Innovations in novelty-driven cultural fields

Richard Whitleya and Jochen Glaesera,b

a University of Manchester
b Technical University Berlin

Although processes of lasting change in the arts and sciences have been extensively studied for some time, the plethora of studies have not yet led to a systematic account of the processes that bring about lasting change of artistic or scientific practices or the conditions under which these processes occur. These can be comparatively analysed in terms of differences in how practitioners compete for recognition and resources by producing novel outputs that are relevant for colleagues’ own work.

The arts and sciences have become institutionalised as novelty-driven social systems of cultural production in which artists and scientists compete for recognition and other rewards with varying degrees of collective practitioner authority over working practices and purposes. In these social systems, novelties become innovations when they have a lasting impact on the practices, standards and purposes of fellow practitioners. These innovations vary in two major ways: the degree to which they deviate from and radically alter established patterns of working, dominant objectives and evaluation standards, on the one hand, and the extent to which they are adopted by competent practitioners throughout the field, on the other hand. Combining these two dimensions enables us to distinguish between three kinds of innovations: Drift, Complementary and Displacement.

Developing innovations in the arts and sciences varies according to two features of their social organisation. First, the form of mutual dependence between practitioners in producing and disseminating novelties. Second, the distribution of authority over standards governing priorities, competences and the allocation of resources between practitioners, intermediaries, audiences, and clients.

Drift innovations can be developed in most conditions but may face a limited range of adoption in fields where mutual practitioner dependence is limited. Establishing complementary innovations often requires the support of strong aesthetic or epistemic movements where practitioner mutual dependence is low and must offer high potential for novelty creation in situations of high mutual dependence. The development and success of displacement innovations require substantial support by strong aesthetic/epistemic movements in fields with low mutual dependence and clear benefits for the production of highly valued novelty in other fields.

In conclusion, we discuss the implications of a systematic comparative approach to innovations in novelty-driven fields for analysing effects of changing socio-economic contexts on innovation development in the arts and sciences.