Archive for November, 2011

Shape of Things…..


I hit the SSSR meetings in Milwaukee recently to see my buddy Mag and race a cross race. I forgot my tutu, though. It was an interesting experience, and somewhat better than expected. Mostly because the decline of the United States and of American sociology of religion has lead to an increasing Europeanization of the meetings. Jim Beckford and Eileen Barker deserve considerable credit, as do Grace Davies and David Voas. I was talking with David at one point and the enormity of it hit me. If these meetings were in Manchester UK there is no way in hell I would be able to attend, and yet there were dozens of scholars from the UK, and not all of the stature of David Voas. They have money. We don’t. And, they aren’t getting their money from shady-ass right wing foundations seeking to promote right-wing Christianity. No. They just get money to do their scholarship, like you would expect at a real University in a non-Third World country…..

The Commodification of Public Opinion, Part I


So, what do you think?

Public opinion research has a sordid history of failed efforts, followed by a period of scientific control and seriousness, and it is now degenerating into an unscientific commodity controlled by moneyed ideologues. What do people want? It’s a question that is essential for democracy. Represented officials need to know the will of the people in order to act on those preferences, or to convince the public that their preferred options are not ideal. Democracy can’t work when only the politically connected have a say in what policies are pursued–which collective goods will be produced and which bads alleviated. With public opinion, there is an air of democracy in the process. Elected officials must bow to public opinion, or else, presumably, the public will vote them out of office. Of course, if the public doesn’t know what the public will is, or is grossly misinformed about the issues the public cares about and their positions on important questions, then the public will have skewed issue salience and no sense of potential for political mobilization to generate collective goods or mitigate collective harms.

Bad public opinion research in the early and mid 20th century tended to be commodified.  “Research” was conducted by “journalists” who sold the stories of what American’s think to publications, who in turn sold magazines and newspapers to people who wanted to know what other people think. The debacles of the Literary Digest’s prediction of an Alf Landon victory over FDR in 1936, and later the Chicago Time’s prediction of Dewey defeating Truman led to some circumspection, and scientific attention to the sampling process. Simple random samples with high response rates ensure that estimates from those samples will converge to the population parameter with repeated infinite sampling. Wow. How simple. You have to know that to pass most undergraduate statistics courses. Actually, “high” response rates aren’t enough. We hope that high response rates are enough. Random isn’t “people who are home at 7pm on Monday and answer their phone to answer questions from a stranger.”

Failed predictions in the mid-20th century led to decommodification of the survey research industry, and the most active research instead was taken up by social scientists at universities, particularly at Michigan, Berkeley, and Chicago, but also in many smaller research institutes. All of these had in common a fierce attention to detail and to scientific procedures for sampling and completion, and an increasing attention to question wording, reliability, and other technical issues in the field. University researchers also shared an abiding commitment to data quality for its own sake—their careers relied on the accuracy of these data, and the purpose of measuring public opinion was not to sell it to a newpaper, political group, or corporation. The data were for the scientific community, and were not for sale (though universities contributed to data sharing programs like ICPSR which furthered scientific progress).

With the advance of 24 hour television in the 1970s and 1980s, opinion polls once again became more lucrative for media organizations. At the same time, politicians came to see these methods as a means to assess chances and issues, and to try to manipulate public opinion by controlling the framing of issues. Jane Mansbridge provides a nice story regarding that during the ERA ratification campaign, when Gallup used question wording shifts to falsely suggest a surge in public opinion. The good liberal Gallup thought he was helping ERA, but instead wound up energizing the countermovement and decreasing the salience of survey research. More importantly, Gallup did what he did because he was a paid operative who was selling the opinions his customers wanted to hear. It was the beginning of the deluge of whore survey research. Public opinion as something that can be deliberately bought and sold, and manipulated. And, worse yet, at the same time we saw the beginning of the War on Education, which will serve to defund many minor survey research centers, reduce the ability of many colleges to support data sharing initiatives, and create a crisis for major research centers which took up the charge of conducting serious scientific studies of public opinion. To make matters worse, this period also saw an explosion of “Marketing Research” which tested the limits of interviewee cooperativeness and sold bogus products to companies hoping to capitalize on the identification of consumer preferences. Within 20 years after the election of Reagan, public opinion research will  change radically, and will formally alter the scientific standards for data collection–in response to the preferences of powerful for-profit interests in the survey research and marketing fields.  In the early 1980s, survey research textbooks would condemn to death any “study” which only received responses from 25% of the randomly targeted subjects, now a response rate of 25% is considered the “gold standard.” Jesus fuck…it gets worse…

Striking for the Fuck of it.


Chancellor, Students, Colleagues, whatever....I'm fuckin' it!


Some of the faculty at my humble university are “on strike” to attempt to wrest all control from teh board of trustees and the evil Alien Rita Cheng and establish the utopia of faculty governance over every decision. We will have petitions to decide which vegan toilet paper will be used in our unisex bathrooms. Soldarity Forever!!! The “faculty union negotiating team” spent last year not showering and meeting in the fake Sufi coffee shop, and refused to even discuss whatever they might demand, even though the prior contract had already expired. And, of course, they don’t work in the Summer, that’s when they go to their summer homes on the coast. So, instead of bothering to try to bargain, they made ridiculous demands (….define financial exigency….) and start gearing up for a strike for two months before it took place. This was really a bunch of hipster wanna-be types who were just itching to say “I went on strike”. Nobody knew jack-fuck about the real issues, or thought about them in terms of what is true at every other university in the nation, and how the focus on ultimate do-or-die scenarios was psycho and paranoid…..Let me tell you, as many who troll this blog know, if I’m calling you paranoid, you’re in sad, sad shape. But, mostly this is just what McCarthy and Zald and Oberschall were talking about. The motivations for collective action are not largely rooted  in some desire for a collective good, and people may not even understand what collective goods are sought by social movement organizations, but instead people participate in movements for social rewards which accrue to activists who show fealty to the pre-mobilized group. Unfortunately, if SIU loses another couple of thousand students, that pre-mobilized group is going to be getting a lot smaller.  This is a complete trainwreck, and these people are idiots. There, glad to have that off…


Christian War against Weed


Support for Legalizing Marijuana: 2010 GSS

One of my friends just got busted for growing weed on his farm. The guy’s in his mid-60s, and a former Peace Corp worker and retired teacher, who now runs a reasonably successful agricultural operation—but not in weed. He’s an old hippy who likes to mellow out and smoke a few doobies (he still calls them doobies and rolls joints instead of using a bong or pipe). And, this being the season when the DEA likes to illegally search people’s land by airplane and then concoct probable cause to get a search warrant, he was visited by several jack booted thugs from the DEA and Jackson County’s finest fat guys.  They tore up his property, stole his weed, and even ran over and killed one of his dogs (the guy is an absolute dog-loving nut, and he almost started crying when he told us). Now, he awaits charges.

Why? Because, while most Americans  have seen the light on the abject failure of the War on Drugs (aka the war on brown people and hippies), one segment of the population believes that we should spend all kinds of money on helicopters, thugs, prisons, and lawyers—the fundies. The war on drugs is their war.  While 48% of Americans support legalization, only 31% of fundies think weed should be legal.  People who hold secular views of religious sacred texts are strongly supportive of legalization, with nearly 70% backing legalization. Most of what is wrong with this country can be tied to conservative Christianity, thank you Jesus.