Political Context and the Survey Response: The Dynamics of Racial Policy Opinion

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Abstract

Several recent studies suggest that the social dynamics at work in the survey interview may play a significant role in determining the answers individuals give to survey questions, most notably on questions relating to racial policies. In this note I reexamine and extend the conclusions of my previous study (1999) that finds opinion polls overstate support for policies designed to promote racial equality. I use data from the early 1970s to show that the strong social desirability effects I find in the 1990s do not characterize opinion in earlier eras. The analyses reported here indicate that while we need to pay attention to and account for the social context surrounding sensitive issues when gauging public opinion, we must also pay attention to changes in that context over time.

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