The 'Physical Cultural Audit' process
- Austin, J. & Hickey, A. (2009). Working Visually in Community Identity Ethnography. International Journal of the Humanities, 7(4),1-14. Available from https://eprints.usq.edu.au/5800/
As Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire,
pointed out, culture is something that is made by people. He contrasted the
cultural with the natural. The natural, he said, is virtually a given, with
natural objects being largely unable to be modified in a significant way by
people (clearly, his thoughts about this, written in the late 1960s and early
1970s, weren’t able to foresee the impact of human technologies such as genetic
modification and the like). When we go looking for evidence of the ‘type’ of
people living in a particular area or community or the dominant culture of that
particular place, there are several sorts of evidence we might look to draw
upon to hazard some guesses about the nature of that community and those people
within it. We could look at the ways in which people interact with each other
in that community, or at particular images of that community that people create
and display through more permanent recording methods (books, movies, music, and
a whole heap of what would be generally accepted as cultural products or
An starting point in trying to come to terms with what sort of community we are looking at could well be the physical or built environment; that is, the non-natural aspects of a landscape that are clearly the result of human activity. It is this approach to developing an initial feel for or understanding of a particular community that this document explains.
Imagine coming across a landscape where you
seem to be the only human being around, something like a Twilight Zone scenario
where you’re the only human left in a place, or a Star Trek episode where
you’ve been stranded in a place where you seem to be the only form of life
similar to that of the human. What you see around you is all you have to work
on in coming to understand and perhaps trying to predict what sort of community
this was, and maybe still is. This is the essential mindset that needs to be
taken into a physical cultural audit: whilst it would be largely impossible to
empty space of all visible human presence, in conducting an audit of this type,
we have to imagine the space and the place devoid or emptied of human beings.
In other words, the audit – like a stock-take – is an attempt to look at what
is present in the environment and try to then construct some possible ideas
about the type of people who use this place or space. The audit process
involves you in the role of a researcher trying to piece together various ideas
about the place so that you might then move into something of a science-fiction
or fantasy writer mode by trying to create
a possible, though imagined, understanding of what this particular place
might be like were one to be living in it.
There is no one set way to conduct a physical cultural audit, but the following steps seem to cover everything for such a process.
Step 1: Work out the boundaries of your space
For many purposes of conducting a physical cultural audit, the place to be investigated is clearly bounded. For the purposes of this particular module, that space is likely to be a school where the boundaries of that space will be clearly defined by fences, et cetera. However, in a broader sense, places such as shopping centres, city blocks, and the like also present as sites for an audit.
Step 2: Decide on who
Will you conduct the audit by yourself, or with others? There are benefits to both of these options, most of which are connected to the ideas of outsider and insider research. An insider, in this context, would be someone who is very familiar with the space or place to be audited. Consequently, an outsider is somebody for whom the space is new or very unfamiliar. This type of work conducted by insiders brings the benefit of being able to draw on local knowledge of the space such that the insider researcher or auditor will be in a good position to know where to find certain hidden aspects or at least less visible aspects of the environment that may have relevance to the project. The downside of insider research in this type of project is that sometimes being so familiar with the area or the space means that unnoticed or ‘taken-for-granted’ examples are potentially missed or overlooked. This is where the fresh eyes of an outsider bring a benefit – an outsider, whilst not being overly familiar with the hidden or less obvious parts of the site, will probably look at everything as new or novel, thereby picking up some aspects that a more familiar eye might miss.
An advantage of having more than one person in the audit team is that of being able to engage with each other in on-site discussions about what the particular environment offers or the audit process. The shared experience of having moved around the site while discussing the value of certain parts of that site for the audit process will often lead to a stronger analysis of the particular evidence collected.
Overall – how you choose to conduct this type of audit is a decision you make. In some ways, the ‘ideal’ team might consist of two people, one an insider and one an outsider.
Step 3: Decide on how you will conduct your audit
There are a couple of things to consider here:
- If you’re conducting the audit
as a team, will you all walk around the site together or individually at first
and then collate your individual notes and impressions later?
- Will you use digital
photographs to help record aspects of the site that you find of interest?
- Will you audio record any
conversations you might have in your team regarding the initial impressions of
- How many circuits of the site will you make? A useful design here is to make an initial walk around to get a feel for the site followed by a more focused investigation of the site (including photographic recording, et cetera) and then a final circuit to confirm the ideas or interpretations you’ve made of the evidence you’ve collected on your second circuit.
Step 4: Conduct the walk-around and recording processes
Some things to perhaps consider regarding this stage:
Step 5: Analyse the evidence or data you have collected
- In this stage, the auditor or auditors
try to draw out the impressions that aspects of the environment that captured
have made on them with regard to the type of community this site is a part of.
The ways in which this type of analysis might be conducted very, but
essentially come down to arriving at answers to the question “What does this image tell me/us about this
community?” It should be emphasised
here that there are no right or wrong answers with regard to this question, you
are looking to draw out a team consensus about the sorts of messages conveyed
by each particular image of the site. It would be important to record – either
in writing or in audio – the conclusions you or your team arrive at for each of
the images, and then for an overall summation of what this site seems to
reflect with regard to ‘culture’.
- With regard to the physical culture audit that has been developed as a part of the materials for this mOOC, the auditing process was conducted by two insider auditors (We were both familiar with this particular street block), and consisted of an initial and a more focused team walk around the city block involved. The second walk also involved a more professional photographer who was able to make the most of what were sometimes poor lighting conditions. What the team considered to be illustrative examples of ‘culture’ in this area were initially discussed, selected and then photographed, with notes regarding the reasons for selecting the particular images recorded in writing. The team then selected from the total photographic collection a smaller number of images for use with the interactive map. The team analysed, through discussion, each of these images and arrived at a number of points regarding these. A spoken commentary was recorded for each of the images and mounted on the interactive map.
In order of appearance:
- Google Earth Image (2017) Ruthven Street, Toowoomba
- Austin, J. (2017) Physical Cultural Audit, Toowoomba
- Austin, J. (2017) Physical Cultural Audit, Toowoomba