Monday, November 29, 2004

More Exit Poll Postmortem

I missed this article last week. Richard Morin, the Washington Post's Director of Polling, did some navel gazing on the discrepancy between the exit poll numbers of November 2 and official election results. While noting that exit polls are problematic, and usually do not influence the outcome (or are noticed after the close of most campaigns), he does agree with Warren Mitofsky, co-director of exit polling for the National Election Pool, that Republican malfeasance played a roll (does this remind anyone else of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign?):

Mitofsky, the veteran pollster who co-directed this year's exit surveys, fears that Republican voters refused to be interviewed in disproportionately higher numbers, thus skewing the results. Perhaps they were busier than Democrats and didn't have time to be interviewed. Perhaps they disliked the media's coverage of Bush, and showed it by snubbing poll interviewers. Whatever the reason, Mitofsky warned the networks about the apparent Democratic bias mid-afternoon on Election Day -- a caution "they chose to ignore," he told Terence Smith on PBS. (See correction to this attributed quote at the beginning of the article).

If the snubbing theory is confirmed, it would not be the first time that Republicans are believed to have just said no to exit pollsters. Historically, exit polls have been more likely to err on the side of Democratic candidates, though this bias is usually small. In 2000, for example, the exit polls overstated Democrat Al Gore's share of the vote by more than one percentage point in about 20 states, while inflating Bush's share in just 10 states.

*Registration required for the article, so use instead.

Turkey Day Reading

A long weekend of family, food, and people who have become appurtenances to the family (i.e., almost legally impossible to have removed); then, repeat, repeat, repeat. In So Cal we had rain, cold, and another SC storm (Trojans beat the Irish - too bad). But I also took time out to read James Wolcott's Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants (Miramax 2004). I enjoy his monthly columns in Vanity Fair, and he has entered the blogging universe, but the pleasure of a hardbound book cannot be routinely denied. In a follow-up to my post on focus groups, I noticed the following passage from page 219:

The late New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell (Joe Gould's Secret, Up in the Old Hotel) once explained that the reason he gave up doing human-interest stories was because over time his interviewees stopped talking like individuals with their own unique vernacular and started imitating the characters they heard on TV. Likewise, people who participate in focus groups have become gifted in speaking focus-groupese, supplying the placebocomments expected of the them. "Education's definitely a big priority in our household." "Trust is high on my agenda when I'm considering a candidate." "I want to consider all the issues before I make a decision." Kill me now.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Anthropology of Doo Dah

In 1956 J. Clyde Mitchell wrote an influential essay on the Kalela Dance of Northern Rhodesia, in which native bands used public events and spaces to mock Black-White social relationships with music and dancing.

In 1974 the filmmakers Jerry W. Leach and Gary Kildea documented Trobriand Islanders use of cricket to both reinvent ritualized confrontation between indigenous groups and simultaneously mock colonial administrators and missionaries.

And for the past twenty-eight years, the City of Pasadena ritually mocks its own exalted Rose Parade with the annual Doo Dah Parade, which took place yesterday afternoon through the streets of Old Pasadena on Colorado Blvd. Some of the more famous acts include Leg-Go, the One-Legged Clown, the Hard Hat Brotherhood, the Spawn of Captain James T. Kirk, the Men of Leisure Synchronized Nap Team, Don King of Candy, the Toro Lawn Mower Drill Team and the Synchronized Briefcase Marching Team.

One of the many strange facts of the parade is the enactment of a No Tortilla ordinance in the city. From the recent Pasadena Weekly:

One bizarre turn over the years was the fact that parade participants and bystanders engaged in an escalating battle with flying tortillas. It started out innocently enough as a messy street nuisance, but when the tortillas were hardened in the heat one year, "people found themselves pelted and even hurt until the city passed a No Tortillas ordinance. Pasadena's one of only two cities in America to ban the tossing of tortillas in public.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Friday Afternoon Food Fun

Part of the fun of an early-Friday-afternoon college shut-down is the following: the Gallery of Regrettable Food 3.0 is available for viewing online, or get the whole thing at Amazon. A weekend full of these 1950s food fads will make you long for the lunch counter come Monday.

Route 66

Today's Los Angeles Times contains an article on the the foothill remnants of the iconic American path to the West, Route 66, using the abandoned Azusa Foothill Drive-In Theatre (a beloved, if not much visited, chapter of my youth) as its focal point. Since my father's family arrived in So Cal in the midst of the Great Depression after making the drive from Chicago, we have always had a soft spot in the family for the assortment of "kitsch" and architecture bookmarking the road. I am also reminded that Christopher Hitchens wrote an article on Route 66 in Vanity Fair (Nov. 2002 - reprinted here). My memory, however, is that he didn't point out the ironic terminus of the road at the intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, CA: in the last block one will find an Indian buffet restaurant, and the Ye Olde Kings Head Pub next to an upscale Japanese restaurant. This succinctly recapitulates the multicultural construction of American identity within one city block.

"Lost" Races in Hollywood

I rarely watch prime-time network shows on television (so I am relatively handicapped in pop-culture knowledge), although I have been reading good reviews of Lost on ABC. To date, I have seen a couple episodes and am rather impressed with the series. However, I couldn't help but notice that the character Sayid, a former member of the Iraqi Replican Guard reserve (portrayed effectively well by the British actor Naveen Andrews), resembles someone from the Indian subcontinent rather than anyone of Arab or Kurdish ancestry. Perhaps that is because his background is Indian, as popularly announced via the Hollywood Desi community in Hollywood Masala, where one of the members posted this greivence:

Yes its quite good. i don't think it is great visibility for Desi performers though. Perhaps if Naveen was playing a DESI (Indian) character then it would be. he is playing a former Iraqi Republican guard reservist in the show. There is a still a long way to go in the eyes of the american public it would seem...

However you will be able to catch Naveen playing a desi (INDIAN) in the upcoming Bride and prejudice.

I agree. Although not as wildly off-kilter as having John Wayne portraying Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, it still does smack of Hollywood's reluctance to adequately portray race, in spite of their platitudes.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Chasing the Undecided Voter

Christopher Hayes exposes some disconcerting truths about undecided voters in the current online issue of The New Republic. Drawing on seven weeks of volunteer campaigning in Wisconsin leading up to the election, he concludes with these key points:

  1. Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think.
  2. Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics.
  3. A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists.
  4. The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush.
  5. Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues.

Coupled with the misologist Bush-supporters who still overwhelmingly think that al Qaeda had ties with Iraq, this does not bode well for the republic.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Bush Mandate?

What is a mandate? provides the following definitions:
  1. An authoritative command or instruction.
  2. A command or an authorization given by a political electorate to its representative.
  3. A commission from the League of Nations authorizing a member nation to administer a territory.
  4. A region under such administration.
  5. An order issued by a superior court or an official to a lower court.
  6. A contract by which one party agrees to perform services for another without payment.

But in American politics, the term refers to the popular consent of the public manifested through a national election for the presidency and congress. As we learn of more Bush cabinet resignations this week, and today's resignation of Secretary of State (SOS) Colin Powell, it is best to remember that President Bush has claimed he was given a mandate from the 2004 election. Let's put this in perspective, shall we?

The following sample of recent federal elections show the winner's total count margin over the major party challenger and the more important margin of victory in the electoral college:

  • 1976 Jimmy Carter +1,682,790 votes/+57 electoral votes
  • 1980 Ronald Reagan +7,407,813 votes/+440 electoral votes
  • 1984 Ronald Reagan +16,877,890 votes/+512 electoral votes
  • 1988 George H.W. Bush +7,077,023 votes/+310 electoral votes
  • 1992 Bill Clinton +5,805,344 votes/+202 electoral votes
  • 1996 Bill Clinton +8,203,602 votes/+220 electoral votes
  • 2000 George Bush -543,895 votes/+5 electoral votes
  • 2004 George Bush +3,359,939 votes/+20 electoral votes (totals not yet determined)

Clearly, the popular use of "mandate" shows that since 1976, George Bush the Second won with the slimmest total count margin since Jimmy Carter, and with fewer electoral votes than any other president in the last thirty years, save his dubious win in 2000.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Big Picture

I've been hearing lots of talk about the "odds" of something happening, especially with the election. With that in mind, I looked up some data from the National Safety Council on causes of death in one calendar year for US residents (from 2001). Some of the more interesting results are:

Ignition or melting of nightwear (1 in 57,018,763)
Bus occupant (1 in 7,705,238)
Pedestrian (1 in 46,960)
Fall on same level from slipping, tripping, and stumbling (1 in 505,485)
Earthquake or other earth movement (1 in 10,181,922)

Contrast that to the odds of winning some lotteries:

Multi-state Powerball (1 in 120,526,770)
California Super Lotto (1 in 41,416,353)
California Fantasy Five (1 in 575,757)

Lessons? I guess I'll have to start working from home, cease walking on sidewalks, and find some place to live other than California (or, in new-governor speak, "Kahlifornia").

Worthwhile Anthro Reviews

One of the reasons I enjoy reading foreign newspapers is that they aren't afraid to explore deeper topics in a studious manner. The Times Literary Supplement is one example, and actually lists full reviews of anthropology-related works.

TV Dinners

Our friends at Arts and Letters Daily remind us that the TV Dinner has turned 50 years old. I haven't had one in years (actually, decades), but it is an iconic bit of Americana, not to mention the source of Eva's introduction to modern cuisine in one of my favorite movies, Stranger Than Paradise.

More Election Post-Mortem

Is a poll like every other poll? On Thursday the The Pew Research Center released a study showing that the much-cited "moral values" response on exit polls appears to be influenced by its presence or absence on the survey instrument. On fixed-list surveys, moral values registered a 27% response, but in open-ended prompts, only 14%. From the survey:

The survey findings parallel exit poll results showing that moral values is a top-tier issue for voters. But the relative importance of moral values depends greatly on how the question is framed. The post-election survey finds that, when moral values is pitted against issues like Iraq and terrorism, a plurality (27%) cites moral values as most important to their vote. But when a separate group of voters was asked to name ­ in their own words ­ the most important factor in their vote, significantly fewer (14%) mentioned moral values. Regardless of how the question is asked, the survey shows that moral values is the most frequently cited issue for Bush voters, but is seldom mentioned by Kerry voters.

For those of you who *hate* methods classes, this is why understanding biases in seemingly innocuous is fundamental to being a good researcher.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Out-of-Focus Qualitative Research

Hope you caught the Frontline episode on The Persuaders last night in the US. While recognizing that my particular field of anthropology - economic anthropology - has greatly helped to influence marketing studies (see Journal of Consumer Research), marketers still rely almost exclusively on focus groups, which have been eschewed by methodolocially mature social sciences. Why? Well, first check out this compendium of thought by a UK research firm, including a link to the article, "Lies, Damn Lies and Focus Groups?" by Daniel Gross on Slate.

My thoughts on focus groups are as follows:

1) They might have "face validity," but certainly not "content validity" as a meaningful measure of consumer thought. Groups are small, selected by those willing to give up several hours for pay, and individuals are taken to be a representative spokespersons for whatever racial/ethnic or sociodemographic groups are to be included. They therefore gloss over differences within groups based on sampling protocol and harken back to the worse days of ethnographic research in which the colonial anthropologist could "pick a native...any native" as an all-knowing omniscient revealer of a foreign culture.

2) All small groups have their own dynamics, especially with people unknown to one another. There are always leaders and followers, so how are we to ascertain whether the group might be shifted in one direction or another by one or two members during the discussion? This is also related to the problem of participants saying what they think the focus group moderators want them to say. Call this the unwitting malfeasance problem.

3) A standard methodological principle of anthropology is that you want informants to speak in their own terms about some cultural frame or topic. Your goal is to understand that, not force them to learn "anthrospeak," to help you complete your study. Focus groups are all about coordinating with marketing departments; using the measure to reinforce decisions already reached behind closed doors. Remember the riddle of Clever Hans the Counting Horse. He really wasn't counting; his owner was unconsciously twitching when he reached the number that had been called out.

4) Focus groups usually are conducted in business-like offices with large, imposing tables, and one-way mirrors. People just don't buy things in that environment. Better to follow them around their daily lives, making observations, and correlating behaviors with what informants have told you about their preferences. This naturalistic component of ethnography is the cornerstone for successful qualitative research seeking to understand behavior, not verbal concepts.

5) How many focus groups fail to make viable recommendations? This is almost never reported in the literature, due in part due to business competition and proprietary knowledge limitations.

6) If you conducted several dozen focus groups, with different people and moderators, how reliable are the findings? I would guess that any correlation of results would be poor, at best. This speaks to the external validity of this methodology.

In short, focus groups are the crutch of qualitative marketing research. Good for generating ideas, but very poor as a meaningful test in the public at large. This is yet another area where anthropologists and sociologists can step in. I think the PBS Frontline special did a good job of showing the public how problematic this type of research can be.

W's Version of Science

Richard Lewontin has a piece in the lastest NYRB on the Bush Administration's scandalous misuse of science. And we all thought that postmodernists were bad.....

Monday, November 08, 2004

Birthing Pains

....The first breath of life......

So why The Angry Anthropologist? For decades anthropologists, especially cultural anthropologists, have had to fight misleading public images of their discipline, replete with popular notions of corduroy-wrapped professors nestled in comfortable offices, and never-ending salary checks. The reality is quite different. We have made important contribution to the fields of marketing, advertising, economics, development, public planning, and public health, and have even moved into business. Contrary to whatever documentary was recently aired on PBS, the vast majority of us are not physical anthropologists, or are endlessly seeking funding grants for obscure projects. We work in a variety of disciplines, and bring our expertise to bear on important questions of the day.

For some years now, friends and colleagues have asked for my imput on popular debates in economics, culture, and public policy as a professionally trained cultural anthropologist (specifically with a background in economic anthropology, cognitive anthropology, and social network analysis). They have always found my opinions interesting, even if they disagree with them. All the better for public discourse. This small corner of cyberspace will extend that "coffee table" talk to those of you who don't park yourself at Peets Coffee and Tea every morning.

In addition, the "angry" part comes into play with the misuse and misunderstanding of basic anthropological methods. Many well-trained social scientists have attempted to apply the expertise of cultural anthropologists to their own fields, but with poor results. As a methodology wonk, this drives me up the wall. I also intend to point out the foibles of these folks from time to time. Fie on them, and misologists in general.

Finally, if you want to take a look at how anthropology mighty contibute to recent discussions in the public realm, consult Grant McCracken's work at Cultureby.

Talk with you all soon.