Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Measuring the Australian Church

Robert Wuthnow outlines the limits of measurement and religious polling by first observing the sheer scale of American political polling.
Polling is now a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Currently there are more than 1,200 polling firms in the United States. During the 2012 presidential election, these firms conducted more than 37,000 polls. In total, these polls involved more than three billion phone call.s A typical phone in a typical household was machine-dialed twenty to thirty times. And a majority of the calls were made at dinnertime when pollsters hoped a few of those called would answer. ('In Polls we Trust', First Things (Aug/Sept 2015): 41)
Here in Australia we understand the power of political polling, we're up to our fourth Prime Minister because of them. Interestingly, the betting markets often more reliable insights because people either put money in what they really think will happen or have some sort of inside knowledge of current events. Wuthnow then goes on to observe that "Religious leaders' earlier skepticism towards polls was now notably absent. Instead of questioning the validity of polls critics called for more polling." (41)

Wuthnow rightly finds this troubling because he's already noted the difficulties in collecting and analyzing political poll data. If there are issues in an already well established industry that should give religious pollsters pause. He concludes by writing this about religious polling:
Polling about religion purports to tell us the facts by conducting scientifically reputable studies. Even with low response rates and complicated weighting schemes, the studies sometimes generate credible broad-brushed descriptions of general patterns. But polling should not be confused with painstaking research that takes months and years to complete and that relies on historical, ethnographic and theoretical knowledge as well as numbers for its interpretation. (44)
The Christian population in Australia is smaller and occupies a different historical place than in America. This means that religious pollsters in Australia have a different and smaller population to survey and make observations about. Along with all of Wuthnow's concluding caveats, finding significantly large data sets would be one problem amoung several.

Now it may be tempting to say, 'well why do we need religious polling' and eschew a business model of number crunching, but we need big picture religious polling. We need an accurate big picture so that we know what the cultural horizon of Australia looks like and so that we can then make sensible assessments of our own local situation. Wuthnow concluding caution is correct, measurement is a tricky process that done well requires significant resources. And all the while tempering our measurement with the rhythms of the stories we are a part of, God's big one and all His local subplots.