Posts Tagged ‘meanings’

Surveying Change

Social historians studying the twentieth century have an advantage specialists in earlier centuries do not. Survey research, which began seriously in the 1930s, allows the former to know what average people reported about their attitudes and actions in ways that no documentary archive can even approximate (here, for example). To track changes over the decades in attitudes and action accurately, not only should the samples drawn in different eras be comparable, the questions asked should be the same – whether they are about church attendance, political participation, racial views, whatever. As the noted sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan reportedly stated, “If you want to measure change, don’t change the measure” – i.e., the wording of question.

Wise advice. But there is a problem: Sometimes the words themselves change meaning.

I was sharply reminded of this issue recently when leading a team that was putting together a survey. I had jotted down a phrase to use in a question: “in order to keep things straight.” Graduate students quickly objected. You can’t use straight because of its sexual connotations. I was well-aware that the word gay had been transformed. Tom W. Smith, a dean of survey research, noted that the Gallup Poll’s 1954 question, “Which American city do you think has the gayest night life?,” did not mean the same thing just 30 years later. Now, neither does straight.

Survey designers cannot fully rely on fixed meanings. Paradoxically, the pollsters’ craft requires judgments about social change in order to write the questions to measure social change. (For related discussions of how words’ histories can affect psychological testing, see this earlier post and here.)


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