Heritage & Audience Engagement: York Public History Reports

In this section, paper on qualitative methodologies for audience research, followed by 4 reports led by Helen Weinstein designed to interview the public 'at rest' on public benches rather than as exit surveys in museum and heritage sites which makes open ended questions about attitudes to the past and heritage confined by context.

Qualitative Audience Research Methodologies

Qualitative Audience Research Methodologies

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This report has been researched and prepared in order to assist our cultural heritage partners in considering and developing appropriate methodologies for audience work.

IPUP’s Research Associates Georgios Alexopoulos and Kalliopi Fouseki have carefully explained these methodologies in this report, which will sererve to highlight why IPUP is an advocate of qualitative research techniques. These techniques have so far been used for the Heritage Diversity Task Force research, the 1807 museum practitioner and audience research and the York Cultural Heritage research with York’s audiences, enditled ’What do you think you're looking at'. These were all based on open-ended recorded interviews which have subsequently been recorded, transcribed and reformatted for the web.

If IPUP's cultural heritage partners have any questions about these methodologies, please feel free to either contact Helen Weinstein, Director of IPUP at ipup-enquiries@york.ac.uk or consult the reading list at the end of the report.

Introduction to qualitative research methods

Qualitative methods attempt to classify diverse opinions or behaviours into established categories (Diamond 1999, 22). Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that transform the world into a series of representations including field notes, interviews, conservations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self (Denzin and Lincoln 2005, 3).

The word qualitative implies an emphasis on the qualities of entities and on processes and meanings that are not experimentally examined or measured in terms of quantity, amount, intensity, or frequency (ibid, 10). Qualitative researchers seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning.


Some qualitative methods include:

  • Interviews
    • face-to-face unstructured, semi-structured or structured interviews
    • telephone interviews
    • on-line interviews
    • mail interviews
    • focus group discussions 
  • Observation 
    • unobtrusive observation
    • participant observation 
  • Personal meaning mapping 
  • Mobile phones


Introduction: Can an interview be a neutral, scientifically accurate tool/method?

Interviewing is inextricably and unavoidably historically, politically, and contextually bound, (Fontana and Frey 2005, 695). The interviewer is a person, historically and contextually located, carrying unavoidable conscious and unconscious motives, desires, feelings, and biases (Sheurich 1995, 241). Interviewing is also a social interaction context and therefore it is influenced by this context (Fontana and Frey 2005, 703).

Furthermore, the setting in which the interview takes place, the language and culture of the respondents, the ways in which an interviewer presents him/herself and the necessity to gain trust affect to a great extent the outcome of the interview. Therefore, data collected through interviews can be strongly subjective. But does this subjectivity render them scientifically invalid?

Although structured interviews have been perceived as more accurate and scientific there are still potential sources of errors. Firstly, the respondent may deliberately try to please the interviewer or to prevent the interviewer from learning something about him or her (Fontana and Frey 2005, 702). Secondly, a further source of error is found in the method of questionnaire (face-to-face or telephone) or the sequence or wording of the questions (Fontana and Frey 2005, 701-702). Thirdly, the interviewer’s characteristics or questioning techniques might impede proper communication of the question (Fontana and Frey 2005, 701-702).

Types of interviews and questions

  1. Structured: The interviewer asks all respondents the same series of pre-established questions with a limited set of response categories in order to capture precise data of a codable nature so as to explain behaviour within pre-established categories (Fontana and Frey 2005, 706). 
  2. Semi-structured: The interviewer specifies the topics and issues for the interview but leaves open the exact way that the questions will be asked (Diamond 1999, 87). The aim is to understand the complex behaviour of members of society without imposing any a priori categorisation that may limit the field of inquiry (Fontana and Frey 2005, 706). 
  3. Unstructured: The interviewer allows the nature of the conversation to direct the questioning. After the first several exchanges with the respondent, the questions emerge from the course of the discussion (Diamond 1999, 86). The traditional type of unstructured interview is the open-ended in-depth (ethnographic) interview. 
  4. Open-ended questions: The researcher determines the exact questions ahead the time but not the response categories (Diamond 1999, 88). 
  5. Closed questions: respondents choose among a set of predetermined responses. 
  6. Checklists: offers several options that are independent of one another. 
  7. Scales: are used when asking respondents to describe values such as frequency, quantity, quality and intensity.

Forms of interviews

Face-to-face interviews

This form of interviews raises higher response rate than, for instance, mail or telephone surveys as well as it provides the chance for clarifying questions, when this is necessary. The sequence of questions can be controlled by the interviewer who, of course, needs to be skilled and trained in order not to lead the response. A personal relationship is being built between the interviewer and the interviewee, which can provide a memorable and reflective experience for the respondents.

Despite these advantages, there are some drawbacks that need to be taken into consideration. There is increased potential for the interviewer to influence the respondent and it generally constitutes a time consuming processed both in terms of data collection as well as in terms of data analysis. It is recommended that, if the questionnaire consists largely of open-ended questions, interviews are recorded and transcribed.

Telephone interviews

Telephone interviews, juts as face-to-face interviews, allow the opportunity for questions to be clarified and controlled. They generally constitute a good follow-up method but they are very expensive and time consuming. It is also difficult to develop a rapport with the respondent while questions must be brief and straight-forward. They are not highly recommended for questions using checklists or rating scales as they are difficult to read about.

On-line interviews

On-line interviews are inexpensive and can be distributed quickly while they can reach 100% of some specialised populations. There is a tendency that responses are more detailed to open-ended questions, although this is context-dependent (Schaefer and Dillman 1998). Respondents can easily manufacture fictional social realities without anyone knowing the difference (Markham 1998). They are time consuming in terms of receiving responses which are also more cryptic and less in-depth.

Mail surveys

One of the main advantages of this method is that respondents have more time to think and complete questionnaires in their own convenience. Although it is a time consuming and expensive process, it can constitute a good follow up to face-to-face interviews. Further drawbacks include the lower chances to get a good response rate; while some questions may not be understood and thus left incomplete. Open-ended questions are often skipped.

Focus group discussions

Focus-group discussions are relatively inexpensive and quite rich in terms of data while the method itself can be stimulating for the respondents and can potentially render more flexible responses. Despite the richness of data, the results cannot be generalised while a group can be dominated by one person and thus individual voices may not be listened, or may be influenced by dominant ones. Thus, it is imperative that the interviewer encourages participation of all involved members and must obtain responses from the entire group to ensure the fullest coverage of the topic (Fontana and Frey 2005, 704).

Partial self-distributed questionnaires

Staff members can ensure the completion and they are partially anonymous. However, as in mail surveys, respondents may not answer properly the questions.

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Laurajane Smith observing gallery installation


There are three main types of observation including participant, reactive and unobtrusive observation. Participant observation is grounded in the establishment of considerable rapport between the researcher and the host community and requires the long-term immersion of the researcher in the everyday life of that community (Angrosino 2005, 732). Reactive observation is associated with controlled settings and is based on the assumption that the people being studied are aware of being observed and are amenable to interacting with the researcher only in response to elements in the research design (Angrosino 2005, 732). Finally, unobtrusive observation is conducted with people who are unaware of being studied (ibid, 732).

Personal Meaning Mapping

A Personal Meaning Mapping is basically a diagram, which represents the ‘big picture’ regarding a specific concept. It includes a level and breakdown of individual detail that enables information to be organised in meaningful ways. Participants are invited to write down words and thoughts, to annotate and/or draw around a specific concept, theme, idea, on a personal meaning map. Participants can expand and enrich their initial thoughts and ideas (see http://www.museumse.org.uk; Falk et al. 1998).

The use of mobile phones in audiences research

Mobile phones can be proved a particularly useful method for exploring what captures audiences’ attention and interest. Visitors can use their own mobile phones to send a text message or take photographs of the things they find interesting during their visit (see for example: Arvanitis 2009; Collins et al. 2009; Leighton 2007).

Public History – Understanding Public Engagement with York's Heritage



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