Making Surveys Work Better: Experiments in Public Opinion Research

Date01 June 2014
AuthorIrfan Nooruddin
Published date01 June 2014
Subject MatterNotes on Methods
Military-Madrasa-Mullah Complex 105
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149
A Global Threat 105
Notes on Methods*
Making Surveys Work Better:
Experiments in Public
Opinion Research
Irfan Nooruddin
Modern political science finds its origins in the legal tradition of analyzing the design of constitutions and
the sociological foci on elite power and group interests. But, thanks to the behavioural revolution of the
1950s and 1960s, political scientists ‘democratized’ their research and shifted their analytical gaze to the
individual level. Understanding politics required studying the citizens whose quotidian activities and
attitudes shaped the larger body politic. Such interest in ‘normal’ people was not original to the behaviour-
alists, of course. Anthropologists and other scholars for whom fieldwork was a primary research method
had long-studied non-elites. But what was genuinely ‘revolutionary’ about the behavioural revolution was
the scale of its ambition.
The principal weapon in the behaviouralist arsenal was the mass public survey. Clearer understanding
of the statistical theory underpinning probability sampling, and technological advances such as random-
digit-dialing and greater computing power, allowed political scientists to generate previously inconceiv-
able large random samples of the citizenry, the analyses of which painted richer, more nuanced pictures
of how people regarded and interacted with the political sphere (Groves, 2011). Since these samples
were drawn randomly, analysts could generalize their findings to the larger national population from
their samples. Overnight, the field of election prediction was born, countless election-night television
specials were spawned, and countless psephologists’ careers were made possible.1
A half-century after mass survey research became possible, it is now a commonplace. Compared
to previous generations of scholars, today’s researchers are faced with an embarrassment of riches. We
have national election studies from countries all over the globe, cross-national surveys such as the World
Values Survey and its global and regional Barometer counterparts, and an innumerable number of other
large and small surveys designed to study a wide variety of social and political issues ranging from
vote intention to foreign policy attitudes to preferences over myriad policy domains. Indeed it is hardly
an exaggeration to suggest that the survey is the workhorse of modern empirical political science,
with one analysis estimating that they are ‘used in about a quarter of all articles and about half of all
quantitative articles published in major political science journals’ (King et al., 2001, fn 1, cited in King
et al., 2004, p. 191).
The Indian political science profession was quick to appreciate the value of mass public opinion
surveys. The efforts of the pioneers at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) who
spearheaded the early election studies have been continued by Lokniti today. As a result, political scien-
tists working on India have access to pre- and/or post-election surveys spanning five decades of national
Irfan Nooruddin is School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, ICC 301, Washington, DC 20057, USA.
*This section is coordinated by Divya Vaid (
Studies in Indian Politics
2(1) 105–108
© 2014 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2321023014526098

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