The history of public opinion polls is as long as almost two centuries, and they have been designed to provide information regarding the thoughts of the majority of the people on different matters of social importance. However, it is questioned whether or not the results of such polls can be hundred percent trusted. In fact, it is very doubtful that such results are trustworthy, and we will discuss a number of reasons, which may prove this statement.
The very first reason is that in the majority of cases people asked have no idea what about they are being asked. They may either be not interested in the subject or not know enough about the situation or event. For instance, the Americans are generally almost uninformed about political events, which happen in the country. However, many people do not feel like answering the truth and say that they just do not know or do not care. They feel, so to say, obliged to give an answer, and they give this answer, but there is really nothing behind such an answer.
It often happens also that people give the answers, which they think are expected of them. For instance, there are certain trends in the society, and, as an example, it is mainly believed that MR. X is a good president and the majority of people are happy, or, at least, they say that they are happy with him. Now a person, who is actually against him, a person, who does not support his actions and doings, may feel awkward to honestly say so to an alive interviewer since such a person may be afraid of the interviewer's disapproval. That is a very rough explanation; however, here is a very bright example, provided by Swain (2013): a poll on same sex marriages was held. The participants were asked one simple question. They were reminded about the laws of several states of the country, which allowed people of the same sex to marry each other. The question was whether the laws of the whole country should or should not recognize such marriages. The poll provided somewhat surprising, not to say "shocking" results. It showed that 56 percent of the people asked believed that such marriages need to be recognized. Only 43 percent of the poll participants disagreed with the statement and one percent of the people asked said they had no opinion on the subject. According to Prof. Swain, there was another poll, which provided similar results that surprised some of the scientists.
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It was a CNN/Gallup Poll held in May 2010, and the results were as follows: 53 percent of males as well as 51 percent of females believed same sex marriages are “morally acceptable” and the percentage of those who believed such marriages to be unacceptable was as low as 46 percent. Public Policy Polling organization from North Carolina attempted to make a similar poll to check the results, provided by CNN poll. However, they applied "robo calls" instead of human interviewers. This poll of the 13th of August, 2010 showed results quite different from the CNN’s one.
The results provided by North Carolina Polling organization appeared to be much closer to the results, which could have been expected of the Americans. Here are the results, as cited by Swain (2013): there was reported that 57% of participants believed that same-sex marriages needed to be prohibited by the law, and 33% opposed this thought, while 11% appeared not to have any point of view regarding this matter.
Professor Swain explains the results in a very simple way. First of all, people who take part in polls speak their point of view more honestly to non-human interviewers than to humans. According to her, this happens only because people in the US are under a sort of social pressure, they feel obliged to have, or at least, express the point of view, which is thought to be acceptable at a certain period of time. For instance, the supporters of the same sex marriages have obtained substantial support by the media, while those who do not want to support this idea are more and more referred to as, in the best case scenario, old-fashioned people who do not understand the realities of the modern world. However, much more frequently they are spoken of as non-civilized people or, as Prof. Swain writes, "are treated as bigots and neanderthals". That is why, the opponents of same sex marriages are often made to keep silence or even say things, which are opposing to their own beliefs, out of fear to be disapproved by the society in the face of the interviewer.
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So, as we have seen, a lot in the results of the poll depends on who is asking. However, there may be other differences caused not only by whether or not it is a human or a robotized interviewer asking the poll. Much could depend on the age of the interviewer, his or her gender, and other factors. One more very important factor, which may influence the results of any poll, is the way in which the question is being set. It may by the way of formulating the question hint the people interviewed at positive or negative answers. On the other hand, the question can be set in a very complex way, and the interviewed people may not have enough time to clearly understand the questions before answering them.
One more factor is pointed out by Traugott. He states that nowadays modern technologies open new horizons before the companies, which provide polling services. With the opportunities provided by the Internet and telephones, for example, it is becoming cheaper and cheaper to start working in this field. As outlined by Traugott (2003):
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Because most polling now takes place on the telephone, it is cheap and easy for someone who wants to get into the polling business to buy a sample, write a short questionnaire for a Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) application, buy interviewing services from a field house, and receive a report based on the marginals for each question and a limited set of cross-tabulations.
As a consequence, the opportunity to see the results of a poorly conducted poll has become more frequent, even if we can't assess exactly whether the probability of seeing one has changed.
The journalists and other representatives of media are in the majority of cases not enough trained in the field of sociology in order to be able to tell a high quality poll from a poll of low quality. But even if they have enough knowledge and skills, it is still a question whether or not they would be willing to check. Therefore, the results of poorly conducted polls have very high likelihood to enter media stream and therefore become "reliable data".
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One more factor, which may influence the results of any poll, is the skills of the interviewer. It is important that an interviewer should be indifferent and with his or her behavior should not hint the people interviewed at certain answers.
If speaking about modern technologies, we should also pay some attention to cell phone polls. The problem with such is that, first of all, not all people have got those devices, and by far not all of those who do rely only on their mobiles. It can be concluded that the mobile phone owners and active users belong to a certain category of people and cannot represent the general point of view of the people all over the country.
As we have seen, there are too many different factors, which can influence the data provided by public opinion polls. Of course, if a professional company provides the service, they may decrease the influence of many factors, yet they still cannot be totally neglected. Besides, if a polling company is for one reason or another interested in providing certain results of the polling, it may be very hard to check their authenticity. That is why, we have to conclude that the results of public opinion polls have never been quite trustworthy, but are becoming less and less reliable. So, it is even becoming doubtful whether this sociological tool is worthwhile being used in the first place. Besides, this sort of a tool can actually be used for the purposes different from just providing sociological data. The results of polls may be easily used by different powers to manipulate and to influence public opinion instead of studying and researching it. People, who do not have a clear point of view on a certain subject, may be hinted to have such a point of view by the reported poll results, which in their turn can be easily fabricated, which even more points out the ineffectiveness of public opinion polls as a scientific tool. Moreover, it may be very desirable that the results of such polls should not be spread through mass-media since they may influence the beliefs and actions of the citizens. Theoretically, one could manipulate people through fabricated polls results in a way that is in his/her interest, once he/she has got an access to “feed” the information to media. This situation needs to be avoided.
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