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Working paper

WP67: Public opinion research in emerging democracies: Are the processes different?

Robert Mattes 1 Mar 2007
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The widespread collapse of authoritarian and totalitarian political systems that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the possibility for the wider application of survey research in many countries in the developing world. At the same time, rapidly changing priorities of scientific funders, along with the newfound missions of aid agencies in democratic strengthening, led to an unprecedented proliferation of comparative survey research. The extension of survey research to the developing, democratizing world portends important shifts in the way we study public opinion, democracy, and comparative politics.

While the actual tool of the survey appears the same in form, social conditions often mean that its application differs from the Western standard in important ways and may produce some important alternatives to the normal Western textbook methods. In particular, contextual factors in emerging democracies often entail a wide range of potential methodological dilemmas for comparative public opinion researchers, with especially important implications for approaches to fieldwork, sampling and questionnaire design. Moreover, the political and social context of transition means that the content of questionnaires as well as the purpose of systematic public opinion research also differs quite substantially from the standard academic survey research paradigm in Western democracies, producing as many political impacts as scientific. But rather than simply seeing these differences as blemishes that need to be gradually ameliorated, we may have much more to learn from the globalization of public opinion research than the simple accumulation of more data from exotic settings.

Robert Mattes

Robert Mattes is a professor of government and public policy at the University of Strathclyde and a co-founder of Afrobarometer.