Following the US election result, many people are asking just how all the pollsters got it wrong. Not just wrong, but so very wrong in anticipating the victory of Trump. Media outlets and those who gauge popular opinion will offer a range of authoritative opinions on this, but I want to offer another point of view, one more to do with the fractured nature of news and views and how it is difficult now to predict popular opinion from a starting point that is fractured and partial anyway.
As anthropologists who’ve done fieldwork know, opinions are not always given up front, may be hidden to save face, and sometimes people just tell outright lies for very valid cultural, social and personal reasons. These reasons reside within the social worlds of relationships between actors who have a vested interest in maintaining their status, role, safety, position, face etc. in situations in which where, and who you cast your vote for is a comment on alignment with power, authority, prestige, protection or future material rewards or service provision.
Votes count, can be counted on, and definitely count for something. So it’s worth exploring these themes in a broad sense to think more critically around what happens when people are asked about which way they will vote in an election as well as what influences this. And what is said in the fallout.
In these postmodern times we have seen the fracturing and localisation of many perspectives including increasingly diverse access to news sources. Flicking through posts on social media by large institutionalised media outlets, you see not support for commentary but challenges to the legitimacy of the media to provide coverage, or at least an opinion, most especially if this opinion challenges Trump’s victory, or points to the shortsightedness of polling organisations. “You’ve got it wrong!” they shout. “You’re partial!” they rail. “You shouldn’t challenge the expressed will of the American people!” they write. “We don’t have to be held hostage by your views!” they decry. And so on.
The influence of traditional media outlets has declined and this is a self evident truth, even as I write and you read this blog. So why do people bother to continue reading traditional spreadsheets, why not just Google all your news and views, or get your news off Facebook? Why do people bother even replying to the The Independent, the Guardian, the New York Times and other major global newspaper social media sites?
The relationship between voter behaviour and online comments have similarities that can’t be ignored. Both can be private, unseen by others; both can be an expression of values; both posit an opinion; both can be seen to be a form of alignment, and both can also potentially be the opposite expression of one’s everyday professed and public point of view. Online posting, like the ballot box can be pretty anonymous, it can also be anonymous but not pretty. While donkey votes may be predictable, hate mail, or flaming and the polarising nature of online commentary is not.
There seems little point in involving Andy Warhol’s, ‘everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame’ dictum, as little could he foresee the extent of the opportunities for self expression, publication, and even just self-projection of oneself and one’s views in today’s hyper-real experience of the www. However his idea is closer to the truth, but individually we are exceeding our fifteen minutes by a long shot. The short answer is, everyone has an opinion, we collectively value the voice of consumers today, and there are exponentially huge opportunities for the expression of one’s individual views. And expressing ourselves in these ways is increasingly becoming normative, more so for the digitally aligned, and digitally literate and definitely pointing to the era that will follow the Anthropocene, the new new geological age of the Expressionocene, the Opinionocene, the Commentocene, or just the Blogocene. Our opinions will surely shape and change the crust of the earth just as our views carve out the landscapes of how we will live, how we will live with each other, and all the conditions that attach to this.
So how did the pollsters get it wrong and who were they speaking to anyway? Everyone is commenting this morning. And it seems that it’s partial. And like a lot of the problem itself, it depends on who you ask, on who you read, on who was surveyed, in what manner, when and how. Is it merely a methodological problem? If this was a research project, surely it wouldn’t be funded.
Commenters argue for a disconnect, that the election was the worlds largest reality TV show, that it’s “game over,” and most hilariously observe that Canada’s immigration website has crashed. And more informally, YouTubers following the US election argued that Trump had it won from the outset. I’m not going to argue for any particular methodology attached to polling, but will simply reiterate the point that it depends on who you ask, how you ask, when and where you ask.
And herein lays my critique of cultural studies as well. You can ask people about themselves, about their habits, preferences, daily life and they will tell you something. It may be the truth, it may be an idealised version of themselves that they project wistfully into the future. It may be a lie. It may be stated for any number of reasons. But the difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do lies in fieldwork, in participant observation and in the firming of relations between the informants and the field researcher, built up over time and through participation in everyday worlds.
Anthropologists spend a lot of time building relations firmly based in the messy behaviours of everyday life. As a fieldworker you get to hear and see what people do, and with enough local cultural knowledge on board, you can tease out the meanings attached to how people act in their social worlds. And these worlds may well be our own worlds too. Our social, commenting, opinionated, supportive, antagonistic, loving, hateful or otherwise worlds. While we may wish it were different, it’s this diversity in all it’s complexity that shows us yet again who we are.