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Measuring Public Opinion in Challenging Contexts

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

As we have discussed in other blog posts, public opinion is particularly important in countries with weak institutions of governance and accountability. Especially in fragile and conflict states, it can lend legitimacy to the government, help creating a national identity, and support governance reform. Unfortunately, public opinion is particularly hard to measure in those societies where it could be most important.

At the conference on Transnational Connections: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Opinion  in Segovia, Spain, in mid March, I participated in a panel on "Challenges of studying public opinion in challenging contexts." The first presenter, Monroe Price from the University of Pennsylvania, opened the panel with two fundamental questions: does public opinion take the same forms in challenging environments as it does elsewhere, and can we measure it with the same instruments? Mahmood Enayat from the Oxford Internet Institute discussed his experience with opinion surveys in Iran, focusing on methodology and suggesting online and phone surveys as appropriate methods. Ibrahim Al Marashi from IE University (Spain) reported on opinion research in Iraq and problems of interviewers to get at people's real opinions in societies where politeness and hospitality are defining aspects of culture. Julia Shimko, also IE University, talked about corruption surveys that she conducted on behalf of the World Bank and EBRD in former soviet countries, where standardized questionnaires were not successful in providing a picture of the reality of corruption.

Even in open societies it is rather difficult to measure public opinion since we're not so sure after all what public opinion actually is, or rather how it is manifested. This problem is even more dramatic in challenging political environments. Conventional methods such as surveys may not be suitable. The lack of polling institutions and the lack of official regime support for opinion polling may lead organizations to turn to online surveys. Here, of course, we have a huge problem with sampling because Internet access is not prevalent in the developing world and respondents would most often constitute a part of the elite, not a part of the population. Phone surveys, landlines or cell phones, may also be problematic because phones are registered - several countries plan to register cell phones - and can therefore be monitored.

Going back to Monroe Price's question that he posed at the conference: does public opinion take the same forms in challenging environments than in those areas where polling has been practiced for almost a century? Does it build the same way? Since we can't answer these questions, I suggest that small group deliberation may provide a feasible approach to study how public opinion is formed and which solutions it comes up with.

The Indian constitution has a provision to hold public hearings, Gram Sabhas and Gram Panchayats, to involve citizens in policy making and to try overcoming gender and caste differences in the way public opinion is formed. These meetings work somewhat similar to what we know as deliberative polling: an issue is introduced, information about it is provided, and a moderated discussion follows. It's not always successful at including all voices and producing policy relevant results, but it does give a better approximation of public opinion than, say, an online survey in rural India would do. China is working with deliberative polls at the local level where citizen meetings are part of determining budget priorities. We know similar approaches from participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre.

The advantage of these small group deliberations is that they approximate the ideal democratic situation of deliberation better than any opinion poll. People know what the issues are about, they receive information, discuss with their peers, and reach a consensus on solutions. True, power plays a role even in these settings and is likely to distort the outcome. Also true, research shows us that sometimes deliberation does not produce consensus, but exacerbates polarized opinion. And true that the outcome of small group deliberation can be very different that we would see on a larger national level. However, the opinion formation process in small deliberative forums is more ideal than in opinion polls and may give us the best possible idea about how opinion is formed and what it would be if people only had the chance for open, equal, and well informed discussion. This is true for any environment, and it may be the only feasible way to gauge public opinion in closed societies.

Picture: Flickr user magnusfranklin