Poll opinions

20 August 2007

Jon Bright (London, OK): As the Economist dryly noted at the beginning of the month, Britain's Asians must spend a lot of time responding to surveys. The opinion poll is a mainstay of journalism at the moment, and almost all of them are asking about Asians - and Islam in particular - in the hope of generating a headline about how inclusive/intolerant we all are. Today's FT has a classic example. "UK more suspicious of Muslims than America and rest of EU" we are told. The article then reports that only 59% of Britons "thought it possible to be both a Muslim and a citizen of their country", adding that "this is a smaller proportion than in France, Germany, Spain, Italy or the US".

The presentation is misleading. By emphasising that only 59% of Britons responded 'yes' the Financial Times leaves the impression that 41% responded 'no', i.e. that two people in five think it is not possible to be both a Muslim and a British citizen. In fact 13% responded 'don't know' as you can see if you read the full survey (opens pdf). In other words only 28% responded 'no'. Would you buy shares from someone who presented things in this way?

There's nothing so wrong with trying to find out what people think. And it's important to know that 28% of people tell Harris polling that it is not possible to be both a Muslim and a British citizen.

But I'm suspicious of polls like this that are not about something immediate like voting intentions and claim to achieve that famous window into the soul Queen Elizabeth I had the sense to refuse. Having been polled once myself, I'm not sure whether such surveys can represent deeply held beliefs. My experience was of a rapid-fire set of questions loaded towards answers already expected. Here the question takes too much for granted. Does being Muslim have one singular interpretation? For that matter, does being a British citizen? Can you really reflect on this when answering an interruption to what might be a busy day?

I'm not saying there's no such thing as prejudice in the UK (maybe the figure would be far higher than 28% if people had a chance to think). I'm saying this type of survey is all too often accepted unquestioningly. Opinion polls on 'beliefs' always generate headlines. I'm just not sure they generate much of anything else.

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