Op-Art: Who Do You Think We Are?
Yor Times, February 25, 2007
IN Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film “The
Parallax View,” the nefarious Parallax Corporation uses
a questionnaire to recruit potential assassins.
Sociopaths and psychopaths are weeded in with a battery
of questions that expose their psychological strengths
and weaknesses, secrets and predilections. At the
opposite end of the moral spectrum, and with utterly
benign intent, the General Social Survey has been
performing a similar exploration of the American psyche
for 34 years.
The survey is a wonder of the social
sciences. After the United States census, it is the most
frequently analyzed data source in its field. Since
1972, 26 surveys have asked Americans questions —
pertinent and impertinent — on a vast array of subjects,
from political leanings to attitudes toward
homosexuality. Significantly, though, the survey does
not present “findings,” as would an opinion poll.
Rather, its mission is to “gather data on contemporary
American society in order to monitor and explain trends
and constants in attitudes, behaviors and attributes.”
Originally annual, the General Social
Survey is now undertaken every other year. Approximately
3,000 American adults are interviewed in person for
about 90 minutes and asked around 450 questions. Many of
these questions have remained constant. For example,
respondents have been asked to assess their level of
happiness in every survey; their opinions on the
legalization of marijuana have been tested 21 times.
Yet some questions appear for only a few
surveys, and others suddenly (and tantalizingly) fall
from favor. Only once, in 1977, were respondents asked
whether they would drive out of their way to avoid an
African-American neighborhood. (Thirty-nine percent said
they would.) And, after 1994, a question on whether
pornography provided an outlet for “bottled-up impulses”
was dropped. (On average, 67 percent of those surveyed
thought it did.)
Though the most recent data from the 2006
survey have not been released to the public, the people
who run the survey at the National Opinion Research
Center at the University of Chicago were kind enough to
provide a sneak peek. So in the charts below are some of
the latest results — a slowly developing snapshot of
American thought and action in our time.