Thursday, August 13, 2009

Death of polling?

An interesting post on politicalwire caught my attention earlier this week, getting me thinking about crowds and audiences again, but in a slightly different stratum. This isn’t about the activity of the crowd or controlling it, but rather coming to know it. I present the quote here in its entirety because it’s just that interesting to me.

Phone polling depends on a set of assumptions: "You're at home; you have a phone; your phone has a hard-coded area code and exchange which means I know where you are; ... you're waiting for your phone to ring; when it rings you'll answer it; it's OK for me to interrupt you; you're happy to talk to me; whatever you're doing is less important than talking to me; and I won't take no for an answer -- I'm going to keep calling back until you talk to me."

However, the reality is much different: "In fact, you don't have a home phone; your number can ring anywhere in the world; you're not waiting for your phone to ring; nobody calls you on the phone anyway they text you or IM you; when your phone rings you don't answer it -- your time is precious, you have competing interests, you resent calls from strangers, you're on one or more do-not-call lists, and 20 minutes [the length of many pollsters' interviews] is an eternity."

In the article linked from PW the speaker, pollster Jay Leve, also defends the use of automated phone polls, which I could devote a lot of time to discussing another time. What I’m more concerned with is what Leve implies about the impact of cell phones on social geography. My mind immediately went to a piece from my audience studies class in the spring, Relocating the site of the audience by Martin Allor. Allor (1988) talks about the audience member as “an autonomous unit separable from systems of singification” and at the same time “a faceless member of a class of people” (218).

Allor isn’t talking about the “site” of the audience in a geographical sense but the wordplay here is fun. Like Allor, Leve is constructing the audience as a commodity to his client; they represent informational power in a political campaign. He is thinking of them as unpaid labor; taking up twenty minutes of their time for them to do the work of organizing that information; except the audience doesn’t even get the illusory pleasure of seeing their labor as leisure, as when they’re watching television. Finally, Leve points out the flaw of modern polling in one big assumption, thinking that the audience is at home.

Here again is the wordplay of “site.” As Allor says, the audience “exists nowehere; it inhabits no real space” (228). How true. Allor says the “place of the audience is multiple” in the sense of being defined by gender or labor or decoding; but the place of the audience is also multiple in the sense of geography. Leve also said that during the 2008 election his firm was getting about 24% of the 18 to 24 year old respondents they should have been. The cell phone has given this audience a locational fluidity that makes it impossible for the pollsters to follow; the poll respondent is no longer confined to domestic spaces.

Where Roger Silverstone (1991), for example, talked about domestic media allowing for the dispersal of the family throughout the household, complicating the ratings process for programmers, cell phones allow for a geographic dispersal that even further complicates the process of solidifying a picture of what they’re thinking. Leve concludes that for polling in 2009 "it's over...this is the end. Something else has got to come along." The double articulation of audiences, audiences consuming and being consumed is a little harder to accomplish. They’re still everywhere consuming, but pinning them down, at least in the realm of political polling, is a trickier process. Yet, polls are still being consumed in the political realm; the audience is still looking at and potentially being swayed by polls (“I want to vote for a winner”), but the pollsters can’t quite get to the audience, to formulate an accurate polled image (if such a thing was possible to begin with). Is it going too far to say the political pollster is living in a reverse Panopticon at the moment? Or shall we just default to Raymond Williams (1961) and say “There are no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses” (20).

Allor, Martin. “Relocating the site of the audience.” Critical Studies in mass communication, 5(1988): 217-233.

Silverstone, Roger. From audiences to consumers: The household and the consumption of communication and information technologies.” European Journal of Communication, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1991): 135-154.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and society. London: Random House, 1961.


Old Man On Campus said...

We better come up with a replacement real quick. The consequences of a world without public opinion polls, esp. in a democracy at warp speed (like ours) is like the driver of a bus flying down the Interstate suddenly disappearing.

Rob Spicer said...

I'm not so sure. Opinion polling is the result of a very specific way of thinking about or constructing the public. We have had this way of thinking going back to Lippmann and Bernays, and I think that a shift in our thinking could be useful.

Polls don't simply inform the public, they construct the public for the media consumer. I don't have the answer for where we are heading; that's a direction I'm starting to think in for my research. I don't think democracy is dependent on polling, but we will need a change in thinking if Leve is correct in his assessment.