Models of cultural consumption in the deaf community

Nikita Bolshakov—sociologist, lecturer at National Research University—Higher School of Economics

Deafness, as a medical, social, and cultural phenomenon influences various aspects of life for the deaf and hard of hearing, including culture and leisure. The museums, film genres, and types of events that the deaf and hard of hearing visit or engage with can vastly differ from the practices, perceptions, and preferences of the hearing. At the same time, examining the deaf and hard of hearing as a single population might be a mistake.

According to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, all cultural practices and preferences in literature, painting, or music are closely connected primarily with one’s level of education, and secondly with their social origins (Bourdieu, Distinction, 9). For this reason, a hard of hearing person from a deaf family with a knowledge of sign language and who studied in a specialized boarding school might perceive culture completely different than a deaf person who grew up in a hearing family and graduated from a school with hearing students. In this case, “differently” means that the forms of cultural consumption in which the deaf and hard of hearing engage are not homogeneous and can be separated into several stable models, differentiated by their engagement in general culture or the specific culture of the deaf. Each of these models presupposes the existence of specific life experiences and factors that determined the formation of this life experience. This hypothesis about the existence of these several stable models of cultural consumption serves as the foundation of this article.

The concept of cultural consumption includes the motivations and tastes of individuals, in addition to the specific practices of consumption (Katz-Gerro, “Cultural consumption research,” 14), which show patterns of cultural consumption by grouping together in particular combinations. In this way, it is important to understand not only what a given individual consumes, but how they consume it. Cultural practices are actions directed towards including an individual in a wider cultural context. An important characteristic of cultural context for the deaf and hard of hearing community is what might be interpreted as the inclusion of individuals in the dominating culture of the (hearing) majority, as well as an orientation towards a specific Deaf culture in which the adoption of specific cultural codes might take place. For this reason, aside from commonly available practices, it is necessary to study specific ones like visits to the Mimics and Gesture Theater, sign singing concerts, exhibits by deaf artists, and so on. The construction of cultural consumption models takes into consideration the level of individual orientation towards Deaf culture, which is usually examined in a reasonably broad sense as a selection of specific social convictions, behavioral patterns, artistic and literary traditions, and shared history, values, and institutions of the community. In the course of our analysis, we identified three homogeneous patterns of cultural consumption for people with hearing impairments.

Cultural inclusion.

This pattern is widespread among those who are minimally oriented toward deaf culture and with a predominantly communicative, cognitive, and recreational motivation. These people frequently visit movie theaters, museums (including those with tours in sign language), theater performances not in sign language (as part of theater festivals and other programming), and various concerts, as well as tours in various museums (including those which are translated into sign language). This model of cultural consumption presumes the individual’s maximal readiness for inclusion. Socialization, as well as the accumulated experience necessary for life in society, for these individuals typically occurred in an inclusive environment with hearing parents with a high level of education and/or in a regular grammar school. By the time they begin their independent lives, such deaf people have a high level of cultural capital.

This group also includes deaf and hard of hearing people who have completed higher education themselves and primarily communicate with hearing people.

Passive cultural consumption.

This pattern is characteristic of people who primarily prefer domestic cultural practices (reading books, magazines, and newspapers, including those specialized for people with hearing impairments; watching films and television programs with subtitles). In such respondents, we can observe an average orientation towards Deaf culture and a motivation towards communication within the family. Opportunities for integration and inclusion are limited in this case due to a person’s orientation toward passive, “domestic” cultural consumption. People whose cultural consumption falls under this model have higher education but come primarily from hearing families with low levels of education and cultural capital (meaning that they are minimally engaged in cultural practices and do not have sufficient skills for decoding and interpreting works of art). They can have varying degrees of hearing loss (from minimal impairment to deafness), know sign language, and communicate both with hearing and hard of hearing people, but cannot be unequivocally considered as integrated either into the hearing majority or into the community of the deaf and hard of hearing.

Cultural isolation.

This pattern is characteristic of people who choose cultural practices that are exclusively oriented toward Deaf culture: sign singing festivals and concerts; concerts with deaf and hard of hearing performers; plays in sign language; holiday concerts for the deaf at the Mimics and Gesture Theater, the State Specialized Institute for the Arts and other locations; and deaf clubs and discothèques. They communicate frequently with friends, are motivated both by entertainment and communication in their choice of cultural practices, and prioritize Deaf culture.

Obviously, this presumes a minimal level of cultural inclusion and maximal orientation towards their own identity and isolation. People characterized by this pattern of cultural consumption primarily come from “deaf” families with a low level of cultural capital and education. Their socialization took place within a closed community where the preferred form of communication was sign language. In adult life, these people continue to reproduce the model that they acquired as children. These are mostly people with a high degree of hearing loss without hearing friends and who prefer communicating in sign language. Although representatives of this group are primarily oriented toward specific cultural practices, this does not exclude the possibility of contact with general culture.

In part, those for whom the model of cultural isolation is characteristic go on tours that are specially designed for the deaf (conducted in sign language, or accompanied by a translation into sign language). In this way, the deaf are included in general culture not as individuals, but as representatives of a minority in the course of specialized events that allow them to support their group identity.

For this reason, it is impossible to talk about the existence of some single model of cultural consumption by the deaf and hard of hearing, which must be taken into consideration when developing various programs for this audience. The stable models of cultural consumption that resulted from this study are relevant in the context of providing equal access to cultural tools for all people with hearing impairments, as well as of the existence of deaf culture, which is the main (or even the only) cultural reference point for many deaf and hard of hearing people. The key patterns identified in the article are the patterns of cultural inclusion, cultural isolation, and passive cultural consumption. Each pattern demands a specific approach to developing principles for working with this social group.


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