Book Review: Culture as a Vocation. Sociology of career choices in cultural management

"Occasional occupations are attractive not so much for their material rewards as for the prestige and self-fulfillment they confer. They require a strong personal commitment, which can be subjectively experienced in terms of passion and selflessness. The choice of a career in the cultural sector provides a good example of this", claims the description of Culture as a Vocation. Sociology of career choices in cultural management“. The French sociologist and political scientist Vincent Dubois' treatise deals with the central questions concerning career decisions in cultural management: When and where had this comparatively young job profile its origin? Who aims for such a career today and which are the social and personal factors that influence this decision? With his answers Dubois lays the foundation for a, from a sociological point of view, yet strongly neglected field.

The foundation for this publication forms an empirical study, which was developed in cooperation with the Institute Universitaire de France and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton between 2008 and 2009. For this purpose, Dubois interviewed 654 Students of different master courses in the sector of cultural management in France. The book, which he finished in 2013, is divided into four main chapters by way of illustration and contextualization.

Formation of the occupational profiles and university courses in cultural management

In the first part Dubois gives a historical overview of the development of cultural management as an explicit occupational field and academic training. In doing so, he concentrates his view on France, but also includes comparisons to the US and Great Britain. Until the 1960s cultural institutions were primarily led by so called “impresarios” (similar to today’s artist managers) of the upper class who admittedly possessed a high artistic sensibility but did not have any specialized training in the field of management. Especially changes of the financing models, as for example the expansion of government grants in the mid of the 60s, required an overthinking of these structures. As a consequence, the first academic courses developed in Yale and at the Florida State University in 1966. Not until twenty years later a similar development took place in France as well.

Who wants to become a cultural manager and why?

In the following chapter Dubois examines, on the basis of his survey, the social factors and characteristics of the aspirants for an occupation in cultural management. In doing so he finds that these persons are mainly female, in the majority have a comparatively secure social background, often originate from families of academics and are equipped with a high educational capital. On top of that they frequently come out of an environment in which they early had the opportunity to socialize in a cultural way, as for example by getting private teaching lessons in music instruments or by being member of a theatre group.

The third part of the work finally deals with backgrounds, motives and triggers that influenced the survey participants in their decision for cultural management as an occupation. At this point Dubois explains the arguments for his central thesis, which he already puts forward in the course of the introduction: “My hypothesis is that it does not operate through direct prescriptions leading to specific career choices, but rather through more diffuse but nevertheless insistent incentives“ (p. 8). His study shows that a complex interaction of socialization processes and individual imaginations leads to the desire for a career in the cultural sector. In spite of the awareness of the comparatively low payment, the tendency to rather difficult job prospects and the partially arduous working conditions for the majority this is a conscious and determined decision. Factors that play a role in the process are amongst others: private interest in arts in general, the desire for social mobility, finding an alternative between an artistic and teaching activity or the prospect of an open, preferably non-determined and varied career.

Finally, Dubois points out further reasons for a career aspiration in cultural management – resulting from a broader social context. Thus, many of his study participants understand cultural work as an expression of self-fulfillment, freedom and satisfaction, because it gives them the feeling of doing something for the public welfare and acting for a higher purpose in life. Thereby, at the same time, they distance themselves from pure economically orientated occupational fields. A career in cultural management by that becomes a personal self-realization project, all in the sense of the central concepts of neo-capitalism.

Anti-conformism and individual idealism – what follows?

The lecture of this book seems to make sense and to be revealing especially for (potential) prospective cultural managers. The analysis discloses problems and weaknesses of culture as an occupational field, which the interested parties should prepare for and which they should deal with from the beginning on – as for example the flabbiness of the official job titles, which are not, as in contrast to other sectors, fully differentiated. This on the one hand holds out hope of a potentially diverse area of deployment for the future workday life. On the other hand it leads to the situation that career entrants only hardly can develop a clear profile for specialised functions. Thus, they might be equipped with a broad range of professional competences, but they are not positioned to be able to evaluate and to convey which functions they are really suited for.

In regard to future application letters for cultural institutions it is also worth to take a closer look at the statements of the study participants regarding their motivation for working in cultural management. Dubois examines these critically ("youthful naivety or the clichés of the biographical illusion", p.67), because often these self-framed qualities and individual references to culture seem more like standardised self-presentations rather than profound and reasonable explanations.

In addition to the social factors that play a role in the choice of a profession in cultural management, the chapter also illustrates important trends in human resource development. Dubois findings make it clear that the diversification of the audience required by cultural institutions can hardly be successful if the majority of their staff originates from academic families with a (high) cultural education. They simply cannot put themselves in the position of the living conditions of socially disadvantaged people or groups of society belonging to minorities and therefore in their work they reflect – as it is also criticised again and again – especially their own expectations of culture and cultural mediation.

Also for practicing cultural managers such a retrospective reflection of their own motives for working in the cultural sector can be profitable – as for example in respect of their own self-understanding. However, for a full comprehensibility of all of Dubois’ established theses knowledge of social science analysis methods and sociological basic concepts, such as Pierre Bourdieu terminus of the cultural capital, will be very helpful, if not even a requirement.


Dubois himself underlines in his conclusion that it is not his concern to create a link between the triggers for a career in arts management and the practicability of the own endeavour in the cultural labour market. Nevertheless, he clearly points out the reasons for challenges and potential disappointments on this way. He therefore does not give any conclusions whether establishing cultural management as an academic field and the professionalisation of training in cultural management led to the situation that graduates achieved the occupational positions they aimed for and their expectations have been met. But it creates the basis for an advanced self-understanding of the professions well as further investigations about the job description cultural management.

Dubois' findings relate to a study carried out in France. Our experience as a German recruitment consultancy specialised in staffing in the field of cultural management, however, shows that his observations may also refer to the situation in other European countries and that overlaps definitely exist. His results thus assume a broader importance for both aspiring cultural managers as well as HR managers in the local cultural scene.


Marie Meininger studied Cultural Studies, English and Comparative Literature Studies in Potsdam, London and Paderborn. Her emphasis and experiences focus on popular culture and cultural management. At the moment she consults cultural institutions in recruiting processes and supports applicants as a trainee for the recruitment consultancy KULTURPERSONAL in Weimar, Germany.

Management Topic: Job & Training
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Jun 30, 2016