Survey Research and Subjective Phenomena

Survey researchers claim that the only way to know about subjective phenomena is to ask.  But when you ask people how they feel about this or that, and when you ask them for their opinions, or other subjective states, all you receive are what they say they feel or what they say their opinions are–and as we all know, what people say may, or may not, correspond to what they actually feel or what their actual opinions are.  So, when you want to find out about subjective phenomena, don’t ask!  Instead:

Observe.  Subjective phenomena can be identified and measured by observations of behavior and body conditions.  Thus, for example, from a 1949 publication, The Polls and Public Opinion:

“[M]any . . . aspects of the functioning of our organisms [e.g.] . . . . blood pressure, reflect attitudes . . . opinions” (p. 111).

“[W]e express opinions and attitudes . . . by many aspects of our behavior” (p. 112).

A “science [emphasis added] of public opinion will need to use many, many indexes of behavior [emphasis added]” (p. 112).

Researchers (some cited in The Problem with Survey Research , p. 288) have observed behaviors of children and adults in various settings from which they inferred attitudes and identified causes of these subjective phenomena.  Observations of people’s faces communicate reliable information, not only about interest but also about happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust or contempt.  Observations of pupil dilation, heartbeat, and other physiological reactions to pictures, words, objects, and proximity of spouses support estimates of opinions, attitudes, beliefs and feelings.  Observations of cortisol, a steroid hormone, indicate subjective levels of stress.

Analyze Content 0f Documents and Other Media.  Content analysis is another procedure for obtaining reliable information about subjective phenomena.  There’s much research (some cited in The Problem with Survey Research, pp. 309-40) in which analyses of documents, symbols, and other communications have been used to investigate people’s thoughts and feelings  For example, opinions of groups and segments of the public are monitored by examining editorials, articles, and so on, in select publications, and it’s also the case that pictures in magazines, birthday cards, content of TV program, movies, and the Internet display opinions, deference, demeanor, social approbation, and many other feelings and emotions.  Just recently, I came across a reference to a study in which  Dr. Seuss books were analyzed to identify the origins of people’s views of government (Chilton, B.S. and Chilton, L.M. 1993. “Rebuilding the Public Service: Researching the Origins of Public Perceptions of Public Service in Children’s Literature”. Public Personnel Administration. 13(4), 72-78).

About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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