Cultural variance matters when it comes to international research and evaluation.

March 17, 2023
Photo of the author - Jonathan Goodacre

Jonathan Goodacre

'A frog in a well knows nothing of the great sea’

– Japanese Saying

One of our favourite icebreakers on our Adeste and Connect projects involved sharing and comparing our national sayings and idioms. We had such ones as the Italian, 'I have no hair on my tongue’ (non ho peli sulla lingua) meaning to speak frankly, or a favourite from Sweden ‘there’s no cow on the ice’ (Det är ingen ko på isen), which means there’s nothing to worry about.

Many of these phrases are basically different ways of looking at the same idea. They are good reminders, in case we had forgotten, that cultural variance matters when considering research and evaluation undertaken internationally. This is especially important given how dominant the English language has become and can be as relatively simple as the way that questions are phrased. More complex are the considerations around differing norms and values between countries and continents.

'Benchmarking' whilst staying sensitive to cultural variance

A simple example is the question on ethnic background which is a relatively normal part of questionnaires in the UK, indeed it is part of the compulsory Audience Finder question set. However, this is very rarely used in other countries and indeed, in some places, is regarded almost as offensive. On the other hand, we find that questions about income or profession are often asked elsewhere, whereas in Britain, it seems to be a sensitive topic.

We’ve learnt a great deal from our international partners on this score. During the Creative Europe Asset project led by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague we worked on research into theatre audiences in Helsinki, Prague, Sofia, Vienna and Zagreb. We needed to build in questions that were sufficiently similar to be ‘benchmarkable’, which was much more difficult than we anticipated.

Even such relatively straightforward questions as those around frequency of attendance were thought of in different ways. Then in at least two of the countries, when looking at motivation to attend, being attracted by well-known (famous) performers was so important that it altered our whole approach to the analysis of attendance in those places.

Common ground is often found in appreciating differences

These sorts of discoveries point to the need for transnational projects and within them rigorous debate. The Adeste project was full of discussions in which ‘there was no hair on the tongue’, very much to its ultimate success. Currently, we are working with Museum Booster on the Future Museums project which brings together museums from around the world to investigate how museums need to adapt and develop to match the changing demands of society. The research has been the subject of rigorous discussion as we explore the nature of public perceptions of museums, something which is difficult across so many different types.

However, there is undoubted value to the harmonisation of question sets. During the Asset project mentioned above, being able to see something as simple as the age ranges of attendees led to useful conversations around theatres supporting each other around their relative strengths and weaknesses. Working around differences is often more productive than concentrating on similarities; there is the potential for more change.

As well as the capacity for benchmarking, there are also practical benefits to be gained from refining and standardising questions that are likely to be used frequently. It means there is always at least something to build on, without having to return to the beginning every time.

Speaking plainly is key to collaboration in any language

This sentiment was summed up nicely by a Dutch idiom ‘no talking, but cleaning’ (i.e. get on with it), offered by one participant during a recent Standards Working Group Workshop. As part of this workshop, established to discuss the development of pan-European data standards for audience engagement across the cultural sector, The Audience Agency and the Institute for Research on Cultural Participation jointly presented their work on a harmonised international question library.

Taking nearly two years to merge the question libraries of the Audience Finder and KulMon programmes into a bank of 240+ questions, the timeline reflects the enormity of the project and detailed discussion required to create a comprehensive framework that works at the organisational, national and international level.

These are some of the issues that our international enterprise arm TAA Tech Ventures is looking at as we invite international partners to work with us on Audience Finder Global solutions in their countries and regions.

Don't be the frog in the well

And in these difficult times, it is worth remembering that we might be tempted to be the frog sitting in the well, but whilst it is often more challenging, the rewards of exploring the wider sea are much richer.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to explore more about the sounds that animals from different countries make, you might like to look at James Chapman’s regular Soundimals blog.

Sign up for the International Agent Newsletter to hear about the latest in Audience Development Practices around the world.