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‘You come as a human being…’: exploring sense of equality in arts interventions through an ethnographic study of Shared Reading
  1. Mette Marie Kristensen1,
  2. Morten Hulvej Rod1,
  3. Peter Simonsen2,
  4. Anna Paldam Folker1
  1. 1National Institute of Public Health, University of Southern Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark
  2. 2Department for the Study of Culture, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark
  1. Correspondence to Mette Marie Kristensen, National Institute of Public Health, University of Southern Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark; memk{at}


Research shows that the arts hold a particular potential for promoting health, well-being and social inclusion for vulnerable people. However, the use and consumption of the arts tend to be socially skewed in favour of people with high cultural, social and economic capital. While extensive research has been conducted on how to create equal access to arts activities for vulnerable groups, little research has investigated how to ensure meaningful engagement with the arts by this group. Shared Reading (SR) has had considerable success in engaging vulnerable groups in collective literary practices, and research suggests that this may partly be due to the unique forms of social and literary engagement that the concept fosters. These forms of engagement, we suggest, lay the foundation for a sense of equality among participants that may promote social connectedness and well-being. On this basis, the present study aims to investigate whether and how a sense of equality may play a role in SR practices. The study found that SR promotes a sense of equality by creating a space where social interaction and relatedness does not hinge on social roles, but rather on lived experiences—and vulnerabilities inherent to these—conveyed through literary texts and shared among participants. However, to promote a sense of equality in SR, meaningful engagement for all participants must be ensured, making facilitation an essential element of SR practices and an important focus in arts interventions in general. We conclude that SR, and arts interventions more generally, may be a promising way to promote a sense of equality, but further research is needed on the specific qualities of and potential contexts for the promotion of a sense of equality.

  • arts in health/arts and health
  • Literature
  • Medical humanities
  • Public health
  • Qualitative Research

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A growing body of research shows that arts activities hold a potential for promoting health, well-being and social inclusion, particularly for those who tend to use it the least (Argyle and Bolton 2005; Coemans and Hannes 2017; Fancourt and Finn 2019; Parkinson and White 2013). However, although publicly accessible, many cultural and artistic activities and arenas, for example, classic literature and art museums, are to a high extent used and frequented by people with high cultural capital, who are also statistically more likely to have higher economic and social capital than the population average (Francois 2012). Thus, the use and consumption of the arts tend to be socially skewed (Dow et al 2023). On this basis, researchers have called for a need for further investigation into how arts may promote health and well-being across all segments of society—not just for those who are most likely to use it (Ryff 2017; Stuckey and Nobel 2010). Much research has focused on how to create equal access to arts for all (Dow et al 2023; Francois 2012). However, creating equal access to the arts may not be enough to ensure that people engage with it, as many, especially those who have not had prior access to or experience with the arts, may not find it accessible—or find it at all. It is therefore equally important to ensure meaningful engagement with the arts. But little research has explicitly investigated how to promote engagement with the arts for diverse groups (Elpus 2018).

One concept that has shown potential in this regard is shared reading (SR)—a reading group concept developed by The Reader Organisation in the UK in 2008 that has had considerable success in engaging vulnerable groups—among them people with little or no literary reading experience—in shared literary practices. SR has shown positive effects on health, well-being and social inclusion (Billington et al 2016; Dowrick et al 2012; Longden et al 2015; Kristensen et al 2023; Corcoran and Oatley 2019; Davis 2009), the latter having been highlighted as a particular potential of SR, in that it offers a ‘contemplative space for all people whatever their background’ (Davis 2020, 7).

Research suggests that the social and health promotional potential of SR may be due to the unique forms of literary and social engagement that the concept fosters. Literary scholars Mai and Simonsen describe literature as ‘a virtual experimentarium where the reader is drawn into their own and others’ inner and outer life conditions and circumstances. As a reader, you jump in and out of both known and unknown facets of life and of conceptions of and fantasies about human being’ (2018, 9)1. Davis and Magee have further described how literature has a special ability to represent ordinary life, but also to ‘reach into the real life of the reader, transformatively’ (2020, 2), and literary research suggests that literary reading may foster a sense of empathy, social recognition and self-reflection in the reader (Charon et al 2016; Felski 2008; Iser 1979). Thus, literature may aid people in relating to and making sense of themselves and the world around them.

SR adds a collective dimension to literary engagement, and several studies have investigated the mechanisms behind the specific form of social engagement that SR fosters, highlighting different yet overlapping social qualities of SR. A recent study investigating the potential of SR for the promotion of mental health among newly retired men in Denmark found that it, among other things, provided a space for a unique sense of social connectedness. This was enabled by the fact that social interaction in the SR space revolved around literary texts rather than prevalent norms or social roles outside the SR space (Kristensen et al 2023). Pihl et al have termed the specific form of social engagement arising out of SR literary connectivity, which they describe as ‘a collective experience of literary art that fosters caring and sharing between people’ (2023, 7). In the UK, several studies have investigated mechanisms and effects of SR on various vulnerable groups. Longden et al found that in SR ‘group roles and allegiances were fluid, vibrant and adaptive but unpredictable, hinging almost entirely on given realisations and identifications emerging from the text’ (2015, 117). Dowrick et al point to the potential of SR to provide a safe space for inward reflection made possible by the ‘protective presence’ of the group (2012, 19). Combined, the findings of these studies provide a nuanced understanding of the social qualities of SR, but we lack crosscutting concepts that may help us grasp the social dimension of SR at its roots. To support this, Billington and Steenberg (2021) have emphasised the need for further research into what they call the ‘group-ness’ of SR.

Several studies have suggested that arts interventions may promote a sense of common ground or commonality between participants (Huet 2015; Potash et al 2013; Wohl 2015). This research, we find, accurately encapsulates the forms of social relatedness and community that arts interventions, SR being an example of this, promote, but does not, in our view, fully capture the potential of the social engagement that we found was at play in the SR groups. Hence, we propose the hypothesis that the social qualities of SR may be captured by the concept of a sense of equality. We define ‘sense of equality’ as a feeling or atmosphere of equal worth and social cohesion. A sense of equality is a feeling that can be experienced by individuals and shared by a group of people in a given social context. Sense of equality should not be viewed as a static concept that may be activated through applying measures of inclusion or that arises out of an absence of power. Rather, sense of equality is dynamic and fluent, something that arises out of a particular mood or moment, in the case of SR prompted by collective literary engagement, enabling textual structures to overcome social structures. Sense of equality has not previously been investigated in the context of SR, nor has it, to our knowledge, been investigated in social and health research and interventions more broadly. We argue, however, that a sense of equality may be an important mechanism for promoting social connectedness and well-being, and that shedding light on how and why a sense of equality may come into play in certain contexts (SR and arts interventions in the context of this study) can help qualify efforts to promote health and address social inequality among diverse groups, including those in vulnerable positions.

Equality is most often understood as a ociological concept, referring to the even distribution of wealth and equal rights between individuals in a society. However, some scholars argue that equality is first and foremost a relational concept, whose meaning should be found in relationships between people (Fourie, Schuppert, and Wallimann-Helmer 2015). Our social relationships tend to build on relatedness in terms of education, social class, race/ethnicity, religion and attitudes, and therefore, we often end up surrounding ourselves with people who are like us in these regards. This affects our world views and possibilities in life and may result in the reproduction of existing inequalities (Bottero 2007). As such, social inequality may be a product of structural circumstances, but may be reinforced in everyday roles, relations and interactions. Research from educational settings shows that in promoting relatedness that builds on other factors than social status, a sense of equality may be a catalyst for social change and may thus counter inequality and social stereotypes (Durante and Fiske 2017). Hence, the roles, relations and interactions of everyday life may be important points of intervention in addressing perceptions of inequality and for promoting a sense of equality.

Within philosophical theory, connections between the arts, human experience and equality have been suggested. In his theory on aesthetic experience, Dewey (1934) suggests the potential of the arts to connect people through its engagement with human experience. Ranciére and Rockhill (2013) argue for the transformative potential of the arts, paving the way for experiences of equality. As such, there are theoretical grounds to suggest the role that the arts may play in promoting a sense of equality. However, this has not been investigated empirically. On this basis, taking its point of departure in an SR health promotion intervention targeting Danish men in the transition to retirement, this study explores whether and how a sense of equality may play a role in SR practices through the identification and description of potential mechanisms for promoting a sense of equality through SR.


This study builds on qualitative data from an ethnographic intervention study based on 8 SR courses with a total of 53 participants carried out in different locations around Denmark between fall 2019 and fall 2021. Data was collected through participant observations of the SR sessions, reading guide logbooks in which reading guides jotted down reflections after each session and individual and group interviews conducted with reading guides and participants at the conclusion of each SR course (see table 1).

Table 1

Methods and data collection

The SR intervention

SR is a facilitated reading group concept, where literary texts are read aloud by a reading guide, who pauses periodically to make room for common reflection among participants. In each of the 8 SR groups that made up the intervention, 3–10 participants met for weekly SR sessions over a period of 12 weeks. Literary texts, typically a poem and a short story for each session, were preselected by reading guides on the basis of (1) their quality (the guide decides what is good quality in SR, but typically texts with a certain complexity of expression and verbal density and precision are used), (2) their content, dealing with the immediate lifeworld of a retired male and lifeworlds apart from this, and (3) their formal manner of expression, ranging from relatively accessible realist texts to more experimental, modernist texts. Reading guides were free to adjust the selection of texts to fit specific groups to ensure appropriateness and inclusion (for a more elaborate description of the intervention, see Kristensen et al (2020)).

Target group

The intervention targeted newly retired men in Denmark. Studies show that retirement may be a difficult life transition for some, among men in particular, implying a risk of a loss of identity and meaning that may ultimately lead to diminished well-being (Kristensen et al 2023; Barnes and Parry 2004; Christiansen 1999; Dave, Rashad, and Spasojevic 2008; Kim and Moen 2002; Ward and King 2017; White et al 2011).

Adding to this, (older) men are generally harder to engage in mental health promotion initiatives than women, and there is a tendency for men to seek out medical care to a lesser extent than women, making them more vulnerable to untreated and undetected physical and mental ailments (Deeks et al 2009; Ek 2013). These tendencies seem to transcend social groups, making men in all layers of society in the transition to retirement a risk group.

Project partners in the DaneAge Association and the Danish Reading Society were responsible for facilitation of and recruitment for the SR groups. Although targeting a relatively narrow population group with regard to gender and age, we explicitly sought to include men with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and men who would not normally seek out literary initiatives. Participants thus represented a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds (see table 2), although educational levels among participants were slightly higher than those of the general population of older males in Denmark.

Table 2

Informant background information

Regarding use of literature, participants in the SR groups may be categorised in the following three categories, with a majority of participants in the first two: (1) those who had always read and enjoyed literature (and were motivated to join by the prospect of being able to share the reading experience with others); (2) those who had read regularly at an earlier stage in their lives and wished to reconnect with the literature; and (3) those who had never read and/or did not have positive reading experiences, but who were curious to establish a relationship to literature and found that the concept of SR provided access to literature in a way that other encounters with literature, for example, through the educational system, had not.


As the intervention targeted a wide audience, a multifaceted recruitment approach was applied in seeking to appeal to participants of different socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as men who would not normally seek out health promotion and/or literary initiatives. Notices about the reading groups were shared widely on social media and online platforms (partners’ and associates’ websites), on local news channels in TV, radio and newspapers, and in local community forums, and they were disseminated through municipal networks and platforms as well as among social and healthcare workers. Recruitment was carried out in close collaboration with the partners involved in the intervention and by actively using combined networks and available communication platforms. It proved necessary with ongoing adjustments and refocusing of communications as the recruitment process progressed, and an active involvement of the target group in recruitment efforts was a key factor in creating wide reach. More specifically, appointing ambassadors and ensuring representation of actors on all levels of society among these were critical in reaching recruitment goals.

Although recruitment efforts were fruitful, it was a considerable challenge to appeal to those who were not motivated by the literature or did not have past positive experiences with literary reading. Thus, it was an important part of the communication that the reading groups required no specific competencies or prior experiences with literary reading or reading in general. We also found it helpful to be transparent and open about the themes or issues that the intervention addressed, for example, mental health and loneliness, and to not let the literature alone be the focal point in communicating what to expect from the intervention.

Patient and public involvement

Representatives from the target group were involved in informing, testing and refining research and interview questions for different aspects of the project that the current study is part of. The character and extent of this involvement will be described in the following.

At the beginning of the project, two separate workshops were held with representatives of the target group to qualify research questions for a baseline study and an intervention study. The baseline study workshop aimed to test and refine baseline interview questions regarding participants’ backgrounds, life situations and self-reported well-being. First, an initial interview guide was formulated by the researchers involved. Participants were then invited to participate in interviews structured around the interview guide. Last, participants were invited to partake in a workshop with other participants having participated in the interviews, with the objective of discussing and providing feedback on specific questions and general themes of the interview guide. This feedback was then used by the researchers to refine interview guides for baseline interviews (for findings from the baseline study, see Kristensen et al (2023)).

The intervention study workshop aimed to inform and qualify research and interview questions regarding participation in the SR intervention. First, representatives of the target group were invited to participate in an SR session, followed by a workshop with the researchers, in which they were invited to share experiences, reflections and other feedback regarding the SR experience and the overall research project. This feedback was then used by the researchers to formulate interview guides for participants in the SR intervention (for findings from the intervention, study see Kristensen et al (2023)).

Data analysis

The analysis of this study builds on a hypothesis that arose from findings from the above-mentioned studies conducted as part of the overall project, findings from outside studies, as well as ongoing discussions among the authors, suggesting that a sense of equality might play a role in SR. We therefore decided to revisit the empirical material to explore whether and how this was reflected in the data by identifying possible mechanisms for a sense of equality. This analytic approach may best be described by what anthropologist Pink (2021) has termed an ethnographic hunch, referring to insights and encounters in research processes that spark an ethnographic-theoretical dialogue that guides the investigative process. In doing this, we were strongly inspired by an abductive analysis approach, which also promotes an open dialogue between the empirical and the theoretical—what Timmermans and Tavory have described as a process of ‘figuring out both what surprising observations are a theoretical case of, and where the theoretical case and the findings diverge in interesting ways’ (2022, 2).

The analysis draws on several theoretical concepts used to examine empirical insights. First, cultural anthropologist Turner (1974)’s concept of liminoidity is used to unfold the social and communal aspects of the SR experience. Liminoidity refers to experiences or rituals characterised by a temporary suspension of ordinary social structure and norms, often encompassing a sense of play, experimentation and personal transformation outside of established social frameworks. In the context of the current study, it may help us better understand the social dynamics that arise in the SR space. Second, philosopher Laceulle (2017)’s concept of existential vulnerability is used to nuance how SR engages notions of vulnerability. Existential vulnerability refers to the fundamental human condition of being open to existential uncertainties, such as the inevitability of suffering, death and the unknown aspects of existence. Last, Steenberg et al (2021)’s perspectives on the role reading guides have in facilitating and mediating SR experiences are used to shed light on the role of facilitation for literary engagement. In ongoing interaction with empirical observations, and in accordance with the abductive analysis approach, these concepts and perspectives have been actively used in both investigating and elaborating on different themes relating to sense of equality in the context of this study.


In the analysis, three themes were identified, the interplay between which we found constituted a basis for a sense of equality to arise: (1) We found that the particular form of social engagement in the SR groups gave way to a suspension of social roles and that (2) the social atmosphere that was established around the SR experience, in turn, enabled the engagement of notions of vulnerability within the SR groups. However, (3) a premise for the suspension of social roles and, through that, engagement of vulnerability, was facilitation of the shared literary engagement. Each of the three themes, and the relationships between them, will be described below.

Suspension of social roles

In the SR space, participants related to one another through the text, using their personal experiences to reflect on and relate to that which was being read. Thus, social engagement between participants was governed by textual rather than social structures, giving way to a circumvention of conventions of social engagement. A reading guide described it as follows:

… that you just show up and then there’s a guide who has prepared something, and there are no lessons and no demands or expectations—you’re not going to be examined or anything. Everyone is equal. You’re not expected to bring your certificates or anything; you come as a human being… that’s an immensely democratic space, really. (Reading guide 6)

As this quote illustrates, there were no expectations of participants to prove or claim a specific social position, because the texts, and the discussions around them, did not require it. As such, SR resembles what anthropologist Turner describes as a liminoid space—a space in which societal norms of interaction are put on hold, giving way to social engagement free of the commitments and expectations that are present in other societal contexts (1974). Turner (1979) describes how the liminoid often springs out of play and creative engagement, exemplified by art and literature, because these often hold a potential to subvert social structures and symbols. Thus, the concept of liminoidity is ideal for understanding social mechanisms in arts interventions, as previous studies have also shown (Atkinson and Robson 2012; Laver et al 2022).

Among participants, the liminoid qualities of the SR space were described as a feeling of being able to “shut the door and leave everything else outside” (Participant 31) and of being in a room where “all those roles are gone” (Participant 41), referring to the different roles that participants play in their everyday lives. Further, although the participants were from different sociodemographic origins, one participant described having a sense of equal worth among participants. Another participant in an online SR group described his experience of sharing the SR experience with men who were different from him as follows:

You meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise that are maybe also far from your own little universe, you know. In terms of values or geographically. And yet you have some kind of … a kind of community around this [SR, red]. (Participant 50)

Thus, lived experience in the SR space was recontextualised in relation to the texts, and reformulated through talking about the texts. As such, the texts, and the aspects of human experience that they conveyed, became what bound participants together. Turner 1974 describes how liminoid spaces give way to what he calls spontaneous communitas—a sense of community in which people may connect with one another as they are in the moment, disregarding societal roles or identities, and ‘become totally absorbed into a single, synchronised, fluid event’ (1974, 79).

However, as Turner also argues, for such moments to occur, the experience or event must be facilitated by a guide, who can help structure and mediate the experience for participants. In the SR groups, the reading guides may be said to have performed this function through their role as mediators, ensuring that both texts and discussions were understandable and accessible for all participants. This was no easy task, and several reading guides expressed facing challenges in this regard. As an example, one reading guide worried about how to handle participants’ prior knowledge of works of literature and their authors:

I worry if I should have expressed at some point that it’s not about … whether you know Inger Christensen [Danish author, red] or something like that. I can imagine that someone was sitting there thinking: ”Oh God, I have no idea who that is”, and then all the others are sitting there saying, “Well that’s Inger Christensen!” (Reading guide 2)

This example should be viewed in light of a societal tendency to regard literature as something for the highly cultured or intellectual. A central principle of SR is to leave the author of the read-aloud text unknown, so as to not give weight to participants’ prior literary knowledge, thereby making the starting point of the shared literary experience the text itself read aloud in vivo, with the aim of making it equally accessible for all participants. The reading guide quoted above worried that the shared literary experience would be overshadowed by an awareness of social status or cultural capital, thus implying a risk of reintroducing the norms and hierarchies that liminoid moments suspend into the social dynamic in the SR groups. This might, at best, result in an absence of liminoid moments, and at worst, leave participants feeling left out of the group. As such, the reading guides played a central and vital role in establishing a basis for textual structures to overcome social structures, thus paving the way for a sense of equality among participants to arise.

Engaging notions of vulnerability

The particular social space that was established in the SR groups provided a basis for new ways for participants to relate to oneself and others. The SR groups were emphasised by several participants as—in their words—a safe space, for explicitly or implicitly engaging with vulnerability—both one’s own and others’. What made this a safe space, and set it apart from other contexts, was the fact that in the SR groups, this engagement happened through literary texts and not in direct confrontation between participants. One participant described this as follows:

There were some things that I could relate to my own life and my own experiences … Going from the labour market to full-time retirement has been quite overwhelming and a thought-provoking experience, I have to say … It was interesting that I could see an opportunity to share those thoughts through talking about the characters in the stories. (Participant 53)

This participant touches on a particular potential of literature—and an essential aspect of the SR experience—to convey human experience and to identify with one’s own and others’ inner and outer lives. In SR, when human experiences conveyed through the texts were read aloud in a shared space, the stories themselves became part of a shared experience between participants. In ensuing discussions, participants’ own perspectives and experiences thus became a means of making sense of and relating to the texts, and, through those, to the other participants. One participant expressed this mechanism in the following way:

You come with your experience and background, you know, and then you meet my experience and background that’s completely different, and that’s the funny thing, you know, that we can put these things in the middle and share it. (Participant 35)

As such, shared literary engagement in the SR groups prompted an engagement with and sharing of human experience in all of its facets—something which was described as rare among the male participants of the SR groups. One participant described how he appreciated being able to talk about ‘existential things’ with other men in the reading group and added: “That men have started reading and talking about the things that we are talking about now, I think that’s very rare and valuable” (Participant 16). The following excerpt from an SR session, taking its point of departure in a reading of the short story ‘Preventive circulatory examination’ (‘Forebyggende kredsløbsundersøgelse’) by Danish author Henning Mortensen, illustrates this point. In the short story, a man living alone refuses to respond correctly to a survey from the health authorities.

RG: [Summing up preceding conversation] … So he refuses to partake in this survey because he doesn’t want to be measured. But how do you measure life?

(Pause, 5 seconds)

P1: You feel it. You don’t measure it, I guess. You know, if I tried … Sometimes, you know, you think about your life’s course, but it’s also about … If today, for example, I’m walking around in my allotment garden thinking about life, then I might get this here-and-now feeling that: “Holy shit, I’ve actually been lucky” (…) And I think it has to do with being able to put some things behind me … Away, instead of thinking: “Fuck, I should have done such and such” in those situations. You can’t do anything with that, because you made those choices in the situation you were in at the time, you know. So, when I say that it’s about feeling, you feel that it’s actually ok, you know.

P2: Yes, that here-and-now … But you need to think back sometimes. But this thing about regretting what you have done, that’s no use. You know, you have to acknowledge that you are a human being, and that you do things that are sensible and things that aren’t.

P3: Yes, life is not that simple.

P2: No, of course it’s not. He [main character] won’t put up with it.

This engagement with human experience, as exemplified above, may be best described by what Laceulle (2017) and others have termed existential vulnerability. In Laceulle’s understanding, vulnerability is inherent to human experience, and thus it is just as much something that connects us than something that sets us apart as human beings. This form of vulnerability may arise when we are confronted with experiences such as loss, health decline and nearing death. These experiences are part of being human and are unavoidable. Consequently, our well-being depends not on whether we experience these things or not, but to a large extent on how well we integrate them in our life narratives (Laceulle 2017). An acceptance of existential vulnerability as well as confronting or embracing the experiences that bring about senses of vulnerability is therefore vital to our well-being and our sense of meaningfulness. And yet, vulnerability is a very private matter for most of us, and, for some, considered taboo. As such, vulnerability is a normal, but not normalised part of life. Talking about the texts in the SR space provided an opportunity for some participants to put these existential vulnerabilities into words in a shared space:

You have a literary text that gives way to talking about feelings and experiences, you know, like grief, joy … feelings of different kinds that you probably don’t talk so much about in your work life or in leisure activities, where you just have a common task you need to solve. Here you get to read a text and you get to tell others how you experience it … and that’s when feelings come into play. (Participant 31)

As this quote illustrates, the text became a means of social legitimisation, and, to some extent, normalisation of sharing vulnerability. This may be likened to Frank’s concept of vulnerable reading, in which he argues for the potential of literature to engage vulnerability as a shared human condition, and thereby: ‘to make imaginable, and then to articulate, the complementarity between different people’s respective sufferings’ (2019, 397). SR may thus provide a space for engaging vulnerabilities by inviting participants to share and reflect on their own and others’ lived experiences with all that they entail, and for normalising vulnerabilities through the way vulnerability is displayed as inherent to human experience in the texts. In this sense, vulnerability may serve as a common denominator for participants, regardless of life circumstances or social factors.

Facilitating shared literary engagement

A premise for the engagement of vulnerability and the suspension of social roles was the establishment of an inclusive space, in which the particular form of shared literary engagement that SR encouraged could take place. In the SR groups, the reading guides were central in framing and facilitating literary engagement and the ensuing discussions, in a way that allowed participants to partake in SR on equal terms. The following quote is an extract from a reading guide logbook, in which a reading guide described how he planned to approach the first reading in an SR group:

I will thoroughly explain the SR “method” … That it’s me who chooses the texts and reads aloud, but that the word is completely free … That it’s not about saying clever things, we are not in school and there is no exam, but that it’s about putting thoughts, feelings and ideas that arise during the reading and the pauses into words. That it’s about empathy, recognition, identification, affection, enchantment—or the lack of any of these for any reason. (Reading guide 1)

As such, the role of the reading guide was not just that of reading aloud literary texts and facilitating discussions. They had an equally important task in creating an inclusive space for shared literary engagement. Although no participants expressed feeling excluded, there were examples of participants describing other participants as either dominating or not contributing to the discussions. For these participants, the SR experience was for the most part still considered a positive one despite this, but a consequence of such experiences may be a lack of social connectedness or community within the group.

In their investigation of the role of facilitation of literary engagement in SR, Steenberg et al (2021) argue that: ‘readers do not become engaged with a literary text simply by encountering it; rather, engagement is a learning process that requires an already experienced reader to demonstrate how thinking and feeling might be kept alive’. The following exchange that took place between a reading guide and two participants, on a reading of the poem ‘Ode to an Oaktree’ (‘Ode til et egetræ’) by Danish poet Simon Grotrian, illustrates Steenbergs point:

P1: “That gave some peace” (speaking quietly).

(Pause, 5 seconds)

RG: “Because of the way it’s written or … ?” (speaking quietly).

P1: “Well … I think it’s fascinating how such a big tree … They can really become big, those oaks trees. I have never really thought about them becoming skeletons … It’s all … It’s well written” (speaking quietly and slowly).

RG: “It’s as if there are lots of small pictures, or like … that you have to kind of decode. This thing about the tree becoming a skeleton, what does it mean?”

(Pause, 5 seconds)

P1: “It doesn’t die, it is felled at some point, you know, and then it can become a table or a coffin or furniture or floorboards.”

P2: “Yeah, and if we translate that to human beings, that’s the cycle of human beings (another participant: “yes, exactly”). It is, you know.”

P1: “It doesn’t die before you take the chainsaw” (laughter).

P2: “Ah, I would like to avoid that” (laughs).

P1: “No, I’m talking about the tree” (laughter).

P2: “Ah, it was the tree (laughs). Okay.”

P1: “We don’t want any massacre here (laughter). But it must be a nice life, really. You are alive in the summer, and then you just stand there and wither. It’s like what we do in our houses, we just go in and sit there and wither for 6 to 8 months.”

(Pause, 10 seconds)

RG: “Yes, one can go into hibernation a little bit.”

Several participants at the same time: “Yes, yes.”

In this example, the reading guide guides P1 in his putting his immediate reaction to and reflections on the text into words. Another participant contributes with his reflections, resulting in a bit of banter between the two participants, but also adding a new perspective that P1 builds onto in his final remark. By agreeing with and generalising this last observation (referring to ‘one’), the reading guide legitimises it, and at the same time opens the discussion up to other participants’ input. What the reading guide does here may be interpreted as a facilitation of what Steenberg et al (2021) and others refer to as emergent thinking, described as a reader’s active engagement with a literary text, allowing for (new) interpretations, feelings and meanings to emerge as the reading experience progresses. In SR, this simultaneous unfolding of the text and the mind(s) of the reader(s), facilitated by the reading guide, is fuelled by other participants’ input. As we see in the example above, it is not only the reading guide who guides P1’s emergent thinking process. P2 plays an equally important role in both encouraging and contributing to P1’s train of thought by adding his own perspective, as do the other participants in acknowledging, and thereby also normalising P1’s thoughts. As the example and the analysis illustrates, facilitation is crucial in enabling shared engagement with the literary texts for all participants, allowing for the suspension of social roles and engagement of vulnerabilities, and thereby paving the way for a sense of equality among participants in the SR space.


Based on the findings, we suggest that SR promotes a sense of equality through creating spaces where social interaction and relatedness does not hinge on social roles, but rather on lived experiences, and vulnerabilities inherent to these, conveyed through the texts and shared among participants—enabled by facilitation by reading guides to ensure shared literary engagement.

To our knowledge, no other studies have looked into a sense of equality as a mechanism in or an outcome of SR. However, looking across SR research, similar mechanisms such as relatedness (Andersen 2022), connectivity (Pihl et al 2023) and collective affective presence (Kristensen et al 2023) are highlighted as particular to the SR experience, pertaining especially to the social dynamics between participants. Looking more broadly on research on arts interventions, although not an explicit research focus, several studies have identified different forms of equality. In a study on group singing in dementia care, Unadkat, Camic, and Vella-Burrows found that singing together created a sense of equality between participants in that: ‘while singing, differences between the people with dementia, facilitators, and caregivers became less important’ (2017, 475). Similarly, a systematic review of 17 studies on arts interventions for caregivers of people with neurological conditions found that ‘participation in the creative interventions allowed for interactions that were more equal and person-centred’ (Irons et al 2020, 18). Last, as part of their taxonomy of arts interventions for people with dementia, Cousins et al defined involvement as a key mechanism of arts interventions that are ‘welcoming, mutual, and equalising’ (2019, 130). This suggests to us that the potential for the promotion of a sense of equality is not unique to SR but may be promoted through arts interventions more broadly, and that this potential may be particularly pertinent to this type of intervention.

Aesthetic experience and equality

To gain a better understanding of how this may be, we may draw on philosopher John Dewey and his theory of aesthetic experience. Dewey criticised what he called the museum conception of art, in which art is detached from processes of everyday life, and argued for a conception of art as embedded in human experience:

A poem and picture present material passed through the alembic of personal experience … their material came from the public world and so has qualities in common with the materials of other experiences, while the product awakens in other persons new perceptions of the meanings of the common world. (1934, 208)

As such, human experience, in Dewey’s understanding, is at the core of both artistic expression and reception, and thus what connects the expressor and the receiver through a work of art. If we, like Dewey, consider human experience at the core of aesthetic experience, art may be considered a channel for the connection of humans through aesthetic engagement.

Basing his arguments on this same premise, philosopher Jacques Rancière argues that the impact of aesthetic experience may also have political implications. For Ranciére and Rockhill (2013), art, such as politics, engages in what he calls the distribution of the sensible, a process described by Dunlap as a ‘reconfiguration of a perceptive order’ that has a potential to alter world views (2015, 346). The political implication of this, according to Ranciére, is the potential for the empowerment of those who engage with the arts through transformative encounters. Through aesthetic engagement, and by creating spaces where everyone’s perceptions matter equally, art thus allows us to break free from preconceived norms and hierarchies, evoking experiences of equality (Dunlap 2015). Ranciére illustrates this point with reference to literature, using the modernist novel as an example of how descriptions and details of everyday life become the main subject matter of art, thus enabling a ‘wider redistribution of the sensible, which has it that there is no difference between two humanities, between the men dedicated to noble actions and the refined passions of men and women dedicated to ‘practical life’’ (2008, 238; see also Mcdonnell 2017). Thus, through conveying what we have in common as humans, art may instil in us a sense of equality and promote social change.

These perspectives, we suggest, provide an important theoretical foundation for the findings of the current study and others on the social mechanisms of SR, arguing for a type of literary engagement that transcends social roles and positions and connects participants through human experience conveyed through literature. As such, they are key to a theoretical understanding of the particular potential of the arts to promote a sense of equality.

Ensuring aesthetic engagement

However, although engagement with the arts may promote a sense of equality, the use and consumption of the arts tend to be socially skewed (Dow et al 2023), meaning that many, especially vulnerable groups, do not often partake in aesthetic experiences. A considerable amount of research has already pinpointed that access is a crucial first step in increasing participation of vulnerable groups in the arts (Dow et al 2023; Francois 2012), but in order to enable positive experiences with and positive impact of the arts, it is critical to ensure engagement. Looking to an educational research context, Lalas et al argue that for students, “having access to education … does not mean that there is equity in education. Access simply means that the opportunity is afforded. The quality of opportunity through given access is influenced by the social and cultural contexts provided … Access has to be unlocked to be accessible” (2019, 46).

But how may access be unlocked? And why is this important? Although arts interventions may promote a sense of equality, there is a risk that they may do the opposite. For groups that do not normally engage with the arts, this risk may be even more pertinent. This is reflected in the empirical example where a reading guide worried about whether participants’ prior knowledge of literary works and authors might leave others feeling excluded from the group. As another example of this, Unadkat, Camic, and Vella-Burrows (2017) found that although participants in singing groups for dementia care in general felt that singing with others promoted a sense of equality in the group, inadequate facilitation led to some participants feeling left out. Engaging with the arts, or engaging with others through the arts, especially for those who have not done so before, may thus be associated with feelings of exclusion and out-of-place-ness if there is no guidance in how to engage, and no legitimisation of one’s presence. As such, a lack of or misdirected facilitation may serve to emphasise differences rather than similarities between participants, and thereby perhaps even reinforce inequalities.

Thus, as was also pointed out by Steenberg et al (2021) in the context of SR, arts interventions have to be facilitated in order to ensure that they are engaged with, and not simply encountered—a point also made by Turner (1974) in his theory of liminoidity, arguing that for liminoid moments to occur, the experience or event must be facilitated by a guide who can help structure and mediate the experience for participants. As illustrated in earlier examples, this is a challenging task that in the context of SR requires both literary and social competencies. In SR, reading guides are therefore required to complete a training course to become qualified. Consequently, competent facilitation is a key factor and should be a primary focus in arts interventions with regard to ensuring engagement with the arts, and through that, a basis for a sense of equality among participants.

Directions for further research

Based on the findings of this study, we suggest that SR specifically and arts interventions more generally may be a promising way to promote a sense of equality. However, to scientifically substantiate this, and to further develop the concept of sense of equality, several knowledge gaps need to be filled. As the concept of a sense of equality has not been subject to explicit empirical investigation, a research agenda for the empirical study of a sense of equality needs to be established. This study has investigated and suggested potential mechanisms for a sense of equality in the context of SR, but we need more knowledge on the specific mechanisms for a sense of equality in arts interventions (and beyond), as well as the circumstances under which sense of equality may arise, for example, how sense of equality may (or may not) be promoted among groups with a more diverse composition, for example, in terms of gender, age and social status. The current study, and several of the studies it refers to, has suggested ways in which a sense of equality may contribute to different aspects of health and social factors, but more concrete knowledge is needed to establish how a sense of equality affects health and social factors on individual and community levels, and the transformative potential of a sense of equality needs to be explored further. Last, if a relationship between positive social and health outcomes and a sense of equality is established, future research should investigate how a sense of equality may be promoted in other societal contexts.


The present study found that SR promotes a sense of equality through creating spaces where social interaction and relatedness does not hinge on social roles, but rather on lived experiences, and vulnerabilities as inherent to these, conveyed through read-aloud texts and shared among participants—enabled by facilitation by reading guides to ensure shared literary engagement. Thus, SR has a particular potential for the promotion of a sense of equality that may also be found in arts interventions more broadly. This potential, we suggest, may be found in the capacity of the arts to connect, empower and transform people through expressions of human experience. Thus, a sense of equality may not only provide a basis for social connectedness and community, but may also, to a certain extent, challenge notions of inequality and promote social change. However, we emphasise that to promote a sense of equality in SR specifically and the arts generally, meaningful engagement for all participants must be ensured. Thus, facilitation is crucial to promoting a sense of equality and should be a primary focus in arts interventions. Further research is needed on the specific qualities of and potential contexts for the promotion of a sense of equality.

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request.

Ethics statements

Patient consent for publication

Ethics approval

This study involves human participants. Informed consent was obtained from all participants prior to the initial data collection, and all participants were informed of the purpose and procedures of the study as well as the implications of participation. All participants were pseudonymised, and personal characteristics or opinions that could disclose their identity have been excluded from this article. Data was handled and stored responsibly. Procedures performed in the study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. The study was registered and approved by the University of Southern Denmark in accordance with the Data Protection Regulation and complies with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (EU) 2016/679. Participants gave informed consent to participate in the study before taking part.


First, we would like to thank all participants and reading guides for their participation in and contribution to the study. Further, we would like to thank our partners in the DaneAge Association and the Danish Reading Society for constructive collaboration and support in making this study a reality. Last, we would like to thank TrygFonden for funding the study.


1. Authors’ own translation



  • Contributors MMK and APF conceptualised the study. MMK conducted data collection, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript with input from APF, MHR and PS. All authors contributed to the final version of the manuscript. MMK is responsible for the overall content as guarantor.

  • Funding The study received funding from TrygFonden.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research. Refer to the Methods section for further details.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.