Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Political correctness gone mad: The issue of the 'racist' survey in Auckland

Sad to say, but political correctness has gone mad and is undermining important social research that can help us to make society better. The issue centres around a recent survey sent out by Auckland City Council to members of the public in some suburbs that have high percentage of migrants.

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. 


  1. Absolutely, what is getting confused here is the distinction between the measurement of people's opinions, and the opinions themselves. (I say opinions because, although some people are racist - i.e. prejudiced against a racial group in and of itself - if we are talking about the "take over" of communities by migrants, then the opinions of rational people are most likely based on things like a squeeze on public services, local schools, buses etc, especially as you note that negative feeling surges once get past a certain population threshold...also minding that it is generally not one racial group moving into an area..). However; my point is that asking people how they feel about social groups does in no way legitimize their prejudice. It's not as if people are not already aware of racism in our communities. By asking the question you are neither defining nor propagating racist opinions.

    1. I agree that it is a sensitive issue and we have to be careful about how questions are being phrased. This is a delicate balance. You are absolutely right that the distinction between the actual opinions in the community (that need to be captured in surveys) and how we measure these opinions (the survey) has been completely lost in this debate.

      Now we take one for the other and the relatively unproductive debate in Auckland makes it harder for future (and hopefully better designed) studies to reach a wider audience.

  2. Counterpoint time! If a survey question is generating an unexpected indignant response, surely you have to ask if that question is working as it should be?

    Sure, it's worked in the past, but meanings and associations of words change over time. Beyond that, the whole contextual frame around a question can shift as well. Decades of social change have made people cautious of monolithic assumptions about other cultures, so a question that asks you to consider ethnic groups as monoliths might well seem jarring.

    Losing this tool would hurt, of course - it's obviously generated insights for a long time, is well-understood, etc. If considered as a way of engaging with one's own unavoidable biases, it could even be seen as virtuous. But my first thought is not that these people are overreacting, rather that participants are not taking the question as intended, and as such, its usefulness may be at an end...

    1. This is a good point. I agree that we need to pay more attention to how questions are being phrased and how people may interpret and perceive these questions.

      To rephrase my major concerns remain a) the implicit or sometimes quite explicit calls to curb social science research on issues of social importance and b) the decision by Auckland council to recall this survey in this fashion, which gives credence to the first point.

      To use the feeling thermometer in combination with the neighbor target may or may not have been the best option to measure social perceptions and the council should have checked more carefully with important constituencies.

      But the recall and the public announcements around it do more harm than good. What if the council had issued a public statement about the purposes of the survey, what they have done with the results of similar surveys to make the community better (I hope they did something with their previous opinion survey data) and therefore had engaged with the community about these issues instead of this rather disappointing finger pointing at 'racist' social science research.

      This is my main issue: to put the blame on a social science initiative (and not understanding what the items is supposed to measure) instead of tackling the real problem.

  3. I agree that our society went too much in the direction of political correctness. But in the end this is the society we live in and we can only adapt or fight to change it.
    As for the survey, I would have loved to see the original questions. It's all in the details. I guess the questions would have been well intended but a bit too blunt for some people and forced them to face their inner/hidden feelings :)
    The people who made the survey maybe should use a different approach and ask some theoretical round-about questions. That's the society we live in ... :(

    And I agree that the AKL council handled it completely wrong. They should have released a statement explaining their thinking.
    In the end we need more of these studies, not less..