A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

Imagine you find yourself in an unfamiliar, abandoned house in the middle of the night. There’s no electricity, and the windows have been boarded up — It couldn’t be darker.

Someone nearby lights a candle.

What do you do next?

  1. Thank them for helping you see more than you could see before, or
  2. Scold them for not bringing a licensed electrician to properly light the place.

I think most of you would choose option one if you actually found yourself in a pitch-black, abandoned house. You’d probably be terrified to find someone else there first, and you’d want to make sure they’re not a serial killer before thanking them, but once you got that cleared up, you’d probably be grateful that you’re able to see anything at all.

And I bet you wouldn’t scold them for not being prepared to renovate the house before you even know where you are.

Why, then, do we often choose option 2 when it comes to understanding other humans?

Imperfect light can still help us see.

I read an obituary for Shere Hite a while back and have been thinking about her work from time to time ever since.

If you’re not familiar with Hite’s work (I wasn’t), the opening paragraph of the Times obit will help:

Shere Hite, who startled the world in the 1970s with her groundbreaking reports on female sexuality and her conclusion that women did not need conventional sexual intercourse — or men, for that matter — to achieve sexual satisfaction, died on Wednesday at her home in London.

The article goes on to describe the impact of Hite’s work and the criticism she received in questioning people’s (especially men’s) assumptions about female sexuality.

Now, a lot of the criticism Hite faced probably boiled down to misogyny. Men felt particularly threatened by her findings. But it seems some of that criticism is valid — It seems her approach was flawed:

… Barbara Farah, the director of surveys for The New York Times, said ''Women and Love'' was flawed by Ms. Hite's decision to send out her questionnaires through women's groups.

The purpose of random sampling, she said, is to obtain a sample that accurately reflects the population as a whole in its attitudes, but the women who were sent questionnaires ''were women who already have a raised consciousness, so it doesn't matter how many questionnaires she sent out or how many responses she got.''

And, yet, the things Shere Hite learned — the knowledge she created — were valuable. Many of the things she exposed about women’s sexuality we now think of as being common knowledge or obvious.

How dark is the house?

The takeaway here is that Hite’s work is a good example of how context is so important when it comes to understanding the people we hope to support or learn from.

Hite's work may have been flawed, but it still shed light on a topic that was little understood. It may not have been perfect, but it was a torch in the dark.

The value and validity of research are two different things.

That is, an effort to understand others can be valuable and invalid. Another effort might be technically valid, but not all that valuable or actionable. (Yes, I’m looking at you IMPACTS and all the gambling dens you’ve lured museum leaders into over the years.)

Context is often what determines the value and validity of research.

If we forget that, or willfully ignore the fact that context matters, we’re taking on a particular kind of risk. It’s not the kind of risk that we’re perhaps more familiar with — that is, the risk of making decisions based on flawed information. It’s the risk of missed opportunities.

I’m not saying that method and accuracy don’t matter. I’m inviting you to adopt a new, different question when you’re presented with new information.

The question is: “How dark is it in this room that we’ve entered?”

If the information you have relates to, say, your museum’s existing members, then it’s probably safe to say that you already have some light to go by. Certainly, it’s not as difficult to locate a flashlight in that room.

But, if the information relates to non-audiences — ”them”; those other people; those people you may not even have an adequate name for — then you may be in a very dark house without a glimmer of light.

Be skeptical, yes. But don’t forget about the context.

In response to Shere Hite’s work, a lot of people chose option 2 when they found themselves in that dark house. They were disturbed by what they saw when the darkness subsided, so they complained about the quality of the light.

As always, reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.


P.S. Comments have been restored to the blog. Yay!


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