and those covered in the KAPA study or the study by Keskinen and Kotro. Their results were also partially divergent (Figures 1 and 2), although some consistent trends could be seen. Libraries, cinema, theatre and popular music concerts were the most popular in all studies. On the other hand, galleries were not ranked as high in our study. This may be partially due to the way the questions were phrased. The KAPA study and the Keskinen and Kotro study both asked about visits to art exhibitions and galleries, whereas our survey only included questions about galleries.

The difference with regard to urban events was also clear. The Keskinen and Kotro study asked about participation in large free events and separately about participation in neighbourhood events. Once again, the questions were posed differently, which most likely contributed to the fact that the percentages were not as high as in our data.

Cinemas, city events, museums and libraries were clearly ahead of all other forms in our results (Figure 1). Over 80 per cent of the female respondents had visited one of these during the past year. For men, the proportions were slightly lower, which was also in line with the results of the Keskinen and Kotro study. In fact, the proportion of women was higher than men in almost all cases. Mostly, the difference was around 10 percentage points, but the largest disparities were found with regard to theatre, dance, ballet and musicals. Many other studies have reported women to be more culturally active, so this result was expected (see, for example, Lindholm 2011, 41; Virtanen 2007, 68-70; Mustonen 2014b & 2016). Sports events were the only area with regard to which the difference between the genders (over 20 per cent) was statistically significant in the opposite direction. In terms of popular music concerts, club concerts and music festivals, the differences between women and men were negligible.

People like culture more than they engage in it

Figure 1 presents the preference proportions in addition to the participation percentages. The variable examined here was determined by asking whether or not the respondents like the forms of culture in question. In addition to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options, the respondents could also select ‘Not sure’.

The preference values are higher for almost all forms of culture. For men, the largest disparity between preference and participation was found with regard to musicals and music festivals. For women, the gaps were the largest for art, ballet and musicals. The same phenomenon is also fairly prominent for classical music concerts, opera and club concerts, but the differences are less pronounced. Nevertheless, people visit these kinds of events less often than they would probably like to.

Conversely, people go to cinemas, museums, urban events, galleries and libraries more than the preference levels would indicate. For men, sports events stood out. These were the most popular in terms of participation, which means that they can be found on the left side of Figure 1. They also have a relatively low threshold across the board – participation is easy and does not require a lot of resources. With the exception of cinemas, museums and sports events, all forms of culture that have higher participation rates than the preference rates would suggest are actually most often free – this even applies to museums and sports events in some cases.

As is the case with participation, the differences in preference are sometimes clear between genders. The preference percentage was higher for men only with regard to sports events. The difference was slightly less than 15 percentage points. Women had the clearest lead with regard to dance (27 pp), ballet (29 pp) and musicals (25 pp). As the diagram shows, the differences were considerable across the board. This indicates that women would seem to like culture significantly more than men, which is also mirrored by the participation numbers, although to a lesser extent.

Active participation of Inner Helsinki residents reflects availability

Preference and participation and their mutual relationship were also examined based on the area of residence.  As Figure 2 clearly shows, participation was higher in Inner Helsinki than the suburbs for all forms of culture, with the exception of children's cultural events. The gap was the largest for galleries (22 pp) and classical music concerts (16 pp). In addition to this, the proportional differences were considerable for city events (12 pp), museums (10 pp), music festivals (14 pp), ballet (11 pp) and opera (11 pp).

The results mirror the availability of various cultural events and activities. With all of the forms of culture or ‘cultural products’ listed above, availability is heavily concentrated in the city centre areas. Previous studies have shown that plenty of people who are interested in culture live in Inner Helsinki (e.g. Lindholm 2011; Mustonen 2016). The interest stems from lifestyles and taste structures, but it can also be connected to availability. In other words, alongside the obvious explanations related to lifestyle or socio-demographic elements, ease of access due to availability of culture close by would seem to be a factor.

In terms of preference, the differences between the areas are smaller than with participation (see Figure 2). This contributes to conforming that the differences observed in participation are above all linked to availability and, by extension, resources. It can be postulated that if the cultural offering were difficult to access, participation would be lower than the preferences suggest.

The question whether or not the area of residence can explain cultural tastes and participation was tested by means of a logistical regression analysis (the results are not presented here). Gallery visits were analysed first. Many different combinations of background variables were entered in the test models, and in all of them, the ‘tram variable’ remained a significant explanatory factor, even though the variation of other variables (e.g. age, gender, education) was taken into account. As stated above, the areas naturally also feature socio-demographic differences that are linked to people's preferences and consumption habits. Further explanations to participation are resources and availability, in equal measure.

The area-related differences in preferring certain forms of culture were most pronounced with forms of ‘high culture’, assuming that galleries can be equated with classical music and ballet in this context. For these three forms of culture, the differences were the highest. Based on our examination, we cannot say for certain whether this comes down to lifestyles and related preferences, socio-demographic differences and factors related to availability. All of them certainly contribute to the fact that these forms of culture are preferred more in Inner Helsinki than in the suburbs. As was stated before, many people who are interested in culture live in the Inner Helsinki. Availability may, of course, increase interest in culture, but some level of initial enthusiasm is always required. On the other hand, socio-demographic differences affect in particular participation in forms of culture that require resources.

The area-related differences in preferences regarding urban events, music festivals and club concerts are also clear but smaller than with participation. Here, too, the three explanations listed above all contribute to the end result, but the explanations related to lifestyle may have more of an effect than the socio-demographic ones. This is due to the fact that urban events, in particular, are accessible from a budgetary perspective to a wide range of people. Therefore, we can conclude that the obstacles and incentives to participation are connected to availability, lifestyles and taste structures.

Children's cultural events stood out in terms of participation and preference. Outside Inner Helsinki, people seem to like them more and the participation rates are higher, although the proportions are fairly low in both cases. It is safe to say that the number of children in a family affects the preference and, most of all, participation levels.

In the area-related examination, the differences between preference and participation were also significant. Residents of Inner Helsinki went to cinemas, city events, museums, galleries and sports events more often than the preference levels would suggest. Among those who live in suburban areas, the preference of films, city events and museums was lower but the differences were not as pronounced as in the city centre area. These fall within the same group of low-threshold forms of culture as those mentioned earlier when we examined the differences between genders.

The differences in the other direction were much larger. In most cases, there is something that prevents participation – preference is much higher than actual participation. Regardless of the area of residence, participation percentages were significantly lower for musicals, dance, ballet and other performing arts. The likely explanation for this is that these forms of culture are much more resource-intensive compared to films or museums, for example. With the exception of performing arts, the differences are greater in suburban areas. This result is influenced by both socio-demographic factors and availability. Music festivals and opera also stand out in suburban areas. In Inner Helsinki, the gap between preference and participation is clearly smaller for these forms of culture.


This article examined participation in and preference of cultural activities. The most popular forms of culture in terms of both participation and preference were all types of low-threshold culture. Interestingly, it was with these low-threshold activities that participation actually exceeded preference. Opposite results were observed with forms of culture with lower overall participation levels. More often than not, these are activities that require more resources.

The most essential results of the study are related to the differences between preference and participation, and the related substantial differences between genders and areas. In most cases, preference was higher than participation, particularly for women and residents of suburban areas. The results suggest that there are obstacles that limit participation in culture. These obstacles may be area-specific – participation is difficult in terms of accessibility – or financial. In addition to this, they may be social in nature, which means that the reference group's consumption habits guide their behaviour. People may tend to participate in cultural activities that are intrinsic to their reference group. Correspondingly, participation in certain other activities may decrease even if the motivation exists. The threshold for going to the opera is much higher than for going to the library.

In future studies, it would be interesting to consider the obstacles to participation. These three dimensions, socio-demographic factors and the related financial, regional and social factors, all contribute to the choices people make. This study considered the postulated impacts of these dimensions for various forms of culture. Some conclusions can naturally be drawn from the differences between participation and preference, and testing the hypotheses presented in this article is the next step in the Urbaani elämäntapa Helsingissä project.

Pekka Mustonen is a Senior Researcher at City of Helsinki Urban Facts. Taru Lindblom is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Economic Sociology Department of the University of Turku.


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