Probing the Problematic Polls

Picture 6A few days ago I posted on Facebook and asked when someone was going to tackle a dissertation on the Pew Charitable Trust or its research wing, and the way in which their seemingly objective polling is actually constituting a very particular sort of social world into which it is trying to fit the entire population of the globe.

And voila, here’s a piece of data for that hypothetical dissertation: an article from the New York Review of Books on how the survey gets it wrong when it comes to the role of religion in China.

But a word of caution: I don’t think the survey gets it wrong, and making that assumption — that there is a right and a wrong way to understand a group — is the pitfall that such a dissertation would have to avoid. It’s a problem evident in recent work on those who report to pollsters that they have no religious affiliation, the so-called “the Nones” (a problem nicely avoided by a variety of studies of research on the Nones that are posted here).

Instead, it would have to examine competing representations of, say, how social life in China can be organized and thereby understood, using such things as this article, on the one hand, and the Pew survey (which they just purchased from a third party and then administered), on the other, and then look for the gaps between the two, the agreements and the contradictions, in order to conclude something about the two very different worlds that are constituted by both. What’s more, such a dissertation would have to avoid the assumption that there is an obvious thing out there called “religious life” and that the trick is just to describe it the correct way; instead, such research would have to take seriously that trying to describe or assess or see trends in “religious attitudes” is already deeply embedded in constituting the world in a particular way.

Now that would be a dissertation worth writing.

3 thoughts on “Probing the Problematic Polls

  1. There’s much truth in what you say, Russ. However, if The position I have been articulating — for some time now — entails that terms/ concepts I use are non- tentative or incorrigible , the I have been seduced by Absolutes. But my POV has always been pragmatic ( see the chapter on “religion” in Why Politcs Cannot Be Freed from Religion.) in brief, this amounts to saying that I go about working with any number of (admittedly corrigible) concepts, & then see what results I get. If someone else has a ” better” set of concepts that can get “better” results — never an absolute, but always open revision — let them show us. This is the point about being pragmatist about concepts. But at the same time, it allows me to do more than just self- critical work. I have never thought that a full and rewarding intellectual life could be led by endlessly being critical of my own concepts –“religion” among others — and never risk seeing if my self critical efforts made anything better. One can argue forever about how to ” float one’s boat” but then it either “floats” or it does not!

  2. I think your distinction between thinking with vs thinking about concepts betrays the seductive allure of the Absolute, in fact, inasmuch as you seem to presume the authenticity or importance or relevance of just some thoughts, about just some objects (presumably prioritizing studying real religion instead of studying people who talk about it). Instead, it strikes me that analysis and critique are both thinking, are both employing concepts, are both making sense of the world, are both studying human doings, and thus are both equally interesting and, yes, situated. So it seems to me one would only make this suspect distinction in the service of a normative agenda to prioritize just some things in the world as more deserving of study….

  3. Of course. But thinking WITH concepts to make sense of the world, as opposed to just thinking ABOUT our concepts, will always involve us in a world of embeddedness. Beware the seductive allure of the Absolute!