Row X blog guest post by Lynne Conner, Chair and Professor at the Department of Theatre at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA.
This is the first in a series on Row X featuring short essays written by the co-editors of the Routledge Companion to Audiences and the Performing Arts, a major reference work published in April 2022. The series is introduced here.
The Companion represents a truly multi-dimensional exploration of the inter-relationships between audiences and performance. Spread over four sections and featuring the research and thinking of sixty international contributing authors, the volume considers audiences contextually and historically, through both qualitative and quantitative empirical research, and places them within current conversations in the field of audience research.
The chapter “Ethics in Audience Research: By the Book or on the Hop?” by Katya Johanson and Hilary Glow is available for free to everyone. Follow this link, then click on “Open access content is available for this title” to access the chapter.
Post your comments and questions to X readers to engage with us about important issues central to audience research.
Too Little Heterogeneity?: Histories, Theories and Questions of Social Justice
by Lynne Conner
The audience studies field has long since acknowledged that our research practice should include many histories, many theories, and many analyses. The question, then, of why we haven’t managed to produce them at a rate or in a way that adequately reflects the heterogenous and plural nature of performing arts audiences around the globe hovers over Part One of the Routledge Companion to Audiences and the Performing Arts (as it does over the entire volume).
All seven chapters included in the ‘Histories, Theories and Questions of Social Justice’ section are focused, in one way or another, on the need for greater awareness over matters of power, equity and inclusion in audience research practices. The authors in Part One argue for the unsettling of the field’s established patterns, habits and assumptions that are, upon reflection, informed by systemic racism, sexism and ableism (overt and subtle) by positing important questions about our methodological and narrative assumptions as audience researchers.
Here’s a sampling of some of those questions – many touching on notions of selfhood, identity and power – that inform the book’s chapters:
- Ellen Dissanayake’s (Chapter 1) exploration of the role of the brain’s two hemispheres in the meaning-making operation, in which she observes that the ‘arts are mostly mediated in the right hemisphere.’ The problem, she notes, is that because the right hemisphere of our brain ‘does not “speak” or use words, Western education tends to dampen our awareness of its capacities or aptitudes, so we don’t pay attention to what it does.’
- Helen Freshwater’s (Chapter 2) application of contemporary nostalgia theory to the historian’s process, reminding us that ‘we need to stay alert to the possibility that public statements or descriptions of audiences may not always be accurate. Many historical descriptions of audiences have been revealed as exaggeration, half-truth or fabrication upon closer inspection.’ Nostalgia, she writes, is ‘now recognized as being underpinned and driven by ideological concerns, produced in part by historical moments of uncertainty and change.’
- Lynne Conner’s (Chapter 3) consideration of the ‘persistent positivism’ in quantitative research fields, including audience research. I argue that the notion that quantitative tools (numbers) are somehow objectively a-theoretical or supra-theoretical continues to guide methodologies in a wide range of disciplinary, industry and government operations that rely on statistical analysis. But as political scientist Deborah Stone states in Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters, ‘numbers are filled with bias through and through’ (2020, Location 76).
- Laurie Hanquinet’s (Chapter 4) interest in ‘how to account for the fact that […] very personal experiences cannot be reduced to social structures, while recognizing that they are embedded in these structures.’ Hanquinet describes her process (borrowing from Bernard Lahire) for designing a museum visitor study that allowed her to ‘infer more clearly what art museum attendance represents in visitors’ everyday lives (a love of art, a quest for new experience, etc.)’ while also acknowledging that visitor tastes are ‘involved in larger power structures that need to be accounted for.’
- Jennifer Novak-Leonard’s (Chapter 5) observations on emerging data chronicling audiences’ experience of digital venues. She reports, ‘studies find that people engage most frequently with digital artistic engagements and the least frequently by attending performing arts events or visiting museums.’ These surprising data highlight the gap between the ‘relevance of these forms of engagement in people’s lives’ and the ‘level of attention that has been paid to them by large portions of the nonprofit and subsidized arts fields.’
- Glenn Odom and Giri Raghunathan’s (Chapter 6) explication of the Yorùbá notion of aṣẹ, a complex and layered term which ‘defies easy definition’ but can be understood as both a way to give authority and to exercise that authority. As they define aṣẹ, a participant must have authority in order to perform, but the ‘presence or absence of this authority is often only visible through the effects of a performance, which often depend on the audience’s reception of the potential authority.’ To have aṣẹ is to exercise aṣẹ, but aṣẹ ‘can only be validated and conferred through its own exercise. Authority requires an audience, but also requires actions on the part of the audience.’
- Doris Kolesch and Teresa Schütz’s (Chapter 7) reflections on how established terms such as ‘spectator’ and ‘audience,’ with their roots in visual and auditory perception, neglect ‘other forms of significant sensory and physical-psychological activity and multi-sensory involvement in contemporary theatre.’ They argue for the use of alternative designations rooted in the immersive theatre community (‘visitors,’ ‘co-players’ or ‘participants’) because they ‘undermine the power relations implicit in the term “spectator.”’
Performing arts research in the time of Corona is full of interesting – if exhausting – tension, unease and disruption. But what if, as Jennifer Novak-Leonard suggests, this painful two year (and counting) interregnum has also ‘generated . . . the need for new information and research on arts audiences and participation’? And what if that need moves our work into a more inclusive research environment by bringing greater equity into our histories, theories and analyses?
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