Anyone with even a small interest in politics will have noticed that the Scottish independence debate can get pretty heated. Each side of the campaign is convinced that a majority vote for its side would produce the stronger, fairer and more prosperous nation. From a researcher’s point of view this debate is fascinating. For those such as myself whose principal focus is on the referendum, how to prevent ourselves being drawn into one side of the argument and preserving our commitment to political neutrality is critical.
Issues such as this were addressed at an event in Edinburgh this week called: ‘What Does Scotland Think About Independence?’ It was run by the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN) as part of the UK wide ESRC Festival of Social Science. I was there to give a talk showing guests how to get the most out of WhatScotlandThinks.org which features findings from our Scottish Social Attitudes survey (the next round of results of which are to be released early next year). The remainder of the event focused on the findings of three further research projects analysing attitudes to independence.
AQMeN’s own researchers presented findings from their Young People’s survey - the first study to look at this group’s political views in Scotland. The study threw up several surprising findings including the fact that young people (14 to 17 year olds) appear to be more politically engaged than popular stereotypes would suggest with 94% saying they had discussed the independence debate with at least one other person.
Preliminary findings from a study on the role of social media in the Scottish referendum were presented by Dr. Mark Shepherd and Dr. Stephen Quinlan of Strathclyde University. Over on WhatScotlandThinks.org they have written a guest blog called ‘So Who is winning the Enthusiasm Race? The Visibility of the Two Campaigns on Social Media’. The findings are slightly counter-intuitive and suggest that the Yes side are ahead when it comes to Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers despite being consistently behind in the polls.
As mentioned before, one question which was raised is how social science research can inform the debate in a politically neutral way? Dr Jan Eichhorn who works on the Young People’s survey commented that the collaborative nature of this type of research means that listening to your colleagues’ views is as much a part of the process as any other – and that this step should be built into each stage of the research project. Social science training also teaches us to leave aside our assumptions and focus on what the data proves.
The findings from these research projects are not intended to help individuals choose how they will vote. Rather they act as an unbiased guide to what is going on in these debates, providing explanations for voters’ motivations in being either for or against independence in Scotland. With so many people asserting their own opinions in the independence debate, a field that encourages us to listen and learn about others should surely be welcomed.