An Experiment in Public-Opinion Polling among Preliterate People

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    An Experiment in Public-Opinion Polling among Preliterate PeopleAuthor(s): M. G. MarwickSource: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr., 1956), pp.149-159Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International African InstituteStable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 07:38

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    OWARDS the end of I947 I carried out a public-opinion survey among the Cewa tribe of Fort Jameson district, Northern Rhodesia. Although the survey was a

    failure, judged by the rigorous standards of public-opinion polling, it nevertheless threw light on some of the problems that arise when public-opinion-polling tech- niques are adapted for use among preliterate peoples. Research of this kind has a place in assessing general morale, in gauging people's reactions to administrative and development policies, and in supplementing the more intensive, but highly selective, observations of the social anthropologist. Because this is an important but almost untouched field, I am recording the lessons that are to be learned from my experiment.

    The survey was made at the time when the Northern Rhodesia Government was starting a rural development scheme about twelve miles from the locality in which I had been doing social-anthropological research during the previous fifteen months. The objects of the survey were (a) to check quantitatively some of the impressions previously formed of Cewa attitudes and opinions and (b) to provide a datum from which to measure future changes in attitude and opinion that might be associated with the progress of the development programme. As yet there has been no oppor- tunity of repeating the survey. This paper gives some idea of the modifications in method which would be necessary if that opportunity arose, and in a sense may be regarded as a report on a pilot study.

    The scope of the investigation was defined by a schedule developed during trial interviews in the locality in which I was working. An English translation of the body of the final form appears in the Appendix. There were five questions (A-E) on each of five general fields (I-5) arranged in an order the rationale of which will be explained later. To these 25 questions were appended two crude social distance questions about each of seven groups or their divisions with which the Cewa come into contact or at least know by repute. At the head of the schedule were recorded certain characteristics of the informant (including the name of the interviewer); six of these were used in tabulation. The 25 opinion questions, 14 social distance questions, and 6 characteristics amounted to 45, which was the number of columns on the sorter used two years later.

    I An earlier draft of this paper was read to the allowing me to use their Powers-Samas sorter; to Annual Conference of the South African Psycho- my wife for giving me a great deal of help at the logical Association in Durban in July I954. The time both of the field-work and of the tabulation; research on which it is based was carried out in and to Messrs. Cruise and Meggitt of the University October and November 1947, during my tenure of a of Natal and Drs. Biesheuvel and Armsen of the Colonial Social Science Research Fellowship. I wish National Institute for Personnel Research, Johannes- to record my indebtedness to the Colonial Social burg, for advice on statistical problems. Professor Science Research Council for sponsoring the general Leo Kuper, Dr. Hilda Kuper, Dr. Clyde Mitchell, and research of which this formed a part, to the Northern Dr. Desmond Reader have read the paper in draft. Rhodesia Government for allowing me to work in I am grateful to them for their helpful suggestions, Native areas, and to the officials of its Administration as I am to the members of the S.A. Psychological for much help and encouragement. My thanks are Association who contributed to the discussion that also due to the Director and Staff of the Leather followed the reading of my paper. Industries Research Institute, Grahamstown, for

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    The problems that had to be dealt with fall under the five headings that divide the rest of this paper, and were met in two ways. Firstly, I tried to adapt the established principles of public-opinion polling to the special conditions under which the work was being done. The fact that I was familiar with the language and culture of the people and had good rapport in one of the areas in which the survey was made facilitated this. Secondly, provision was made in my research design for estimating the effects of those difficulties which might prove insuperable.

    I. Illiteracy of Informants The most direct effect that the illiteracy of informants has on public-opinion polling

    is that it confines one to the interview as opposed to the questionnaire technique. Furthermore, since written words cannot be used, closed-end questions with more than three response choices (e.g. 'Yes', 'No', 'Don't know') are inadvisable lest the informant, being unable to memorize a large number of alternatives, should choose one that he happens to remember, rather than the one that most closely describes his response. Where it is likely that a question will elicit more than three types of answers, the informant's response to it may be recorded verbatim and classified afterwards. This, incidentally, has the advantage of bringing out spontaneous modes of expression and minimizing the 'planting' of answers.

    2. Poorly Qualified Assistants A less direct consequence of widespread illiteracy is the absence in the community

    of suitably qualified persons from whom interviewers of the same race and culture as the informants may be recruited. Among the Cewa not only is the general standard of education low, but there is a tendency for the more literate members of the com- munity-the potential and actual clerks, messengers, and policemen-to develop overbearing attitudes that are detrimental to effective public-opinion polling. I had to do the best I could with the available personnel. I interviewed 6o informants my- self, and employed three African assistants (of local Std. V-VI qualification) who had either come to me straight from school or worked for me during their school holidays; they interviewed 103, 96, and 9 informants respectively.1

    The first of the African assistants, whom I shall call Walter, was 22; and the second, Bruce, 21. Walter was highly intelligent, especially in social situations. He had a keen insight into others' points of view and interests, and an effective way of handling people. By contrast Bruce was colourless and obtuse. He had a tendency to accept as a response an answer that was a mere restatement of the question. For instance, in reply to the question (A2) 'Why are Africans poor? ', he obtained a significantly higher proportion in the response category in which ' Because they have no money ' was typical. In addition, he was careless and frequently omitted from the schedules particulars of informants' characteristics.

    The first step taken to meet the problem of poorly qualified assistants was to give them as few opportunities as possible of using their own discretion. For instance, they were not required to classify informants' answers to the fifteen open-end ques- tions included on the schedule, but merely to record them verbatim. The second step

    I No further reference is made to the last of these, though the returns from his small sample have been included in the totals.


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    was to train them in the use of the schedule and, when it could be done without disturbing their informants, to supervise their work. This supervision should have been stricter. There might have been fewer omissions of informants' characteristics if schedules had been edited in the field before we had lost contact with the inform- ants, who remained anonymous.

    A procedure for estimating the effects of this problem was the separate tabulation of interviewers' sub-samples. This provided a means of (a) estimating interviewer bias and (b) studying differential responses made to me and to the African assistants. The second of these will be discussed in relation to the next problem.

    The results, a selection of which is given in the Table, showed many statistically significant differences between the response distributions of the two African inter- viewers whose sub-samples were large enough for comparisons to be made. This revealed a weakness in the design which is the main reason why it will not be possible to publish the results as public-opinion-poll findings without making important qualifications. If there had been more than two African interviewers with large enough sub-samples, each one could have been tested for bias by comparing his distributions with the combined results of the others. With only two it was impossible to determine which was biased. Over the whole series of schedule items there was greater agreement between Bruce and me than between Walter and me. Since, how- ever, a variable other than interviewer bias was operating here, viz. differential response to white and African, and since there was no way of checking my own objectivity, it is impossible to establish beyond doubt that Bruce was the more objec- tive of the two African interviewers. Walter generally elicited more hostile, anti- white responses than Bruce, and this may show that he had better rapport. The reason for suspecting that Walter and not Bruce was biased, however, is the fact that there were occasions when certain of his interests-or his estimates of mine-suppressed his tendency to evoke anti-white responses. For instance, the responses he obtained to the question, 'Why are the Europeans sending [African] people to the resettle- ment areas? ' (Ai, see Table) showed a proportion of openly suspicious and hostile responses not reliably different from those obtained by other interviewers; and yet he obtained a very significantly higher proportion of responses that regarded the re- settlement scheme as primarily a programme in agricultural education (a pro-white opinion). This was in line with a strong interest he happened to have in agricultural reform. Furthermore, as an examination of the Table will show, on those items where it was possible (viz. Bz, D5, and E5), he obtained significantly higher proportions in response categories showing a preoccupation with witch beliefs. This was probably due to his having divined my special interest in this field and exerted influence (prob- ably through supplementary questions and other cues) on his batch of informants. If this is so, Walter's case is evidence that high social intelligence has its dangers as well as its advantages. The ideal interviewer would appear to need qualities falling somewhere between Bruce's stolid automatism and Walter's overstimulation.

    3. Racial Differences Affecting Power Relations In the system of power relations obtaining in a colonial territory like Northern

    Rhodesia one's physical features establish one's status. Africans identify all whites as members of the ruling caste of administrators, missionaries, and employers of labour.

    I 5.I

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    Percentage distribution of replies to:

    Critical ratios of differences (asterisks indicate degree of

    significance-see note at foot of p. 153.)

    Question: Answer or answer type

    Question B2: What will happen to an

    African who gets rich ? I. He'll buy cattle 2. He'll start a local

    business 3. He'll buy clothes

    and/or take to poly- gyny

    4. He'll be killed by witchcraft

    5. We can't get rich: we're black

    6. Other answers and don't know

    Question D5: Do certain Europeans kill

    [African] people with medicines [including witchcraft] ? I. Yes 2. No 3. Don't know

    Question E5: Are there more or fewer

    witches nowadays than there were long ago ? 1. More now 2. More long ago 3. Don't know

    Question EI: Will the Europeans take

    more land from Africans or give them more land ? 1. They'll take more 2. They'll give more 3. Don't know

    Question A : Why are the Europeans

    sending [African] peo- ple to the resettlement areas ? i. To relieve pressure

    on the old reserves by giving us more land

    2. How should we know ? Only the Europeans know

    3. To teach people new methods of agricul- ture

    4. Openly suspicious or hostile response

    5. Others
























    100'0 100'0 100'0 100'0

    26-1 8-3 43'7 14'7 631I 46-7 55'3 84'4

    o0-8 45'0 1.o I. o

    100'0 00-0 100-0 100-0

    76'I 60oo 96-1 63-5 I6-4 10-0 3'9 34'4

    7'5 30-0 0oo 21I

    100o0 Io 00 0 1000 oo00

    62-7 40-0 83'5 52-I 26-I 13'3 15'5 46-9 11.2 46-7 1lo 1I0

    100-0 100o0 100-0 100-0

    27.2 26-7 I7'5 36-5

    22.8 38.3 2-9 36-5

    I8.7 11.7 38.8 I. o

    I9'4 I6.7 20-4 I9-8 II'9 6-6 20-4 6-2


    All inter- viewers

    (N = 268) Marwick (N = 60)

    Walter (N = 103)

    Bruce (N = 96)

    1oo'o I00'0 I00-0 100-0

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