Feb. 19, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 10

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    Taking charge of 'surveying the world'

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Tom Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center, took the reins of the International Social Survey Program when the organization met last month in the Philippines. NORC represents the United States in the ISSP, which encompasses 31 nations from around the world, including the founding nations of Australia, Germany and Great Britain, in addition to the United States. Among its newest members are Latvia, Chile and Bangladesh.

    With the goal of "surveying the world," the ISSP since 1985 has conducted annual cross-national surveys to understand how people worldwide differ, for instance, in their attitudes toward religion and their knowledge of the environment.

    As the new secretary-general of the ISSP, Smith coordinates all work between the annual meetings, maintains the organization's web site (www.issp.org), screens applications for new countries joining the organization and represents the ISSP before funding agencies and at international conferences.

    Smith, who received his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1979, has been director of the General Social Survey since 1980.

    How is the University reflected in the work of the ISSP? NORC represents the United States in the group, of course, but beyond that, a number of the leaders of the delegations received their Ph.D.s from Chicago -- including the heads of the Philippine, Australian and Israeli survey organizations. Other members of delegations have studied here, including the Bulgarian delegate, who visited us for a month last year. I think what draws these researchers to Chicago is the strong tradition of quantitative social science research. We have a long history of determining people's attitudes and then drawing theories from those observations.

    Conducting global surveys sounds challenging. What are the criteria for topics that can be surveyed across so many different cultures? We look for major topics that concern the social sciences. We began by looking at the role of government, since all countries have governments. That led us to understand how different cultures view the welfare state and civil liberties, for instance. Some topics don't work across cultures, such as a survey one of the members of our group wanted to do on the impact of new technology. In many countries, most people don't have access to the Internet, so it wouldn't work out.

    How are your survey questions influenced by cultures? We have to be careful on many surveys, such as the one on the environment, to be aware of how people live. For instance, we couldn't ask people in a developing country if they feel cutting back on their driving could reduce pollution if most people in that country don't have cars. We couldn't ask that question on our survey as a result.

    What do you do to make sure you have dependable, high quality responses? We begin by having standards that are the same in all countries. We expect the samples all to be random and representative of the age, gender, labor force and ethnic make-up of each country. We expect that the percentage of responses will be large enough to ensure that the sampled opinion is reliable. We also work on the translations so that they reflect uniform ideas. We make sure that we don't use expressions that don't translate well. For example, I once suggested that on a question concerning morality we ask people if they thought of morality as a matter of black and white or whether there were many shades of gray. That expression just doesn't make any sense in some languages, so we didn't use it. We include translation notes with the questions to make sure that people understand what we mean by words such as "government," which could refer to both a set of elected officials and the bureaucracy.

    What kind of restrictions do you place on how the information is gathered? We require that the surveys be done either in person or by mail. We don't permit phone interviews because that can bias the results. We find that people give shorter answers to more open-ended questions if they are talking on the phone, for instance.

    Do you expect the organization to grow? We are now on every continent, but our goal is to be able to survey the world. We have North America and Western Europe largely represented, but have only a few members from the less-developed nations.

    What survey questions will the organization ask in the years ahead? We will ask people about social inequality in 1999, about the environment in 2000 and about social networks in 2001. These surveys should produce data interesting to sociologists, economists and political scientists.