Friday, October 07, 2005

Measuring the Power of Ideas

So, let's say we want to know how influential a belief, idea, attitude, or behavior really is. How do we do that? In my last blog I suggested that the power of an idea is a function of the number of people who hold the idea, the influence those people wield in society, the importance of the idea to the people in question, and the attention that the idea gets in the media.

Measuring the power of an idea means finding a way to measure numbers, influence, importance and attention. These things are not necessarily easy to measure.

Numbers are pretty simple - use survey questions to estimate how many people hold an idea. I used "simple" on purpose to show that numbers are easy to measure in principle but can be hard to nail down when you study slippery things like ideas or beliefs.

Influence is a bit tougher. Sociologists use a variable called socioeconomic status (SES) to measure a combination of job status, education level, and income. The influence of a group that holds an idea could be approximated by measuring the group's average SES: "78% of people in the upper class say that we should be more concerned about the interests of our own people than with helping other countries." I think you get the idea.

Two other measures of influence suggest themselves. Another good measure of influence might be voting patterns. Or, we could figure out what types of jobs our idea holders have, and in what industries. Management or policy making jobs in education, entertainment, print media, and government are more important because they offer more opportunties to influence society at large.

Importance might be answered by survey questions. We could ask people to rate the importance of an idea to their own worldview, value system, daily life or whatever seems most reasonable under the circumstances.

Example: "How important is it to you that the federal government focus on the interests of the American people as opposed to solving problems in the rest of the world."

Attention is going to be tricky to measure. You may need to use the maligned and misunderstood technique called content analysis. To elaborate, content analysis is a methodology designed to uncover the themes that emerge in some sort of communication, be it Michael Moore's books, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, television commercials, television programming (Watch Desperate Housewives and call it research!) or newspaper articles. Content analysis is also good for finding missing themes, ideas, explanations, or whatever. The point is to assess, in a detailed and systematic way, the nature of whatever interactions, communications, or documents you are studying.

Example: In newspaper articles and editorials how often do stories or essays on international affairs mention the need to protect U.S. interests versus the need to help people in other countries deal with their domestic problems.

(NOTE! This has been a shallow overview of content analysis. I had to read a couple of books and do a couple of small projects before I began to understand the process.)


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