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I have been swimming in a sea of social pessimism. Last night it was the focus for my talk to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation event on new social evils. This morning I went along (in a personal capacity) to a Progress seminar about the ‘broken society’ thesis. The seminar featured the predictable split between those who urge ministers and progressive commentators to refute the broken society thesis and expose the motives behind it, and those who warn that unless Government shows it is responding to public concerns (however misplaced or anecdotal) it will look complacent and out of touch.

These options having been stated early on, there were then attempts to suggest a middle way: empathise with social pessimism but maintain that something is being done about it; or encourage optimism but with a ‘pro social’ emphasis on the responsibility of citizens to contribute to further progress.

Inevitably one of the speakers this morning was Ben Page from IPSOS MORI. Ben, you will recall, provided entertaining and authoritative overviews of the public mood to each of the RSA’s three party conference meetings. It was on a different issue that I cornered him as I left the seminar.

Ben spoke here at the RSA last week. But his findings highlighting public inconsistency and pessimism was called into question by Professor Paul Dolan from Imperial College. Dolan argues that survey data on questions such as the state of the country was of very little value for three powerful and overlapping reasons. First, people rarely think about such grand issues, so the response they give is bound to be off the top of the head rather than considered. Second, the framing of the questions is highly suggestive of particular responses; just asking ‘do you think the country is going in the right direction’ seems designed to produce the response ‘well, if you’re asking, I guess the answer must be ‘no’’. Third, there is a great deal of evidence that our answers to such questions are heavily influenced by ephemeral recent events. People will give more positive answers on sunny days and much more positive answers if something good has just happened to them.

This struck a chord with me as in recent talks and conversations I have been extolling the virtues of cultural theory (yes, that again). With public sector types one finds oneself underlining the importance of engaging with the individualist perspective; the view that nature is resilient and that the world goes on just fine if we all do what comes naturally to us. The problem is that the tool councils use to find out what people want tends to be polling (usually done by colleagues of Ben Page). But, as I now tend to argue, in view of the limitations of polling, they should be spending much less time asking people what they think and much more finding out what people do.

A classic example of this relates to green public spaces. If during the design process for a park which may be, let’s say, rectangular, members of the public are asked whether they will stick to the paths round the edge of the lawned space they are likely to say ‘yes’. But, in fact, we know that if there a quicker diagonal route between entry and exit points to the space the public will quickly create an unofficial path or ‘desire line’ cutting the park in half.

I said all this to Ben expecting him to respond with a spirited defence of opinion polling. But, no, as usually he was unflappable. ‘Very interesting’ he said ‘and probably why we have started employing our own in-house ethnographers at IPSOS MORI’.

PS: Five minutes after finishing this blog, I came across the front page of Society Guardian about Irena Bauman.  She, it turns out, is doing exactly what I advocate above and has been doing it for some time, and brilliantly.

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