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Faut-il laisser l'opinion aux opiniologues ? ("le cas de la perception de l'environnement")

Some Remarks on the Gallup Survey. conducted by Riley Dunlap on “The Health of the Planet Survey”
The George H. Gallup International Institute, Princeton, 1992,
(some results presented at the ISA Meeting,
Woudschoten 17-21 Juin 1992)
(Remarks addressed by Denis Duclos to Riley Dunlap)

Table 1.

- How far can we speak of perception of “seriousness” ?
An example : if you ask French people about “seriousness”, it is to be opposed to “funny”, not to “unreal”, or “not so grave”. So if you ask the “same” question, you will get a different result than if you ask : “is it a grave problem”. I found many of those translation problems in a survey in indian-English.
But let’s assume the scaling and the crosschecking questions are somehow correcting the “semantic bias”. Then, many other problems come into view :
-Firstly because the crosschecking system is not functionning in the same way in different national mentalities : For example, for the Germans, it is logical to oppose a relatively high level in personnal concern and “seriousness” perception, and a statement about the “low” importance effectively attributed by their country to environment. It is a way to say : this problem will never be handled with enough care. But, in countries like Ireland or Netherlands, we could imagine that personnal concerns and national care are thought as non-separable items. They simply don’t understand why you try to induce a separation, because they think at the same time as individuals and as countries.
So you don’t know, in such an example, if you have an indicator of “seriousness” perception, or a statement upon the symbolic distance between the person and his-her community.
In other cases, -like in Scandinavia- with relatively “smooth” answers, you cannot tell if it is because those people “consider everything is OK”, or are used to give mitigated answers, or are not really concerned in general, or are not too much concerned because they feel their governments are good at solving theproblem.
In fact it becomes very difficult to compare rates between countries like Turkey or Philippines, Korea or Japan, because of the ambiguities, which are, according to me absolutely unescapable. You cannot say these countries are more “environmentally concerned” than those, or even that they are concerned (because the answers are biased by the “authority effect” : would you dare to state that environment is of absolutely no importance ?). You can just say that : confronted to these questions, people tend to react according to various patterns....

Table 2.
-How far is it possible to assure an “objective” assessment of environmental quality ?
The very idea of comparing my Community, and my Nation to the rest of the world has different meanings in different cultures. Let’s take three patterns of answers : those which oppose both community and nation to the rest of the world, and those which tend to incriminate the national level (only Indians seem to be less confident in community). We are wrong if we consider that it opposes statements on the “real situation”. It rather seperates a group of “proud” people and a group of “ashamed” people. But, I wonder why the Britons are among the “proud”; or even the Germans : they seem to mix up their own alleged care and the reality. In the case of the Britons, the destructive effect of two centuries of industrialization does not seems to be taken in account in the self-perception. In the case of Germany, which is one of the most important producer of air pollution and waste in Europe, the responders seem to mingle the strong will of environmentalists, and the real results of it on a societal level. In France, you would probably find overstimation upon the real level of pollution, being related to “real” concerns about the arrogance of big companies.
So, if this table has some sense, it is much more about the quite subjective impression to be more pure or impure than others, than to give a realistic approach of the “truth”.

Table 3.
The very perception of time is one of the most relative issues (as Einstein would have put it!). When you mingle it with this other terribly relative perception of health, you just run into a cultural quizz !
Countries giving a high score to the present situation are not necessarily the most affected : people simply express their anxiety about current problems in many fields (social problems, strikes, poorness, etc.). Some others, who put the emphasis on Future, can express opposite statements : they can say “ it is not our problem”. Or they can say : “our children are in danger”. How do you discriminate both attitudes ?
This table gives us a sens of “societal stress”, but nothing clear about environment.

Table 4.
This table is probably one of the less ambiguous, but, of course, it has to be compared with objective figures (in a Fischhoff / Slovic analysis pattern). And there will begin the problems ! : how do you assume waste disposals are not the most important problem in USA , for example ? And, knowing the rapid evolution of the quality of underground waters in the Middle East, what are we assessing when Turkish people seem to ignore it ?
Anyway, it gives a good “photography” of people’s primary reactions.

Table 5

It is a typical example of intermingling of culture-biased perceptions.
In India, people seem to be attacked by everything : but, having lived there in several places, I can assure you that it is not more “noisy” than America, and that “poor air” is much more smelling in Utrecht than in Singrauli, for example, even if teh Dutch don’t seem to perceive it. No : you have to understand the “complaining mood” of Indians, which is very specific. Certainly, the “inadequate sewages” in the New Word at large (South and North) means something (abuse of open spaces), but how to compare it with Eastern Europe, which is, I dare say, complaining without knowing the much worse situations of others : again this “societal effect”, expressing about this Item a general feeling of being “lost children”.

Table 6

Surely, people reflect somehow regional or local concerns, talking about the World. But, again, you can distinguish between those who “speak for themselves” with precise concerns (Ireland and water, Philippines and Rain forests, etc.), those who express universal anxiety (like Mexicans, or Polish people) and those who are much more interested in the “others’” crimes (like all those “virtuous” North American or European Northern countries). So my commentary would not be exactly yours : I would be worry of this trend of “giving lessons” to southern countries, (except the prudent Japanese), but I would not analyse the Latin-American general emphasis as a more acute consciousness. If it says something, it has more probably to deal with a sort of “societal energy” being at work in those countries. Be aware !

Table 7

A good and simple answer : capitalism is the main cause, above all if you are poor !
But, even if I like this, I cannot help to criticize the results : what means “technology” for people ? For example, in France, it would be fairly redundant with “industry”.
The emphasis of “rich countries” on the individual responsibilities has not the same meaning first, among them (in Germany, the “moral order” is still a significant value, whereas in the US, it is more question to refute the role attributed to Business), and second, as opposed to poor countries, where people have in mind “international companies”.
Other types of questions : assuming the fact that population’s density is about the same in England and in India (not speaking of large semi-desertic areas), why only the later puts the emphasis upon “overpopulation” ?

Table 8

Interesting results. We can undoubtly read a more “authoritarian” set of opinions among poor and middle income countries, thant among rich countries. But there are probably cultural biases on that item too : Why this stress on scientific research in low income countries ? In Russia, to stress “laws for business” may signify exactly the opposite (legally organize the free enterprise) than in the US (restrain the liberty by too much regulations). In Germany, not insisting on scientific research means that it is already developped, or that people is suspicious about it. Same thing in Japan.
Again : there is this problem of assessing the meaning of results, once very broad outlines have been put in view.

Table 9.

Scandinavian “virtue” stands upon against American “realism”, the second position appearing to be heavily supported by the majority, even among poor countries. Riley, excuse me, but this is too beautiful to be credible ! First, there is this famous methodological bias of “three-answers modes”, around a value judgment, which always pushes people to choose the “moderate” (middle) item. I am ready to bet that, if you had posed the question with a 5 items scale, rather different answers would have been obtained. Second, responsibility may signify at least two things : the burden for the past nuisances, or the capability of assuming improvements. So, allow me to say that it is the table about which I am really unhappy (as a sociologist, who, furthermore has written a book on polls !)

Table 10

I don’t agree with the abrupt manner you use to confront completely different types of “contributors”. It is not reasonable to put on the same level companies and populations as wholes. And it is not reasonable to oppose both to the consumption of resources, populations and companies being active at doing it. So, as to the previous question, people tend inevitably to answer in escaping the more “personnalized” incrimination (i.e : companies) .
Other question : why did you not ask about “perceived contributors in developped countries”? I don’t think you share the opinion that developping countries don’t have any analysis about what happen in rich countries !

Tables 11 & 12
Some other “perverse effects” : everybody agrees with education, because it is the less controversial. It is only by this bias that you get the impression that everybody agrees with the US position, especially among people who don’t want to talk about the “touchy” question of the Debt. But, when sellers (japanese) and buyers (eastern countries) are more or less cleared of the dominant- ated paradigm, it appears that “technology” is becoming an issue
So those five items tables show at least something : some discrepancies in the very meaning of “help”. For certain countries it mean : “stop strangle us”, for some others, it means : “ help us really, with technique”, and for most of the remainder, it means : “nothing” (the real sense of “education”, when you absolutely have to make a choice).

Table 13
I have not much to say about this, which begins to look like a political vote : it is the type of question which fits best the “scientific” capacity of these polls, within certain precise limits.

Table 14
“Surprise” about the two questions is based on the assumption that “economic growth” and “higher prices” have immediate practical consequences to be perceived by the respondents, in order to inhibit their propensity to show “generosity”, “counsciousness “, and “concern”. In this questionnary, the Japanese look very parsimonious : but perhaps it is only because they feel they spend already much more money than others for solving the problem, and also because they are not inclined as other people to braggadocio ! (notably the Americans, who are ready to devour alive the first politicians who will hint at rising their taxes ! )

Table 15
My dear Riley, this is Your question. I mean that it is the very kind of question which fascinates an American Democrat, deeply rooted in the American aspiration of shared citizenship and community identity . That is, therefore, the typical question which has so many different interpretations around this (still) huge world. “Citizen”, and especially “citizens group” mean nearly nothing in the everyday life in India : so a “fair amount” effectiveness is a typical nonsensical “fairamountness” that Indians are eager to give for free to everybody who asks them in a friendly way. And I would dare saying that French people would behave very alike (without the smile). Citizen group means in Turkey , the village leading families, in Poland, it means Ex-Communists Youth organizations versus Church militants; in Germany, the Greens, in Ireland, the Pubs’gatherings, in Mexico, the comittees of urban villagers, keeping contact with their mountain original Pueblo, etc. It is the same with Government : in India it is the only consistent institution at a federal level, in Chile it means some remaining taste of Pinochet, in Russia, it is still the sole strong structure, in Ireland, the force which incarnates the pacific resistance to UK, etc.
Really : coming to the point of defining what is people, and what is authority, you run into the immense diversity of real cultures, irreductible to the People/versus/State paradigm which usually serves as glasses in America to interpret society and history.

Table 16.

Coming back to less turbid waters. The item which stands up best is the vote, even if a question remains about the differences between your survey’s results and those of other vote polls.
I doubt that the item “avoid certain products” have the same meaning in countries where boycott is a banal weapon for public pressure, and many others where it could only mean individual behaviours.

Overall Conclusions : as in every very well done opinion survey, the main interest resides in the many commentaries it allows, and certainly not in a single definite assessment on the question which was posed as a starting point. We still absolutely don’t know how people around the world really evaluate and envisage Environment. But we know a lot about what they probably don’t think, or about what it would be interesting to know if we had enough means to dig into the “cultural thickness”. We experience through such attempts the main paradox of many international comparisons (which is perhaps the paradox of most modelizations of hypercomplexity) : that is, the “realism” of artefacts depends on the sophistication of the means apt at capturing the “cultural semantic universes”, which, on turn, acquire maximum intelligible complexity at national levels, and goes probably beyond access at an international level.

Of course, this likely paradox is more an intellectual incentive than a reason for stopping any international research : but it leads, at least , to consider more cautiously the pre-conditions to operate at such levels.

Dera Riley, I hope you appreciate my effort at debating (even if you now probably would like to put some poison into my wine, next time we meet!).

In next meetings, we could precisely take the previous point as problematic : Are public opinions existing about such a multi-semanteme as “environment” ? How far is it possible to capture it ? Is it possible to overcome cultural biases ? or to deal with them ? If an international conversation is going on among people, is it possible to catch the structure of it ? What, therefore, would be the theory of it ? etc.

Friendly yours,
Denis Duclos.

Mardi 11 Août 2009 - 20:27
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