Political Abstentionism in Opinion Polls

In Pierre Bourdieu's book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, there is an interesting section on public opinion polling:

Political science long ago began to register the fact that a large proportion of the persons surveyed 'abstained' from answering questions on politics and that these 'non-responses' varied significantly by sex, age, educational level, occupation, place of residence and political tendency. But no conclusions have been drawn, and the psephologists merely deplore this culpable 'abstention.'

As soon as one sees that the inert "don't know" category is largely recruited from what others call "the masses" or "the people," one begins to suspect the function it performs in the operation of "liberal democracy" and the contribution it makes to maintaining the established order. Abstentionism is perhaps not so much a hiccup in the system as one of the conditions of its functioning as a misrecognized -- and therefore recognized -- restriction on political participation.

What needs to be questioned is the very notion of 'personal opinion.' The opinion poll, by urging all its respondents, without distinction, to produce a 'personal opinion' -- an intention underlined by all the "according-to-yous", "in-your-views" and "what-do-you-personally thinks" in the questionnaires -- or to choose, by their own means, unaided, between several pre-formulated opinions, implicitly accepts a political philosophy which makes political choice a specifically political judgement, applying political principles to answer a problem that is presented as political, and which credits everyone with not only the right but also the power to produce a judgement.

This was a provocative assertion that was just dying for an empirical illustration.  We will now refer to some survey data from the 2004 TGI Brasil survey.  Within this study, there are 4,402 persons between the ages of 20 to 64.  During the survey process, they had been shown a series of statements related to politics and civics:

The respondents are offered a choice of five responses: "Completely agree," "Somewhat agree," "Neither agree nor disagree," "Somewhat disagree," or "Completely disagree."  However, they do not have to choose any of these responses for they can decline to answer.  Our interest here is in the people who choose "no response" on one or more of the above ten statements.

Overall, 8.4% of the survey respondents did not respond to one or more of those statements.  The breakdown is shown in the table below.

(Source: 2004 TGI Brasil)

What do these data show? I continue to quote from Bourdieu's book, published in English translation in 1984 and about French data. Here he is talking about the probability of people being able to produce an opinion (as opposed to "I don't know" and its other variations).

This probability is greater for men than women, greater for the young than the old; greater in large towns (especially Paris); and rises with educational capital (measured by qualifications) and economic capital (measured by income) and with social position.

... one finds that those who cannot reply to the question of their political allegiance or preference (indicating the party to which they feel closer) are those who are also most inclined to leave the other questions unanswered -- especially when the question posed is clearly located in the register of professional politics.

The variations linked to these variables are that much more marked when the questions are more remote from experience, more abstract and detached from ordinary realities in their content and phrasing (and also, but secondarily, when they have only recently appeared in the field of ideological production) and when they require more insistently a response produced on the basis of specifically political principles (a demand that is perceived in the very syntax and vocabulary of the question).

You can almost cut-and-paste Bourdieu's comments and apply them to the Brazilian data.  His observations apply to socio-economic status, gender and education.  He was wrong on age, and that was because we have to consider the history of political participation in Brazil, which took decades to transition from military dictatorship to full-blown democratic elections.  He was also wrong on political party membership because of the existence of political patronage (to wit, people may belong to political parties for the material benefits such as jobs without caring about the actual theories and practices).

Why was Bourdieu so interested in the 'Don't know's? Here are the logical consequences:

The act of producing a response to a questionnaire on politics, like voting, reading a party newspaper or joining a party, is a particular case of a supply meeting demand.

On one side is the field of ideological production, a relatively autonomous universe in which amidst competition and conflict, the instruments for thinking the social world are created and where, through this process, the field of the politically thinkable, or to put it another way, the legitimate problematic, is defined. 

On the other side are social agents, occupying different positions in the field of class relations and defined by a greater or lesser specific political competence -- a greater or lesser capacity to recognize a political question as political and to treat it as such by responding to it politically, i.e., on the basis of specific political principles. This capacity is inseparable from a more or less strong feeling of being competent, in the full sense of the word, that is, socially recognized as entitled to deal with political affairs, to express an opinion about them or even modify their course.

If the legitimate problematic is selected and circumscribed by a small group of self-appointed opinion producers (the political parties, the politicians, the media and the special interest lobbies), then you can choose among those limited choices or else you can abstain. In either case, you are maintaining the established order.

(posted by Roland Soong, 6/10/2005)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)