Time for a General Social Survey | Inquirer Opinion
Social Climate

Time for a General Social Survey

I pity the social science majors in college who are tasked “to do a survey” for their thesis research, on whatever topic.  Sampling and interviewing are still far from social science.  It is a waste of a student’s talent, time and money to single-handedly interview a decent sample of even a few hundred respondents, and then still have to analyze the data, within one or even two semesters of work.  With so little data to analyze, whatever one finds will have no practical applicability.

What they should do for a thesis is the deep analysis of high-quality social survey data that are already available in open survey archives. It is mainly the analytical work that trains them as social scientists, rather than the personal generation of underlying data.  A high-quality social survey does not get depleted of information by repeated use.  Like a good book, it can be studied over and over again, in new ways, to coax new and original findings out of it.


In the United States, social science professors commonly direct their students to the world’s largest survey archive, the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), of the University of Michigan. Through the Internet, they can consult its catalogue, access any survey dataset they want, and then immediately do their own original analysis, even for a term paper, let alone a thesis.

In the Philippines, the archive of Social Weather Stations, containing hundreds of nationally-representative survey datasets, and thousands of variables, is open for public research, at student-friendly fees, except that the raw data are not yet Internet-friendly.  Yet, with a few personal visits to the SWS office, an industrious student can thoroughly search among the available datasets, have a personal soft copy of the desired set/s “burned” onto a CD, and then go off to do her/his own analysis immediately.


Suppose, however, that the student is interested in a topic without an SWS own-account survey (making the data immediately free for sharing), or else was surveyed on commission and the data are still embargoed?  Suppose the student wants to study what Filipinos feel about the K-to-12 system for basic education, and the changing of the school calendar, and the issue of teaching Filipino versus teaching in Filipino at the tertiary level? SWS, or any private nonprofit research institute, for that matter, cannot afford to survey on an entire gamut of social issues, without special funding. (Hence, SWS has chosen only a few issues, such as government performance and economic deprivation, for its own nonsponsored agenda.)

Thus, I think it is time for the Philippines to have its own General Social Survey (GSS)—the generic term for (1) a high-quality survey, (2) of a wide set of social attitudes and corresponding behavior of the country’s residents (i.e., including foreigners), (3) regularly done by an independent institute, (4) government-funded, and (5) archived for open public research.

I think that instituting a GSS would be the single most important new contribution that the Department of Science and Technology could make to Philippine social science.  (Let me say immediately that SWS is not lobbying to be the GSS doer; the government can be the doer, or assign it to an umbrella group like the nonprofit Philippine Social Science Council, or bid it out.)

The oldest GSS is that of the United States, done since 1972 by the private, nonprofit National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, and funded by the government’s National Science Foundation (NSF).  It is conducted through face-to-face interviews, about 90 minutes long, on matters “ranging from government spending to the state of race relations to the existence and nature of God.”  Its sample size of about 2,000 adults costs the NSF about $5 million for each data collection wave.  It is now a biannual, with the 30th round due in 2014.  The datasets (as well as those of other GSSs) are archived at ICPSR, which is also a nonstock nonprofit.

My own first acquaintance with a GSS was from studying the surveys of British Social Attitudes, done by the private, nonprofit National Center for Social Research, from government funding, since 1974.  Its average sample size is about 3,000.  It reports on what people say about “what it’s like to live in Britain and how they think Britain is run.”  Its latest report, the 31st, says that “we’re less proud to be British than we were a decade ago,” and “there’s more self-reported racial prejudice in Britain than a decade ago.”

Germany’s GSS is called ALLBUS; it has been done 18 times since 1980, with an average sample size of about 3,000.  A Japanese General Social Survey, patterned on the US GSS, has been done at least eight times since 2000.  European countries have been cooperating in a European Social Survey for several years now.  While there is no similar movement within Asean as yet, I think that the Philippines need not wait for the others.

A GSS needs government funding to reach a scale allowing in-depth study.  For a simple national reading, the standard sample is only 1,000 respondents, as used, for instance in surveys of the International Social Survey Program and Eurobarometer.  But suppose one wants to focus on social attitudes of women (half of the people), of age 18-35 (one-third of all adults), who are college graduates (at most 15 percent of adults)?  Then 1,000 would be inadequate, 2,000 to 3,000 would be fair enough, and 10,000 would be extravagant.


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TAGS: General social survey, Mahar Mangahas, opinion, Social Climate, survey
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