Theorizing and Measuring Issue Polarization Using Online Survey Research

Abstract

Political scientists and sociologists have long debated whether social identities like party identification and religion are leading to issue polarization. In our recent research, we attempt to weigh in on this debate in several ways. First, we attempt to develop a theory of issue polarization that can explain why social identities might lead to polarization on some issues but not others. Second, recognizing that one reason for the debate over issue polarization is less-than-ideal question wording on standard surveys such as the American National Election Study and the General Social Survey, we develop our own alternative question-wording format that, we believe, better captures the meaning of polarization. We then discuss how the relatively recent increase in the use of online survey research panels presents a good forum for initial testing of new question formats, and we walk readers through the process of fielding our survey in January 2020. Finally, we discuss the findings from our paper, published in the journal Political Behavior. The key takeaway is that social science research is a process of continual, iterative improvements building on existing knowledge.

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