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ESRA 2023 Preliminary Glance Program

All time references are in CEST

Survey research in authoritarian contexts

Session Organiser Dr Francesco Marolla (Tilburg University (the Netherlands))
TimeTuesday 18 July, 16:00 - 17:00
Room U6-21

Survey research in authoritarian contexts presents unique challenges, such as perceived social desirability of answers due to pressure to conform to government authority, security concerns of both respondents and interviewers, and the implications of internet censorship. Considering these facts, researchers need to be creative and cautious when conducting survey research to collect reliable and valid data in authoritarian contexts.
This panel aims to provide insights into the methodological challenges of conducting survey research in authoritarian contexts and to understand the trends of political and social attitudes in these contexts. It will discuss the challenges and opportunities of conducting survey research in authoritarian contexts, with a specific focus on the empirical findings and methodological issues related to the sensitive topics under study. It will outline the aspects that must be considered when conducting surveys in authoritarian contexts and explore some solutions proposed by scholars to address these problems, such as question-wording formulations that can help alleviate some of the constraints and reduce the sensitivity of questions, the utilisation of open-access polls to circumvent government restrictions and measure public opinion, or the use of internet surveys to overcome issues due to political and social control of governments.
Ultimately, this panel seeks to discuss the implications of conducting survey research in authoritarian contexts while also highlighting some methods for collecting valuable and reliable research data despite the challenges. These methods can help minimise the risk of compromising the survey results due to the constraints imposed by authoritarian governments. With the proper precautions in place, survey research in authoritarian contexts can yield valuable insights into public opinion and the social and political dynamics of the region. The panel will also consider how these methods can be adapted to other contexts to ensure the validity and reliability of the survey data collected.

Keywords: authoritarian contexts, survey practice, question-wording

Using Internet Surveys to Collect Research Data Under the Total Control of the Chinese Party-State

Professor Chih-Jou Jay Chen (Academia Sinica) - Presenting Author

Since the mid-2010s, the Xi Jinping regime has further tightened political and social control in China, making the collection of valid research data increasingly difficult. To overcome these obstacles, this project uses internet surveys to break through China’s tight internet censorship and collect reliable, valid, and timely research data, especially on topics considered politically sensitive. We delivered anonymous opt-in surveys to Chinese Web users accessing the internet through a variety of Web-enabled devices. From September 2022 to June 2023, we conducted eight waves of internet surveys, each lasting 7-10 days, and collecting a successful sample of 5,000 respondents. The survey questions included work, employment, income, trust in Xi Jinping and different levels of government, social support and trust, attitudes towards the Chinese government’s zero-Covid policy, and attitudes towards Taiwan and cross-strait issues, etc. This paper examines the economic impact of the Covid pandemic on different social groups (i.e., people of different generations, residents in rural/urban regions, workers in different sectors, etc.) and their association with political attitudes and political trust. Using eight waves of cross-sectional data, we thus show the transitional trends of political and social attitudes and people’s lives in China in the Covid and post-Covid period.

Sensitive questions in an authoritarian context: the case of Central Asia

Mr Tlegen Kuandykov (Central Asia Barometer) - Presenting Author

The study of public opinion in Central Asia is a rather specific activity, requiring ingenuity and caution at all stages of research due to the authoritarian context, which greatly expands the field of 'sensitive' questions and creates serious methodological concerns in the measurement of public opinion.

If it is safe to survey public opinion about media, culture and the environment, and it will not compromise the results of the poll, other specific topics, such as questions about religion in Tajikistan, or central government and president in Uzbekistan, pose a serious methodological problem. In most cases, respondents either evade answering or misreport, presenting as their opinion socially desirable answers and answers that coincide with the official position of the authorities or, as perceived by the respondent, do not contradict it.

In this paper I intend to present the empirical findings from the Central Asian Barometer experience of polling, as well as the challenges and possible solutions to it. In particular, I intend to reflect on three issues: 1) the systematic bias concern present in authoritarian contexts. 2) High political, religious and ethical sensitivity 3) Security concerns both of the respondent and the interviewer due to topic sensitivity. One of the most effective responses to these constraints used by the CAB is to develop specific question wording that helps to alleviate some of the constraints and reduce the sensitivity.

Surveys in geo-political crises: Public opinion in wartime Russia

Dr Yulia Baskakova (Langer Research Associates) - Presenting Author

The Russian invasion of Ukraine ignited a large-scale geopolitical crisis, the full scale of which has yet to be seen. The response of the West aims not only to repulse Russia militarily but to turn its population against the war. Countering this effort is the strength of Russia’s propaganda machine. Our paper assesses which side is prevailing in the battle for Russian public opinion.
We will review and summarize open-access Russian opinion polls related to the war from the invasion to July 2023, comparing them with available data from previous conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea. We will assess whether and how attitudes toward the war in Ukraine have changed, what factors inform these views and how they differ among groups, as well as limitations of the available data.
The situation in Russia invites skepticism toward public opinion polling there. The government’s control over the media and public discourse, its classifying polling as “political activity,” branding people and organizations as “foreign agents” and handing out prison terms for “discrediting the Russian army” or describing the war as a war all raise questions about the validity of attitudinal measurement.
Yet many open-access polls in Russia are conducted using rigorous, probability-based methods. Question wording is disclosed, datasets are released, differences in attitudes among population groups are readily apparent and historical comparisons to previous conflicts are available. Taken in context, and with awareness of their limitations, much is to be learned from Russian polling as the war continues.
Public opinion in Russia may yet prove a crucial element in the outcome of the crisis now underway. We will collect, assess and compare available data to discern its course from the start of the war to the present time.