Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Differences under the differences

By Claude Fischer


Social scientists trying to understand what makes Americans tick often turn to cross-national surveys to compare Americans’ opinions to those of people in other countries. Such surveys show us, for example, that Americans are generally more religious, more patriotic, and more suspicious of government than are people most elsewhere.

A recent conference devoted to designing such international surveys made concrete an important point that I had perhaps appreciated too abstractly: There are deeper differences underneath the different answers Americans give. The very assumptions behind the questions that are asked, whether the questions even mean the same things, differ profoundly from nation to nation.

What is Heavy?

The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) is a consortium of top-notch survey organizations from nearly 50 countries. Each year, these organizations collaborate to mount parallel surveys asking the same questions to respondents around the world. They cover a range of topics, each year devoted to a particular theme. The 2012 meetings (which I attended as one of the two representatives of the U.S. General Social Survey) focused on the upcoming survey dealing with national identity and on the one after concerning citizenship.

One obvious concern the researchers have is making sure that the translations of questions from one language to another, or to variants of a language (Spanish in Spain is not exactly the same as Spanish in Chile), carry the same meanings. Sometimes, however, there are deeper issues than getting the translations right.

Take, as a relatively simple example, asking people in nations around the world whether they are proud of their country’s military. Complications arise. For one, there are a few countries with no military. For another, in a some countries, the military spends all its time on what we would consider local National Guard work or on UN peacekeeping and none actually fighting wars. And, in some countries, the military is so involved in domestic politics that to express an opinion about the military out loud to an interviewer is to take a stand on a very sensitive, risky topic.

Sometimes, cultural variations can be amusing. Sociologist Deborah Carr attended an ISSP conference that focused on designing questions about health. She wrote me,

One of my all-time favorite academic memories is witnessing an intense debate at ISSP regarding health behavior items. The eastern European contingent scoffed at the western European’s notion of “heavy drinking” while the Italian and French rep’s chuckled at the U.S./Canadian perspective that 2 packs a day constituted “heavy” smoking.

A more complex and sometimes darker example is the notion of “ethnic” – as in identifying one’s own ethnic group or discussing ethnic conflict.

Although the term, ethnic, has ragged edges in the U.S., we generally understand that it refers to something about biological descent, to categories like African-, Asian-, Latin-, and Native-American. In other nations, however, the term’s closest translation either makes no sense or, at best, points to a different social dimension altogether – to a person’s religion (say, Muslim vs. Hindu, Protestant vs. Catholic, Shia vs. Sunni, etc.); caste (as in India’s Dalit); tribe (or tribal alliance in places like Kenya); nation of long-ago immigrant ancestors (“Kiss me, I’m Irish” on March 17); nation of long-ago territory that was later absorbed by another (say, “Germans” living in a region of Poland that was once part of Germany); indigenous versus colonial ancestry; language spoken at home; and a host of idiosyncratic cases (for example, the Roma people who camp throughout Europe). Some small countries are so homogenous that their “ethnic groups” may be a tiny few percent of the population and the whole topic is relatively unimportant. Elsewhere, in sharp contrast, the term closest to “ethnic” is such a hot topic that just asking or answering a question about it can put the interviewer and the interviewee in danger.

Similar confusions can occur in asking people what their “nationality” is. We Americans assume that the correct answer would be what it says on your passport – your citizenship. But in some places in the world, people affirm “nationalities” that challenge what it says on their passports. In parts of the world, eastern Europe for example, many people claim that their “nationality” is the country that their town or village used to be part of, before the latest war or border changes. Try and correct them and you could start a fight.

Going Deeper

There is an even deeper level yet to the cultural variations in survey answers. Westerners, especially Americans, take it for granted that each individual has his or her own personal opinion and is willing, maybe eager, to tell it. This assumption makes sense in our culture, where we believe that we are all unique individuals who are independent, self-governing, and ultimately self-responsible (see this earlier post).

However, in many other cultures still today – although fewer of them as western ideas spread across the globe – this is an odd notion. A person is just part of a whole. The very idea of asking an individual for a personal opinion is confusing when the individual is not expected to form separate opinions (especially on topics far from daily life) and when it’s the group’s or the leader’s opinion that means anything. Indeed, if an interviewer really wants to know the right answer to a question – say, what the country’s foreign policy ought to be – wouldn’t a group provide a better analysis than a lone person? Psychologist Patricia Greenfield noted this challenge to western research methods in her studies of indigenous weavers in Chiapis, Mexico (abstract):

I envisioned each girl and each mother as an individual participant with an individual interview protocol. But that is not how my participants saw it. The notion that a girl would have an independent viewpoint, an independent piece of knowledge, or an independent perspective was not within their world view. Instead, they expected more knowledgeable mothers to answer for young girls and for members of the family grouping to answer questions cooperatively. . . . [The] information would be as valid as possible because of it being the product of a group effort. The partitioning of this information individual by individual was at odds with their world view.


The implication of all this is not to discredit surveys. Certainly, the ISSP researchers who unearth and struggle with these complexities persist in developing, mounting, and analyzing their polls. They – we – do so, however, quite aware of the different layers of meaning. Indeed, the surveys themselves reveal and help us understand these deeper levels of difference.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.