Notes from the Marginals
1947, a dedicated group of public opinion pioneers founded
the American Association for Public Opinion Research
to respond to a need for "a meeting place"
for discussing issues of common interest and concern.
The venture, by any measure, was successful: Association
meetings have become a treasured place to gather and
reflect and debate about the methods and substance of
public opinion research.
Occasionally in these conversations,
at our annual and chapter meetings, and in our day-to-day
lives of working in this field, we in the polling community
touch upon issues that strike a chord across disciplines
and boundaries of commercial and academic interest.
These are the topics that "fill the room"
at meetings and the mailbox on computers and spill over
into blogs and the popular media. Definitions of likely
voters, the relationship between polling and politics,
sampling methods in war-torn or storm-ravaged nations,
response rates, the use of polls by media, internet
surveys and representative samples, do-not-call registries,
ethics and standards
all are topics that challenge
the minds and hearts of researchers and fuel long exchanges
both in person and at the keyboard.
These conversations were provided an
additional venue in 1994 when AAPORnet, an online listserv
for members, was initiated by Jim Beninger of the University
of Southern California. AAPORnet has become an ongoing
forum for communication among public opinion analysts
and experts from academia and commercial sectors of
the field. While private to members, this kind of forum
allows followers the thrill of hearing from those who
invented our field, and who continue to blaze new trails
in the method and substance of polls and surveys in
the United States and abroad. This virtual "meeting
place" is almost better than the in-person version,
because many people hear the conversations simultaneously
and can respond, clarify, or add additional data to
the threads of conversation.
from the Marginals" is Public Opinion Pros's
answer to the question of how we might extend the collective
wisdom of the exchanges on AAPORnet for the benefit
of a broader audience. It is an invitation to all of
you who love controversy and synthesis and who spend
your lives trying to make the many facets of public
opinion research clear to any of several audiencesmedia,
students, family and friendsto help extend that
wisdom. It is also intended for those audiences, who
frequently raise "simple" questions about
polling and surveys and then find an expert struggling
to explain the complexities of the issues.
Each column will take up a topic that
has sparked interest or controversy among the polling
professionals conversing on AAPORnet. With writers'
permission (and consistent with AAPOR's policy statement
and recent discussion regarding the quotation of material
on AAPORnet), we will summarize the most thought-provoking
exchanges, try to assess the essential elements of the
controversy, and provide commentary or perspective on
its practical meaning for those of us who work in the
field and those of you who try to figure out what we
We would also like some of these writers
to come forward on occasion to do the assessing and
commenting for us. Often, as we try to understand data,
we seek the input of colleagues and capture information
that could prove very useful to others. Occasionally
on AAPORnet these issues come back in well-written summariesbut
often we are left wondering how the threads of conversation
were synthesized or used elsewhere.
If you have written a paper or given
a lecture or reported on results in the press based
on your AAPORnet threads, we'd love to hear it. If you
have searched the AAPORnet Digest or elsewhere
to gather expert opinion on an issue and want to summarize
what you have learned in up to 800 words you might not
be able to publish anywhere else, this column is for
you. Or if you want to pose a question that you have
always wondered about as you were working in or about
this field and reflect on its unresolved significance,
bring varied backgrounds and perspectives to the field
of public opinion research. That has long been the strength
of AAPOR and the broader community of survey and polling
researchers and practitioners. Sometimes we don't have
time to publish long original manuscripts, but we do
have wisdom and experience to share. This is the place
to do it.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Karen Donelan, Sc.D., is senior
scientist in health policy at Massachusetts General
Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School.
All material quoted from AAPORnet that appears in her
column is used by permission of the writers who posted
to the listserv. Please send column submissions, proposals,
and questions for "Notes From the Marginals"