Thin Descriptions: The Limits of Survey Research on the Meaning of Democracy
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Survey researchers have produced a body of evidence suggesting that people’s understandings of democracy are surprisingly consistent worldwide. This article challenges that finding by comparing the results of a 2002 survey conducted in the Philippines with the results of my own 2001 fieldwork in one Philippine community where, using interpretive rather than survey-research tools, I also investigated how people understand democracy. The article identifies three generic methodological problems—compression, compartmentalization, and homogenization—that have led survey researchers in the Philippines and beyond to simplify meanings and falsely twin roughly equivalent words in different languages. The global consistency in meaning that survey researchers have discovered appears to be the product not of converging worldviews, but of specific procedures used to record, code, and interpret interview responses. Insofar as democracy-promotion initiatives are shaped by such surveys, their misleading quality is not only of methodological concern, but of immediate political relevance.