Understanding the Public

A guest blog by Dr Nikki Soo from the Crick Centre

When we set out to develop research on the theme ‘Studying the Public’ at the Crick Centre, there was a realisation amongst colleagues here at Sheffield that the idea of the public, along with the definition of the term, was both intuitive yet highly contested. The etymology of the term suggests that ‘public’ describes something ‘open to general observation’, or something ‘concerning the public as a whole’. However, we all understand and study the public in very different ways, from nationally representative surveys, to studies of small, localised groups. What do we really mean by the public? And how do we approach studying it? Prompted by these thoughts we held two seminars with scholars at the University of Sheffield in March and May 2019. 

In the first workshop we explored what the term ‘public’ means. Politicians, commentators and activists evoke this idea and claim to understand what the public want or need, but are we clear about what we mean by the term? What are the implications if we think about this idea in different ways? Acknowledging these varying perspectives matters because it is common for references to ‘the public’ to be used when demonstrating the legitimacy of conflicting views. Our speakers Dr Simon Rushton and Dr Lisa Stampnitzky encouraged wider reflection about the term ‘public’ by encouraging researchers and users of public opinion to consider the people in the ‘public’ they speak of, as well as those who are might be excluded or included.

In the second workshop we continued our inquiry by examining the diverse ways researchers could approach the study and capture of public opinion. Far from reifying quantitative methodologies, the discussion sparked by our speakers Dr Liam Stanley, Professor Charles Pattie and myself highlighted caution about methodological determinism, instead acknowledging 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 a wider deliberation about what we want to know when we study the public is necessary.

Linking outcomes from both our workshops, 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 much do non-public views matter in a democracy?
  • How important is it to overcome methodological challenges in order to understand non-public opinions?

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

Please find the PDF of the reports from Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 for download here.

To find out more about the Crick Centre’s ongoing work on the public please click here

Dr Nikki Soo is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on how digital tools are integrated in politics, media, and society. Her doctoral research examined how contemporary constituency service and representation, including integration of digital tools with traditional communication methods, is carried out.  Find her on Twitter @sniksw.