What’s So Special About The Circus? (And Who Says So) – Katharine Kavanagh

For an enlarged version, click on the poster or download the file:

Abstracts page

Bios page

Feedback questions:

1. I am going to need to discuss the fact that I am comparing corpora of written texts with one of spoken texts. At the moment I feel this is justified because the other dimensions of the text are matched (most importantly in this case, theme and purpose*), and because I am primarily interested in comparing the targets of evaluation rather than the way the evaluation is constructed. However, I’d like to know what the major concerns are that other people have about such an approach?

2. Circus has a powerful, pervasive and long-established image in popular consciousness which eclipses many of the realities that have developed within the circus field over the last half a century. While this is the underlying motivation of the whole study, I wonder how much background detail I need to share with the reader about what the circus field looks like in the 21st century, versus how much I should allow the contemporary picture to emerge through later discussion of the data?

*I have misplaced my reference… bonus points for anyone who can point me in the direction of who talks about comparative corpora needing to be identical in all but one dimension?!*


  • Lauren O'Hagan

    Thanks for sharing your research, Katharine. I think this fills an important gap in current knowledge about the circus. As my background is multimodality, I would be particularly interested to know whether you will address the use of images in these promotional texts and, if not, what has led your decision to focus solely on text? When I think of the circus, it is the bright colours and the visual stimuli that seem to me to be key components in attracting audiences.

    As for your second question, I think it would be a good idea to outline the historical context of the circus and how it has developed over time, possibly in the introduction or in the background/literature review chapter, but maybe only touch upon some of the contemporary changes at this point. If you feel they will emerge in your own data, then it might be best to focus on this in the discussion section as that sounds like something unique – i.e., that your study of blurbs, reviews, interviews teases out some of those subtle differences between old and new.

  • Ruth M

    Hi Katherine,
    Super interested in your work with Appraisal Theory – I’m also drawing on the framework (though focusing on AFFECT) and just in the process of analysing data – how are you finding working with it? Also I love the design of your poster by the way… and intrigued by the Big Top ;).


  • Kate Barber

    Hi Kate

    I really love your poster and how you’ve described your project. I’ve been thinking about your second question and I think, personally, you need very little background detail on the 21st circus field. It feels like the results and discussion will do that for you and, as the study isn’t about that kind of comparison, you will create a much greater impact if the results and discussion actually provide that kind of detail instead.


  • Kate Kavanagh

    Thanks for your comments so far!
    Lauren, I agree with you that multimodality – for example, music as well as visuals – is a large part of the way circus is represented. I think though that, within the scope of my PhD, I don’t have the capacity to go there yet. The comparison between verbal texts seems more manageable within the bounds of this project.
    I put the big top image on the poster as a sort of nod in that direction, acknowledging that there are benefits to harnessing stereotypical representations as well as drawbacks. They can provide a shorthand that attracts people’s attention and interest, but if those attractive qualities – the bright colours e.g. – are not reflective of the actual content then that can cause more harm than good in the long-term. That tension appears in the verbiage of promotional texts as well.
    Ruth, I haven’t started any analysis yet for this research, but I did use APPRAISAL in my MA thesis last year too. I found it really useful to create a manual for myself based on a small sample of the texts first, figuring out the adaptations/specifics that my texts threw up. I look forward to seeing your posters as I work my way through!

  • Rachel Carney

    This research sounds fascinating, and the questions above that mention images of the circus and the historical perceptions are definitely worth considering. I wonder if people’s perceptions of contemporary circus are influenced by an understanding of how circus was viewed in past times? Perhaps it may be worth looking at children’s stories (I’m sure there are some Enid Blyton books that involve the circus), or picture books, that may influence our understanding or expectations of circus as we grow older?

  • Emily Powell

    Hi Kate, a really clear and interesting poster to read! I do think more background info about the circus and why this research is so important would help your argument.
    I have a couple of questions for you:
    What reference corpus will you use to do the keyness analysis? (unfortunately I’m not familiar with you reference about only one feature being different). With my data I tried several different reference corpora and came up with similar results. I think there is a danger that if your reference corpus is too similar to your corpus then interesting features may be missed.
    How are you getting on with Wmatrix? I have found that compared to other corpus tools it is less accurate at counting words. If you put your data through antconc or Wordsmith Tools you may find they are more accurate.

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Thanks Emily, that’s really helpful as I haven’t actually dived into Wmatrix yet! I was planning to use my entire collected corpus as reference for finding key features of each sub-corpus against the others… Although, as I’ll be collecting the corpora opportunistically I’ll have to have a think about how the proportions/wordcounts might affect this strategy! Actually, the more I think about this the more I realise i need to give it more thought ;) I should find an external reference corpus too so that I can look for similarity in keywords between subcorpora as well as differences… thanks!

    Rachel, I think you’re absolutely right about those different influences from the past affecting how circus is perceived today as a concept. However, I’m working on the assumption that those sort of childhood influences will have broadly been the same for all the text producers I’m looking at, so won’t be the cause of any discrepancies between them. They’re the backstory, if you like, while I want to focus on the way present experience is construed by the different text producers.

  • Debbie Cabral

    Hi, Kate! I have already told you I find your topic fascinating!!! Congratulations on the poster! It looks like you have it sorted out.
    I agree with you that having spoken corpus compared with a written one is not a problem in your case. However, one thing that crossed my mind is that you might end up with corpora with very different sizes, depending on how much people say in the interview. I am just beginning to study CL so I also don`t know if that is an issue. It`s just food for thought.

  • Zeen Al-Rasheed

    Hi Kate, your study is really fascinating! And you’ve presented your poster in a very clear way; well done!
    Regarding the first question, I do agree with the above suggestions, from Laura O’Hagan and Rachel Carney, about including images of the circus and the historical context and the latter will be helpful in demonstrating the contribution of your study and the difference it will achieve.

    Drawing on Appraisal Theory is very interesting to me as I have also adopted this theory. I’d say this is a very wide theory and it is vital to read Martin & White’s 2005 source and then to decide according to the gap that you want to fill which of the systems you need to deploy for your whole analyses. I guess it might be worthy to start by doing some initial analysis and see what results you’ll come up with. I am saying this because it would be too wide to employ all the three systems of Martin and White’s 2005 framework. I’d also like to add that I truly got benefit from using the Corpus Tool software and it also gives you the option of making some changes to the framework been set up within this tool. Wishing you all the best!

  • Lucy Chrispin

    Hi Kate, in relation to question 2 I agree with Kate Barber in that perhaps the 21st century circus field is what the results will show rather than motivation for the study. That said, if there is interesting literature so far on this, it might be worth including in the literature review and comparing your results against what scholars have already said – this could create an interesting comparison if different or just be confirmatory. It also might help to show what you’ve contributed to the field.

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Thanks for all your comments today Debbie, Zeen and Lucy. It’s very interesting how opinions seem to differ on what circus context will be helpful for readers! I think how much I include and where I put it (i.e. Lit Review or Discussion) will probably come down to what the results show and what additional context seems relevant/necessary in their light. Definitely something to keep thinking about!

  • Keighley Perkins

    Hi Katharine,

    Thanks for sharing your research. I would love to hear more about the Big Top.

    I think providing a brief context of the history of the circus would be incredibly useful for an audience. It might prove useful for providing additional understandings about the data during the analysis chapter :)

  • Aurora Goodwin

    Hi Kate,

    Really enjoyed reading your poster, especially as it’s something that I don’t really know anything about! I just wanted to say that I really liked the way that you presented your methodology. It’s a much clearer way of presenting things than I’ve ever thought of before.

    As someone whose only experience of the circus is the Greatest Showman, I was wondering how this fits in to your second question about the reality of circus in the current time. Do you think overwhelmingly such presentations do more harm to the current circus scene as they shift people’s expectations to something that might not be reality anymore? Not so much a thesis-y question so much as wanting to hear your thoughts!

    Good luck with the rest of your study!

  • Emily Powell

    Hi Kate,
    My research also uses the overall corpus as a reference to compare against each sub-corpus. One thing you might like to think about is whether to include the individual corpus that you are analysing in the reference corpus or remove it so that your reference corpus is all of the other texts without that one.

  • Gerard O'Grady

    Hi Kate, I liked the poster and found your poster to be informative. One thing I wondered about was what was meant by audience members. How diverse are they and hence how diverse are their expectations of what an ideal circus will be. Will these differences be reflected in the expectations reflected by the evaluative strategies used by different text producers? Finally as you asked about the “big top” the question is what expectations/assumptions arise when people think of circuses?

  • Lauren O'Hagan

    Thanks for the reply, Kate. Yes, I think that, as a future study, it would be great to look at music and visuals in the circus. I think what you have mentioned about stereotypical representations is also something really important to flag up at the beginning of your thesis as that really ‘sets the scene’ for why your research is so necessary and potentially groundbreaking. Best of luck!

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Hello to the most recent commenters, and thank you!

    Emily – thanks for the clarification and note :)

    Aurora – I’m not sure whether presentations such as The Greatest Showman cause ‘overwhelmingly’ more harm than good, but I do believe they cause some difficulties, and I’m hoping my findings might give more of an idea of the extent of this. I could go off on one about The Greatest Showman, but now is probably not the place… there is a lot of romanticising in the film of what, in reality, were some pretty oppressive practices. Glossing over these as it does can actually be seen as representing circus in a more positive and beneficial light in some ways! But, like you point out, in the context of my research the film reinforces certain romantic ideas about glamour and aesthetic that keep other aspects of the current field – such as corporate work, experimental avant garde creation, social circus etc – hidden. (Interestingly, the film does seem to promote the value of Community, which seems very current and isn’t something I’ve noticed represented in mainstream coverage before). So, yeah, I did go off on one a bit, whoops!

    Keighley – my inclusion of the Big Top on the poster was the result of a tug-of-war in my own mind, echoing the way The Greatest Showman offers both benefits and drawbacks in its representation of circus as I mention above. I knew it would act as a great gimmick to get people’s attention and draw interest, but at the same time it reinforces the typical inherited perception of what circus is rather than offering alternatives that can expand perception. (I also wanted to give an ‘in’ to conversation in case people didn’t have anything they wanted to comment on my research otherwise!) This is the same conflict that faces writers of promotional texts, who want to draw in their audience but whose responsibility should also include an accurate representation of the experience they are promoting.

    Gerard – One of the elements of my research that didn’t make it onto the poster was a pilot online survey I sent out just as lockdown was starting. I haven’t analysed the responses yet but the questions were designed to discover what different expectations/assumptions exist, and among what demographics. Similarly the questions planned for the audience interviews end with similar enquiries, after establishing participants’ ‘review’ perspective on their actual experience. My decision to use Glastonbury festival big top as my field work location was based on accessing the maximum diversity of audience members (age, geographical spread, taste etc), in conjunction with the maximum diversity of performance type (youth circus, sideshow, experimental, romantic etc) for the minimal amount of time and travel. If I can capture the maximal range of possible values attributable to the experience, then I will better be able to discover how much of that is/isn’t represented within the promotional texts. So whether or not these differences are ‘reflected in the expectations reflected by the evaluative strategies used by different text producers’ is what I aim to find out! Once I have collected my corpora I will have a better idea of what demographics the text producers aim at or otherwise. I’m not sure if this is too tricky for a comments section conversation, but let’s follow up on this in the 9-month review panel on Tuesday if you like :)

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Oh, and Lauren too, our comments overlapped! Thanks for coming back and responding again!

  • Katharine Young

    Hi Kate, a brilliant poster summarising what is a really fascinating piece of research. It’s been so interesting to see all the comments too, and seeing how everyone is engaging with the research in different ways. As this isn’t my field, I’d be really interested to hear about what you expect to find at the end of your study, and what the impact will then look like for the communities of circus professionals, stakeholders and audiences?

  • Virpi Ylanne

    Hello Kate, a very clear and uncluttered poster! Do not be shy about putting your name up in larger font in future! :)
    I agree that some background historical overview is necessary in the early part of the thesis, but then it’ll be great to see how audience members of e.g. different ages talk about their experiences (and expectations?) and how the definition / construction of a circus emerges from your data. My first memory is from a time when they still had live animals in a Russian circus in the 1970s… and it could well be that, if interviewed, I’d make comparisons with contemporary and old school practices.
    Good luck, it’s great project (and fingers crossed for Glasto next year!)

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Hi Katharine, thanks for your comment :) What I expect to find is that the promotional texts focus their positive evaluations on semantic qualities of performance – what concepts productions communicate – while audience members will incline more towards affect – how the experience makes them feel. This would reflect the dominant tradition of text-based theatre in the the legitimised UK performing arts and a long-established discourse around conceptual meaning as a marker of value in this field. At the moment this expectation is based on intuition, anecdote and personal experience. While I imagine the research will provide evidence to support this, I will be equally interested if this understanding is proved wrong. In that case, what I currently believe is a gap between what audience members value and what values the texts promote may actually turn out to be a gap between what matters to circus professionals and what matters to audience members (based on previous research). The impact will necessarily depend on which of these scenarios is revealed by the data, but will involve some sort of educational programme for circus professionals (either in effective marketing, or in understanding audience motivations).

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Hi Virpi, it seems whenever I add a comment here I cross over with someone else posting at the same time haha! Thanks for your feedback. I’ve also noticed most posters include contact details, so that’s another point to remember for the future!

  • Chris Heffer

    Hi Kate
    Fascinating topic and great poster. I look forward to hearing more.

  • Lisa El Refaie

    Hi Kate,
    I agree with the previous commentators that this is a very nicely presented poster and a great topic!
    Just a couple of thoughts: reg. how much context to give about how the concept of circus has changed, I would say that anything you already knew before you started your own study (so from publicly available sources and other published studies) should be discussed in the introduction and/or literature review, so it’s clear to the reader why your study is important and what your original contribution will be, exactly.
    I did also wonder about the issue of audiences; isn’t one of the main changes that circus used to be mostly for children, whereas now it’s often deliberately targeted at (young) adults?

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Thanks Chris and Lisa for your comments :) Funnily enough, it wasn’t until the mid-20th Century that circus started to be marketed as a children’s activity, although the modern circus form dates back to 1768. Nonetheless, that ‘for children’ association is very strong for many people (which may be to do with the development of mass media culture around the same period?)

  • Sabrina Toumi

    Hello Kate,
    Thanks for sharing your research. That’s an unusual and very fascinating topic.I look forward to learning about your findings.
    All the best

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *