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Differences under the differences

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | July 13, 2012

Social scientists trying to understand what makes Americans tick often turn to cross-national surveys to compare Americans’ opinions to those of people in other countries. Such surveys show us, for example, that Americans are generally more religious, more patriotic, and more suspicious of government than are people most elsewhere.

Interview with Patrick Vinck, UC Berkeley

A recent conference devoted to designing such international surveys made concrete an important point that I had perhaps appreciated too abstractly: There are deeper differences underneath the different answers Americans give. The very assumptions behind the questions that are asked, whether the questions even mean the same things, differ profoundly from nation to nation.

What is Heavy?

The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) is a consortium of top-notch survey organizations from nearly 50 countries. Each year, these organizations collaborate to mount parallel surveys asking the same questions to respondents around the world. They cover a range of topics, each year devoted to a particular theme. The 2012 meetings (which I attended as one of the two representatives of the U.S. General Social Survey) focused on the upcoming survey dealing with national identity and on the one after concerning citizenship.

One obvious concern the researchers have is making sure that the translations of questions from one language to another, or to variants of a language (Spanish in Spain is not exactly the same as Spanish in Chile), carry the same meanings. Sometimes, however, there are deeper issues than getting the translations right.

Take, as a relatively simple example, asking people in nations around the world whether they are proud of their country’s military. Complications arise. For one, there are a few countries with no military. For another, in a some countries, the military spends all its time on what we would consider local National Guard work or on UN peacekeeping and none actually fighting wars. And, in some countries, the military is so involved in domestic politics that to express an opinion about the military out loud to an interviewer is to take a stand on a very sensitive, risky topic.

Sometimes, cultural variations can be amusing. Sociologist Deborah Carr attended an ISSP conference that focused on designing questions about health. She wrote me,

One of my all-time favorite academic memories is witnessing an intense debate at ISSP regarding health behavior items. The eastern European contingent scoffed at the western European’s notion of “heavy drinking” while the Italian and French rep’s chuckled at the U.S./Canadian perspective that 2 packs a day constituted “heavy” smoking.

A more complex and sometimes darker example is the notion of “ethnic” – as in identifying one’s own ethnic group or discussing ethnic conflict.

Although the term, ethnic, has ragged edges in the U.S., we generally understand that it refers to something about biological descent, to categories like African-, Asian-, Latin-, and Native-American. In other nations, however, the term’s closest translation either makes no sense or, at best, points to a different social dimension altogether – to a person’s religion (say, Muslim vs. Hindu, Protestant vs. Catholic, Shia vs. Sunni, etc.); caste (as in India’s Dalit); tribe (or tribal alliance in places like Kenya); nation of long-ago immigrant ancestors (“Kiss me, I’m Irish” on March 17); nation of long-ago territory that was later absorbed by another (say, “Germans” living in a region of Poland that was once part of Germany); indigenous versus colonial ancestry; language spoken at home; and a host of idiosyncratic cases (for example, the Roma people who camp throughout Europe). Some small countries are so homogenous that their “ethnic groups” may be a tiny few percent of the population and the whole topic is relatively unimportant. Elsewhere, in sharp contrast, the term closest to “ethnic” is such a hot topic that just asking or answering a question about it can put the interviewer and the interviewee in danger.

Similar confusions can occur in asking people what their “nationality” is. We Americans assume that the correct answer would be what it says on your passport – your citizenship. But in some places in the world, people affirm “nationalities” that challenge what it says on their passports. In parts of the world, eastern Europe for example, many people claim that their “nationality” is the country that their town or village used to be part of, before the latest war or border changes. Try and correct them and you could start a fight.

Going Deeper

There is an even deeper level yet to the cultural variations in survey answers. Westerners, especially Americans, take it for granted that each individual has his or her own personal opinion and is willing, maybe eager, to tell it. This assumption makes sense in our culture, where we believe that we are all unique individuals who are independent, self-governing, and ultimately self-responsible (see this earlier post).

However, in many other cultures still today – although fewer of them as western ideas spread across the globe – this is an odd notion. A person is just part of a whole. The very idea of asking an individual for a personal opinion is confusing when the individual is not expected to form separate opinions (especially on topics far from daily life) and when it’s the group’s or the leader’s opinion that means anything. Indeed, if an interviewer really wants to know the right answer to a question – say, what the country’s foreign policy ought to be – wouldn’t a group provide a better analysis than a lone person? Psychologist Patricia Greenfield noted this challenge to western research methods in her studies of indigenous weavers in Chiapis, Mexico (abstract):

I envisioned each girl and each mother as an individual participant with an individual interview protocol. But that is not how my participants saw it. The notion that a girl would have an independent viewpoint, an independent piece of knowledge, or an independent perspective was not within their world view. Instead, they expected more knowledgeable mothers to answer for young girls and for members of the family grouping to answer questions cooperatively. . . . [The] information would be as valid as possible because of it being the product of a group effort. The partitioning of this information individual by individual was at odds with their world view.


The implication of all this is not to discredit surveys. Certainly, the ISSP researchers who unearth and struggle with these complexities persist in developing, mounting, and analyzing their polls. They – we – do so, however, quite aware of the different layers of meaning. Indeed, the surveys themselves reveal and help us understand these deeper levels of difference.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Differences under the differences

  1. I do agree with this part very much, “The People class warfare that are causing our current fall into tyranny once again as demonstrated by 2012 election campaigns dominated by sophistries and the dominant numbers of politicians and judges who have indentured themselves against the interests of We The People Democracy.”

    Thank yo for the comment,

  2. Prof. Fischer, in this era of failed political leadership that threatens our Democracy more than any time since the Civil War, sociologists become the next line of defense to save American Democracy using innovations such as the new social network to educate and motivate citizens on how to prevent Washington from driving us further into chaos.

    Sociology professors are the most important discipline with the highest expertise for educating society in times of great political threat like this 2012 election is proving to be, as well as rebooting our evolutionary growth, so we can deal with leadership failures in all institutions that we are experiencing today.

    Berkeley students and faculty played a major role in advancing civil rights and protecting freedom of speech in the 60s and 70s, and now that all of our rights are threatened it is time for Berkeley students and faculty to lead again when political failures are getting further and further out of control due to outrageously mendacious superPAC attacks against We The People control and one man rule by oligarchs like Grover Norquist.

  3. Two historic periods that produced some of the greatest advances for humanity were Ancient Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. when the greatest advances in democracy and philosophy were produced, then America in the 1960s and 70s when great advances in civil rights and education were produced.

    Tragically, both periods of extraordinary advances were also plagued by war, poverty, corruption, greed, immorality, uncompromisable divisiveness and natural resource destruction that prevented humanity from producing advances that would perpetuate an acceptable quality of life, cultural failures which we continue to experience at our increasing peril.

    A most important requirement for perpetuating an acceptable quality of life requires human nature that can be changed and improved by experience.

    So the question is, can human nature be changed and improved to eternalize peace, prosperity and happiness for humanity?

    A most important fact of the 60s and 70s is that UC students and faculty made a difference to achieve improvements in the American way of life, and it’s time for UC student and faculty leaders to make the right things happen to perpetuate acceptable quality of life at last, or else.

  4. A fact of life is that we live in a world where we are constantly overwhelmed by destructive dichotomies such as:
    Order & Chaos
    Good & Evil
    Morality & Hate
    Conscience & Avarice
    Prefrontal Cortex control & Amygdala control
    Democracy & Tyranny
    Philosophers & Sophists
    Us & Them
    Compassion & Watch and Do Nothing

    One most important lesson in history that we still fail to act on is the Rise and Fall of the Golden Age of Athenian Democracy that was destroyed by the Peloponnesian War.

    Today, the latest consequence of our failures to learn from history is that we have yet to overcome our state of continuous wars from WWII (when we saved the world from tyranny) to the current Middle East wars caused by political, economic, religious and cultural chaos.

    This is due to the fact that Ancient Greece and 21st Century America share most of the same destructive cultural failures including immorality, corruption, conflicts between religion and science, undereducation, and rich against We The People class warfare that are causing our current fall into tyranny once again as demonstrated by 2012 election campaigns dominated by sophistries and the dominant numbers of politicians and judges who have indentured themselves against the interests of We The People Democracy.

    And after all the repeated failures in Democracy over the last 2500+ years we still allow all of our institutions to marginalize Golden Rule based leadership at our increasing peril.

    So what good are polls ad infinitum if they don’t produce any long-term solutions that will protect and preserve long-term quality of life and American Democracy?

  5. Prof. Fischer, another kind of survey is to read the History of Democracy back to Cleisthenes in 6th century B.C. Athens and discover that over and over far too many citizens prefer sophistry to philosophy (truth) and opinion to knowledge (experience).

    A fact that stands out for over 2500 years is that people are too easily misled and used by well paid sophists who can even convince them to vote against their best interests which surveys today prove this point far too many times.

    Even President Eisenhower warned us in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    So it is no wonder that in this new (2012) age of SCOTUS sponsored superPACs the power of money continues to be a root cause of political immorality that is once again overthrowing democracy while we watch and do nothing to counter this newest chapter in the Decline and Fall of American Democracy.

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