It's easy to survey a group of people on whether or not they believe the U.S. economy is doing well, but it's harder to find out why they hold their particular opinions.
How to develop questions that will yield insightful information — and what that information can tell us about broader social trends — is the goal of the recently established Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) Survey Research Initiative. The initiative conducted its first survey in summer 2016 and last fall, Brayden Zimmerman '20 and Will Bordash '18 joined the program as interns.
An idea to support more undergraduate research opportunities and faculty scholarship in social sciences had been in the works for some time, said Amy Wolaver, professor of economics and director of BIPP. "This is a resource both groups can use," she said.
It's also becoming increasingly common for universities to offer survey and polling services, added Wolaver, who saw the potential for such a service at Bucknell.
The court of public opinion
The initiative avoids surveys for "topics that are saturated, like political polling of candidates," Wolaver said. "Instead, we're focused on general social science: public opinion on policy issues, or why certain voters approve or disapprove of a certain issue."
Social sciences — everything from anthropology to economics, political science and sociology — lean heavily on information that comes from collecting and analyzing data. But it's not as simple as asking yes-or-no questions, explained Professor Chris Ellis, political science.
"Public opinion and survey research takes a complex, messy issue and what people might be thinking about it, and figures out not only what kind of questions they respond to on that topic, but also how to design those questions so that they give us the most useful information," said Ellis, who heads the initiative. "Some of these issues are vague, ambiguous ideas — and we have to use our analytic skills to pinpoint the most relevant information about them."
The first survey conducted by the initiative and YouGov, a market research company, took place during summer 2016, when the presidential race was at its height and social science questions were front and center. Specifically, the survey asked 1,200 participants how optimistic they felt about the U.S. economy. Data on factors such as race, age, gender, ideology and party affiliation was also collected from respondents.
For Bordash, who majors in biology, and Zimmerman, who majors in math and political science, their roles included "digging into the raw data and finding questions to analyze," Ellis said. The effort resulted in a wealth of information. The two interns were also responsible for writing biweekly reports on the survey findings, which were published on the initiative's blog. Reports included "Perceptions of Economic Fairness," "2016 Presidential Election and Economic Optimism" and "Party Identification, Ideology and Economic Optimism."
Zimmerman said analyzing and then writing about the data is a process he enjoys, and one that allows him to use aspects of both of his majors.
"As a math and political science double major, this work fits perfectly into both," he said. "I apply the skills I'm learning when I analyze the data and then write up the findings."
"This idea of 'big data' has been a part of public policy for a long time, but now fields like marketing, public service and even the financial sector are looking to use it to their advantage," Ellis said. "The skill set is transferrable, so even though the surveys are public-policy focused, students from a wide range of disciplines can take away valuable experiences from the internship."
Last spring, survey research interns took a more hands-on role by participating in the preparation of a survey that focused on the politics of higher education, Ellis said. He has incorporated the collected data into his new Politics of College course, which examines issues such as college affordability and debt as well as the purposes of and nontraditional models for higher education. This fall, student interns are reviewing, compiling and analyzing data, and writing reports.
According to Wolaver, the institute's short-term goal is to undertake one survey per academic year, with the long-term aim of building the initiative into a lasting resource for Bucknell faculty and students.
Zimmerman said he believes working at the initiative can help students with a variety of career plans.
"It serves as a place where I can combine my seemingly different skill sets and interests into one position," he said. "Not many students get the opportunity to apply all of their interests at once under the guidance of two professors."