Paper presented in the opening session at the 58th annual conference of WAPOR in Cannes, France, September 15-17, 2005. Parts of this paper are excerpts from my book manuscripts Gallup Goes International and The Many-Splendored Society. © The author.


Search for a New World Order -- the Role of Public Opinion

What Western and Non-Western Pollsters Can Learn
from the Study of Political Organization and Linguistics

By Hans L Zetterberg, Bromma, Sweden


1. The Conditions for International Polling

A hundred years ago Max Weber, the leading social scientist of his day, took the nation-state as a self-evident unit for a rational organization of the modern world. We can no longer do so. Too many issues acquire a scope beyond the nation-state. The opinion pollsters, who have been set up to do national polls, have to deal with them in international polls.

In the 1970s Daniel Bell diagnosed a weakness in modern states. A "mismatch of scales" had evolved that made most nation-states too big for social undertakings such as education for children and care of the elderly, and too small for other problems such as industrial production, currency, and environmental threats (Bell 1976). Three decades later, we can add that nation-states have since proven too small to cope with threats of worldwide epidemics such as Asian bird influenza, natural disasters such as giant tsunamis, and mass destruction by worldwide terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda. It no longer takes the resources of a state to destroy another state. With modern weapons of mass destruction an international terror network can probably do what was once the exclusive power of a state.

Communications that break through national boundaries.

Nation-states are territorial bodies. Over a hundred years ago we saw the technology and organization of transportation of goods and persons become global. Financial transaction could also be international. Before World War I, Max Weber’s family in Germany invested in American railroad bonds and shares. Print, voice and visual media were drawn into the globalization process: newsprint, the telegraph and telephone, television spread across borders. We saw all territories of the world penetrated by denser grids of transportation over land, over sea, and in the air.

In our time, the Internet has arrived with its global reach. The ease of publishing and communicating text, music and pictures across borders has been drastically increased by the worldwide web. In addition to making local subcultures easily available on home pages to curious users all over, web publishing also adds to the speed and spread of already established media. The World Wide Web has also become a universal library accessible everywhere at all hours and days. A IJPOR electronic peer review of articles will be discussed at our meeting here in Cannes.

Major life areas of society ignore national boundaries.

In earlier centuries religions accounted for the expansion beyond local territories. In the recent century, however, only Islam of the major religions seems to keep up a missionary zeal. Instead science expands and knows no borders. Art is another realm of activity that knows no boundaries; particularly the universal spread of recorded music adds to experiences shared worldwide. Global entertainment and global news media do the same.

Production technology is global. At the millennium China had become the world’s factory and India the world’s computer office. (Europe seems bent upon becoming the world’s museum.) The major force of globalization is the worldwide market economy; all the other factors we have mentioned are auxiliary forces.

A failed globalization of polity: Colonialism

Colonialism was a European form of political globalization. In the colonial era borders were drawn as the result of military conquests of overseas territories, and they were redrawn as the result of fierce wars in Europe between competing colonial powers. The British Empire was the most victorious power both in overseas continents and in Europe.

Colonialism came to a predictable end. First, there is a rule of thumb of human relations that no one wants to be ruled by strangers, everyone prefers to be ruled by their local kind. The military and administrative cost to maintain sovereignty in the colonies became high, colonies tended to become a drain rather than a benefit. Second, the economic benefits of overseas territories did not require violent conquest and suppression; they could be achieved by trade. United States, the first colony to achieve independence from a colonial empire, grew up to prove that a nation can be a world power without being a colonial power. Needless to say, this caused resentment among the European powers, and it has been a ground for their special defensive bilge of anti-Americanism.

Colonialism now belongs in the history books. The last colonial empire, the Soviet Union, had its colonies, not overseas but on the adjacent Eurasian land mass. It collapsed as recently as in 1989.

Entering the 21st century, the world has few consequential forms of political globalization. The ability to change the body politic to cope with global issues are quite modest and slow compared to the rapid global change in economy, science, and the popular arts.

Political decision-making in states and between states.

In a modern civilized state, political decisions require a broad base of "consent of the governed," and this may take some time to achieve. To avoid stalemates, domestic decisions can be taken without full consensus, i.e. by majority rule. In a democratic nation-state, as we all well know, domestic political issues are settled by legislation proposed by politicians elected by majority rule whose decisions in the legislature also are based on majority rule. The legislation is administered by government agencies and is enforced in courts of law.

Public opinion polls on issues has found a role in this process, sometimes facilitating decisions, sometimes impeding them by rushing to TV with poll results on issues that the public has not yet had a chance to inform themselves about and discuss, and about which they have not yet formed mature opinions. Pollsters adjust to the system of majority rule by reporting percentages showing majority and minority views in their tables; they do not produce factor or cluster analyses, nor do they penetrate latent structures of opinions like academics. Pollsters also do pre-election polls that reveal the standing of politicians running for office. It is, as we in WAPOR know, a fascinating enterprise.

The process of domestic rule by consent of the governed may seem slow and cumbersome. Compared to international political decision-making the process of making decisions within a nation-state is fast and well organized. International political issues are not settled by legislation. On the international political scene, issues are settled by treaties negotiated by diplomats who are appointed by states. A treaty between sovereign states cannot be achieved by majority rule, it requires consensus. While usually based on a negotiated compromise, the treaty is concluded by the full consensus between the parties on the content; a majority vote will not do.

Diplomats, and ministers and bureaucrats in charge of rules for domestic fishing, may meet with colleagues from neighboring countries around a common sea. They negotiate a treaty on fishing quotas to ensure future fishing. A treaty between states is implemented by some form of intergovernmentalism. If the treaty on fishing in an international waterway is to be supervised by the ministers in the treaty-making powers, the meetings of these fishing ministers are the intergovernmental process. If they set up a committee with staff to regularly review and report on the issues of the treaty this committee becomes the intergovernmental agency. The supervision of a treaty, if any, is thus handled by some ad hoc arrangement between states.

The extent of such intergovernmentalism is the best measure we have of the globalization of the body politic.

Most international treaties are unenforceable and depend for their survival on an understanding among the signatories that it is in their own long-term national interest to stick to the treaty. However, short of war, it is the only way we presently have to globalize the body politic. Treaty-making is a kind of legislation at the international level.

Treaty-making is a slow and uncertain process. So far, the polity of the world does not keep pace with the globalization of economy, science and technology, and the popular arts.

The European Union and the Eurobarometer

The pre-eminent postwar political process in Europe which resulted in the European Union illustrates a sophisticated intergovernmentalism. The Coal and Steel Union, like its successors the EEC and the EU, were the fruit of the rules of diplomacy, not those of democracy. The father of the European integration process, Jean Monet, did not believe one could achieve European integration through the rules of democratic elections and parliamentary decisions. But a Treaty of Rome was within reach by the rules of diplomacy.

A Commission was appointed to implement a foreign policy agreement on European cooperation and to develop it further. If the Commission’s developmental proposals were approved by the Council of Ministers from the countries that were party to the agreement, they would become law in the countries that belonged to the Union. A special court would have jurisdiction over questions concerning the application of the law. National parliaments could not change the law without leaving the Union.

A "democratic deficit" was thus built into the EU from its very inception. A directly elected European Parliament was later added to give the construction a democratic decoration. Eventually the European Parliament did get its milk teeth and became a partner to the Commission in many proposals for decisions to be made by the Council of Ministers. On balance, however, the elections to the European parliament are fiascos. As a rule, turnout is low, and election campaigns are dominated by domestic issues, not EU issues. The EU itself is at the time of this writing a confederation with some clear federalist components.

The Eurobarometer is a contribution of the polling community to the European Union. The idea came from Jacques-René Rabier, who, in the 1960s, had done some ad hoc surveys for the European Parliament and developed a plan for a regularly repeated survey tracking the development of a "European consciousness" in its various forms. He enlisted the collaboration of Jean Stoetzel and Hélène Riffault of IFOP. At a meeting of Gallup International Association in Chênehutte-les-Tuffeaux in the Loire Valley a test was organized in nine countries. The following year, 1974, the first regular survey was completed. In addition to tracking the European identity it became an omnibus survey to be used by the various Directorate-Generals of the European Commission for policy research. Among other things, the first decades of the Eurobarometer repeatedly carried Ronald Inglehart’s questions on the value shift in Europe from materialism to post-materialism. At one point they also included George Gallup’s questions on happiness. But most surveys dealt with matters of European collaboration and knowledge of and acceptance of EU institutions.

A striking fact in all Eurobarometer reports is that they never have their main focus on age or sex or education or other standard background factors. There is rarely such a thing as a "European opinion" in the sense that there is an "American opinion" in United States. The first and main table in every Eurobarometer is the one showing results by countries. The sample is the grand total of full national samples in large and small countries. It is not an efficient random sample of EU-citizens. There is a very good reason for this. Opinion formation on international issues is primarily national. The often tenuous legitimacy of international political institutions is based on opinions and decisions in the nation-states.

The present members of the European Union had for centuries been warring siblings but now they keep the peace. A remaining difficulty for the Union may lie in the fact that two or three big brothers want to dominate the others. The countries of the ten-year old Mercosur, South America’s answer to the European Union, have less of a shared vision and look more like squabbling siblings than do the EU members. They have, however, what the EU does not have, a commonly understood language. If they ever turn into full-fledged federal governments, the European Union and Mercosur may some day be called "market states," since they are formed around a common market, not around a nation.

Any such developments toward a federation or a super state meet with widespread resistance. The mainstreams of people in the political classes in the various nation-states have an enormous vested interest in keeping the decision-making right for themselves. They tend to resent any steps toward a globalization of the body politic by treaties creating international bodies that make binding decisions valid in their own countries. Only the elites within the political classes are normally tempted to get involved in multi-state politics.

The national politicians who resent surrendering sovereignty to intergovernmental bodies can usually count on public opinion. When national publics are asked to surrender some of their sovereignty to an international body they tend to vote "No." For the rule of thumb, to say it again, is that no one wants to be ruled by strangers, everyone wants to be ruled by their local kind. Politics remains essentially national. Unfortunately, as we also noted, many issues today know no national borders: pandemics, climate change, sex trafficking, terrorism, to mention a few.

The No-votes in France and the Netherlands on the treaty that is (misleadingly) called the European Constitution are a case in point. Politicians do rarely share the stock in trade of the pollsters: the knowledge of how questions to the public should be formulated. Pollsters know that each pre-formulated response alternative must have a precise meaning. Otherwise you do not know what the responses mean. In the 2005 French and Dutch referenda "Yes" had a precise meaning affirmative to adoption of the Constitution, "No" had not. A down-to-earth question for the referendum with concrete and unambiguous alternatives would have read: "For the future of the European Union, shall we continue to use the rules in the Nice Treaty and other existing treaties, or, shall we change to the rules in the Treaty of the European Constitution?" This was the actual choice at hand. By allowing an imprecise No-response, the public could air their built-in resentment against transferring, in the past or at present or in the future, any authority to strangers. And, of course, the No-alternative would also attract any general dislike the public may feel against their own government at the time.

The United Nations and its intergovernmental institutions.

Peace treaties are of special interest. European peace conferences – Augsburg, Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, and Versailles – forged the outcomes of wars not only into agreements of cessation of violence but also into constitutions (Bobbitt 2002). By such treaties the princely state was created, then the kingly state, and the various territorial states, such as the imperial state, the multi-national state (India), and the nation-states. World War II also gave us a UN charter specifying in the Security Council the intergovernmental processes for dealing with future conflicts between governments. This has not always proven efficient. The US 2003 invasion in Iraq was not endorsed by the Security Council. It was designed to install the first democratic constitution of an Arab land.

The United Nations has become the umbrella for a large number of intergovernmental agencies. Some of them are old and some well-known, for example: International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, Universal Postal Union (UPU) in Bern, World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, World Bank in Washington, World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Organizations such as these represent the globalized body politic in the same way as multinational corporations such as Shell, Boeing, General Electric, Siemens, Toyota, Nokia, Microsoft and many thousand others represent the globalized economy. To my knowledge, none of the UN-related organizations has a regular budget for opinion research. Virtually all multinational corporations in the international economy conduct voluminous market research. Virtually none of the intergovernmental organizations do. The situation may not be much better among the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), such as the Red Cross, World Council of Churches, Greenpeace. There is not, at least not yet, any significant place for opinion research in the non-commercial heavyweights in the globalized political order. A few global studies have been initialized the pollsters themselves. For example, since Dr Gallup’s days, the members of the Gallup International Association have had a tradition of donating space in their questionnaires for select international issues.

The reason for the dismally small amount of significant opinion research on global political affairs is not that we are incompetent in international research. The reason is found in the fact that economic globalization is booming while political globalization is slow or stalled. Global market research is a large and expanding enterprise, while global opinion research is a struggling, underfinanced and minor enterprise. Or, to make the point differently, here is the explanation why the ESOMAR congress here in Cannes this week is far bigger than the WAPOR meeting.


2. Some Aspects of Scholarship in International Polling

Emic and etic Language

Anthropologists have a long practice of scholarship in the pursuit of research in non-Western lands. They have asked a very significant question: What is the difference between ordinary language in a society and the language used by scientists, scholars, and critics in their study of that society? Anthropologists have contributed to our understanding of this issue by developing a distinction proposed by the linguist Kenneth L. Pike (1954) between emic and etic language. The state of the art was illustrated in 1988 by a four-hour debate before an audience of 600 members of the American Anthropological Association, later published in a book edited by Headland, Pike, and Harris (1990).

Emic sentences are those that tell how the world is seen by a particular people who live in it. These sentences consist of all verbalized beliefs, values, standards, techniques, et cetera. Studies based solely on participation use only emic sentences and result in emic propositions and conclusions.

Etic sentences, by contrast, contain also other information besides the emic language. They are sentences of an observer or analyst rather than of a mere participant. They form the language of science, scholarship, and cultural criticism rather that of mere reporting by a participant.

Etic observation may contradict emic truths. The Aztec religion in pre-Columbian Mexico was a solar religion. The sun god was the source of life. He concentrated minds of the Aztecs to dominate their region like the sun dominates the sky. This sun god required a daily human sacrifice from the Aztecs to return with its light and warmth each day. Such were their emic truths.

The invading Spaniards with roots in medieval Catholicism might well have known of the sacrificial rites of Abraham and Jesus and others. But the Aztec sacrifices were alien. Moreover, the navigators and officers from the Spanish ships that had crossed the Atlantic with the Spanish invaders of the Aztec region were accustomed to think differently about the movements of the celestial bodies. Their etic conclusion was that the Aztecs were wrong; the sun would rise without a human sacrifice. Their grounded disbelief in Aztec magic gave them a sense of superiority, a common sentiment when Europeans ventured to new worlds in the era of colonialism.

Marvin Harris requires that the analyst with his etic language also to be an observer, not only a participant.

An emic sentence can be proven wrong if it can be shown that it contradicts the participants’ sense that entities and events are similar or different, real, meaningful, significant, or appropriate.
– – –
Etic statements cannot be proven wrong if they do not conform to the participants’ sense of what is significant, real, meaningful, or appropriate. They can only be proven wrong by the failure of empirical evidence gathered by observers to support the statement in question (Harris 1999, pp 31-32).

Not everyone agrees with Harris. At present we can distinguish four positions or research strategies:

All these positions have some merits in different stages in the development of knowledge in social science. The first makes us familiar with other people’s thinking but it does not integrate it with our own thinking. The second one is a line of reasoning that is least self-evident, but is a promising strategy in the social sciences. The third one incorporates parts of other people’s thinking in our own systems of thought, including our ideologies. The forth, the position of Harris, is the ultimate arbiter when emic and etic statements are in conflict.

In public opinion research some etic elements are introduced by the selection and wording of questions in the questionnaires. Focused group are used to get at emic elements – what people actually say – but the moderator’s interview guide more often than not seem to introduce some etic elements also in group discussions.

The Enlightenment our Etic Heritage

Enlightenment became highly honored in Eighteenth Century Europe. In England, the philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) laid bare the modern canon of scientific inquiry that is empirically grounded and theoretically consistent. His compatriot philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) explained the nature of human understanding of the world and the necessity to limit government to the tasks of defending freedom and property. The French philosopher François-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778) denounced bigotry and tyranny, and his compatriot Denis Diderot (1713-1784) explained new ideologies and all known technologies in a monumental encyclopedia. In Germany, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote a philosophy of knowledge and morals and his compatriot Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) gave universities a structure appropriate for science. In Scotland, David Hume (1711-1776) wrote a philosophy of skepticism and his compatriot Adam Smith (1723-1790) discovered how markets create wealth without use of violence and plunder.

The experience of "the Enlightenment" is a decisive event in European history. European history between the ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment is not particularly remarkable compared to the history of other regions of the world. However, from the time of the Enlightenment and its spread to North America we deal with unique developments, in volume, if not in kind. They are comparable only to China during the Sung period. Prior to the Enlightenment, a multitude of intellectual styles could claim superiority. In retrospect their claims seem rather arbitrary. On this score the relativism of contemporary multiculturalists is right. After the Enlightenment, however, there is only one winner on the world scene, regardless of what multiculturalists say in support of the defensive bilge of the losers.

Among the products of the Enlightenment are various beliefs in reason, including some endeavors of great interest to us here, namely, democracy, social research, and public opinion. For the Enlightenment creed is the etic language of polling; we try to formulate interview questions that deliver enlightened opinions. Also, we assume the obligation to be enlightened in our write-ups and analyses of irrational opinions.

The European Enlightenment, however, did not manage to appreciate life’s fullness. It achieved cognitive goals but was deficient in appreciating emotive commitments. As we well remember, Shakespeare’s Hamlet says: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And, at least in one context, the great mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) placed the grounds of the heart ahead of the grounds of reason. The Enlightenment never found the balance of a many-splendored society between the executive life areas of science, economy, and polity and the emotive life areas of art, ethics, and religion. Rejection of polling is part of the anti-Enlightenment among our contemporary post-modern critics. I will not deal with this issue here.

Let me list three kinds of emic language that the etic language of polling must reject as deceptive.

First Deceptive Emic: the Magic

It was a fantastic event when mankind found out that language used by a person can affect the behavior of other people. You say "Welcome to the table!" and people gather at the table. You say "Move this table closer to the window!" and helpful hands move it there. "Help yourself to some wine!" and people serve themselves from your wine. You say "Try this chocolate!" and people put the pieces of dark chocolate into their mouths.

Such experiences make it very easy to believe that language is omnipotent. So you say "Move this mountain!" or "Make this water into wine!" or "Rise, take up thy bed, and walk!" But nothing of the sort happens. You have merely engaged in the magic use of words in the belief that they can affect physics and move mountains, affect chemistry and turn water into wine, affect biology and cure sickness. In advanced forms this is sorcery or witchcraft. If you try to hurt people by magic we call it black magic. If you try to help people, it is white magic. But it does not matter whether you use advanced sorcery or sophisticated witchcraft, or if you have evil or good intentions. Language simply does not affect physical reality, nor does it change biological reality. It does define and affect social reality, but only in special ways and circumstances that social science may specify.

The streaks of magic language are broad and vivid in children’s speech and in their preferred reading. In the years after the turn of the century, books on Harry Potter, trained in a magician school, top the best seller lists of children's books in many parts of the world. The streaks of magic are also wide in premordial societies, also in some great civilizations. Max Weber (1920) in his whole collection of studies of world religions, found only three that could thrive without magic. These three are the Indian doctrine of karma, Zoroastrian dualism, and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

Magic is never science – the two are like fire and water – but one can be scientific about magic. Malinowski (1925) discovered that the natives of the Trobiand Islands were quite able to distinguish practical efforts from magical ones. They would scoff if you suggested that they should attempt to replace their practices of gardening or fishing with magic. But at all uncertain turns, be it unpredictable weather or poor prospects of crop survival, they punctuated their cultivation and fishing with magic.

A first rule a student of mankind, including a pollster, must learn is to identify magic. A common indication of "progress" in the sense of the Enlightenment, is the stripping of magic elements from the language of a society. Large areas of the globe are, however, untouched by the European Enlightenment. A majority opinion among males in a South African slum that HIV/AIDS can be cured by sexual intercourse with a virgin is not something an enlightened pollster can recommend to his government as the will of the people.

The shaman tradition is a strong religion on the Korean peninsula, probably stronger than Confucianism and Christianity. A shaman is a priest with magical abilities, called mudang among the Koreans. The Korean shamans are mostly women. They have contacts with the world of spirits. They can solve problems of health and fertility. They help dead spirits on earth move to the divine world of spirits. Such spirits may not have realized or acknowledged that they are dead, and they remain in this world. In Korea this means that they bring ill health and economic disasters for the surviving family members. Korean Gallup does not report on the spread of opinions of mudangs, and thus stays on the side of Enlightenment.

Second Deceptive Emic: the Spuma

We will use the term 'spuma,' to stand for any froth of symbols, verbal or non-verbal. We will use the Latin spelling spuma rather than the English spume to underline that here is a technical term. If you don't want to be quite as serious you can say "balderdash" or "baloney."

In the midst of the loftiest human pursuit of the human mind, bodily spontaneity is always present. A quote from Schopenhauer (1819, book 4) about sexual desire permeating almost all human endeavor antedates Freud:

[It] exerts an adverse influence on the most important affairs, interrupts the most serious business at any hour, sometimes for a while confuses even the greatest minds, does not hesitate with its trumpery to disrupt the negotiations of statesmen and the research of scholars, has the knack of slipping its love-letters and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts" (Schopenhauer translated 1995, pp 263–264).

What Schopenhauer here says about sex seems to be true for all forms of bodily spontaneity.

Signals in connection with bodily spontaneity, including even reflection and exchanges, are not unknown among more developed animals. But they abound in humans. When such signals are mixed with the reactions of the reptilian brain the former usually occur after, not before, the actual physical behavior.

Studying the pre-language parts and language parts of the human brain, a researcher may first read traces in the brain of actions arising as bodily spontaneity, then, in another part of the brain, he sees the traces of symbols that call for action. Roughly speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain constantly weaves symbols into a more or less coherent account of the behavior chosen by the reptilian brain. The symbols that make up such accounts are mere froth, embellishments of the behaviors already being initiated or even executed at the level of bodily spontaneity. They belong to the broad phenomenon of spuma.

Hunting to kill animals is a spontaneous behavior. It was essential in another time to obtain food for sustenance. The modern hunter dresses his hunting habits in the spuma of hunting, the tallyho language. The climax of the hunt is the lustful kick when an animal is in the sight of his gun and he presses the trigger to kill. He may speak rapturously about the joy of hunting: it brings you outdoors and close to Mother Nature. But he hardly reaches the same joy when he is in the woods without his gun.

Spuma is also produced by people who have developed addictions, e.g. chemically manipulated their bodies to produce lust when they consume an addictive ware. If you ask an alcoholic why he or she drinks so much, you may hear a lot of spuma. A physician specializing in treating alcoholics may draw correct conclusions about actual alcohol consumption from an alcoholic's verbalizations. Others underestimate intakes of alcohol. A survey researcher asking the general public how much alcohol the respondents drink is usually off by about 50 percent or more when he tabulates the answers and compares them to the sales figures for alcohol, a fact discovered by Peranen (1974).

No spuma is scientific but you can be scientific about spuma. What Francis Bacon called "idols of the market place," the chatting phrases used in the streets, was loaded with spuma. The phenomenon of spuma also turns up in what was called "derivations" by the Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. His term signals that something we say about an action or a person may not be its core, its "residue," but embellishment, hogwash, bilge, claptrap, hallelujah-speak (Pareto 1916, distinction in §119 and 868, classification of residues in §888, and classification of derivations in §1419). Terms such as idols, derivations, and residues, however, have other meanings today to most students and a new terminology would be all to the good. We propose 'spuma.'

We may go astray in our study of society if we cannot identify the spuma when parents, peers, teachers, pop singers, newscasters, artists, and priests – and our respondents – lament about the economy, politics, morals, ugliness, and health. To cut through spuma is a necessary art for the student of society, also the pollster. Spuma is the sizzle rather than the steak. Pollsters in an enlightened tradition should report on the quality of the steak, not on the sizzle.

Third Deceptive Emic: the Defensive Bilge

In Aesop's fable, the fox who is unable to reach the grapes, attempts to get rid of his resentment of this failure by persuading himself that the grapes were sour and were not what he wanted anyway. Resentment also means that a person inferior on a common scale of evaluation harbors envy of a superior person. This phenomenon obtained its own label by Friedrich Nietzsche when he applied it to resentments in a collectivity. Add an i to resentment so that it reads "resentiment." The slaves develop resentiment, argues Nietzsche. They become convinced that it is good to be humble.

Nietzsche's resentiment belongs to a class of phenomena we may call 'defensive bilge.' To sailors, bilge is the water that slashes inside the boat at its bottom. It is not the real thing, the waves of the big sea. The bilge in the boat may rise to dangerous levels and it often stinks. For safe and pleasant sailing it is pumped into the ocean. Likewise, the bilge in society has a self-deceptive odor. The guardians of honesty and realism pump it out.

Anna Freud filled defensive bilge with content from psychoanalysis. The repertoire of maneuvers for person with a wounded self-image is much longer than sour grapes. For example, a worker who is doing a poor job may blame it on his poor equipment. Instead of saying, "I have done a poor job," he says "The tools were no good," i.e. resorting to a 'rationalization,' as this term is used in psychology to designate verbiage of excuses that may sound reasonable. Other steps might lead to the same end. Actions that are incompatible with his favorable self-evaluation tend to be described by the actor as acts of other agents: this is the process of 'projection.' Its typical expression is that "they" are the objects of blame, not "me." Another example is the sexually weak man who never misses an opportunity to tell others of his sexual adventures. To protect the evaluation he enjoys, he pictures his actions as being the opposite of what they really are. Actions that are incompatible with his accustomed favorable self-evaluation thus tend to be presented to oneself and to others as opposite to, or different from, what they really are, we label 'inversion.' In clinical experience one can observe whole chains of defense mechanisms. In our culture, the wife batterer, for example, tends to avoid recognition of his impulses in order to preserve his self-respect (denial). In addition, he may deny that his anger comes from himself, saying by no means, "I am angry," but rather, "You are angry" (projection). Furthermore, he may transfer the latter into "She hates me" (new projection) and thus develop paranoid ideas. All these so-called "defense mechanisms" (A. Freud 1936) may be viewed as typical ways in which our perceptions and communications change when our opinion of ourselves is lowered and no other easy design is found to raise it. The defensive mechanisms in Anna Freud's version early were confirmed by quantitative empirical research (Sears, 1951, Chap. 7).

The defense mechanisms used by a particular individual are a problem for his associates. But there are also collective expressions of illusions that become problems for entire societies. When a clan, a class, or a nation believes it is a master race, or an intellectually or morally superior group, destined to rule society, all others in the society face problems. Problems emerge also when groups feel mistreated and create defensive bilge to enhance their situation.

Many Afro-Americans, like many educated Africans, whose ancestors did not have a written language to document their history, insist that classical Egyptian civilization was the work of black people south of the Sahara. They believe that the white Greeks stole this civilization, that Cleopatra was a black woman, that Pallas Athena in the Acropolis was an African black goddess. This defensive bilge is heartily endorsed by many Afrocentrists. Its origin, however, is not African, but a white American, Martin Bernal, sinologist at Cornell University.

For pollsters, as for any student of society, it is as essential to be able to identify defensive bilge as it is important to identify human magic and spuma. This is the third and most difficult rule for anyone who engages in the proper study of mankind.

As private individuals, pollsters and journalists may absorb defensive bilge in the opinion climate of their time and place and their particular circle of associates. Avoiding bias in question wording, analysis, and reporting can only be archived by overcoming one’s own defensive bilge.



Bell, Daniel, 1976. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Basic Books, New York, NY.

Bobbitt, Philip, 2002. The Shield of Achilles. War, Peace, and the Course of History, Penguin Books, London

Freud, Anna, 1936. Das Ich und die Abwehrmechanismen, Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, Wien.

Harris, Marvin, 1999. Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Malinowski, Bronislaw, 1925/1948. Magic, Science and Religion, reprinted 1948 with other essays selected and with an introduction by Robert Redfield, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

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