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Minorities in social surveys

A FORS/LINES research initiative

General statement:
Since early 2009, a working group in Lausanne at FORS and MISC (soon to be “LINES” — Life Course and Inequality Research Centre) has investigated and reflected on questions regarding representation of national minorities in Swiss surveys. The issue of minority bias fits within a wider realm of goals and concerns shared by survey researchers. First of all, the notion of an observed sample as a representative, unbiased, and sufficiently precise reflection of an underlying population that is not observed but which constitutes the real interest of a study, lies at the very heart of survey research. Whenever the relationship between a sample and its underlying population is not at the core of our attention, then we are not doing survey research, and we will not want to use statistical inference as a tool of generalisation from findings. Against this backdrop, a vague malaise has come to spread among survey researchers, who tend to know at least intuitively from their daily experience that certain parts of most broadly defined populations always have very small de facto chances of being represented in their survey samples.

If surveys are to reveal the preferences, aspirations, or needs of the public as a whole, then every individual’s position has to be represented equally. Unaccounted systematic differences make survey samples look more similar to a shareholders general assembly, where votes are weighted by individual assets, than to the idealised democratic public. The question of why such distortions sometimes are not a source of concern (in the eyes of interviewers, researchers, policy-makers, or the general public) is at least as interesting as knowing why they are in other cases. The tacit acceptance that some categories of people will remain silent in a survey might precisely be anchored in more or less implicit conceptions about variable levels of civic legitimacy within the overall public, that is, beliefs about different levels of entitlement to have one’s preferences, aspirations, or needs being expressed and taken into account.

Whenever we as survey researchers embrace this tacit acceptance uncritically, we are at risk of producing findings and theories about social reality that are bounded to the reality experienced by the majority. Therefore, the substantive concern about processes that produce social exclusion, and that reproduce it in particular by way of exclusion from social surveys, goes hand-in-hand with the pragmatic concern to enhance the representativeness of surveys, not least in order to break societal and scientific cycles that render certain minorities invisible to the public eye (and leave the public indifferent to their fate).

FORS/LINES working group members: Guy Elcheroth, Nicole Fasel, Lavinia Gianettoni, Brian Kleiner, Francesco Laganà, Oliver Lipps, Sandra Penic, and Alexandre Pollien

Click here for our “position paper”, which lays out in detail the motivation, first results, recommendations, and research agenda of the initiative.
Or follow the links below to see particular sections:

  1. Motivation for the initative — describes the reasons for focusing on representation of minorities in surveys
  2. Results to date — describes findings to date from the FORS/LINES working group regarding national minority representation and methods for reducing bias
  3. Implications for survey practionners — including concrete recommendations for improving representation
  4. Our research agenda — with a description of the direction of the initiative, upcoming projects, and a call for collaboration

[(FORS/LINES position paper)] (PDF – 36.9 kB)