Demographic Questions, Surveys, and Thoughts – Hidden Power of Words Series, #2

What’s the boundary between reasonableness, political correctness, and correctness and wrongness? I am specifically wondering about the language related to demographics on all the surveys we have to complete. (Everywhere you go now there is a survey to take on the computer!) This posting is somewhat experimental. I pose many different questions. I am hoping your comments will help flesh out some of my ideas since these general questions and thoughts have been on my mind for a few months.

Take a look at these demographic questions asked at the end of Chick-fil-A’s online survey. Look at how they are worded and the possible selections.

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Gender, of course, is a social construction. As historically practiced in so-called Western societies, this binary only allows for two possibilities. A better question would say: “please indicate your sex.” Even this would encounter problems from a biological perspective. As with gender or anything else in this world, sex, when examined closely, does not neatly fit into human-made dichotomies. Some scientist say there are as many sexes as there are humans, others say we are all “defective females” to infinitely varying degrees, for example. They do get credit on all of the questions for having “prefer not to answer” as an option.

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The age clusters are particularly odd to me, especially the “under 18” and “65 and over.” 13 seems to be the magical age when children can “legally” use the Internet, so I wonder why it doesn’t say “13 to 17” or something similar? Also, considering how long people are living, why lump every one from 65 to 90+ in one category? Such lumping is not at all supported by human growth and development theories. Questions like this are also odd in that they inadvertently suggest that someone is vastly different at 35 (the 35-49 age range) than at 34 (the 25-34 age range). A better question would simply be: “please indicate your age” and a box to type it.

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Again, the choices are problematic. How many families make below $15K or $10K these days? In some areas, way too many! Such a “high” low threshold of $25K and a “low” high threshold of $100K tends to possibly unconsciously suggest that economic inequalities are better than they really are. (BTW, be sure to see this video about wealth inequality if you haven’t already.)

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Ah, the “race/ethnicity” question that tries to disguise itself! A more effective question might be something like: “How does society justify how it marginalizes you?” (joking). Seriously, though, the other questions make it clear what the possible choices will be. A question about “background” could be looking for any number of possible backgrounds. Like with age, sex/gender, and income, there are no hard and fast lines between these different choices of “background.” Additionally, such a loaded question perpetuates the idea among the general public that “race” is real. Using terms as they are popularly used (because none of it makes any sense at a biological and deep historical level), individuals of more than one ethnic backgrounds–such as a child with an Asian mom and a Hispanic dad–are forced to privilege one aspect of his/her ancestry over another. These decisions may seem small to people racialized as white, but it is a serious issue.

As I collectively examine these questions and possible answers in Chick-fil-A’s survey, I keep wondering: what possible purpose does this data serve? is it actually used for that purpose? is it used at all? If Chick-fil-A (and all the companies with similar questions on their own survey) truly intends to use this data to improve customer service and to target any particular pattern of discrimination some important and easy changes should be made (in my opinion). But is the data from these questions even needed? In 2006, as a college sophomore, I did an extended survey looking at student’s leisure time habits. I was advised that unless it is specifically needed for a specific purpose, there is no need to ask about age, race, etc. For scholars such categories are often important for all kinds of reasons, but do they need to be part of everything? Does having a question about race, disguised as a background question, erect unnecessary walls between people?

So be sure to consider the hidden and not-so-hidden powers and layers of meaning behind everyday demographic questions. Words are always deeply imbedded in culture and full of possibly meanings, meanings that will differ person-to-person, and are always fair game for analysis.

Please send comments and thoughts, as always. Just don’t say, “you’re thinking too hard, AJP!” 🙂

See the full Hidden Power of Words Series postings, too!

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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7 replies

  1. Just curious–why did you single out Chick-fil-A for your blog? I think every online customer satisfaction survey I have ever completed has had the same gender choices, race/ethnicity choices, income choices, etc. It’s a standard format that is used by lots of companies so they can compare data with that generated by other companies/their competitors. They tie in with census data–so are you going to question why the federal government asks those questions on the long form of the census?


  2. It’s certainly not intended to single out CFA in that way. I was specifically thinking of this questions when I added “(and all the companies with similar questions on their own survey)” in the original work.

    CFA, however, based on my experience completing lots of different online surveys, does deserve some unique attention. Until about two months ago, they never asked such questions. They are also more elaborate about asking these questions and have more of them compared to most surveys I have seen in the past few years.

    I’d maintain that these are important questions for US census data, and we know at least many of the ways in which the data is used. Nonetheless, you still have the same concerns about artificial divisions, etc. Sometimes, as I tell my students, we can’t reform or move away from a concept, word, or practice, but we need to be specifically aware of its various problems.


  3. Your post is worthwhile, partly because you raise valid questions about the items and their wording, but also because you ask how the answers will be used to improve customer service. To achieve that goal, they would need to include questions other than demographic items that deal specifically to how customers perceive how they are treated and/or what improvements they would like to see. Then such answers could be cross tabulated with the demographic categories. But it is unlikely most customers would bother completing such a longer survey and the company might not want to spend the time and money to perform useful statistical analyses of the responses. I suspect some companies have these superficial, and virtually useless, surveys just to make the customers feel someone cares about them.


  4. @John Jung

    Thanks for your comment! The survey does include a box for free comments much earlier in the survey. It asks something like how could the experience have been better. Customers are limited to a specific number of characters. The question is not aimed to look for possible discrimination, however. Your comment made me think that it would be really neat if a company would do its own study of its own discrimination and how it will improve and share the results with people. I predict that very few actually complete the survey – and its actually against company policy at CFA to tell customers there is a survey on their ticket, so most don’t even know they have one they can complete.



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