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American Association for Public Opinion Research

2015 Presidential Address

2015 Presidential Address from the AAPOR 70th Annual Conference

AAPOR 2025 and the Opportunities in the Decade Before US
by Michael W. Link




Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them.
Volleyed and thundered:
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
The Charge of the Light Brigade, Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ten years ago at the 2005 AAPOR Conference at the Fontainebleau Hotel, not too far from here, I opened my remarks as a discussant with this passage. The panel was one looking at the long-term prognosis of random-digit dial (RDD) surveys. At the time it felt like researchers using RDD were in the same predicament as those brave souls of Tennyson’sLight Brigade—fighting the good fight in the face of insurmountable odds. Today there are those who might say the same about the whole of AAPOR—we are riding boldly, but has our glory faded?

I think not!

Never before have there been so many opportunities, so many approaches, so much to learn about how people think and express themselves, understanding their attitudes, behaviors, and related social phenomena. People have more ways than ever to express themselves, and we have more ways to measure and understand these views and behaviors.

My good friend Past President Rob Santos noted last year that we are in a societal and global renaissance, one that “tempers the way we think about the world and how the world thinks about us” (Santos 2014, 770). I would add that it offers us the opportunity to rethink how we view ourselves as well, both as individuals in our chosen fields and as an association of long-standing and great import to those many fields. And in rethinking how we view ourselves, we define for the next generation a more fully realized AAPOR—one that continues to be guided by its core values, but that also projects a bolder mission for a broader membership than what we have seen in our previous seven decades. 

The Perplexing State of Today’s Affairs

I have the good fortune of traveling frequently both in the United States and globally in my role at Nielsen, speaking with a wide array of research professionals and students. I’m often asked a similar set of questions that might best be summarized thus: “Has there been a paradigm change in how we measure attitudes and behaviors?”

When Thomas Kuhn (2012) coined the term “paradigm change” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he was describing what happens when current notions of how we understand a set of phenomena give way to a new, sometimes radically different perspective—one that seems to be a better fit for explaining the phenomena in which we are interested. So, when people ask the question “Has there been a paradigm change?” I answer simply “no.”

Why? I answer “no” because I believe we are in the midst of the change, not at its end. This distinction is important, both for understanding much of the confusion that engulfs our industry today and also for the opportunities it presents us.

It is interesting, when we consider what Kuhn (2012, 84) wrote: “All crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal [i.e., traditional] research.” While survey methods have evolved greatly over time—face-to-face and mail to computer-assisted and online—what we have witnessed over the past decade is different. We have clearly seen a “blurring of the paradigm” in our industry on a number of fronts. We have witnessed a shift in discussions over what constitutes a “good” response rate to debates about whether response rates are even important at all. We have gone from (fairly) strict ideas of what constitutes a proper “probability sample” to serious questions about whether “probability sampling” is necessary at all.

The notion of what constitutes “public opinion” is also blurring. Is it the product of a “designed” study? A response to a question? A vote in a booth? Or do postings on Twitter and Facebook, videos on YouTube, as well as information from Fitbits, loyalty cards, or GPS coordinates, count as measures of “public opinion,” reflecting emotions, attitudes, and behaviors in very different ways? If so, shouldn’t we treat them as such? We have indeed witnessed a “blurring” of the old paradigm.

The next stage, according to Kuhn, is one of a field in “crisis” as new theories and approaches attempt to supplant the now-failing traditional methods. This “crisis” in our industry is an interesting one, however, in that the science of surveys has not been proven wrong or incorrect per se. Rather, society has changed such that the practical applications of our approaches no longer seem to work as they once did—at least not without great effort, expense and, in many instances, major compromises to “theory.”

When we look around, we do see many alternatives to traditional survey research on the rise—new innovative methods and tools for how we can measure and assess opinions, attitudes, and behaviors. And yet, these are often not without shortcomings, some quite severe. Nonprobability sample surveys have grown in use and in some cases have shown innovative improvement in method; and yet, there very few rules or best practices that allow us to know if and when we are right in our assessment with these methods—something that is increasingly true of our more traditional approaches as well.

Social media and other forms of big data are new potential sources of opinions and behaviors, with a growing number of techniques being tested and developed to derive insights from these data. Yet currently, this area is so new that little resembles a true “science” in this field. We are in a state of many methods, but see no clear “normal science” on the near horizon.

So, how will things play out? Kuhn provides some direction, noting that these types of “crisis” periods often end in one of three ways. In the first scenario, the current “normal science” evolves and is able to solve the issues, hence it persists. For more than a decade now, we have witnessed, and AAPOR has helped lead, a wide range of research programs aimed at evolving the current methods to better fit with current society. Whether it is adding cell phones to samples, deploying address-based sampling, or using multimodes, such efforts have helped extend the longevity of traditional survey methods, but they have not yet been able to provide long-term viable solutions.

In the second scenario, the problems faced may be resistant to any old or new solutions and, hence, the problem is set aside for a subsequent generation to solve. We live in a time when information, particularly about how people think and behave, is of utmost value. Data-driven decisions in all walks of life—commerce, government, and our daily lives—run on information about how we act and think. Setting aside our current problems and waiting it out is simply not an option.

In the third scenario, according to Kuhn (2012, 84), “there is the emergence of a new candidate paradigm [or new normal science] and an ensuing battle over its acceptance.” While we see a lot of “battles” playing out in our field—at conferences, in journals, with clients, and with today’s social media, on Twitter and blogs—it would be hard to argue that we have witnessed the emergence yet of a new paradigm.

It is this third scenario, however, that offers AAPOR a great opportunity: rather than resist, why not lead in defining the next paradigm? Rather than be the victims of a paradigm change, let us become architects of the new “normal science.”

But how might we go about this?

Unfortunately I can’t provide clear insight on how the methods revolution will play out. But we can—and must—think seriously about how AAPOR can lead in defining this future state.

AAPOR2025: Leading in the Next Decade

What will AAPOR be a decade from now? It may seem that this question is impossible to answer; in fact, it may be na├»ve to even try to do so. With things changing so rapidly, can we really accurately project more than a decade into the future? No. But our goal isn’t to forecast the future; it’s to lead in making it happen.

In June 2014, we launched AAPOR2025, a decade-long initiative to help us drive where we want to go as an association. AAPOR2025 provides guidance for the long-term strategic thinking of the association over the next decade.1 Consistent with our mission and goals, the vision reflects the views and opinions of a wide range of members and focuses on several critical areas: upholding our shared common values and member diversity across multiple dimensions; embracing new ways of conceptualizing and measuring “opinions” while maintaining our focus on scientific rigor and transparency; serving members at all career stages through professional development and education; advocating and educating the public, news media, decision-makers, and others on the importance of quality measurement and the need to support organizations critical to our field; and embracing a true global leadership role in our industry.

While AAPOR2025 covers a wide range of areas, I’d like to focus on three in particular that I believe are critical to us in shaping a new paradigm: our values, our collective self-image, and our global role.

THE IMPORTANCE OF OUR SHARED VALUES

I used to think of AAPOR as an organization where members were united around the twin themes of survey methodology and understanding the expression, the meaning (aka “substance”), of “public opinion.” I was wrong—or at least superficial—in my earlier views. It isn’t a common interest in methodology or opinion expression that unites us, but something deeper and more fundamental.

What binds us is not a common view of methodology or commitment to understanding the substance and implications of public opinion; rather,we are united by a common set of core values.

I’ve come to believe strongly in this perspective over the past two decades, having become—like many members—more deeply involved with the association, moving from a (mostly) passive member to a more engaged volunteer within AAPOR. In doing so, I’ve seen and experienced these values at work across our membership.

While there are certainly a number of values that can be ascribed to AAPOR members, several arose repeatedly in conversations with members as we were drafting the AAPOR2025 goals. Members noted that these are attributes that have served as our foundation and should not change over the next decade (or beyond). These include the four cornerstones:

Integrity:

Our members are dedicated to honesty, fairness, and accuracy, presenting the whole of an issue. And they’re willing to see and discuss the positive and the not-so-positive, even when the answers may threaten some of our very livelihoods.

Rigor:

AAPOR members are dedicated to a systematic, scientific approach to investigating and understanding methods and insights. This comes through in the several hundred presentations at our annual conference, publications in our refereed journals, and the world-class task-force reports produced.

Transparency:

AAPOR members are leaders in our commitment to being open in what we do and how we do it, so that others can fully understand and potentially replicate our approaches and/or findings. The successful launch of the Transparency Initiative this year demonstrates publicly this commitment by the association to this important value.

Collegiality:

The level of cooperative interaction among AAPOR members is unparalleled and manifests clearly in the thousands of hours put in by volunteers annually. These volunteers work collaboratively on our many association activities, including committees, task forces, continuing education efforts, outreach, conference preparation, and a host of other areas. Even the sometimes quite passionate debates and discussions we have on AAPORnet are done so within a collegial framework.

Let me take a moment here to address the recent discussions on AAPORnet regarding the controversial language in the section on providing a sponsor’s name to respondents. Many well-reasoned and passionate arguments were made and, in reviewing these arguments, it was clear that the language presented to members was at best unclear and at worse could have been interpreted in a manner potentially harmful to some in our association. The council heard those arguments, agreed a change was required, and expedited a solution that followed the rules we as an association have laid out for making such changes.

For those who may not have heard, the new code revision was approved—and that new code has a number of very important new components covering an expanded set of methodologies and respondent privacy concerns. The council did vote, however, to temporarily suspend the specific section questioned by a number of members on our professional responsibility in providing a sponsor’s identity to respondents. An expedited review process has been established, which will include obtaining additional member feedback and making recommendations for resolution. Assuming that changes are made, a new member vote will take place to approve the revisions.

While it might appear a bit cumbersome, we felt it was important to work within the governing framework that we as an association have laid out and not set a precedent of ignoring that framework, which could cause our community more problems in the future—a good example of our values at work.

Our values are important. Our commitment as an association goes beyond protecting these values to promoting them. The AAPOR Code of Professional Ethics and Practices serves as the cornerstone of our support for these values, but we also need to demonstrate and promote these values in our many ongoing activities.

Regardless of the methods we employ and beyond the specifics of the opinions or behaviors being studied, AAPOR remains strong only if we continue to support and promote the fundamental core values that unite us. It is these values that should guide our views and actions in helping establish a new “normal science” in our industry.

OUR COLLECTIVE SELF-IMAGE

Who are we, as an association—as a group, a robust, diverse community of professionals? The tagline on our website says we are the “Leading Association of Public Opinion and Survey Research Professionals.” It is a bold, proud statement that has served us well for years—but should it continue to be our guide into the future?

Like all of you, I share the belief that “public opinion”—in its many forms—should hold a privileged status. It is the lifeblood of a democracy and a cornerstone for business and commerce; it fuels decision- and policymaking in all sectors of life; and, sometimes, it’s just really interesting to know.

I will confess, however, that it has been some years since I thought of myself as a “survey researcher.” More than 25 years ago, I began my AAPOR journey, as many here have, in a university-based survey lab. I was well trained in traditional survey methods—primarily telephone surveys—by Bob Oldendick at the University of South Carolina. Later, my journey would take me to RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control, where I worked with others in developing techniques for measuring attitudes and behaviors that often went beyond traditional survey methods. Since coming to Nielsen and the private sector in 2007, I have worked with scientists and engineers to develop measurement techniques that utilize smartphone apps, incorporating short surveys with pictures, scanning, and GPS coordinates; have tested wearable metering technology to measure behaviors; and have experimented with the incorporation of big data sources as proxies or replacements for more traditional survey methods.

And I am not alone in this evolution. All sectors of our membership—commercial, contractor, academic, and government—are heavily involved in developing and testing new approaches to measuring and assessing opinions, attitudes, and behaviors. Many of these new techniques are quite different from the traditional approaches in our field. At this conference, in fact, some of this work is being presented and debated.

In the world in which we operate today, billing ourselves as an association of “survey researchers” seems quite narrow in focus. In the world of tomorrow, I fear it will simply be inadequate.

I was struck by something Frank Newport said in his 2011 presidential address: “There is the danger of spending so much time analyzing and reviewing the traditional survey sample methods our profession has used that we lose sight of the possible potential of newly emerging methods” (2011, 602). To this, I add: we need to be proactive in not just the assessment of these new methods, but to lead in their development as well—a critical aspect of defining the new paradigm.

If we want others to perceive us differently—a condition I would argue is necessary to move an industry to a new “normal science”—then we need to change our own collective self-image as an organization. AAPOR2025 recognizes that as an association we need to move “beyond reliance on traditional survey methods as the primary vehicle for collecting valid data.” Let me be clear—this is not a call to abandon surveys, but rather to see them increasingly as one important approach in a multi-method world.

Further, in recognizing that there are so many new ways of expressing, gauging, and interpreting public opinion, AAPOR needs to make itself home for a broader array of new members and constituents, many of whom are likely to come from disciplines that are newly formed or have little history with our association. I think this is particularly true when we consider the next generation of researchers, who are far more likely to view themselves as “data scientists” than as “survey researchers.”

This change in self-identity as an association cannot be simply one of changing slogans or adding additional panels to our annual conference; it needs to be bound in our DNA.

OUR GLOBAL RESPONSIBILITY

Finally, we need to think on a global scale. A key attribute of the next decade sure to color any new paradigm is the continued globalization of our field. Although our name may not reflect it, the American Association for Public Opinion Research actually reaches far beyond the United States in both membership and impact, and continues to grow.

Nearly 10 percent of our membership lives outside the United States, in countries such as Japan, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Germany, and dozens of others. A growing percentage of the subscriptions to our flagship journal, Public Opinion Quarterly, are from people and organizations outside the United States, which is the fastest-growing segment of the journal’s readership. Interest in our recent Big Data Task Force report has spread far and wide thanks to Twitter, with a Russian translation seen recently in Moscow. In fact, the two leads of that report—Frauke Kreuter and Lilli Japec—as well as several other members live or have affiliations outside the United States.

Additionally, AAPOR teamed with our sister organizations WAPOR and ESOMAR this past year to develop a module for international journalists on opinion polling, making the content relevant to international polling. Next year’s AAPOR conference in Austin, Texas, USA, will be a joint conference with WAPOR, reflecting our long-term practice of collaboration with our sister organization. We are a global organization with a global membership and a growing set of global activities, but I don’t think that we consistently view ourselves as such.

These past few months, I have had the privilege of traveling literally around the world as part of my role at Nielsen. In doing so, I met with dozens of professors and professionals as well as hundreds of students in Oxford, Dubai, Mumbai, Kolkata, Singapore, Shanghai, Mexico City, and Bogota. At many venues, we discussed the changing field of research in measuring and understanding public attitudes and behaviors. As you might imagine, there are vast differences in infrastructure and the development of scientific approaches to such research across countries. Places like India and Colombia are focused on some of the basics in conducting survey and opinion research. Those in Singapore and Shanghai are interested in techniques for leveraging their growing body of big data. All, however, expressed great interest in learning how to conduct such studies in a sound and scientific manner.

What we as AAPOR do and what we represent are important, not just to those in the United States, but across the world. Moreover, having an international voice over the next decade is a responsibility of AAPOR. When we consider our core mission, it is one that fits well within the international context. We proudly state on our website that

AAPOR members embrace the principle that public opinion research is essential to a healthy democracy, providing information crucial to informed policymaking and giving voice to the nation’s beliefs, attitudes, and desires. It promotes a better public understanding of this role, as well as the sound and ethical conduct and use of public opinion research.

These are principles shared by opinion specialists and researchers globally, yet many of these colleagues—particularly in emerging economies—struggle to obtain them. AAPOR can aid markedly in this effort.

Yet, while changing “the nation’s” (possessive) to “nations’” (plural) on a website statement is easy, stepping beyond the borders of the United States to embrace a larger, ongoing role in the research world is something that requires considerable thought and planning.

AAPOR2025 calls on us to collaborate globally with organizations that have a mutual interest in public opinion. We need to be a proactive and ongoing partner in the international network of organizations dedicated to the pursuit and understanding of public opinion and measurement methods. We need to use these collaborations to leverage opportunities, facilitate the advancement of knowledge, establish common best practices, and better serve both our members and the broader global industry.

The time has come for AAPOR to have a more complete and coherent vision and strategy for embracing our larger international role and taking action to realize that strategy. In so doing, we can help ensure that the new paradigm in our field is a global one.

Conclusion

In closing, let me note that I think this is an incredible time to be working in the field of opinion research (broadly defined) and especially to be a member of such an important association as AAPOR. We are in the midst of a critical shift in our industry, but it is one that provides us with perhaps the greatest opportunity since our founding. Make no mistake—a “new science” or paradigm will emerge. The good news is that we are in a position today to help lead and define that new paradigm.

AAPOR2025 calls explicitly for us to do so, setting the expectation that AAPOR will “lead in the establishment of a new paradigm of measurement research that evaluates and promotes alternative designs and methodologies for generating insights into and drawing scientific conclusions about public opinion” (AAPOR 2014).

Our challenge over the next decade is to turn that vision into action. I challenge us all—as well as the AAPOR members to come—to help us make this vision reality. Help us pull together as an association, a robust, diverse community, to lead and define the new paradigm. To do so is the one sure way to ensure that our organization continues to serve as a vibrant home for the next generation of researchers—as it has for many of us and our predecessors for nearly seven decades.