The conference brought together a mix of established and young up-and-coming scholars from the international academic community interested in the state of public opinion survey research in Southeast Europe (SEE). Presentations and discussions centered on methodology, theory and social problems related to survey research in SEE countries. Datasets useful for cross-national comparisons across SEE and elsewhere in Europe were examined and evaluated. Conference participants showed, in practical terms, how major comparative datasets of the region could be used for various unexplored topics. Representatives from all over Southeast Europe voiced their opinions on the state of sociological surveys in SEE, noting problems and offering solutions.
During the conference, participants were invited to help in formulating a statement that would summarize the proceedings and engage the international academic community in the discussion on the public opinion survey research in SEE countries. The discussion addresses three main concerns:
(1) What is the state of sociological surveys of public opinion in Southeast Europe in the context of cross-national research?
(2) What are the problems and challenges facing the present and future of sociological surveys of public opinion in SEE?
(3) What are solutions to these problems and challenges?
Sociological Surveys of Public Opinion in Southeast Europe in the Context of Cross-National Research
Some participants called for a comprehensive assessment of the state of public opinion surveys in SEE, focusing on:
(1) The inventory of the main surveys for each country, well selected by the academic experts;
(2) Description of the main public opinion research centers, both academic and commercial; and
(3) Major social science publications by SEE scholars based on survey data, prepared by national teams.
Problems and Challenges Facing Sociological Surveys of Public Opinion in Southeast Europe
Presentations by representatives from SEE countries provided the context for articulating the main problems and challenges of sociological public opinion surveys in the region. During the conference discussion the following issues were raised:
1. Quality of survey data. Public opinion research firms in SEE countries often neglect to demonstrate sufficient scientific rigor. In particular, description of surveys, including basic information on sampling and fieldwork, is frequently not sufficiently detailed.
2. Accessibility of survey data. Although there is a remarkable progress in archiving the survey data in SEE countries, users from international community face various difficulties. It has been pointed out that English translation of some basic surveys is lacking.
3. Funding of public opinion research. The SEE funding agencies do not have well-established procedures to assess the worth of competing proposals.
4. Personnel. SEE countries are short of a stable core of capable personnel that could enhance the state of SEE survey research. The best researchers collaborating with public opinion research centers tend to move to other, better funded institutions.
Solutions to Problems and Challenges
Although conducting as many surveys as possible seems to be in their best interest for commercial firms, the quantity must be balanced with quality. Conference participants pointed out in the discussion that close collaboration between commercial firms and academic institutions might lead to application of adequate data control procedures. In the long-time perspective, obligatory data archiving that conforms to international standards could also lead to enhancing the quality of survey research. Of course, the improvement in this domain depends on funding that is particularly scarce in the SEE countries. However, they could cooperate with “richer” countries and apply together for international grants. It has been stressed that part of the funding should be spent on training SEE academic social scientists, providing incentives for them to remain in their home institutions.
What would constitute benchmarks that signal progress, status quo, or decline in the state of sociological surveys of public opinion in SEE? This question was considered as fundamental for an assessment of the state of survey research since some clear reference points for time-comparison are necessary. Part of setting benchmarks is having prime examples to which other studies can be compared – in terms of quality and accessibility. All participants agreed that the European Social Survey (ESS) is a primary exemplar.
The ESS is a biennial multi-country survey covering over 25 nations. Its aim is to measure and explain trends in attitudes, beliefs and values across countries in Europe. The first, second and third rounds were conducted in 2002-2003, 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. Romania and Bulgaria already participate in the project since the second wave. Croatia became the member of the club in the third wave. The conference discussion was in part devoted to the ways by which other SEE countries could join the ESS project. The main factors considered as obstacles were lack of funding and scarce personnel. Representatives from Montenegro, Moldova, and Serbia asked: Could international organizations help to overcome these obstacles?