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University of Michigan's Institute Shows What Makes Society Tick

October 31, 1993|NANCY COSTELLO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Business owners fret over how much money people will spend and when they will spend it. Parents worry whether their children are using drugs. Lawmakers wonder how baby boomers will fare as the nation's largest age group edges toward retirement.

What is the surest way to find out what people are thinking and how they will behave? Ask them, scientists say.

Conducting surveys for the advancement of science was a radical concept in 1946 when the Institute for Social Research was established at the University of Michigan.

Since then, the institute has honed its skill at charting American life through questionnaires.

"It is the premier center for survey research methodology in the world. There are no close seconds," said political scientist George Bishop, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati.

The institute's achievements tell the story.

A study of consumer attitudes begun by the institute in 1946 is now one of 11 components in the nation's Index of Leading Economic Indicators issued by the U.S. Commerce Department. A biennial study of voting behavior begun in 1948 is the weather vane of American political life, political scientists say.

An institute foreign policy survey that included questions on the 1948 presidential election was one of few in the country to predict Harry S. Truman's victory over Thomas Dewey. Surveys of consumers in the last 30 years have accurately forecast the highs and lows of national employment and interest rates at least six months before they occur.

Other long-term projects include the study of changing family structures, drug use by teen-agers, attitudes toward race and minorities and time use in households.

"Anything that's important can be measured," said F. Thomas Juster, a leading researcher and former director of the institute.

"People have an image of how society works. Research tells you precisely what things work and what don't. If we understand how society ticks, we can do better in modifying it."

An economist, Juster is leading the institute's landmark 15-year study on health and retirement issues of aging Americans, which is to run through 2005. In early findings, the study showed that most of the 13,000 middle-aged respondents wished they could move to part-time jobs when they retire instead of leaving the work force abruptly.

A significant number of those interviewed said they were not satisfied with their jobs but were afraid to switch because they might lose pensions or health insurance benefits.

Rigid employment practices and health insurance rules may not be helping business or the American economy, Juster said. But he stops short of suggesting how survey data could influence change in policies.

"It's our job to build a model that shows what the world is like," he said. "It's someone else's job to figure out what to do with it."

A key component to survey research, Juster said, is selecting respondents who are representative of a target population. Survey questions are then tailored to fit the project. The institute rejected the simple "yes-no" formula of opinion polls in the 1940s and initiated the use of open-ended interviewing.

"The challenge is to make up a question to do what you want it to do," Juster said. "It's not a science; it's an art. . . . You have to be good at it to be here."

The institute was the brainchild of Rensis Likert, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who surveyed farmers' reactions in the 1930s to Depression-era farm policies.

Likert also recruited researchers during World War II to conduct studies of public attitudes in a rapidly changing wartime economy. The findings were used to market war bonds to the American public.

When the war ended, a handful of scientists wanted to institutionalize their new, interdisciplinary approach to survey research. Likert approached his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Because the institute was responsible for generating its own funding from government and foundation grants, its early years were financially shaky. To make ends meet, scientists conducted the embarrassing "blue uniform study."

The opinion survey sent models in stylish Army uniforms to military bases around the world to determine whether fashion could coax recruits to re-enlist. Soldiers were unconvinced.

"It's one of the low points in the institute's intellectual history," assistant director James Wessel said. "Old-timers were quite embarrassed about it."

Today, the Survey Research Center is the largest of the institute's three divisions, commanding more than two-thirds of the institute's $30-million budget. The institute is funded primarily by grants from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Health and Human Services.

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