How Surveys Became Vital to Modern Society

Now that we have to consider public opinion in the conduct of foreign policy, it’s worth listening to what Kohut has to say about what his polls show.

That’s former JFK advisor Theodore Sorenson introducing researcher Andrew Kohut in a 1990s meeting of the U.S. foreign policy community. Kohut, then working for the Times Mirror Center, would become president of the second iteration of that organization—the Pew Research Center.

It’s a good illustration of how far surveys have come. Although they’ve been around since ancient times, they’ve only come into their own in the last half-century. And while they’ve matured in complexity and accuracy, they’ve also become vital to just about everyone in modern society.

Reaching (and Listening to) the Masses

“Coming from a senior policymaker of another era [Sorenson],” writes Andrew Kohut of this encounter. “This introduction drove home to me quite clearly how much the role of public opinion had changed over the years.”

In fact, early surveys didn’t ask everyday Joes for their opinions. The ancient Romans only talked to citizens (males, and not all males), medieval rulers only talked to clergymen and nobles, and Industrial Revolution researchers only talked to factory managers.

“A major revolution occurred when researchers asked factory workers and slum dwellers to report on their working and living conditions…” writes the Prairie Research Institute (PRI). “The switch to respondent-based data removed major biases that result when we ask key informants to speak for a group.”

Still, surveys weren’t representative. According to the Prairie Research Institute, for example, Victorian era researchers typically surveyed 10,000 to 20,000 people to achieve representation.

It wasn’t until researchers like George Gallup brought science to the proceedings that surveys began to improve in accuracy. Gallup introduced representative sampling, and statisticians have since proven that a smaller number done well can suffice.

“Today, it is common for surveys to be quite accurate with samples of 600,” writes the PRI. “For a national poll in Canada, 1,000-1,600 respondents is a common sample size. It is faster and less expensive to use a smaller sample.”

From the 1930s to the 1960s, however, in what former U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves calls the first era of modern survey development, “the founders of the field [such as Gallup] invented the basic components of the design of data collection and the tools to produce the statistical information from surveys.”

“As they were inventing the method,” writes Groves. “They were also building the institutions that conduct surveys in the private, academic and government sectors.”

Social Upheaval

Actually, when Kohut was writing about the changing role of public opinion, he was referring to the period from John F. Kennedy’s presidency to Bill Clinton’s. During that time, the use of surveys grew dramatically.

“The civil rights movement, race riots, the Vietnam War, the antiwar movement, the rise of the counterculture, and the women’s movement had changed the country and made its people far harder to understand than the American public of the 1950s,” writes Kohut.

The government and news agencies needed to understand the public, but they were limited to a couple of organizations doing surveys at the time. Only firms like Gallup and Harris had the resources to do comprehensive polls.

Kohut refers to outgoing president Lyndon Johnson’s advice to incoming vice president Spiro Agnew: “We have in this country two television networks: NBC and CBS. We have two newsmagazines: Newsweek and Time. We have two wire services: AP and UPI. We have two pollsters: Gallup and Harris…They are all so damned big they think they own the country.”

Rapid Growth

Social upheaval in the United States along with advances in the telephone and computer spurred the growth of surveys between the 1960s and 1990s.

“The second era (1960-1990) witnessed a vast growth in the use of the survey method,” writes Robert Groves. “This growth was aided by the needs of the U.S. federal government to monitor the effects of investments in human and physical infrastructure, the growth of the quantitative social sciences, and the use of quantitative information to study consumer behaviors.”

According to Groves, the government threw a bunch of money at social science research to try to understand the changes affecting the nation: “Government surveys flourished during this time, permitting the growth of the federal contract sector of surveys (e.g., Westat, Research Triangle Institute).”

At the same time, the telephone and computer were undergoing significant changes. In the early 1970s, AT&T started offering cheaper nationwide calling—ending the era of mail interviews and launching the era of telephone interviews.

Also by then, computers had become a primary tool for analyzing survey data. When researchers began using computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI), surveys became dramatically easier, cheaper and faster. The days of the personal interview dominated by a few organizations were over.

“The ascendancy of the telephone surveys made it possible for the news media and others to conduct polls,” writes Andrew Kohut. “But it is fair to say that the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s made it imperative that news organizations better understand a nation that was experiencing extraordinary social and political change.”

According to University of North Carolina professor emeritus Philip Meyer, the media turned to surveys as a way of getting more accurate stories.

“Media polls proliferated in the 1980s precisely because the editors no longer trusted the polls that politicians tried to give them and armed themselves with their own data-collection operations out of self-defense,” writes Meyer in The New Precision Journalism. “Thus polling became not so much a way to make news as an enhanced tool of the newsgathering process itself.”

“Private sector surveys grew also,” writes Robert Groves. “With increasing linkage between customer survey statistics and management action.”

And by archiving and sharing their data, the public and private sector “permitted the rise of quantitative methods in many social science disciplines.” And what the PRI calls “multivariate statistical analysis” to “isolate and identify relationships” in data.

Surveys’ Impact

According to Kohut, Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president in the modern survey era—he was the first to bear intense public scrutiny through polls. Now, however, every politician, government agency, big corporation, et cetera has to deal with it.

More than that, public polls have become integral to decision-making. According to Kohut, Ronald Reagan used polls after suffering backlash against the Iran-contra dealings; George H.W. Bush used polls to track his efforts to gain public opinion for an invasion of Iraq; Bill Clinton used favorable polls to save his job during the Monica Lewinsky scandal; and George W. Bush backed off Social Security reform in 2004 following public opposition.

“Polls now provide leaders with capital or impoverish them in their efforts to promote policies,” writes Kohut. “Those who can back up their assertions by pointing to poll results find the going easier than leaders who cannot.”

Welcome to the modern world—of surveys.

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