Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Today's reference book of the day:

American Attitudes: Who Thinks What About The Issues That Shape Our Lives, 3rd edition.
Susan Mitchell
New Strategist Publications, Inc.

This is a single volume that shelves in our reference collection next to the Gallup polls and in the general neighborhood of social activism, protest, and action. (HN 90 .P8 M58.) It collates American public opinion on a wide range of issues, some of them fairly standard and predictable (homosexuality, role of government, belief in God) and some of them much more out-of-the-way, unexpected, and interesting.

Opinions are drawn from the General Social Survey of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. (The introduction provides context for the research center and the methods used.) Information is presented in tables, surrounded by a clearly-stated question and a narrative describing how responses break down by race, gender, age, and other relevant characteristics.

Some of the more interesting questions that were asked:
  • Doctors always do their best to keep the patient from worrying. Do you agree or disagree?
  • In general, do you find life exciting, pretty routine, or dull?
  • Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?
  • Life is only meaningful if you provide the meaning yourself. Do you agree or disagree?
  • It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking--do you agree or disagree?
  • On the average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. What do you think these difference are mainly due to?
  • Did you ever have a religious or spiritual experience that changed your life?
I can see this book being useful for students in a few ways. Undergrads often seem to be looking for authoritative support for popular received notions--i.e., "I'm doing a paper on how the media doesn't show black people in professional jobs, and the assumptions that causes people to make." Alternatively, they often want to find out what people do think about a wide variety of topics, and sometimes they're told to find out what certain groups of people (retired people, people with a bachelor's degree) think about issues. It's also interesting to see how opinions have changed over time--in many tables, findings from previous years are given as well. Students could use Gallup or another poll service to compare similar questions over time if they can't find longitudinal data here.

I'm also a little tickled by some of the questions this survey asks, particularly about abstract values such as happiness and meaning. I'm a little depressed by some of the opinions expressed, but that's neither here nor there.

The book is well arranged for undergraduates--the key findings for each question are summarized neatly in the introductory narrative. There's a topical index, as well as an in-depth ToC for the questions, grouped by general subject area.

ETA: There's a 4th edition out, dated 2004. We don't have it yet.


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