Saturday, October 01, 2005

Political Affiliation on Campus


The Facebook is an extremely popular social software on campuses around the country. According to Fred Stutzman, (hat tip: Paul Jones) 85% of incoming Freshmen at UNC - Chapel Hill had a facebook account on day one of class.

If you follow that link to Fred, you will see that he used the Search function of the Facebook to look at the breakdown of UNC students by political affiliation. Intrigued, I did the same thing for NCSU. After an hour of struggling to import the Excel image (that is larger than a couple of square milimeters) into Blogger, I gave up, so here are the raw data. You can make your own graph, or just compare the raw numbers between the two campuses:

Political Affiliation: Female / Male

Very Liberal: 244 / 264
Liberal : 1267 / 1122
Moderate: 1101 / 1491
Conservative: 1560 / 2312
Very Conservative: 119 / 320
Libertarian : 38 / 122
Apathetic : 94 / 309
Other : 152 / 509
-------------
Total 4575 / 6449

Update: I figured out how to resize the image (I did it in MSPaint!):

The obvious difference is, as is expected, that the students at UNC report themselves to be more liberal than NCSU students. No surprises there. In both schools, guys are more conservative than girls - also no surprise. On both campuses, very few students choose the extreme options ("very liberal" or "very conservative").

What can we glean from these data? I say, not much. There is just too much information missing.

Sampling: What proportion of NCSU students have a profile on Facebook? Are the men or the women more likely to put up a profile? What is the sex-ratio of students at NCSU in the first place? Are people of a particular political ideology more or less likely to sign up on the facebook? Does that differ between the sexes (e.g., female libertarians are less likely to sign up than statistics would expect, but male libertarians are as likely as anyone else to sign up)?

It is not neccessary to choose any political affiliation when making a profile. What proportion of students have profiles with no political affiliation at all? Does that differ between males and females? Does that differ between people of different political ideologies?

Searching: What does the facebook search engine do? What proportion of hits tabulated above are alumni (graduated last year), grad students, faculty or staff? How many of the 'hits' are non-existent people? I have seen, when searching faculty, profiles of Albus Dumbledore, Rush Limbaugh, Andy Rooney and many other celebrities and fictional characters. Coach Herb Sendak is listed as a professor of philosophy!

Self-reporting: How accurate is the self-reporting? Are students choosing 'moderate', 'apathetic' or 'other' (or not to sign up at all) in order to not allienate their friends? Is the choice to avoid the tag "very" motivated by the same reasons? After all, the total number of friends is a currency of prestige on the facebook.

Meaning of labels: I think that people who reported being "very conservative" and "very liberal" can be believed on their word. The former are members of Young Republicans, GOP activists, and Christian fundamentalists. The latter are largely "Deaniacs", with some other Democratic activists, College Democrats, and Greens thrown in the mix, too.

What do the other labels mean? I did a little scan of the profiles listed as "other". Most people on facebook list membership of various virtual "clubs" or groups. I was expecting to find some Greens (the only major party that is not a choice on facebook) in this group. However, most of the "other" have listed membership in groups concerned with student life, popular culture, partying, drinking and sex - no politics. Shouldn't they picked "apathetic" instead? I have found some, among the "other" who are members of a variety of Republican, conservative, and Bush/Cheney clubs. Shouldn't these people self-report being "very conservative" instead?

How about Libertarians? It is a strong third party in North Carolina. Why were there four times more male than female self-reported libertarians? Is that the sex-ratio of the party membership in the state? Also, "libertarian" is a very inexact term. What does it really mean? I know some students who consider themselves libertarian, yet when poked with questions, reveal to be pure liberals. Do they know the meaning of labels?

What does "moderate" mean? If you considered yourself a moderate, you are likely not paying attention. I assume that the concept of moderation in everything, including politics, appeals to many. But, moderation in politics is a meaningless concept - it reveals lack of understanding, information and motivation. Most of the people who list themselves as moderate are, more honestly, apathetic. Some are perhaps liberals who think they are conservatives because of the way they were raised.

The biggest categories - liberals and conservatives - are probably even more or a grab-bag of apathetic, very liberal, very conservative, and libertarian students, many of whom are misguided about the proper meaning of the labels.

It is always a surprise for self-professed conservatives when they try to do various political quizzes online and find themselves to the Left of Marx. The meaning of terms has been obfuscated, often on purpose, by the two big political parties. Many core liberal values, especially those that most Americans hold the dearest, are erroneously believed to be conservative due to historical contingency that these values were held by the Republican Party some decades ago. Fiscal responsibility is a good example.

Many people vote GOP because they (correctly) equate modern GOP with conservatism and erroneosly think of themselves as conservatives. If given a qeustionnaire, they invariably turn out to be quite liberal. The Dems need to do something about this misperception, as it is a major source of drain of voters away from it.

A final note on the Facebook study: most college students do not care much about politics. They do not know enough. Their self-reported political affiliation is a pretty accurate break-down of what their parents think (not neccessarily correctly) is their political ideology.

On the other hand, college is supposed to be a place where one questions and leaves parents' beliefs. That is the place where one obtains information and facts, where one realizes that one has previously held erroenous ideas about history, economics, law, gender-relations, religion, science and politics. Thus, it is to be expected that college turns people into liberals, as the whole fabric of conservatism is based on erroneous and long-debunked notions about human nature, operation of complex systems (including economies) and everything else. It would be interesting to repeat the facebook search with divisions by year and see if recent alumni, grad students and seniors are more liberal than freshmen.

Update: Thoughts From Kansas did the analysis of the Facebook at KU.

Update 2: Fred Sutzman has more on the UNC use of Facebook, focusing on the freshman class. I initially got on the Facebook in order to see how many students are blogging (and Fred looks at that, too). A relatively small proportion of students put up a website on their profile. When they do, it is usually a Flickr (or some other photo) site. Some have websites made in class and not updated for two years. I found a few xanga, MSNSpaces, and a few LiveJournals, but not a single Blogger, not to mention more involved blogging platforms. Are the kids not blogging? Are they hiding their blogs/journals? I know of several students who have LiveJournals but do not provide links to them from their Facebook profiles - in other words their FB profile is their public face and their LJ is their private face, to be kept separate at all times and at all costs. When I go to bloggercons, I see grey hair everywhere. Are the kids going to take up blogging later, once they ar ea little older, smarter, better educated and have something to say beyond gossip?

Update 3: More thoughts: Someone with time and patience should look at political self-description of freshmen by major, and compare the numbers to that of the seniors in the same majors. Are conservatives drawn to business and liberals to sociology or does spending four years studying business turn one into a conservative and studying sociology makes one a liberal? Are geneticists and biochemists more conservative than ecologists and physiologists to begin with, or only after years of study? How do philosophers stack up against physicists? If college experience naturally turns one into a liberal, which majors are most successful (if any) at engendering that change? Do some majors turn kids into conservatives?

posted by coturnix @ 8:48 PM | permalink | (6 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink