The survey asked people to respond to various questions about how they feel about people from other ethnic and cultural groups. The issue is around the so-called feeling thermometer. It is a simple scale, typically ranging from 0 - 100, where people are asked how warm or cold they feel towards various social groups or targets. It has been a staple of social science research at least since the mid-1960s. The earlier use was in the context of forecasting election results (e.g., do people feel hotter or colder towards a party or candidate), but it worked so well that it has been used to evaluate attitudes towards all sorts of social groups in society. It is a cheap and efficient way to gauge public opinion about various social groups in a straightforward and reliable way. It is 'bang for bucks' if you want to find out about the levels of support for various social groups.
Some members of the public and the council in Auckland are offended by these questions and label them racist. Some council members even want to prohibit similar kind of research in the future (see the remarks by George Wood, the North Shore councillor).
My simple question to George Wood and other people outraged by these questions is:
How are you going to plan policies and make decisions about ethnic relations, if you have no understanding of the intergroup relations in your community?
Let's face it - NZ is one of the most diverse country in the world and has pretty positive race relations (and this is great and we should be proud of it), but at the same time the levels of discrimination against migrants has increased over the last decade. A recent study by Ricci Harris and others from Otago found that racial discrimination against Asians (as a broad summary category) has increased from 2002 to 2006. More importantly, these levels of discrimination increase mental health and physical problems. This is costs to the tax payer!
|NZ is one of the most diverse countries in the world (UN International Migration Report, 2013)|
I was involved in a government contract project with colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington and the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research a few years ago, where we looked into the intergroup relations in New Zealand depending on the number of recent migrants in a neighbourhood. What we found was that there was a relatively complex relationship. New Zealanders view migrants relatively positively overall, but only up to a point. Once the number of migrants reached a certain threshold, the perceptions became more negative. These complex patterns can not gained in any other way, apart from asking straightforward questions in general population samples. These findings have significant policy implications: Where should you settle new migrants? What strategies can we implement to counter this deterioration of community feelings? How can we provide better support to groups affected by discrimination?
Put simply: you cannot have sound policy and useful political decision-making without understanding the issues!
The survey questions that are creating this debate are a sensible and efficient way of gauging trends in a larger population. We need MORE of this research, not less! We need more SERIOUS attention to this type of social science research by politicians and decision-makers! Councillors talking to their constituencies and getting opinions from self-selected individuals does not and cannot replace sound scientific research in general population samples. The recall and the ill-focused debate that this has created is a significant step backward for New Zealand. The costs for New Zealand will be much larger than the costs of re-calling these surveys. It is a sad moment because we are taking all the wrong steps that will not help us to address the real issues of racism in our society.