Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy

What is audience research?


Qualitative audience research engages with relatively small numbers of individuals in order to gain a complex, detailed and in-depth understanding of their experiences and response to watching a performance.

While quantitative research engages with larger numbers that have a statistical relationship to a population as a whole, qualitative research provides descriptions of the responses of particular audiences members to particular performances at a particular time and place.

What this allows is the opportunity to delve below and beyond surface responses and obtain a heightened understand of meanings, motivations, feelings and experiences.

The methodologies used for qualitative audience research are varied, starting with tools such as the interview and focus group that seek to elicit detailed, verbal responses. These can be analysed with techniques such as content analysis (coding and counting what is said) and discourse analysis (looking in detail at how things are said).

Other methods include participant or ethnographic observation (watching people 'in the field'), or projective techniques that ask respondents to explore their feelings through unstructured stimulus. Examples of this would include word association tests, sentence and story completion, photo sorts and drawing and are based on the idea that sometimes people know more than they can say.

One criticism of all these approaches is that traditionally they have constructed a hierarchical relationship between researcher and a research subject who is largely passive, and dependent on the expert researcher to reveal the truth about their experiences.

In contrast, recent understandings of audiences, and consequently trends in audience research, have tended to view audiences as active rather than passive, actively engaging with and consuming culture and artforms and as active and expert participants in their cultural experiences. Research approaches have therefore sought to access audiences' own expertise and reach an understanding of what the experience means to them.

So, for example, creative or reflective research techniques ask audience members to produce a drawing or write a response to an experience in the manner of projective techniques but now asks the research participant themselves to interpret their own response.

In one piece of research, for example, we took primary school classes to the theatre and followed up the experience with visual arts workshops where the children were invited to draw something they remembered from the production. These drawings were then a way in to talk about their experiences and perceptions of the performance (see report to find out more).

Elsewhere approaches to interviews have been adapted to stress the requirement that the experience is 'pleasurable', with one method being for the academic researcher to self-reflectively stress their accompanying position as 'fan'. Finally, methods of participatory enquiry have been utilised in a manner that positions audience members not as research subjects but as co-researchers engaged in a process of exploring, examining and uncovering the detail and meaning of their own experiences.

The Watching Dance research project will use the full extent of these methodological approaches, from questionnaires that will give some quantitative understanding of audiences, to in-depth interviews, through to creative techniques that get audiences to make drawings or write stories about their experiences. Through this mixed ecology of approaches, and especially when combined with neurophysiologic investigations also taking place in the study, a truly detailed understanding of audience experiences should emerge.

Mind Map