The Dimensions of Worth

Everyone loves a good list. Lists of things, if complete, give us a definitive account of the contents of a category. They let us put things into easily understood groups and help us make sense of what those groups are. Colours of the rainbow. Planets in the solar system. Quantifiable and legitimised, tick ‘em off at your pleasure.

Lists also provide great fodder for debates, because who’s to say that a list is truly definitive? It’s not just that everyone loves a list, but that everyone loves the list they love, and loves to contest the lists other people love. Seven colours of the rainbow? What about the myriad hues between those seven colours? There are lots of people still insisting on putting Pluto on their list of planets.

Defining the creative industries seems to me to be a similar debate about what to include on a list. It seems to have started, by nearly all accounts, in 1998, when the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (those three happy bedfellows) described the creative industries as “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” and provided a handy list of 13 sectors. And it seems people have been arguing about that list ever since.

I’ve written about that debate before and the variations proposed and rejected. It is a crucial debate for policy makers and researchers, as boundaries need to be set in order to effectively map, measure and learn about the creative industries (how can we analyse the solar system if we don’t know where it starts and finishes?). At the same time, it’s a pointless debate for many creative industry practitioners, with no day to day impact on their activities (call it what you like, Pluto is still a big ball of rock and ice orbiting the sun).

Having sampled this debate, I’ve been considering a couple of questions. One, how to add to this discussion, in a way which isn’t simply arguing about other people’s lists. And two, what do we mean by the term ‘industry’ anyway? What is one and how do we recognise it?

This article, by Mukti Khaire, offers an interesting perspective on these questions. In it, she talks about the identification of a new industry, not by its vital statistics (is it in orbit around the sun, does its self-gravity make it a globe, has it cleared its orbit of smaller objects) but by a series of socio-cognitive actions.

An industry is self-defined by a process she calls “distributed sanctification”, whereby a variety of participants in an activity take a series of self-directed actions which legitimise that activity as an industry. It is a gradual and unplanned process, the start and end points of which are undefined. In essence, no-one says, “this is now an industry,” in an ABS sort of way. Instead, people start behaving like they’re in an industry and sooner or later, everyone else agrees with them.

To illustrate this process, she looks at the rise of the high fashion industry in India. This is useful because she can identify a time period (the 1980s) before which there was no such thing and after which there was. She then examines the actions which participants in the formation of the industry took during this time.

As might be expected, the steps taken by designers, clothes makers and sellers are important, but she argues, so are the actions taken by other more tangential players – educational institutions, the media and so on. The cumulative effect of these actions is the accumulation of social currency in the term “high fashion industry” in India. In her own words, she is mapping “the dimensions of worth.”

This process, she says, is difficult but essential for new industries:

These complexities make the construction of worth of new industries particularly difficult. New industries […] lack definition and coherence—that is, clear boundaries and identities, so they are difficult to understand.

Which seems to be to be exactly the problem faced in describing the creative industries. She goes on to say:

In addition, new industries  […] typically lack norms and conventions of evaluation, so it is difficult to determine their worth. However, the construction of the worth of a new industry is particularly important because worth is a prerequisite for cognitive legitimacy, which is a critical resource that pioneering entrepreneurs in new industries lack. A cognitively legitimate industry—one that is accepted “as a taken-for-granted feature of the environment”—is well defined and understood by both industry actors and audiences and broadly accepted as appropriate. Cognitive legitimacy, or taken-for-grantedness is a condition of complete intersubjective agreement and total absence of dissent regarding the right of an entity to exist.

Which again, seems to aptly describe the creative industries – lack of definition, leads to complexity in evaluation, leading to a lack of legitimacy and “taking-for-grantedness” which in turn is an impediment to entrepreneurship.

It’s tempting to describe Khaire’s approach as the opposite of “definition by list making”. But actually, she does provide a list of actions she says participants take which legitimise an industry:

Curation Customers and outside influencers, like education, media and government orgs, identify what’s high and low quality product.
Certification Educational institutions start offering qualifications for entrants into the nascent industry.
Commentary Educational institutions offer instruction on what’s good and bad practice in the industry.
Critique Media publications offer opinion on what’s good and bad practice in the industry.
Co-presentation Various examples of competing product are displayed together enabling…
Comparison Customers to make judgements about the qualities of those products.
Commensuration The growing number of comparisons allows the development of standard measures of quality.

Khaire’s example (high fashion in India) springs from the creative industries, which she says is appropriate because, “the highly symbolic nature of the products makes collectively understood definitions, shared meanings, and broad agreement on norms and rules crucially important…value construction in creative industries is a complex process because of the relative “singularity” of the products, and involves multiple actors and cognitive processes.”

No argument there. But while her criteria can be applied consistently to fashion, I suspect they could not be as easily applied to the creative industries, as defined as a collection of creative sectors, of which fashion is only one. I think all of her 7 Cs listed above create the “worth” she describes, but only within each creative sub-sector. We can’t measure a fashion designer by the same yardstick as a musician or an architect and so on.

This is leading me to the conclusion that whatever the “creative industries” is, it is not an industry in and of itself – at least not yet. It might be more helpful to see it as a selection of like industries, and that selection as being influenced by a variety of social and political pressures on the entity defining the term.

What makes them “like” is something we can’t quite grasp. Something alchemical, the transformation of imagination into IP. But just because a beautifully designed gown springs from the same creative well as a symphony or a grand old building, doesn’t necessarily mean they together form a cohesive creative industry. Pluto’s a really different place to Jupiter.

Khaire, M. (2014). Fashioning an Industry: Socio-cognitive Processes in the Construction of Worth of a New Industry. Organization Studies, 35(1), 41-74. Available at

1 thought on “The Dimensions of Worth”

  1. You sent me down a rabbit warren this time! What differentiates Pluto from other possible planetoids, which nobody wants to put in the pantheon of planets? It starts to get very complicated when you look at things that are almost something else, but not quite at the same time. Check this out:

    Then of course there’s the question of worth, which I think is absolutely crucial to this.

    And finally … alliteration! Got to love that.

    Where to next? I can’t wait.


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