How Do We Study The Public

'How do we study the public?' is a simple question that underpins the work of many social scientists, but is often not widely discussed.

Person doing research on computer

In the context of methodological training that prompts a qualitative or quantitative divide, the means of detecting and monitoring public opinion and behaviours can look very different. On the one hand, quantitative scholars promote public opinion surveys or analysis of large data sets that allow public behaviour to be discerned. Whilst, on the other, qualitative scholars employ interviews, focus groups and ethnographies to observe how members of the public think and act.

In this workshop, we invited three different scholars with alternative methodological backgrounds to reflect on their methods and understanding of the public. First, we heard from Dr Liam Stanley, a political economist with expertise in using focus groups. Second, from Professor Charles Pattie, a psephologist with expertise in survey analysis and quantitative techniques. And finally, from Dr Nikki Soo, a political communications scholar with expertise in ethnography, and online diary studies. In this report, our speakers have summarised their comments, and we have distilled a number of questions for further discussion and debate.

How Do We Study the Public? Is the second in The Crick Centre’s seminar series of think pieces on studying the public. Far from reifying quantitative methodologies, all three contributors clearly urge caution about methodological determinism, and have instead acknowledged the need to reflect on the kind of knowledge being sought. Whilst generalisable findings are undeniably useful, predefined survey questions were often seen to miss important nuances in people’s views and unable to capture the social construction of people’s opinions (in a way focus groups, for example, can). This suggests the need to think more widely about what we want to know when we study the public.

Thinking once again about Workshop 1 where we discussed the idea of the public and who they are, it therefore appears that there is value in not conceptualising the public as a predefined object that can be studied to generate fixed knowledge claims. Rather, the public is a fluid idea that can be studied using a variety of methodologies, and that can produce different and often unexpected insights. To end off, we pose some questions for further debate:

  • How as researchers can we (and should we) ensure that questions accurately reflect the public and the changes they experience over time?
  • How does the public want their opinion captured?
  • How important is it to overcome methodological challenges in order to understand non-public opinions?

We hope this will encourage others to think more critically about their approaches to investigating the public, as well as engage in continual deliberation about innovative methods.

If you have any questions, please contact Dr Stanley, Dr Soo or Professor Pattie.