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Op-Ed Contributor

Op-Art: Who Do You Think We Are?

New 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.