Challenges to public opinion research in the Arab world: A comparative analysis

By Mohammad Almasri
Submitted to Session P4850 (Arab public opinion research: Challenges and prospects, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arab States;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper is one of the first academic endeavors to systematically explore, define, and compare the major challenges and factors affecting the integrity of public opinion research across the Arab region. This paper outlines the challenges and shortcomings in the study of Arab public opinion using two methods of data collection; pilot surveys examining limits to collecting public opinion data as perceived by participants, and field experiences of six years conducting Arab public opinion surveys with more than 50,000 individuals in more than 14 Arab countries. As pilot surveys have the same limitations as public opinion research, information on the challenges and shortcomings of this field of study cannot be fully obtained through collecting data from participants alone. Therefore, the present research paper uses both pilot surveys and first-hand field experience to provide a comparative analysis of the challenge and shortcomings of conducting public opinion surveys in the Arab world.

While pilot surveys show reservations among participants in responding to some issues and wordings, field experiences demonstrate continuously changing challenges to the study of public opinion as well as significant differences among Arab countries. In this paper, the main challenges are categorized into structural, political, cultural, and religious.

For example, as there is no well-established tradition of conducting opinion polls on substantive and sensitive issues in the Arab region, respondents often need assurance that their answers would not pose risks to their lives and status. Such obstacles are exacerbated by security conditions, where some governments have officials shadow researchers.

Other challenges include sampling errors and bias. For example, segments of Arab populations who have extreme views tend to refuse participation in polls, leading to self-selection bias or non-response bias. In a similar fashion and due to contentious politics, certain populations are politically motivated to deliberately alter the outcomes of surveys by giving false responses, causing response bias. Conflicts also limit access to affected populations, albeit large.

In addition to common challenges, this research reveals vast difference among Arab countries. For example, some countries provide freedoms of expression that allow for more accurate responses in surveys, while others present severe risks for expressing certain political and religious views. Additionally, differences in perceptions cause difficulties in comparability of results. For example, understanding conceptions of democracy in countries without democratic tradition differs greatly from surveying people with experience in democratic processes. The same applies to differing perceptions in sectarian and polarized contexts.