The Social Dimension

The crux to the social dimension of person-centred arts practices with communities lies in the word ‘community’. This is an arts practice that is not focused on an individual’s artistic career or achievement. It is based within a community, and the arts processes involved have been designed to respond to a particular community and its needs. This section is, therefore, about how an artist ‘does’ community with a group of people and what social effects this process has on the individuals within the group. This group of people may be a temporary or situated collective who have come together based on a common interest or need. This collective is then held together by an arts task or engagement and becomes an artistically productive collective. Mutual ties and relations emerge from this common artistic goal, which culminate into an awareness of one’s social environment and responsibilities to the community at hand (the collective) and the wider community at large (society).


Foundational elements of the social dimension:

Awareness Of The Other & Communication With Another

Awareness of oneself is dependent on the awareness of the other. A better understanding of one’s self is gained from interacting with others, as others become the stimulus for thoughts, emotions and actions that we experience. ‘Other-awareness’, according to social psychologist Markova (1987) is a developmental and social process that matures over time. Citing past research, Markova suggests that the evolution of other-awareness is associated with the evolution of altruism and cooperation, which are all linked to the impetus for survival (ibid). Awareness of the other is therefore the beginnings of a process of understanding and interacting with the other towards the preservation and betterment of life itself.

Awareness of different modes of communication

In navigating the complexity of contextual group situations, awareness of communication with another can be facilitated through an awareness of various modes of communication.

Non-verbal communication:

Non-verbal communication and verbal communication are intricately linked. Non-verbal communication is more closely linked with emotions and our unconscious (Alcock et al 2005) as these signals are less easily controlled or regulated. Non-verbal communication is also dependent on the context and cultural conditioning, where, for example, instinctive facial reactions are acceptable in some contexts or countries while in other contexts or places, the same reactions are not acceptable.

Verbal Communication:

Speech styles are styles of language that we use in response to what we think is appropriate to a particular context. In Singapore, Singlish (a mixture of local dialects and English), for example, is used in more localised context. One would never think of speaking Singlish in court or at a business meeting. The language of commerce and law requires more formalistic speech styles. The main point of speech styles is that by locating the appropriate style of speech, one can connect and communicate with the participants better. Speech style is in this way led by the participants of the group – their ‘lingo’ so to speak. This is linked to the cultural dimension of language and identity as well.

Strengthening Awareness Of The Other & Communication With Another – Our Response

It is the responsibility of the artist-facilitator to create a safe space that does not result in responses of rejection or disconfirmation. Responses of rejection and disconfirmation are not the same as responses of constructive critique or conflicting viewpoints. The former aims to take a personal hit against another’s presence. The latter aims to further develop the discussion, or the process of art-making, in support of the group’s effort. Comments like “you are lazy” are a response of disconfirmation. Alternatively, a comment like “you can surely do better, let’s try this little bit together” is constructive to the work process and respectful of the participant.

Maturing element: Awareness of relating with others through care and empathy

One of the most essential components of care ethics, a branch of political theory, is that it calls upon individuals to care (Collins, 2015). Key to the ‘facts’ of care, is that care takes place in spite of principles, meaning that it does not take place because of rules that need to be followed. It also takes place within personal relationships of value (ibid). This section proposes that the arts task at hand, co-created with a community, provides a basis for individuals to care about what they are creating together, and consequently care about the ideas, opinions and feelings of others with whom they collaborate. These acts of care include being aware of how one communicates with others by respecting personal space, and being sensitive to another’s needs through considerate modes of verbal and non-verbal communication.

Strengthening The Awareness Of Relating With Others Through Care And Empathy: Our Response

The artist-facilitator must create and maintain a process and an environment that encourages participants to show care for the collective process and artistic outcome. Respect and acknowledgement of different ideas and values by making a genuine attempt to include all, rather than to select some, demonstrates care for each individual. Creating a space to include all, including those who prefer to sit out to watch and not participate, also demonstrates care for each one’s difference. Shifting the process to make allowances for one person’s limitation or need reflects empathy. Other participants who witness these forms of care will begin to model this same behavior, making a caring attitude a ‘cultural’ norm for the group. Caring actions, in response to the feelings and needs of others develop from this attitude.

Mature element: Awareness of responsibility to another

The mature element of the social dimension is not altruism. It is a responsibility that demands that one acts responsibly to another, at a cost to oneself.  This ‘other’ may not belong to the collective one is familiar with. It may be an ‘Other’ whose values completely opposes with one’s beliefs. It may be an ‘Other’ that has caused harm to oneself. To accept the face-to-face relationship with alterity itself is ethics (ibid). A ‘third party’ acts as a witness to this relationship of responsibility. As a collective, a system of justice, through the state, for example, emerges to reflect and effect the ethical bond. The assembling of these systems of justice provide for ‘distinction and determination’ (ibid) against the faceless anonymity and hence indifference towards the ‘Other’. As members of a societal structure, the system of justice and ethics establishes a call to responsibility for the well-being of the independent other.

Supporting The Journey Towards An Awareness of Responsibility To Another

In the light of this end goal, the work of the arts with communities is not a mere ‘feel good’ event for each participant’s personal development, or worse, consumptive practices. There is a heavier responsibility to this work. It responds and extends itself to groups who have no access to the arts, as a means of distributing culture and education to all, changing systems of exclusion due to indifference. It creates artistic platforms that are capable of processing authentic exchanges of differences, towards an inclusion of what has been rejected and devalued before. In short, arts practices with communities can become the stimulus and impetus of a fair and just society. It is a responsible stand that we as artists can take in support of an interdependent collective human race.

* For more details on each element of the Social Dimension, please refer to Person-centered Arts Practices With Communities: A Pedagogical Guide (


Alcock, J.E., Carment, D. W., Sadava, S. W., A Textbook Of Social Psychology. Pearson Prentice Hall, Canada

Collins, S. (2015) The Core Of Care Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA.

Markova, I. (1987) Human Awareness. Hutchinson Education, London, UK.

© 2018 by Felicia Low

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