The 'Physical Cultural Audit' process


 Watch module introductory video
 Read course content and assigned core readings below
Interactive Example
 Click on the icon (left) to explore the 'Physical Cultural Audit' Interactive Example 
Analysis Task
  Click on the icon (left) to complete the 'Physical Cultural Audit' Picture Analysis Task

Introductory video

Core readings

  • Austin, J. & Hickey, A. (2009). Working Visually in Community Identity Ethnography.  International Journal of the Humanities, 7(4),1-14.  Available from

The 'Physical Cultural Audit' process

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 artefacts). 

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.

What does a 'Physical Cultural Audit' involve?

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 the site?
  • 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:

  • is there a particular day of the week and/or time of day that might provide the best opportunity to collect the type of material you need?
  • It is important to bear in mind that you’re looking in this physical cultural audit to capture the physical environment, not the social or human environment. In your recording process, are you able to minimise the presence of people in order to focus on the physical?
  • Will you have two arrange permission to enter and/or photograph some parts of the site?
  • Will you need an acceptably accurate map of the site? If so, how will this be acquired or developed?

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.

References & further reading

Course notes download

Images used

In order of appearance:

  1. Google Earth Image (2017) Ruthven Street, Toowoomba  Creative Commons Licence

  2. Austin, J. (2017) Physical Cultural Audit, Toowoomba  Creative Commons License

  3. Austin, J. (2017) Physical Cultural Audit, Toowoomba  Creative Commons License

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 September 2018, 1:44 PM