About Public Engagement

What is public engagement? 

At SAS we believe that public engagement with research means taking specialist knowledge in the humanities (in classics or philosophy, for example) and sharing it in ways that have been specifically designed to be appealing and engaging for a non-specialist audience. This means shaping an event or activity so that it appeals to an audience’s needs, interests and enthusiasms. At their best, such activities are mutually beneficial both for researchers and for the public – establishing a ‘two-way street’ model of engagement. 

Who are the ‘public’? 

Our definition of a non-specialist, public audience is an audience who do not have a current, formal relationship with a Higher Education Institution (HEI), and who do not have ‘specialist’ knowledge of a humanities research area. Audiences may have no prior interest in the humanities or may have an existing interest in an aspect of humanities research. Whilst your audience might be interested in history on the level of going to museums or watching TV documentaries, for example, they would not typically have an advanced knowledge of the latest research and innovations in the field of historical research. 

Why does public engagement matter? 

We believe it’s essential that research and ideas are shared beyond academia for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone. We also believe that humanities research is vital to society and directly relevant to the lives and interests of people and our communities. General, broad benefits of public engagement include, and are by no means limited to: 

  • Improving the quality and impact of research 
  • Increasing the visibility of research 
  • Supporting skills development 
  • Opportunities to listen, learn and collaborate with people and communities beyond the university 

How do I interest the public in my research? 

A better way to think about this is: how might your research align with an audience’s existing interests and enthusiasms? It is important to connect your research to something people are already passionate about and spend their leisure time doing. Does your research touch on an area in which there is strong existing public interest (e.g. sport, food and drink, music, literature, film, theatre, etc.)? Can it be matched to a format that people will find fun and engaging? Can you engage with existing fan communities, clubs, or societies? Remember that non-specialist audiences typically don’t find highly specialised talks and lectures rewarding in the same way that fellow specialists do. 

What counts as public engagement? 

A huge variety of activity counts as public engagement. If we were to think of public engagement as a set of concentric circles, things like talks, podcasts, media and press coverage, social media and exhibitions would be in the outer circles, because whilst they often inform and inspire, they may not actively engage the audience in a two-way process. At the centre of the circle would be ‘co-produced’ engagement that involves active participation in research, effective and mutually beneficial partnerships, and shared decision making. Examples of co-produced, 'two-way' public engagement could be things like a film making project where young people create documentaries in partnership with a local arts organisation; or designing and producing a street parade inspired by local history with local residents. 

What isn’t public engagement? 

Any activity organised principally for the benefit of the academic or research community, for example lectures, roundtables, seminars, conferences and symposia. 

What do you mean by ‘mutual benefit’? 

Mutual benefit is a process and result where everyone (including researchers, cultural/community partners, and audience members) benefits from being involved in a project, activity or event, and enables both (or all) parties to achieve their aims or objectives. 

What do you mean by ‘co-production’? 

Co-production is a deliberative process, putting the researcher(s), cultural/ community partner(s) and the public on equal footing throughout every stage of the design and delivery of a project or event. 

Find out more about how to put together a brilliant public engagement event or activity in our series of toolkits.