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Asking the Difficult Questions

I am currently working with over 40 Bay Area arts organizations, helping to build capacity around collecting, synthesizing and applying audience feedback. As part of this research, these organizations are also collecting audience demographics using questions designed to parallel the U.S. Census. The intended goal is to be able to compare the demographics of performing arts audiences in the Bay Area with the general population.

Everyone agrees that getting an accurate demographic profile of arts audiences is important. However, audiences are often frustrated, and staff are often apprehensive about the actual task of collecting this information, because asking about gender, race, income, etc. is personal.

In order to compare audience demographics to the larger population, we are compelled to follow the Census question design, fully aware these questions are limiting (for example, the race question categorizes Middle Eastern peoples as White, and gender offers only two answer options; see Facebook’s recent approach). However, I recently learned that the Census Bureau has been looking at ways to address some of these limitations through a test of newly designed race and ethnicity questions. The goal of the test was to gauge whether or not the new designs increased participation in the survey and accuracy of response. Specifically, results from the Census Bureau’s existing race and ethnicity questions, which separate Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish origins from race (White, African American, Asian, etc.), were compared to results from a more streamlined question combining all categories, along with an open-ended write-in option. Other analyses included follow-up interviews with respondents to test the accuracy of their response and focus groups to examine perceptions of the questions. Overall, the streamlined approach increased participation and accuracy of results and was more equitable from the respondents’ point of view. Given these results, I expect to see some changes to the 2020 Census form — a step forward in more inclusive survey design.

As I try to find my way through the myriad pitfalls, options, and opportunities that demographic research puts in my path, I have learned that one design does not fit all, and figuring out how to ask these questions in a responsive, respectful, and inclusive way is vital in order to adjust to the rapidly changing environment in which we work.

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