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Pew Research Gets On The Right Side Of History

According to the Pew Research Center’s National Health Interview, the cellphone-only proportion of the U.S. population has increased from 4% in 2004 to nearly half (47%) in 2016. What’s more, fully nine-in-ten Americans have a mobile phone.

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By Dana Stanley

I’m a lifelong election junkie. I follow electoral contests closely and find them fascinating. While much of America (and the rest of the world) has become increasingly cynical and disengaged, my interest continues unabashed and unabated.

My passion for elections has a lot to do with my research career, which began apprenticing under pollsters Celinda Lake and Mark Mellman. At its core, research is the study of the human mind – how it forms and acts on opinions and beliefs both individually and in a social context. Both electoral and commercial research give us a glimpse into the complex inner workings of the individual and the social dynamics of society. What could be more interesting than that?

Every research project is a snapshot of a time and a place. As market researchers we have been shedding light on changes to our societies, including lifestyle changes and attitude evolution that drives the commercial landscape. On the electoral side, each election cycle’s polling uncovers – and documents – fascinating changes that could not have been imagined previously. Before Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the election of a progressive black president in America was widely considered something either impossible, difficult, or, at best, possible in the future. Similarly, the ascendance of candidate Donald Trump was foreseen by exactly zero people – aside presumably from Trump himself.

But looking back at research – either commercial or electoral – over time not only helps us understand times and places; it also helps us better understand research itself.

We all have seen – and most of us have used – the standard PowerPoint chart showing a black-and-white picture of a friendly face-to-face interviewer, followed by a picture of a dial telephone, followed by an online survey, followed by a mobile survey.

I’ve used that chart many times myself, and I feel ambivalent about it. It’s used so frequently – and its message so oft-repeated – that it feels hackneyed. But on the other hand, it tells us something so important that we have to keep reminding ourselves. Just as our societies inexorably change, bringing business and the public sector along with them (sometimes unwillingly), so must research change.

It’s our duty to actively seek to be on the right side of history.

The Pew Research Center has shown leadership on this score. The center announced this week that in its 2016 polling, including its studies about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it will increase the proportion of telephone interviews it conducts via mobile phone to 75%. The center has been steadily increasing the mobile proportion of its polling sample starting from around 25% in 2008.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that the proportion of Americans living in cellphone-only households has steadily increased. According to the Pew Research Center’s National Health Interview, the cellphone-only proportion of the U.S. population has increased from 4% in 2004 to nearly half (47%) in 2016. What’s more, fully nine-in-ten Americans have a mobile phone.

Our societies change. Our research changes. It’s a natural, inevitable process. Like the good researchers we are, let’s keep our eyes and our minds open and embrace change. And let’s be on the right side of history.

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