Using sociological surveys as political weapons

One commentator suggests that sociological surveys were used as political weapons recently in Russia:

Long before the State Duma elections of Dec 4, the ultra-rightist and liberal mass media, collaborating with anti-Russian elements in the West, forecast that the ruling United Russia party would suffer a serious defeat.

They organized all sorts of sociological surveys to support this thoroughly planned campaign and to push their “predictions” on the “crisis” facing Russian leaders and “sharply declining rating” of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. The anti-Putin campaign became really vociferous when the United Russia congress officially and unanimously approved Putin as its nominee for the presidential election in March 2012.

It is true that the election results showed the correlation of political forces and sentiments in Russia, which is experiencing the difficult strategic consequences of the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the impact of the global economic crisis.

I’m less interested in dissecting recent events in Russia (which are very interesting to read about) and more interested in thinking about using sociological findings as political weapons. The argument made here is that these surveys are part of a larger, unfair, ideological campaign waged by pundits and the media. Perhaps more importantly, there is a claim that the surveys were “organized,” suggesting they were only undertaken in order to push a particular viewpoint.

I don’t doubt that sociological findings are used in struggles for power. Indeed, sociologists are not value-neutral as they themselves have their own interests and class position within society. However, I tend to think the primary purpose of sociological data is to explain what is happening in society. If sociological surveys in Russia show dissatisfaction with Putin, is it incorrect to report this? Of course, statistics and facts are open to interpretation and need to be approached carefully.

Where is the line between sociological surveys illuminating social structures, practices, and beliefs and having viewpoints and using sociological data to push these perspectives? Max Weber’s writings on value-neutrality are still useful today as we think about the proper use of sociological data.

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