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Questionnaire Surveys May Have Political Implications

May 7, 2012

When journalists and politicians want to find out the feelings and opinions of Swedes, they often look at survey results published by the SOM Institute. A new doctoral thesis in Theory of Science shows that the social scientific research methods that for example the SOM surveys are based on play an important role for political decisions and the public’s perception of society.

Christopher Kullenberg’s recently published doctoral thesis sheds light on the research behind the quantitative facts that we encounter in media almost daily. His study focuses on the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg, which has explored the habits, behavior, opinions and values of Swedes since 1986 through questionnaires mailed to randomly selected samples of citizens. Kullenberg’s findings show that the role of questionnaire surveys has grown stronger in society and research in the post-war period.

‘The SOM Institute has certainly strengthened the postal survey as a scientific method. The method used to be relatively unexplored, but then the SOM researchers developed and refined it and thus gave it a higher scientific status and made it useful for larger studies,’ says Kullenberg, who is from the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science at the University of Gothenburg.

Questionnaire surveys are an important instrument for political decision-makers and are often referred to in parliamentary debates, news media and political rhetoric.

‘Historically, during the major expansion of the social sciences in the 1940s and 1950s, quantitative surveys were seen as an instrument to gain knowledge about what was going on in society, knowledge that could be used to inform political decisions. This way the decision-makers could delegate investigations of societal problems to researchers’, he explains.

His conclusion is that the development of the social sciences in Sweden is interlinked with the development of modern society and plays an important role for political decisions — but also for our fundamental perception of society.

The credibility of the surveys has sometimes been questioned, and Kullenberg emphasizes that all types of knowledge must be approached critically.

‘Questionnaire studies provide one of many pictures of reality, a picture with certain characteristics since it is based on a quantification of society. In order to distinguish good surveys from bad ones, you need to look at how all these surveys were created in the first place,’ says Kullenberg.

One problem with large questionnaire studies is that the response rates tend to be declining, which of course is a concern. However, Kullenberg feels that at the same time as this problem is growing, researchers are developing effective methods to solve it.

‘Questionnaire studies have been used to explore society sine the 1950s and still work very well since we value the results highly, and largely base our behavior on them,’ says Kullenberg.

The thesis has been successfully defended.

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