On being ... asked

By Ingrid Sapona


How do you feel about surveys? 

Don’t worry, this isn’t a survey. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about this week. 

I started thinking about surveys after hearing a sociologist talk about current views of Ukrainians in a session titled: “Russia’s War onUkraine: Assessing the State of the Conflict Six Months On.” It was part of an on-going series hosted by Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. 

Tymofii BrikRector and Head of Sociological Research at Kyiv School of Economics, was asked about Ukrainians’ perceptions about the war. In response, he talked about surveys he and other scholars and organization have been doing by phone, on-line, and in-person to learn about how the war might be changing Ukrainian society. I never thought that scholars might use surveys to gauge such things.  

He talked about the trends they’ve observed from the surveys. Apparently 80% of respondents believe in the victory of Ukraine and, based on surveys done in March, April, and this month, they have believed this consistently. The surveys also show increased trust in national institutions – with 60% of those surveyed indicating they trust the military and 45-50% trust the president. The surveys also show there’s been no backlash or disappointment in military or presidential powers, he said. 

Brik also talked about surveys Ukraine’s Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Science has been conducting regarding how people in Ukraine identify themselves. Just before the invasion they asked respondents how they primarily identify themselves. There was a range of labels to choose from: “Ukrainian”, “a dweller of a town or village”, “a person of the global world”, “a Soviet person”, and so on. In February about 60% of respondents primarily identified as Ukrainians and now it is 80%, he said. Brik concluded by saying Ukraine right now is a very solidified, united nation. As a result, he’s quite optimistic because the research demonstrates that Ukrainians are showing strong resilience and adherence to their state and nation and a willingness to support democratic institutions. 

Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this, but until I reflected on Brik’s work and the conclusions he and others are drawing from it, I tended to think of surveys mainly as tools used in marketing. I certainly never thought of them as serious tools of sociological research, nor have I thought about the role such surveys might play in swaying the global community. (Though there are moral reasons to support Ukraine, evidence of how Ukrainians feel is no doubt important to foreigners’ continued support.) 

With my attention newly focused on surveys, I’ve been surprised at how many domestic news stories mention survey statistics. For example, there was an article last Wednesday about people’s views on inflation. The survey discussed in the article asked people how long they thought inflation might continue. (FYI, 2/3 of Canadians apparently think it’ll continue for at least another year.) The survey also asked people what they thought was causing inflation. (Seems Canadians point to Covid-19 fallout, supply chain problems, the federal government, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Bank of Canada, with no single culprit standing out.) Then a story in Friday’s paper referenced a survey about whether inflation has changed personal spending habits. The survey results aren’t important here. Instead, what I’d say is that I never thought about surveys as a way to get at the psychological, practical, and emotional impacts of something like inflation. 

And, clearly, surveys are relevant in a wide array of areas. Accompanying a Sunday article on Scotland’s Period Products Law, which guarantees women and girls access to tampons and sanitary pads, was a side bar with results of surveys done by Plan International Canada. The surveys were about affordability of menstrual products and attitudes toward menstruation in Canada. I’m sure these surveys will be sited in the on-going grass roots efforts to get similar legislation passed in Canada. 

And then there was a front-page article in today’s Toronto Star about a new monthly poll by the same firm that did the survey on peoples’ views on inflation. The pollster is calling this new survey the Rage Index and they say it’s to track the mood of Canadians regarding their governments, the economy, and current events. The survey response choices are: “very happy”, “pleased or moderately happy”, “neutral or no emotion, “annoyed or moderately angry”, and “very angry”. But, on the pollster’s website reporting the results, they combine “very angry” and “annoyed or moderately angry” under the generic label of “angry”. That kind of generalization drives me crazy, especially when they’re supposedly gauging peoples’ moods about topics that are ripe for political exploitation. 

I may not have been tuned into surveys to the degree I am now, but I’ve long been wary of polls like the Rage Index, as they seem intended mainly to make headlines. I found it interesting that the Rage Index pollster concluded Canadians are “grumpy” – a label that wasn’t even used in the survey. Of course, a “Rage Index” that measures grumpiness probably wouldn’t land on the front page… 

I generally don’t mind answering surveys. But I have been known to stop mid-survey or to refused to answer if I sense a survey is designed to lead responses in a certain direction. After thinking about the surveys I’ve seen referenced this week, I don’t think my view of surveys has changed all that much. I’ll still cast a skeptical eye on them – wondering who has sponsored them and what they might be used for. But, so long as they’re well crafted and not the only tool used in decision-making, I can see how they provide useful insights into all sorts of things. 

What about you? Where do you stand on surveys? Are you an avid survey answerer? And how do you feel about survey results? Do you put much stock in them? 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona 


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