Distinctly Diverse: The Communicator’s Conundrum

Distinctly Diverse: The Communicator’s Conundrum

The said paper — ‘Understanding the public, the visitors, and the participants in science communication activities’ — by Nook Kato-Nitta, Tadahiko Maeda, Kensuke Iwahansi and Masashi Tachikawa, stems from the premise that although the science communicators of today have upped their ante, as their methods of engaging with the public are concerned, there exists a paucity in research investigating — A. Sociocultural and attitudinal characteristics of participants in science communication activities, and — B. The extent to which such individuals are representative of the general population.

In simpler words, to what degree does the cultural make-up of an individual influence his exhibit-viewing habits, and to what degree is the oft-surveyed, museum-going public — with all their predisposed intellectual leanings — a representative of the population of a country as a whole. 

The authors make it very clear at the outset that although the cause of public engagement in science has made some significant strides in the last 10 years or so, the science communicators of today still tend to generalise their findings in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ sort of approach. In the authors’ own words, “few studies have examined the varieties of visitor behaviour during science communication activities per se, to explore the ways in which they can be distinguished from the general public”. It is this deficiency that their research aims to address.

They pursue these ends by means of collecting data through open-house surveys at science events, and comparing this to a nationally representative sample survey. The ‘distinctiveness’ — as the authors choose to term it — is statistically gauged, and then contrasted with the findings from the nationally representative survey. 

The authors also disclose the fact that merely contrasting the surveys as they were could lead to a litany of errors, and thus, to mitigate these mistakes, a statistical method to control the disparity in distribution of the attribute variables is applied. 

The first purpose of the study is to evaluate the group distinctiveness of the participants, and in order to explore the sociocultural characteristics of visitors participating in science communication activities, Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital is used, which states that there is cultural capital of 2 kinds — Scientific and technical cultural capital or STC and Literary and artistic cultural capital or LAC. 

Now findings from an earlier study have already shown that visitors with more STC viewed more exhibits and also spent more hours viewing the exhibits — connoting that STC and LAC were closely interlinked. This lead to the researchers to the following hypothesis:

H1 - 1: Participants in scientific activities hold greater STC than the general public

H1 - 2: Participants in scientific activities hold greater LAC than the general public 

Next, the researchers try and understand the visitors attitudinal characteristics towards science communication events, and this they try and achieve by contrasting their attitudes towards science vis-a-vis their other cultural proclivities.

Science, art and economy, and the respective attitudes of the participants towards it are taken as the markers. Once again, the attitudinal contrasts between the highly-engaged public and the general public are examined. This rings us to the next hypothesis -

H2: Participants in scientific outreach activities show more favourable attitudes towards the value of scientific research than the general public. 

By contrast, the participants’ assessments not including any practical value to national culture (i.e science, art, or economy in Japan) should be no different from those of the general public. 

Then come the next grouping of hypothesis - the H3s. Each of them — H3-1,H3-2 and H3-3 — hypothesise that the participants’ assessment of the level of science, art and the economy, respectively, are not different from those of the general public. 

For the next part of the study, the visitors compare 2 variables in visitor behaviour — A. Total number of exhibits viewed B. Total amount of time spent at the event. The scores of respondents and non-respondents are then tallied to adequately address the non-response bias, which the authors feel haven’t been duly accounted for by most science communicators. The following hypothesis are proposed -

H4 -1: Total viewer time is longer for respondents than non-respondents

H4 -2: Total number of exhibits viewed is greater for respondents than non-respondents 

In order to judge the influence of cultural capital on exhibit-viewing behaviours alone, a replication study is carried out to “test the stability of findings from previous empirical studies”, such as Kato-Nitta’s 2013 study, which empirically determined the demographic distinctiveness of visitors to an open-house event at a public scientific research institution. The current study, as the authors state, have also tried to “enhance” the findings of Kato-Nitta’s study by incorporating the following two approaches -

  1. Discussing the influence of STC on visitor’s exhibit-viewing behaviours by incorporating additional control variables of attributes

  2. Discussing the influence of STC on visitor’s exhibit-viewing behaviour by incorporating the additional control variable of social arrangement, or group formation.

The study hypothesises that —

H5 -1: Participants with higher STC scores view more exhibits than those with lower STC scores

H5 -2: Participants with higher STC scores spend more hours viewing exhibits than visitors with                                       lower STC score.

Also, to ensure the stability of results in this case, two distinct methods are utilised — one of electronic surveys, and the other of hand-out questionnaires. 

The materials and methods used in the study are varied. Data is compiled through 4 comprehensive surveys  —

1. A 2009 visitor survey at the Institute for Molecular Science 

2. A 2012 visitor survey at the Institute for Molecular Science

3. A Japanese national character survey carried out in 2013 

4. A web-based internet survey for Japanese citizens carried out in 2014 

For survey 1, questionnaires alone were distributed. For survey 2, smart cards were distributed along with the questionnaire. For survey 3, the general Japanese public were represented by a cross-sectional survey conducted by the Institute of Statistical Mathematics. For survey 4, a survey company was roped in for the web-based survey. 

To determine the distinctiveness of the open-house visitors, the following methods were employed — 

  • The varying distribution of values for STC and LAC between the highly-engaged participants and the general public were assessed

  • A chi-squared test was used to assess the distribution of values for attitudes towards science and art and economy between the highly-engaged participants and the general public.

Now in order to make all of these comparisons more even, only the data collected from those aged 20 or above was collated. 


The highly-engaged public were showed to hold far greater capital both in terms of STC and LAC as compared to the general public. The highly-engaged public also tended to view the contribution of science towards bettering the quality of life far more favourably. 

No significant difference was observed between the attitudinal characteristics of the highly-engaged public and the general public towards the level of science, and the level of the economy. Their attitudinal stance towards the level of Japanese art, however, is an unclear conclusion, as no definitive answer was obtained through the study. 

The comparison of the questionnaires recording the exhibiting viewing behaviours of the responded and the non-respondents yielded the following results -

The respondents not only viewed more exhibits than the non-respondents, but also viewed the exhibits for a longer span of time. 

The stability tests for the influence of cultural capital on visitor behaviour proved that those with a higher level of STC viewed more exhibits, and time a greater share of their time at the exhibits. However — and most interestingly — education as a variable was found to have a negative consequence on the viewing of exhibits. 

In concluding the study, the authors make it very clear that those visiting a museum on their own accord can hardly be considered a representative of the general population. The variable of group formation tended to influence the participants’ exhibit-viewing behaviour, with those participating in the activity alone being shown to lavish more time on the exhibits. The study also makes a very pertinent point regarding the mutually-occurring nature of STC and LAC, and why this should be take due cognisance of by science communicators — they must see to it that the aesthetic sensibilities of their science-happy participants are also tapped into as a communication device or tool. 

I hope my blog was worth your time, and your charge. I look forward to your thoughts and comments below. Don’t spare me your complains.

Gaining Knowledge Through Having a Hobby: Creating Motivated Learners

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