Either, Or

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First Published in German 2017-02-13

Elke Halefeldt | Cicero Magazin für Politische Kultur

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Why opinion polls are not always to be believed

Those who ostracise groups of people as “enemies of humanity”, have a responsibility to provide clear evidence.

Numerous studies attribute to German people either xenophobia or extreme helpfulness with regard to refugees. With such conflicting and politically tendentious findings, opinion-pollsters are feeding the polarisation of society.


Many German citizens suffer from “group-related hostility” — a claim made last year in Die Welt by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. According to the study “Split down the middle — hostile environment“, 50% of citizens feel disdain for asylum-seekers, with approximately one in five being xenophobic. Twenty-eight percent of the population are thought to be sympathetic to the “New Right” movement. That must be true, — at any rate, it’s been scientifically proven. Or is the witticism correct, that “there are three types of lie: lies, damned lies, and statistics”? Actually, statistics seldom lie. Depending on the population and sample sizes, the formulation of the questions, and interpretation of the results, this or that conclusion can be drawn.

The stumbling-blocks of opinion research

There is a visible tendency to ask people not for their opinion, but for their feelings; and many investigations are shot through with political messaging.

Today, we’re bombarded with studies about the state of society. However, some of the results presented are of only limited value. In the first place, the reason for this is that the researchers are working with woolly concepts and interpretations. This puts them in vogue with the political debate, in which people are classified interchangeably as refugees, migrants, or foreigners, and accusations of populism are rife. Second, it is not satisfactorily explained to what extent the results of questioning can be distorted by social imperatives. In social science, this means that investigators tend to voice whatever is accepted by society. Third, there is a visible tendency to ask people not for their opinion, but for their feelings. Fourth, many investigations are shot through with political messaging.

Amnesty International proudly announced in May 2016, that 80% of people in 27 countries were ready to take in refugees threatened by war and persecution. Unfortunately, the basis of the questioning maps only a theoretical willingness. It remained an open question, how many persecuted people were being considered and over what period; and what attitude the respondents had to so-called economic migrants.

Anxiety, Rage and Hatred

The sentimentalised public discourse, which only recently has boiled with hatred and rage, has found expression in the popular use of the the word anxiety. Certainly, survey-statements like “So many refugees make me anxious” invite a predetermined response, as in the ARD-Deutschlandtrend of January, 2016. This concentrates all too lop-sidedly on the emotional level, and undervalues rational analysis.

The threat- and opportunity-factions, however, differ remarkably little in their assessment of the extent to which war, the environment, poverty, economic crisis, criminality and terrorism represent a global challenge.

Also, a study from the Bertelsmann Foundation expresses concern that anxieties about globalisation are plaguing the Europeans. We’re talking here about 45% of respondents in 28 EU states. It appears, then, that 55% of Europeans are relatively free of anxiety. The threat- and opportunity-factions, however, differ remarkably little in their assessment of the extent to which war, the environment, poverty, economic crisis, criminality and terrorism represent a global challenge. Globalisation-sceptics are however more likely to be unsettled by migration. Also, this cohort has a more jaundiced view of the EU. That doesn’t mean, however, that supporters of globalisation are relaxed observers of politics: only 53% are satisfied with democracy.

Studies and world-views

Straightaway, an alarm is sounded by all the surveys of correct attitudes, and of ‘inhumanity’, a word that is almost wearing us out, but often used in the study Split down the middle — hostile environment. “The subject of refugees”, as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Bielefeld University explain, “stands as the pivotal issue that divides society into a majority that wants openness to the world, tolerance and equality; and that loud and not so small minority that demands protectionism, a return to tradition, and discrimination.” The ‘New Right’ grouping, whose heads swim with “conspiracy theories about a supposed Islamic infiltration, […]; abuse of the ‘Establishment’ as illegitimate, mendacious and deceitful; the demand for a retreat into national values and away from the EU; and the call for resistance to the contemporary practice of politics”, is a particular thorn in the side of researchers. Incidentally, sympathisers of the established parties are to be found throughout this group.

Also, the “denigration of asylum-seekers” implies both a disavowal of the statement: “the State should be generous in handling applications for asylum”, and the suspicion that “most” asylum-seekers “are in no way persecuted in their homelands”. In neither case, however, is it generally a matter of denigrating those who are genuinely affected. As one supporter of established privileges says, “Any newcomer should be satisfied with less”. A demand that is not easily to be applied in everyday life in the case of refugees.

Bland statements

Even statements like “Because there are so many muslims here, I feel like a stranger in my own country” or “There are too many foreigners living in Germany”, can sound quite trite or convey a lack of familiarity. In addition, this vague feeling in relation to the high proportion of foreigners keeps open the possibility that the critics would have no problem with fewer foreigners and/or muslims.

It has become established practice to winkle out intolerance by putting crude statements to the vote.

There are often individual statements in the Friedrich Ebert Foundation study, that are so blandly formulated that they put one in mind of the stereotypical uneducated beer-drinker in slippers, early morning at the kiosk, muttering to himself: “Without the Holocaust, Hitler would be seen today as a great statesman.” “Given the policy pursued by Israel, I can well understand anti-Jewish feeling.” “Foreigners come here only to take advantage of our welfare state.

It has become established practice to winkle out intolerance by putting crude statements to the vote. Nevertheless, one has to ask whether extreme propositions don’t make it more difficult for our more thoughtful fellow citizens to form the appropriate opinion. Amongst the “new-Right attitudes 2016”, opinions like these can be heard: “The government is concealing the truth from the people.” Also, “In Germany, you can’t say anything bad about foreigners without immediately being abused as a racist.” The sentence “Islam has too much influence in Germany” is taken for belief in an Islamic conspiracy. The saying “It’s time to show more resistance to current politics” sounds malicious and revolutionary. But what does “resistance” mean here? Criticise the government? Demonstrate? Use force? The give-away “pulling out of the EU” is somewhat less prone to misinterpretation. People who say, “Germany must give more thought to its own interests” are not pro-European enough.

Between science and politics

Fundamentally, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation study is palpably at odds with the nation: “Hostility to foreigners, strangers, and muslims” served to “cordon-off our own (people, nation) from the ‘strangers’, and thereby preserve the national identity.” Instead of “We are the people“, the dry motto “We are all part of the population” would be nicer. The study recommends a “culture of equality” as an alternative point of reference. An urgent question would be, “how citizens could be convinced that social and societal challenges can be overcome”. That’s a little reminiscent of Merkel’s credo, We can manage it!

Undoubtedly, the newer surveys get a lot right. However, some statements need urgent analysis: are they raising the questions that ought to be raised? Those who ostracise groups of people as “enemies of humanity”, have a responsibility to provide clear evidence. Otherwise they are themselves encouraging the further polarisation of society. ◼︎