As RK&A’s first Research Fellow and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Northwestern University, I’m delighted to write the first of my Intentional Museum posts exploring the relationship of sociological research and museum evaluation. As it turns out, the timing of this writing is pretty fortuitous: I’m currently preparing a presentation for this year’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference at the Kennedy Center, which has me thinking about how sociological research on museums can benefit practitioners. So I thought I’d start, as I’ll start in that presentation, with the big picture.
First things first: What do sociologists have to say about museums? In general, our research has spoken to three distinct themes. We’ve shown how visitor demographics in art museums reflect broader systems of social inequality by explaining how people’s education and class background shapes their familiarity with art. This helps explain patterns of visitor attendance, while also identifying the societal barriers that may leave some people out of the conversations museums try to foster. We’ve shown how broader social changes (i.e. funding structures or political conditions) can impact what happens inside museums. This work illustrates how the environments in which organizations operate define what counts as legitimate operations, which in turn influences what museums do. Most recently, we’ve lifted the hood to look inside museums and focus on practice: what people do within these organizations, and how. Because museums offer a particularly apposite case for examining how people interact with objects, some of this work has examined how different objects and environments can structure interpretation and shape organizational goals.
Recently, I’ve grown increasingly curious about why so little has been said about the intersections of sociology and evaluation. In part this is because throughout my doctoral fieldwork on museum education, people regularly confused sociological research with evaluative practice. It was easy at the time to point out differences. Perhaps the most foundational one regards the role of theory. Sociologists study specific things to tell a more general story about the social world, entering museums to answer a theoretically-motivated question (for example, about inequality, legitimacy, or practice) that can speak beyond a single museum, exhibit, or program. In contrast, evaluators concentrate on how to help particular museums articulate their practical objectives (for exhibition development, for program assessment, and so forth), and then develop research designs to assess them. They may even make formal recommendations, which is not typically within the purview of sociology.
However, when reflecting – as I often do, and as I’ve been doing for LEAD – on what people in museums can do with broader sociological ideas, I inevitably find myself asking how, if at all, sociology and evaluation are akin in helping museum practitioners. For one, the best work in sociology and in evaluation rests on carefully prescribed methods. A sociologist’s ability to specify the method by which he or she arrives at a particular theory is what ensures it is sound. Evaluators, similarly, help museum practitioners identify their guiding questions at the outset of a project (just like sociologists must do for themselves) and select the methods (surveys, focus groups, observations, interviews) that will guide that client to results that are both reliable and useful, an important aim our Twitter chat explored on June 9th. In this way, both the sociologist and the evaluator practice with intention.
Perhaps most importantly, both professions can also aid museum practitioners in becoming more intentional. In assuaging museum educators that I was not doing program evaluation, I often explained that my research could instead give practitioners the language to talk about and reflect upon how they interpret the broader social conditions and institutional environments in which museums operate. Or, paraphrasing Max Weber – one of sociology’s founders – scientists can through their work promote clarity about choices by showing people the results of their actions. But now it seems false to me to distinguish this guiding philosophy too starkly from the aims of evaluation. High quality evaluations present museum staff with systematic research in efforts to help them make more informed choices about what they do, how they do it, and with what impact. This objective, I’ve come to understand, is central to how RK&A understands the role of evaluation in museum settings, and what we here call “intentional” practice.