Answer this question to experience sense of agency

For the past few months, as I make the fifteen-minute walk between my residence and my office in Edinburgh, I have interacted with a particular pedestrian crossing. You know the kind with a button which we are supposed to dutifully press and then wait until the signal (here in the form of a somewhat generic, slim, green, male stick figure) gives us permission to cross the road? Some enterprising individual has taken this ubiquitous element of the Edinburgh cityscape and added their social commentary, in the form of a sticker reading ‘press the button to experience sense of agency.’ And this got me thinking…

Many of the buttons that we are routinely invited to press as we go about our lives — from door close buttons in elevators to office thermostats — don’t actually work, but are artifices serving only to provide that experience of a sense of agency. Indeed, according to the BBC, ‘Edinburgh has roughly 300 traffic junctions of which about 50–60 are junctions where the green man comes on automatically.’ And this is the case in many other cities across the world. These buttons sometimes work, sometimes don’t, never work, work at varying intervals at different times, and so on. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the buttons aren’t ‘working’, but that they are doing a different sort of ‘work’ than what we might first expect. They provide a sense of agency. This is not unlike the ‘work’ done by social surveys. Continue reading “Answer this question to experience sense of agency”

Directed Hearing

2349283746_7ed48c9423_bBoos and chants of USA! interrupted both political conventions over the past couple of weeks, generating significant comment and analysis. The FiveThirtyEight live blog (one source that I perused) noted that the prevalence of the chants and interruptions varied between different parts of the convention halls and on different broadcasts. While this illustrates the problem of assuming such an event can be described as a singular experience, it also raises a much broader point about what we hear. One contributor on FiveThirtyEight explained the influence of directional microphones.

directional mic

The assertion that any broadcast filters what people hear, whatever the intention, is not something new, though it is worth being reminded. But, this point is analogous to much of the information we encounter. The FiveThirtyEight blog focuses on statistical analysis, particularly of election polls, discussing the trends and the limitations of the quantitative data. I have been critical previously of the analysis of polls and surveys and the ease with which a statistically significant difference becomes the basis for broad generalizations. My specific example has been the discourse about those who express no religious affiliation on surveys (commonly identified as the Nones) and how the survey analysis constructs a group and analyzes their traits based on generalized answers to one question. Like the directional microphones, the creators of polls and surveys determine what questions to ask and typically what type of answers are allowed (or how they code divergent answers). In regards to election polling, the FiveThirtyEight blog notes the differences, for example, between general election polls that allow respondents to select third party candidates and those that do not.

We need to push such nuances further. For example, dissecting polling results according to race or ethnicity typically forces everyone into a set number of categories. Those who identify as multi-racial either must choose one racial category or generally have their voice ignored in the absence of sufficient numbers marking multi-racial to be statistically significant. This mechanism serves to reinforce the dominance of a singular racial category when many, whether they identify as such or not, have a multi-racial heritage. Similarly, these racial/ethnic categories generalize about diverse collections of people, such as placing people who identify with Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti together into a single Hispanic group, despite significant differences between and within those national groupings.

This directional mic effect is not limited to polling and quantitative studies but influences qualitative, in-depth research, too. The researcher can operate like a directional mic, hearing particular assertions clearer than others. Researchers are attuned to the general issues informing the topic, so that they hear answers relevant to that topic, even answers that challenge their preliminary conclusions, more clearly than answers that may be less obviously central to it. This effect is in addition to other effects (also present in quantitative research) about whom they interview, what questions they ask, who is willing to be interviewed, and how the interviewee represents his/her own story

In this sense, whether our research and analysis focuses on quantitative data or qualitative interviews, those conducting the research and analyzing the data become a directional mic, intentionally or not controlling what they hear and, in turn, what they present to everyone else. The research can be vitally important, but we should not lose sight of the humility to recognize that any discussion of human activity, whether based on quantitative or qualitative sources, is filtered through a series of directional microphones that ultimately simplify what is highly complex.


Image by Matthew Keefe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

When the Census Creates Fear

3149390970_da1ce6e3d2_bAre Muslims taking over India? Recently released data from the 2011 Census of India generated various headlines, from the alarmist assertion that the percentage of the population identifying as Hindu has declined to the calmer emphasis on the slowing growth in communities identified as Muslim. One Hindu nationalist organization provocatively asked in response to the data, “Is there a larger conspiracy to Islamise Bharat [India]?” These reactions to demographic shifts look familiar, like responses to demographic change in the US concerning religious affiliation or ethnic identity. Analyzing the dynamics underneath the numbers reveals that these instruments are not simply describing changes in our world but constructing our world in particular ways. Continue reading “When the Census Creates Fear”

Is the Decline in Christianity Overstated by the Pew Survey?


Steven Ramey’s post originally appeared on the Huffington Post Friday and is republished here.

Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population” is a big headline of the Pew “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” report published this week, but the data in the survey tells us more about changing ways that people respond to surveyors. Therefore, the consternation and celebration of commentators may be overstated. Both the Washington Post, which emphasized that decline of Christianity and the growth of “secular” attitudes, and the Times of India, which celebrated the increase in Hindus as Christians declined in the U.S., may be overstating the significance of the results. In contrast, the Atlantic argued against the narrative of rising secularism, asserting that the U.S. is still a predominately Christian nation and still religious, with over 70 percent of the population identifying as Christian and 44 percent of those who identified as unaffiliated asserting that religion is very or somewhat important to them. These differing assertions miss the strategic nature of identifications and the limits on what a survey can measure.

The Atlantic article emphasized the increasing number of individuals leaving the religions in which they were raised, suggesting that people are “choosing their own beliefs.” While the language of choice and freedom fits with the U.S. national identification as a land of freedom, people are not simply free to choose any religious identification that they want. The IRS and federal courts still determine what counts as a religion and thus receives tax benefits and legal protections/limitations. Efforts to claim that a strip club is a church to circumvent the rejection of their permit application and that smoking marijuana is a religious practice have been met often with skepticism. On a personal level, many perceive pressure from family and peers that can influence how they identify.

The limitations on choice are also apparent in the survey itself. The initial Pew question specifies general groups, “Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon,
Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?” Overall, less than two percent of those surveyed responded with “something else.” When few vary outside of those eight broad groups and three unaffiliated categories, the limited nature of choice is apparent. Within the confines of the survey, respondents also are limited to one religion, even though some in the United States and other parts of the world identify with two or more religions, such as an Episcopalian who also identifies as Zen Buddhist. Moreover, when responses were not specific enough, such as a specific denomination for Protestants, surveyors assigned those vague denominational responses to set Protestant categories “based on their race and/or their response to a question that asked whether they would describe themselves as a ‘born-again or evangelical Christian.'” Survey respondents had to fit into the specific methodology of the survey itself and the assumptions behind it.

From the IRS to those who produce surveys, these constraints on religious identifications are typical of any identification. You can identify however you want, but if others (family, peers, employer, government) do not recognize that identification, your assertion (like a vague survey response) is not very productive. All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.


Photo credit: Boarded up church in Warm Springs by McD22 via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

Reading is Magical . . . And Problematic

Hbtt1revTurning various groups of symbols (on a page or computer screen) into an image or meaning in our own minds is a fascinating process. Jasper Fforde, the UK novelist, expressed it this way in The Well of Lost Plots,

After all, reading is arguably a far more creative and imaginative process than writing; when the reader creates an emotion in their head, or the colors of the sky during the setting sun, or the smell of a warm summer’s breeze on their face, they should reserve as much praise for themselves as they do for the writer-perhaps more.

Continue reading “Reading is Magical . . . And Problematic”

Overreporting Religion

checkbox_checked-1In the story “Why People Exaggerate Religious Behavior” on NPR this morning, Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep discussed a study about self-reports of religious behavior. By comparing reports of religious behavior, specifically prayer in Pakistan, Turkey, and Palestine, to diary accounts and other observations of behavior by the same respondents, the researcher identifies a commonality among those who overreport the behavior, both in this study and prior studies of church attendance in the US. Continue reading “Overreporting Religion”

The Fact Tank

fact tankThe Pew Research Center has a blog, named the Fact Tank, that is a component of an intriguing way of branding itself.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

They reinforce what initially caught my eye in this, the language “fact tank”, when they emphasize their role to “inform” us of what is influencing society through “empirical” research. Continue reading “The Fact Tank”

Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty Mathematics of the Nones

CE Huffpo headerCulture on the Edge’s Monica Miller and Steven Ramey co-authored the following post,
published originally at the Huffington Post on November 7, 2013.

People unaffiliated with a religion, commonly grouped as the ‘Nones’, are all the rage right now and have beckoned responses from faith leaders to philosophers and scholars of religion. Common among such responses is an unwavering and uncritical belief in the statistical reality of this group; very few, in our opinion, have questioned how this group came to exist in the laboratory of statistical analysis and myopic survey questions. Most recently, a series on the New York Times Room for Debate page featured references to the Nones and the similar Pew report on the status of Judaism in America. However, the methodological basis for all of this excitement is actually quite thin. Continue reading “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty Mathematics of the Nones”